Dancer Has Magic and Imagination in Her Soul


Oct 31, SAN DIEGO, CA (UNION TRIBUNE) — In "Domains of Wonder," the magnificent exhibit of Indian painting from the San Diego Museum of Art's collection, an early 18th-century work titled "The Eternal Dance: Rasamandala" telegraphs a miraculous and funny story.

Two crimson wheels seem to be rolling side by side. In the hub of the first, Lord Krishna, the alluring blue god, dances with a single maiden. Surrounding the dancing figures are more than a dozen individual women, each strikingly costumed. They hold hands and form a moving ring around the divine pair.

In the next image, Krishna and his partner are again circled, but now by many incarnations of the god, each dancing with one of the women. In answer to female desire, Krishna has multiplied himself to satisfy each woman's longing for love and beauty. Above them in an indigo sky, higher gods embrace and amid the stars, heavenly creatures also dance to the beat of two virile drummers.

Soloist Malavika Sarukkai closed her program of Bharata Natyam classical dance at the Museum's Copley Auditorium Saturday with just such a playful, joyous image of cosmic harmony, of earthly longing fulfilled. Wearing gold-flecked persimmon silks, she became the cowherd god Krishna, with his iconic flute, his glittering lotus eye. Yet in a flash she was also one, two, dozens of gopi, the maidens he leads in a circling dance.

Twirling on the axis of her own spine, leading the maidens in a snaking line, skimming about in concentric circles, and turning to urge eager (invisible) devotees forward, Sarukkai seemed the embodiment of ecstasy. Merely by shifting the angle of her torso, she metamorphosed from god to woman, wishing to be transformed. With such graceful shape-shifting, the propulsive rhythms and skittering steps of her feet, the clapping and miming of her hands, Sarukkai evoked a vivid world at play, yet deeply at peace.

The gods seemed to be smiling as beatifically as the audience when she struck the final pose of her four-part program titled "Painting in Space."

Many Indian writers consider Sarukkai the greatest living exponent of Bharata Natyam, the best known in the West of eight Indian classic dance styles. Melding the sacred and the sensuous, convention and invention, Sarukkai brings liveliness and a sense of adventure to her dancing, as well as a striking interplay with her musicians. On Saturday, they were the agile vocalist Murali Parthasarathy, finger cymbalist (and sometime singer) A.S. Murali, percussionist P.K. Ranganathan and most visibly, since this was an all-Krishna program, the virtuoso flutist Vijay Venkatesh.

Sarukkai possesses exquisite natural beauty. She is slim and perfectly proportioned, with an oval face, wide-set eyes, a protean smile, and lovely clean lines, vibrant even in repose. For this program commissioned by the Museum's Committee for the Arts of the Indian Subcontinent, she created a new dance to celebrate the wonders of Krishna and performed three more, exploring other aspects of this avatar of the benign god, Vishnu. Like any shrewd Western choreographer, she alternated slower, lyrical narrative numbers with highly rhythmic and dramatic ones. Each "item" was introduced by a prologue. As in the "dumb show" before early English dramas, though with great subtlety, Sarrukkai mimed the characters and themes of each dance, while her artistic director and mother, Saroja Kamakshi, described them in words. And then each dance began.

The first brought on Krishna as enchanter, seductive in a playful, teasing and insistently rhythmic way. He kneels and admiring himself in a hand mirror, for instance, adjusts his eyebrows and adorns his body with crown and jewels before rising, turning, and leaving his imprint in the air. Now the chameleon Sarrukkai becomes several women stunned, hand-to-forehead, by his beauty.

In the second dance, Krishna was hero. He ambles onto a scene of utter desolation and silence, for a many-headed serpent has polluted a river of life from which all birds and animals drank, and died. Krishna confronts the demon, and suddenly, as if spring blossomed all at once, life returns. In Sarukkai's radiance, a landscape sparkles.

By contrast, in a moving miniature, she became a doleful Radha, Krishna's beloved. Alone on her bed, saddened by her separation from the god, Radha moves bereft through melancholy moods until she senses him returning as rain that replenishes her and Earth.

The images Sarukkai conjures the majestic elephant walk of Krishna, for instance, or Radha's bliss are virtual ones, created in the imagination of the viewer, for her art is one of evocation, not representation. Like her godly subjects, she is powerful and subtle, and ever-changing. A stage artist of the first rank, her performance unveiled other "Domains of Wonder" at the Balboa Park museum.


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