Quest for deeper resonances
Tradition and change are part of the same flow, two innate rhythms that explore discipline and freedom.
For the artiste in the process of `art making' every moment is special, unique. It demands the artiste's total attention.
BHARATANATYAM: Malavika Sarukkai. Photo: R. Ragu.
I ask: What is the solo Bharatanatyam tradition that we have inherited? It was at its best perhaps when presented by a legendary dancer like Thanjavur Balasaraswati who imbued it with the passion of sensuality and spirituality. Performing the margam (repertoire) was for her, as she said, a journey from the outer mandapas of the temple into the innermost garbha griha. And into her inner journey she drew the rasikas.
Today, however, I think when the Bharatanatyam margam is not invested with the deeper resonances underlying the classical, it easily becomes mere entertainment-dance that pleases without touching deeper chords in the viewers.
Many equate Bharatanatyam with just its repertoire, a repertoire that evolved under certain social and historical circumstances. They do not recognise the dance form's inherent resilience for change. This narrow vision seems to me to disinherit Bharatanatyam of its vast potential. To quote Dr Kapila Vatsyayan, "Indian traditions have an inbuilt mechanism of change..." This is crucial.
For the Indian artist, tradition and change are part of the same flow, two innate rhythms that explore discipline and freedom. Only when seen together can the river of tradition run deep, reinventing itself. As a performing artiste my concern is with tradition and change not tradition or change.
This river of Bharatanatyam has seen much change through the centuries from temple to court to proscenium stage. The viewing context changed when Bharatanatyam shifted out of the court and onto the proscenium stage. Through this move, it has empowered the female artiste to construct her own aesthetics instead of `offering' the dance for pleasuring the male gaze. Is it not important then for us collectively to repossess our tradition both as practitioners of the art form and as viewers?
I have been a sadhaka of this dance form for decades, forever searching, forever grateful. Through a process of internalisation, I attempt to re-present the style and to recover the female form investing it with passion, sensuality, aesthetics and beauty of spirit but always within the parameters of the classical. I wish to bring to the language of dance a vital energy that speaks in the present tense; this I owe as a practitioner of a great tradition that can rejuvenate itself by adapting to flux. Else, it will lose its vitality.
I believe my style of solo Bharatanatyam is rooted in the sacred, works with the classical alphabet and allows for interpretations with contemporary energies.
It is with this approach that I have choreographed over the last twenty years. One of my choreographies, `Astham Gatho Ravihi,' set in Varanasi, is a deeply moving piece which I have taken to audiences across the world drawing them into the joy and despair of human existence of which we are all a part. This involved expanding the movement vocabulary of Bharatanatyam, extending its canvas of emotions and locating poetic metaphors.
For it is through metaphor that the artiste-dancer can create the outward ripple of poetic meaning. If the artiste is completely inhabited with the sap of sattvik energy, then there is rasa and a communication of shared spaces of emotion with the audience
An artiste, I believe, has the right to take creative decisions in the process of choreography. For the artiste in the process of `art making' every moment is special, unique. It demands the artiste's total attention physically, emotionally, spiritually.
Many streams of aesthetics, poetry, philosophy and emotional impulse flow together to create the item. Art experience is about encountering metaphors and making creative leaps. And critics and others who merely look for a literal `understanding' of the piece, I think, lose out on the richness of the experience of rasa. Over the past 25 years I have been greatly rewarded by the overwhelming response from my audiences both in India and abroad.
Whether it was the nine year old and his sister who pronounced that `Kasi Yatra,' a strong choreography embedded with spirituality, was the "best performance" they had seen in their "whole lives" or many others who have wept at the sheer benediction that art bestows. It is for them I dance.
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Chennai and Tamil Nadu