Padma Shri Malavika Sarukkai is perhaps India’s most renowned and respected Bharatanatyam dancer who invested two years in the creation of her spectacular presentation called Thari – The Loom, which will be performed in Mumbai at NCPA on 28th November to help raise funds for the traditional Indian craftsmen through their association Paramparik Karigar.
We bring you an in-depth conversation with the great dancer on how she conceived of and created this spectacular offering, on what the noble dance form of Bharatanatyam means to her, and much more, including advice for mothers and the youth, and inspiration for readers of Women’s Era.
You have been one of India’s best known Bharatantyam exponents, and have helped take the art form to greater heights in both, its presentation to, and appreciation by lovers of classical dance and music in India and across the world. Can you describe in brief, your journey so far — how it began, and what it means to you after so many years of dance tapasya?
I have had the good fortune to be recognised for my contribution to the world of Bharatanatyam. As you correctly mentioned, dance for me is a tapasya.
Dance changed my life. It touched the very core of my being – physical, emotional, spiritual. Learning dance made me aware of space and time, lyric and poetry, rhythm and music, philosophy. It made me more sensitive to people, relationships, environment, food habits etc. It changed my lifestyle.
Pic credit: R. Prasanna Venkatesh
I began dance as a young girl with the encouragement of my mother Saroja Kamakshi. She was passionate about dance and very much wanted me to be a classical dancer. Following that path, many things happened together with destiny. I went from being a young student of dance to becoming an accomplished dancer and then finally evolved into the artist I am today.
Tell us how you conceived of Thari The Loom – of melding the spirit and essence of the traditional weaver and giving exquisite expression through dance, music and sounds to the hard work and the dexterity of the weaver, and of course the beauty of the products — the saree and other beautiful fabrics that are all about flowing elegance, which is much like a beautiful Bharatanatyam dance performance itself. Your concept of this beautiful melding through Thari – the Loom … it is a very abstract idea, which you have brought alive on stage… What elements have you used in the narrative and the celebration of Thari – the Loom?
Concepts come alive for me with inspiration. This time it happened quite by chance, whilst reading an article on the Kanjeevaram sari. The article described in detail the artistry involved in weaving a sari. It touched a chord in me and I saw a concept come to light. It was most exciting. Like finding a hidden secret!
The sari reflected a metaphor for life. It was amazing. I was fired by this imaginative connection and soon started my research and creative process on different aspects of the production — it started with long discussions with the Creative Collaborator Sumantra Ghosal, commissioning music and contemporary text, evolving a music concept, working with the light designer and finally creating the choreography with the group of committed dancers.
The choreography was done with different elements of rhythm and music – with the authentic sound of the loom, uttered bolls which we call konnakol in south India, extraordinary range of classical ragas both north and south Indian, chanting of verses. Overall the production has a sophisticated tapestry of music.
How much time did it take to plan the entire performance? What is the total team strength?
I started work on this production more than two years ago. The Creative Collaborator, Sumantra Ghosal, a highly regarded film maker, came into the discussions at an early stage. The music recording was done early this year, after which in the last six months, intensive rehearsals commenced with the dancers.
The production extends the language of classical dance and is a confluence of traditional practice informed by contemporary sensibilities. The endeavour in creating Thari – The Loom was to bring to audiences an enduring experience of the richness, versatility and profound beauty in the traditional practices of dance and weaving.
On the emotional level too, your upcoming show in Mumbai was very special. Thari – the Loom is, after all, was performed to help a very respected NGO, Paramparik Karigar, to raise funds to help empower India’s traditional craftsmen across the country. How does that pan out for your personally?
Presenting Thari – The Loom as a fundraiser for the respected NGO Paramparik Karigar was special. Personally for me, if through this production of classical dance, we create an awareness about the weaver community who have through centuries woven exemplary artistry, it will be an achievement.
It is important we validate the crafts persons across the country with dignity and respect for the immense contribution they have made to our society. We need to support their livelihood by making a conscious decision to buy more handloom saris rather than opting for the cheaper power loom ones.
Do you think Indian youth today are getting increasingly less interested in our classical art and dance forms, and gravitating towards other modern and more instant expressions of dance and music?
By and large Indian youth today are distracted, confused and unsure of their identity. Our world is screaming for instant gratification. This is the noise we are surrounded by in our lives. To step aside requires maturity and a certain centeredness.
Nowadays, mothers are open and even keen to encourage their children pursue some extra-curricular activity they are interested in or have a flair for. How can mothers encourage their children to take up, learn, and excel at Bharatanatyam?
There are different reasons to learn Bharatanatyam. Importantly, the teacher should be able to provide the right guidance at every level. As in other professions, if one wants to excel then the student must be talented and hardworking, with an ability to sustain the interest in the art form and not be looking for quick returns. In classical dance the returns are many but patience and sadhana is required. Also, excellence in any field requires the parent to create an environment which will nurture the child in the right direction. There should be investment by parent, child and teacher.
Sometimes, classical dance could be learnt not to fulfil the performative angle but instead to inculcate an appreciation for the arts. Being made sensitive to classical dance is an important part of education. By doing this we not only give the child a more rounded education but in the long run we will be instrumental in cultivating a more informed audience for the arts in future generations.
What kind of career options can a talented youngster learning Bharatanatyam in an organized way, look forward to after ‘graduating’ in it (though learning is always a never-ending and lifelong process) in India?
At present, there are many young women and men taking up classical dance. This, at one level, is encouraging, but at another level it breeds mediocrity. As the numbers have increased with activity on social media at a high pitch, some committed dancers get lost in the crowd and the noise. This is a pity and a loss for the dance world.
To be a soloist one needs to be exceptionally gifted and hence we don’t find many dancers training to be soloists. Dancers who have graduated often could become a part of group productions as this offers performing opportunities. Others can teach, which is also a source of livelihood.
Even if it is not for a career, a great dance form like Bharatanatyam offers enormous benefits even to the amateur student and practitioner. What, in your view, are the best advantages of having an extracurricular passion – in any stream? And, specifically, the advantages of learning Bharatanatyam?
Learning classical dance has many benefits. And more so if one learns from a gifted teacher. Experiencing classical dance at an internal level reveals to us a beauty of the spirit. This is a bounty. At other levels it teaches us to appreciate classical music, poetry, rhythm, design and aesthetics. And if practised with shraddha it helps the individual understand oneself.
Would you like to share a message, any inspiring words that are dear to you, with the women who read Women’s Era?
Classical dance represents an invaluable heritage of India. We need to validate this in every way we can and at every opportunity.
By Pavan R. Chawla