When you attend a performance by an artist described by the New York Times as “one of the world’s greatest dancers,” expectations are high. During the performance of Malavika Sarukkai at the Eli & Edythe Broad Stage, expectations were not met.  They were exceeded.  Astronomically.

Sarukkai’s process of Encountering the Divine was described in the program:

Classical Indian dance in its deeper aspect of practice involves the alignment of mind and body.  It is in these fleeting moments of alignments that one senses divine presence.

Over the years as I trace my dance journey, I find that invoking the divine has become an integral part of my dance.  In classical dance, conversing with the sacred implies recreating the spirit of the divine in physical and emotional space of the outer and the inner.  Conversing with the Gods in dance demands an intense level of mindfulness on part of the artist to ‘live the moment’ in physical and emotional space. The canvas of the state has to come alive with the painting of form.  By doing this we move from the ordinary to the extraordinary, form the predictable to the magnificent from Laukika to Alaukika.

For this transformation to happen, the body of the artist has to transform into a patra (container). The body then is the site invested with heritage.  A site both sacred and temporal, lit, as it were, in the moment of the dance.”

Malavika Sarukkai - Photo courtesy of the artist

Malavika Sarukkai – Photo courtesy of the artist

These words prepared me for a meditative evening, even though I know that Bharatanatyam is most often expressed through fast pulsing rhythmic footwork, flashing arm gestures and lively instrumental music.

The opening music was tightly executed, setting the tone for an evening of excellence.  The feel was mellow, settling everyone into this special world of music, dance and the divine – and leaving everything else behind.

Malavika Sarukkai came on stage to introduce herself and the sequence of events.  Her narrative drew us in more deeply. Before each new sequence, she gave a verbal prelude, mixing poetry and story with simple clarity. She drew a picture with her delicious words, embellished with a few brilliant gestures. She brought us the seasons with images of rivers, leaves and butterflies. Her stories about Krishna took us from a mischievous youth to an alluring young man.

Malavika Sarukkai - Photo courtesy of the artist

Malavika Sarukkai – Photo courtesy of the artist

When she returned to the stage, it was as though a lightning bolt of red and gold had struck – bright, clear and strong. She lunged with an upward diagonal arm gesture that reached beyond the confines of the theater to the heavens, yet her physical presence was still and deeply grounded.  She was with us and reaching beyond the earth.

Throughout the performance, Sarukkai explored the beauty of symmetry with her sculptural forms and her mastery of the use of stage space.  Her movement ranged from that powerful lightning bolt to the delicate touch of an insect on a flower. As each story unfolded, she connected the divine to the earthly. Her gaze reached out to each member of the audience, and her intimate gestures brought us to her cozy world of home and making sandcastles on the beach. Krishna was with us in each place.

Malavika Sarukkai - Photo courtesy of the artist

Malavika Sarukkai – Photo courtesy of the artist

The meditation I expected took a form unlike any other – music, words and dance meshed to create a journey reminding us that the divine is everywhere, in daily life, indoors and out, from lake to tree and even in the kitchen. Her performance made me want to write poetry. Her dance takes us to a place where mystery exists, and momentarily, we touch it. I paraphrase her words here, because they are so true.

The production would not have been as divine without the support of a truly stellar musical ensemble, and lighting that ranged from subtle to astonishing.  The costume of red and gold representing purity, but also the dynamism of fire, was perfect for the range of stories and the artist telling them.

The stellar musical ensemble: Smt. S. Srilatha, Murali Parthasarathy, Nellai A. Balaji, Easwar Ramakrishnan.

Lighting: Venkatesh Krishnan

Costume Design: Sandhya Raman

To visit the Eli & Edythe Broad Stage website, click here.

Featured image: Malavika Sarukkai – Photo courtesy of the artist.