In a panel discussion on Indian dance held the previous day, Malavika Sarukkai, a solo bharatanatyam dancer-choreographer from India, commented that she sees her practice of dance not in terms of tradition or change but tradition and change. Sarukkai’s performance of Ganga Nitya Vaahini – The Eternal River was testament to her firm belief in the continuing relevance and evolution of classical Indian dance.
Sarukkai is one of India’s premier bharatanatyam dancers and has performed widely in India and abroad for nearly three decades. She began studying bharatanatyam at the age of 7 from Guru Kalyanasundaram of the Tanjavur School and Guru Rajaratnam of the Vazhuvoor School. An early student of Kalanidhi Narayanan, she is also a skilled exponent of abhinaya.
In Ganga Nitya Vaahini, her seminal piece, evolved choreographically over a decade, Sarukkai pays homage to the river Ganga and its importance in terms of Indian culture, history, the environment and spirituality. Drawing on pan-Indian texts and music, both old and new, she brings classical and contemporary aesthetics into harmonious balance.
The first item, Gangavatam, in Ragamalika, describes the mythological descent of Ganga from the jata (knot) of Siva’s tresses. Dressed in a simple, flattering turquoise costume and lit only in a pool of soft light, Sarukkai commands our full attention. As she enacts Ganga’s descent, she seems to take on the qualities of the river itself. At times she floats, glides and lilts across the stage, like a quiet mountain stream, while at others she moves with all the dynamism, force and energy of a torrential flood. Soft undulations of the torso and fluid, circular arm movements replace the sharp linearity of classical bharatanatyam. Even her bells seem to imitate the gentle fluctuations in the cadence and speed of a babbling brook. Although she may not have the deepest aramandi or the most perfectly raised swastika, her grace and stage presence more than compensate. In fact, it was quite refreshing to see a mature dancer who knew her body’s strengths and limitations, and what movements suited her.
Set on the banks of the river Ganga at dusk, the second item, Sunset over Ganga, reveals the river’s multifaceted uses through the unfolding of three narratives: two young people anticipate nightfall for a lovers’ tryst on the riverbank; an elderly woman comes to the river to mourn the loss of her son; a priest lights oil lamps and sets them afloat for the evening’s aarthi. Here, we see Sarukkai in consummate form, morphing effortlessly into and out of the different characters. In the next item, based on the contemporary poetry of Sarukkai’s sister Priya Sarukkai-Chabria and set to Rāga Subhapantuvarali, pilgrims call out to mother Ganga, lamenting the loss of her purity. Examining the environmental implications of pollution, this is by far Sarukkai’s most overtly political piece.
The last item of the evening, based on a fifteenth-century Tansen poem in Rāga Revagupti, returns us to the sacred origins of the Ganga. This was followed by a tarana in Rāga Purvadhanashree in which Sarukkai showcased her signature backward jumps, which I found both striking and cumbersome.
A review of Ganga Nitya Vaahini would be incomplete without praise for the standout musicians, M.S. Sukhi on percussion, Srilakshmi Venkataramani on violin, and vocalist, Murali Parthasarathy, whose honeyed tones complemented the liquid grace of Sarukkai without ever overpowering her or distracting our attention from the dancing. An altogether unforgettable evening, indeed.