Anubandh By Malavika Sarukkai

Any emotion expressed by a form of art that lingers and elicits a response in the audience is one that has been experienced by the artist. Without that connection, the production remains lifeless; praise worthy perhaps but without ‘wajood’ (existence).

Most artists depict what they have been taught, what they have honed for years to finally present a perfect piece, which occasionally they themselves are able to tune into. Rarer are those artists who delve within to create something new; express something that they experience, and use those years of training in the form to express it in a pleasing, transmittable way, which may not necessarily be conventional.

Malavika Sarukkai is one such artist. In her words, “The journey is limitless, the marathon one is on is without an end. One has to be stimulated to continue to respond to life, its not reaction as much as response, I think this is why I dance. I just feel grateful to still be dancing, to have wonderment, to know I am just a speck. I have spent 50 years training my body which is the only instrument I have. If you stop, the body stops responding, it doesn’t listen, it doesn’t speak, it goes its own way. This a lifelong sadhana.”

 Her recent production, Anubandh, is being presented in different cities of India. The result of two years of isolation in lockdown, Anubandh or connectedness is a simply stunning 90-minute production in five parts, depicting the dancer’s response to the five elements.

Starting with an ode to Surya, the dancer used only the recitation of the Aditya Hridayamas her musical prop. Taken from the Valmiki Ramayana, the stark sonorous enunciation in Sanskrit extolled the grandeur of the Sun God as he traverses the heavens in his chariot, drawn by seven horses, enacted by Malavika. The backdrop featured a glowing disc of the sun; the lighting was red, the dramatic impact of the piece was such that the audience literally forgot to clap. It set the tone for the wonderful spectacle that followed.

The next piece was on Prithvi - Earth. Poet Sumantra Ghosal had composed a poem in English for each of the elements and also lent his voice for the narration along with Malavika before each piece.

In this piece, the poem was translated into Tamil by Anuradha Anand. Malavika linked each depiction with the predominant emotion she experienced; with Prithvi it was gratitude. Vignesh Ishwar composed the music for the lyrics, with Easwar Ramakrishnan interspersing with just aakaar/swaras. Raga was Saveri. The music was perhaps not as evocative as the dance; one felt the notes were not instantly identifiably linked with the earth, or gratitude. The fusion of the two voices was not aesthetic to this writer’s perception.

The next piece was on Aapah or Water; the hint of ripples in Malavika’s movements, the  blue lighting, the clever use of the music, composed in raga Varamuby Murali Parthasarathy was beautiful.

Not sticking to the usual hierarchy of the five elements, from the gross to the most subtle, Malavika next chose to show Vayu or wind, which for her denotes ‘sukh’. She depicted this through focus on pleasure, sensual love, coming together. Raga Bihag, associated with romance was the perfect choice. N Bhagyalakshmi composed the music for the lyrics which were from Kalidas’ Ritu Samhara for this piece.

Agni or Fire for Malavika represents sorrow, or dukh- her quivering restless hand movements depicting the flames were arresting. She added a depiction of King Pari’s assassination in this piece, the fierce stabbing movements disturbing. The song of Pari’s lamenting daughters was represented dually through ragas Subhapantuvarali and Mohana Kalyani, incidentally both also known in the North Indian classical traditionand very appropriate to cosmopolitan audiences. Music was composed by Vasudha Ravi.

Malavika’s depiction of being trapped, walled in and sorrowful, was again disturbing; one feels the purpose of art is to elevate, because the depiction of elevating concepts are more palatably absorbed. Of course, the artists desire to express whatever is felt is paramount in any art form.     

The mood changed with the theme of connectedness and what was termed Circle of Life. The sitar, raga Malhar (wrongly written as raga Bahar in the brochure) and sprightly dance evoked hope.

The most stunning piece was the last - on Akasha or Space, which Malavika experienced as wonderment. Dhrupad vocalist Uday Bhawalkar’s pure straight notes in raga Hindol soaredinto Akasha and Malavika’s insightful interpretation was literally breathtaking. The accompanying words were of Kabir, “The Lord is in me, the Lord is in you, just as prana is in the seed.”

She said later, “People say I have changed in these two years; yes I have. The world had stopped, I had no programmes, I just forgot about everything, I had only dance. Dance can say many things, it can be entertaining, and it can also say what I tried through Anubandh. All I ask is, give me space, give me attention, see me. It’s not only about me, it’s for the next generation who need to be given the opportunity to perform differently.”

This production cleverly used the training in Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music Malavika is bound by as the base, while adding novel elements to express herself. Movement, sound, light, lyrics - she used them all as she thought fit, to create an unforgettable production.  Sai Shravanam produced the recorded music. The artists who recorded the music included JB Sruthi Sagar on flute, Nellai A Balaji on mridangam, Easwar Ramakrishnan on violin, Sai Shravanam on the tabla. The vocalists were Uday Bhawalkar, Vasudha Ravi, Murali Parthasarathy, Vignesh Ishwar and Keerthana Vaidyanathan. Malola Kannan recited the slokas, MS Sukhi the nattuvangam.   Niranjan Gokhale was the light design and technical director.

Malavika has understood in her 50 years in the art that the purpose of great art is to connect and convey; every prop used in this endeavour is justified. No purist can possibly object to the edifice she carefully crafted; there are very few who can throw off the shackles that one painstakingly binds oneself in, during the pursuit of a classical art form, to create something meaningful and memorable. Anubandh is more than mere dance choreography; it intertwines several arts into something novel and amazingly expressive.