Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
How extraordinary that it has taken so long for the incandescent Malavika Sarukkai to reach London's main stages. Have promoters been asleep? Last Friday's performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall - the start of a short tour organised by the wide-awake Association Sargam (and sponsored by Jehangir Masud) - showed people just what they'd been missing, and predictably ended in a standing ovation.
A South Indian dancer, trained in the Bharat Natyam tradition, Malavika has a distinctive take on the classical form. In India, as in the west, urgent debates have increasingly been going on in rehearsal rooms, conference halls, training schools and wherever dancers or pundits gather. What is the place of a classical style in a contemporary world? Can it change without losing its life blood? And can a style that has grown out of very specific religious and cultural beliefs have anything very much to say to people outside those worlds?
Different dancers have engaged in different ways. (Our own Shobana Jayasingh, for instance, has embarked on a series of rigorous and fascinating acts of deconstruction.) Malavika has no doubts at all about where she stands. It is not a matter of opting for either ancient or modern, but of illuminating the form from within. She uses both traditional items and newly choreographed ones, using the traditional elements of pure dance (nrrita) and expressive aspects (abhinaya). But she brings to that mixture a sharply contemporary intelligence and a desire to connect today's concerns with yesterday's more archetypal insights.
Friday gave an indication of her range. She started with a traditional offering, the Pushpanjali, danced with a lightness and dynamism that had palpable fizz to it, and went on to a solid Varnam about a woman aching for the splendid god Siva whom she has seen passing by in a temple procession.
The second half gave her qualities more rein. In the Kettisan, a woman wistfully watches a pair of lovers in the bazaar and then at night, asleep, is plagued with dreams of her own absent lover. Waking up, groping for him, she is overwhelmed with loneliness.
It must be hard for non-Indian audiences not to empathise with that universal experience, or with Malavika's series of women, engaged in mundane female activities, who suddenly catch the sound of Krishna's distant flute. As one, they burst out of their houses, and follow him (and their own undomesticated hearts) to dance the Raas in the depths of night-time woods.
"Emotions are essentially contemporary," Malavika stated in her pre- performance talk.
But it is when they are allied, as they are in her work, with impeccable technique and clear dynamic choreography, that they shine clearly through.
Naseem KhanReuse content