SPECIAL TO THE GLOBE
The Indian classical dance Bharatnatyam can seem intimidating to an uninitiated audience. Its form is similar to ballet only in its use of the plié-like stance aramandi. Otherwise, its movements are linear and geometrical, accompanied by rhythmic feet stamping. Hand gestures and facial expressions are used to tell stories often taken from Hindu mythology.
For Malavika Sarukkai, Bharatanatyam is a way of speaking and connecting with the audience, irrelevant of whether the audience is Indian or Canadian.
“It’s about hastas, the gestures, yes, but that’s only the tip of the emotion,” she says. “It’s a non-verbal body language. It depends on how you highlight it. Your sharira, mukhaja — body and face — and hastas become one unit. It’s very evocative. . . . If you don’t get a line or two, it doesn’t matter. You get the general gist of it, and you feel moved. It’s like when you come from a good music concert, and you come out in a cloud of melody wrapped in that other frequency.
“That is the purpose of art, to take us out of our ordinary lives, to make us reach for the stars.”
Her ability to touch her audience has made Sarukkai, 46, one of India’s most celebrated Bharatanatyam dancers. She performed her debut when she was 12; less than a decade later, she was one of the youngest performers to dance at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall.
Over the past 20 years, Sarukkai has won accolades for a choreographic style that combines, classical, contemporary and sacred influences. Reviews of her performances — whether they are in London, Paris or New Delhi — extol her as a goddess of dance. “She is lit from within when she dances. And she is lethally beautiful. . . . She makes us think and touches our hearts,” wrote Pamela Squires in the Washington Post in 2002.
Tonight, Sarukkai performs for the first time in Canada. She will dance Khajuraho: Temples of the Sacred and Secular at the Jane Mallet Theatre presented by Sampradaya Dance Creations.
Sarukkai choreographed Khajuraho to mark the millennial celebrations of the temples considered to be the earliest performance theatre for Indian classical arts. The temples were built under the Chandela dynasty that ruled northern India from 950 and 1050. They are famous for the erotic friezes, which have since become associated with the Kama Sutra. But their architectural splendour also includes intricate panels detailing war scenes.
While the sensual sculptures have become popular after the Indian tourism industry used them as a promotional tool, Sarukkai says, she wanted to look at the story the friezes tell in their entirety.
“It’s an explorative journey from the sanctum sanctorum to outside and back into the temple,” she says. “There are songs that celebrate love . . . but there are two scenes of leave-taking in which the king leaves for battle. It’s a big scape and the sacred [the spiritual theme in both sentiments] holds it together.”
For Sarukkai, her dance isn’t just entertainment. “It’s like suddenly looking up at the night sky and realizing that you’re a very small speck in the whole universe,” she says.