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The Loom of Life- Malavika Sarukkai's Thari

Malavika Sarukkai’s new show, Thari, will be the opening dance production at the refurbished Queen Elizabeth Hall in London's Southbank Centre. The artist talks to Editor Sanjeevini Dutta about the creative process.

Malavika Sarukkai’s new production for an ensemble, Thari – The Loom, is a homage to the handloom, celebrating its processes and the creation of the quintessentially Indian garment, the sari. It also becomes a metaphor for the fabric of life. Thari will be the first dance production to be performed at the newly refurbished Queen Elizabeth Hall at London’s Southbank Centre on 24 April 2018.

Sarukkai is entering her fifth decade in dance, having started her training aged seven. At sixteen she had already decided to make dance her life; and with training from leading gurus Kalyansunderam Pillai and Rajaratnam, and mentorship from her scholar-mother Saroja Kamakshi, there was no turning back.

In fact, she packed in classes with Kalanidhi Narayanan, the high priestess of abhinaya, and odissi technique, imparted by Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra. This gave a softness and languorous quality to Sarukkai’s bharatanatyam, which set her apart from a host of fine bharatanatyam dancers.

Firmly rooted in classicism but imbued with a curiosity and a need to interrogate her style, the artist delved into the classical principles of space, form and structure and mined these in her solo creations. However, it is the interiority of the dancer that imbues her work with a thoughtful and meditative quality, which came across with great force in Kashi Yatra (the life of the courtesan at three stages against the flow of the river Ganga). This definitive work matured over a decade and gave much pleasure to audiences in India and around the world. It had an eternal quality, much as its location of Kashi, the ancient Hindu city, modern day Varanasi.

Sarukkai has explored themes such as the degradation of the environment (Thimakka), but her work has never been overtly political. She has come in for some criticism for failing to make work with a greater political awareness. (See Vikram Iyengar on the website Narthaki, )

In defence, one can quote Kapila Vatsayan, ‘Indian classical dance is more concerned with universal principles and archetypes rather than commenting on society and politics’. Long after the current party in India using the lotus symbol fades, the ponds will still be bearing the lotus.

Malavika Sarukkai discusses the production with Pulse Editor Sanjeevini Dutta

Q. How does it feel to be performing at London’s Southbank Centre after a four-year gap? 

A: It is always revitalizing to perform at a mainstream venue like London's Southbank Centre. Over the years I have presented my evolving vision of dance at this venue – celebrating core values while extending the form in theme, structure and movement vocabulary. The Southbank Centre audience has always welcomed this exploration with enthusiasm.

Q You are bringing Thari – The Loom, your second ever group piece, for the first time to the UK. What were the challenges and pleasures of choreographing on an ensemble?

A: Thari - The Loom is an exploration of the fundamental concepts between classical dance and handloom weaving with a focus on the Korvai sari from South India. This concept was hugely stimulating as was working alongside Sumantra Ghosal, as writer and Creative Collaborator. Presenting an ensemble was natural from inception as I had conceptualised this production with patterns in dance being integral to its design. 

Discovering that the common unstitched garment from India, the sari, could reflect a metaphor for life was liberating! I strongly believe that concepts have to be ‘danced out' at every stage. Personal research and internalizing took me about two years after which I had an intense three-month period of working with my team of musicians. Before recording the music, I choreographed the entire piece on myself, working on precise rhythms. Having said this, once I started working the movements on other dancing bodies the choreography completely changed!

Q: How does a dancer as powerful and charismatic as yourself not outshine the group?

A: I think it’s about shifting the way one thinks internally –to want to share stage space, to be democratic in sharing space with dancers, to inspire but not intimidate, to hold back even if that is what is demanded, to be emotionally inclusive, to want the best for the production. 

Q: The metaphor of the loom of life gathering and leaving imprints on the fabric is very visual, please comment?

A: As far as dance choreography is concerned I dived within myself to reflect, unearth and adapt the language of bharatanatyam to reflect the textures of Thari - The Loom. The specially commissioned music by veteran C.V. Chandrasekhar and brilliant Aditya Prakash lend originality, mood, and diversity; and also the imaginative sound design by Sai Shravanam. We actually used the original sound of silk and cotton handlooms from Kancheepuram to integrate into the overall music. The imaginative lighting design by GyanDev Singh highlights the choreography, bringing to the fore the many nuances. The dynamic dancers who articulate the concept along with me are Jyotsna Jagannathan, Adithya PV, Aruna B, Nidhaga Karunad BM and Shreema Upadhyaya. The Technical Director Niranjan Gokhale brings his expertise to the production.

Q: How would you describe to the potential audience what they should expect from the show?

A: Thari - The Loom is an ensemble production which explores the fundamental concepts that are shared between the two seemingly different but essentially connected disciplines of dance and weaving: space, structure, proportion, relationship, alignment, opposition, symmetry, and motif. Interestingly, both disciplines work through coordination, rhythm, measurement, and design. Thari – The Loom is a confluence of traditional practice informed by contemporary sensibilities.

The programme Thari - The Loom is accessible by its power of conviction and execution and is meant for all.

Thari  will be performed at Queen Elizabeth Hall on Tuesday 24 April 2018 at 7.30 pm.