Young artists must strive to eliminate mediocrity in dance: Malavika Sarukkai


New Delhi, July 14: Classical dance in the modern era is becoming infected with mediocrity in part due to the pressures and distractions faced by the new generation, short cuts in teaching and the descent of dance into entertainment — a state that young and talented artists can reverse with personal dedication and external support, renowned Bharatanatyam exponent Malavika Sarukkai has said.

In a free flowing conversation with author Dr Sudha Gopalakrishnan at the Art Matters dialogue series organized by the Raza Foundation here last evening, Sarukkai spoke at length about her own journey as an artist, her personal discoveries, practice of art and her vision for the future.

She decried the creeping mediocrity in all forms of dance, because of the culture of instant gratification and dancers who are not putting in long-term effort to find themselves as artists. “Dancers, like musicians, have to align to a pitch; they cannot rely solely on external cues on stage. We have to locate the ‘Tambura’, this pitch, within us. It needs a lot of focus and hard work. It bothers me that in dance these days, people have lost that, they have given up finding this ‘sruthi’, which is why a lot of performances are so mediocre. “

Sarukkai, who was awarded the Padma Shri in 2003, said she longs “to see younger dancers who are extraordinary” and performances where the audience come out “moved, and a bit light-headed”.

“My observation is that we see a lot of dance but not “dance”, there is no immersion. I’m not interested in making classical dance entertainment, which is largely what it has been reduced to today. You have to divert the attention of the audience to the wisdom and truth around us,” she said.

On the modern teaching methodology for dance, she said there were too many quick-fixes and not enough inspiration. “I always ask my students do you want to take the arterial route or the scenic route. The scenic route is long haul, it takes effort and the person teaching it has to have passion and be inspired themselves.”

“There are a lot of talented young people around, we need to support them and raise them to excellence and set aside mediocrity. Dancers who show talent must be constantly supported,” she added. “Institutions like the Raza Foundation must help and provide them platforms and opportunities to perform on a regular basis.”

Dr Gopalakrishnan, who herself is an artist, deftly guided the conversation prompting Sarukkai to provide insights into her own evolution as a dancer and her personal challenges.

“For the first two decades I blithely followed my gurus and what they taught me. I remember at one point people began saying my dance had become too austere, that there was no joy. But not many understand that I got to that point of austerity and then discovered freedom, I found the things I needed to hold on to and the ones I could let go; be authentic, honest and step out of the boundaries.”

Sarukkai said she moved out of the conventional ‘Nayak-Nayika’ shringara narratives where the hero meets the heroine, they part, she longs for him and then he comes back and so forth, to explore deeper emotions such as Bhakti, divinity, freedom and spirituality.

“I began thinking why should I perpetuate the man-centric interpretations. I wanted to feel the trees and the birds; and embrace their existence by feeling one-ness with them. My movement vocabulary for Abhinaya is now very different from what my Gurus taught me.”

Over the years Sarukkai moved from the exploring on stage the spiritual and philosophical narratives of Sanskrit poetry, the liveliness and intensity of Tamil poetry, into discovering that Sahitya was not everything in dance.

“I became interested in abstraction. The ‘word’ was not longer on the centre stage and wanted to explore the emotions,” she said. “I wanted to present tradition and change…I respect tradition and structure, but I wanted to find my own voice.”

Sarukkai said she believes that like the dancer, the ‘Rasik’ in the audience too needs to be nurtured.

“It is hard work, we have to do it as a society. We need to have more of ‘baithak’ style performances where the artist is close to audience. They should talk and interact with the audience. And most importantly it has to be done with excellence, by articulate people who can explain and demonstrate the nuances of the art.”

The Raza Foundation’s ‘Art Matters’ is a running series of panel discussions and dialogues on arts and culture held at the India International Centre, Lodhi Estate in New Delhi. The conversation with Sarukkai was the 46th in the series.

Over the past four years, the popular forum has witnessed conversations with eminent personalities and expert practitioners drawn from the world of ideas, literature, visual arts, performing arts, among other disciplines and traditions.

The Foundation, set up by the late artist S H Raza, provides support and platforms for various arts, publications and fellowships, especially aimed at young talent.

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