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One day in early December, when Chennai was drowning in torrential rain, Bharatanatyam dancer Malavika Sarukkai looked up at the menacing sky and wondered, “What is this disorder in the world?"

A few days later, when a bit of sunlight broke through the dark clouds, she stepped into her garden and saw a fully open hibiscus, its petals sparkling crimson.

“I looked at it and thought to myself, there is still order in the universe," she says. “I felt a bit better."

It is this dichotomy of discord and harmony that 56-year-old Sarukkai explores in her latest production, Vamatara—To The Light, which will be the grand finale to a week-long series of events, curated by Mumbai’s National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) under the banner A Tribute To Excellence, to celebrate her work of over four decades.

At its centre lies the metaphor of the lotus, which, amid bewildering darkness, reaches for the light, an idea captured by the Sanskrit word vamatara. The version she will present on 16 January consists of four pieces, each with a different orientation.

The first three are solos: Sarojam, a pure dance piece; Neeraja, a powerful mythological narrative inspired by Pichhwai paintings, an ancient form that originated in Nathdwara in Rajasthan and depicts Lord Krishna in different moods; and Kamalankit Ulhas, based on a Meera bhajan—not one lamenting her separation from Krishna, but one celebrating his homecoming. In this piece, the idea of Krishna becomes more abstract; it is one of silent ecstasy. The concluding item, To The Light, includes four other dancers and is Sarukkai’s first group choreography.

“When we look around the world, there is so much chaos that it is frightening, like the Chennai floods," she says. “There is need for hope. The metaphor of the lotus (and) light is about the energy of seeking."

For Sarukkai, the production itself stands for hope—both for classical dance forms and their humanizing potential. Indeed, the world-class work that a select few dancers like her produce has little to do with the country’s dance ecosystem, mediocre in large parts; rather, it is propelled by an almost insane individual passion and obsessive commitment to refinement.

Sarukkai’s reworking of a 30-second segment of the Meera bhajan’s final sequence offers a small window into her process. To capture the excitement of Krishna’s homecoming, she had initially set the segment’s tempo in the third speed, namely three times faster than the composition’s default speed.

But during a rehearsal in mid-December, she felt that the mood of excitement had to segue into one of stillness. So she asked the mridangist to gradually slow down the speed and fade the volume, without losing the slightest clarity of enunciation. Sarukkai, the singer and nattuvanar, the recital’s backbone who recites the dance syllables and plays the cymbals, too had to fade out in tandem, which called for a challenging act of coordination.

After the fade-out, she inserted a few seconds of silence before the final moment. At that point, as she began depicting the opening of the lotus inside Meera, she requested the singer to hum the notes of the raga Gaud Sarang instead of vocalizing the lyrics. She found that this heightened the intensity of the moment, which renders words redundant.

“Now more than ever, dance has come to mean just entertainment because our senses are being bombarded primarily by Bollywood," she says. “The body has become so objectified, and our society’s sense of visual aesthetics is in decline. What do we do about this visual noise? If you don’t resist it, it gets into the pores of your being."

“In this environment, doing the work that I do requires huge faith," she continues. “I am swimming upstream, and that’s what makes a week like this special. A statement is being made by allowing space for my kind of work."

Over the years, while continuing to present choreographies within the Bharatanatyam margam, the loose term for traditional compositional forms and themes, Sarukkai has constantly explored new territory. Her concerns span the spectrum from the personal to the political—although she hesitates to use these labels—from death and grieving to the environment and the fallout of nuclear warfare.

One will be able to see excerpts of some of her finest creations over the week: in the festival’s opening presentation, Punar Drishyam, a retrospective of her choreographies, and in Sumantra Ghosal’s biopic, The Unseen Sequence. For example, the first contains a segment from her piece Ichha, about a rural woman, Thimmakka, who planted and nurtured nearly 400 banyan trees in Karnataka, and the film captures a part of Astham Gatho Ravihi (The Sun Has Set), in which she depicts a mother mourning her son’s death, on the ghats in Varanasi.

Both illustrate how she has gently expanded the Bharatanatyam idiom. Recently, when she was rehearsing the Meera bhajan, one of her movements took her by surprise because it came from a folk tradition and had associations with the desert.

“It’s not a margam movement but it works in Meera. I need to dare to do it," she says. “I don’t think of Bharatanatyam as a repertoire but as a language. Yet stretching this language has to be done organically; it cannot be imitative or superficial."

The group choreography in Vamatara presented a new challenge: of getting others to dance a concept that was not theirs. “They had to evoke the mood of disintegration and chaos with their dancing bodies, not with facial expressions," Sarukkai says. “And a choreography looks so different when you put it on other dancers. When they energize the piece, it brings on another momentum. It surprises me. I don’t know…"

In addition to superb technique, beautiful choreography and delicately layered interpretations, perhaps it is this ability to be surprised and the desire to journey into the unknown after all these years that invigorate Sarukkai’s excellence, this capacity to be moved as deeply by a blooming flower as by menacing rain.

A Tribute To Excellence—The Artistry Of Malavika Sarukkai will be held from 9-17 January at the NCPA, Fine Arts Society and Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, Mumbai. Timings and ticket prices vary. For details, visit Ncpamumbai.com.

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