Thari: Threads of deep thought woven into stunning dance

Malavika Sarukkai (Pic: Anoop Arora)

‘Thari’ means loom. As a concept for a dance production, it sounded very innovative, and the idea of a dancer interpreting the sari and its production into a Bharatnatyam performance was very intriguing. On the 13th of October, Thari was presented by Malavika Sarukkai at the Kamani Auditorium in Delhi. Malavikaji has been trained under Kalyanasundaram Pillai and Rajaratnam. She has been awarded the Padma Shri and the Sangeet Natak Academy Award, among many other awards and honours.

Even before the performance, the whole place was bustling with art connoisseurs because an exhibition of beautiful saris from all over India had been put up by the sponsor, Taneira. It was heartwarming to see the wonderful weaves of India. A sari is very identifiably Indian. As a child, the mother’s sari is the child’s security. A toddler learns to run holding the pallu of the mother’s sari. Growing up, any cloth suffices for sari-tying practice. Later, in the life of a young girl, it symbolizes her womanhood. Sadly, the garment seems to be losing out to western sensibilities.

When the production began, the music of the sound of the looms was dramatic - ‘ta ka dham’. It was this that set the mood and the beat for the performance. The dancers rose from a sitting position. The voiceover said that at the appointed time, the weavers gather to work their looms, the rhythm like a heartbeat, a primeval sound. The weavers bring the looms alive. Sarees were hung behind the stage. The group of dancers in ocher costumes imitated the act of weaving in time to the music. They held spindle-like props and saris stretched out between them, moving them in waves, creating warp and weft as they moved in opposite directions across the stage.

In the voiceover, Malavika said that her first memories of the sari were associated with her mother, who wore them tastefully. As a young dancer, the sari it gave her a sense of purpose. Gradually, it became a statement of who she was, “not just a piece of unstitched cloth woven with dexterity”. Later on, to explore the subject of the sari further, she went to see the looms of Kanchipuram, the famous city of silk handloom saris in the south. In Kanchipuram, the first sound to hit her was that of the looms. As she researched further, she found other aspects of the sari linked to poetry, dance design and music. The warp, she said in the voiceover, was vertical and taut, and marked the length of the sari, which spoke to her of the constant. This constant she associated with Krishna’s flute, which beckons all creatures. The weft, she said, are the crossed threads that weave around the warp to form the design or motif. In them, she felt the endearing affection of Radha for Krishna. In the beginning, these conversations felt very private, which spoke just to her. But in time, “they were heard very persistently and became dance movements. They became the thari”. Again, at the end of this voiceover, you hear the sound of the looms.

Warp and weft, the voiceover continued, are stretched end to end. The warp is the constant, which never slackens, and within its embrace lies the weft, which is “carefree, delicate, a shimmer, a glance, a possibility”. The group of dancers did a pure nritta piece again, using the sargam ‘sa re ga ma’, moving delicately in horizontal and vertical directions. The warp was shown as taut, the weft being shown wavy, with leaps and  footwork, which was used very creatively with backward and forward movements of the feet. And finally, they depicted the sari being wrapped.

The voiceover again explained the secret of the warp and weft, now through the metaphor of Krishna and Radha, using the composition ‘Ang ang bheti Shyam Kishori’. The warp is taut and vertical, like the Shyam taruvar or tree. The weft wraps around it, wound around it like the kanak lata Kishori or the golden creeper Radha. The vocals for this song had such a rousing melody that they really moved your heart into visualizing the beautiful relationship of Krishna and Radha. ‘Krishna tamal tarun bhuj shakha, latki mili jo dam Kishori (the branches are Krishna’s arms, in which the entangled arms of Radha are looking like the golden creepers hanging from those branches)’ said the composition describing the entwining and the beautiful embrace of the two, being depicted in the solo by Malavika herself. This poignant, stirring solo is, I think, difficult to describe in words. The abhinaya and stances taken were very sensuous and yet delicate, giving you a sense of the divine love. Finally, Radha and Krishna are locked in an embrace, their fingers shuddering.

“It is amazing how much meaning is hidden in those six yards of cloth that is a sari,” the voiceover started again. The motifs recall the stories of childhood, filled with love and valour, beauty and wisdom. It is the stately borders that have much more to tell. The borders are the edges of the Kanjeevaram sari, and look like two rivers. These two mighty rivers are the Ganga and Yamuna, within whose flow we live to learn and to love, until we find our peace. As we see the sari and its borders, the flow of the sari resembles the flow of our lives. The sari is not speaking to us of just us. It is about a larger righteousness, only if we choose to listen. It becomes a metaphor for life itself. It is showing what our life could be. The borders are the ebb and flow on which our lives depend. The Yamuna sees our lives begin, and the Ganga sees its end. It is within the borders that we are bound, and it is the borders that finally set us free. “This is the message the borders send,one great river sends us on the journey of our life, and the other sees its end.” Here again, Sandhya Raman did the costuming in a very sensitive manner, using red and green to show the borders/rivers. The dance was performed by four dancers dancing in twos, parallel to each on the stage, to show the borders of the sari, and they moved meticulously, coordinating with each other on the edges. Ganga and Yamuna differ in their flow - the Yamuna fast and torrential, the Ganga slow and silent. Again, a metaphor for our lives. The sound of looms was used everywhere to great effect.

Moving to the pallu and the motifs on it, the voiceover said, “The shuttle moves and a bird is born, the parrot, the peacock and the swan.” These are beautiful motifs on the pallu. The kili or the parrot is the steed or vahana of Manmatha - “Celebrate the bird whose very word is love. Listen to the parrot and drown in ecstasy.” Kama’s arrows do not kill but fill our lives with love. The parrot was depicted with a lot of rhythm and nritta. The movements were very aesthetic. Next was the peacock, the steed of Lord Muruga. The peacock is majestic and wise. “Praise the bird whom Muruga rides, praise the bird with a hundred eyes.” With piercing gazing steady eyes, it reaches every core of our being, where the ego serpent lies, to vanquish it. The peacock depiction was amazing, with the entire focus on the eye movements. Again, there was a lot of rhythm in the piece, which brought out the musicality of the composition. The next was the swan, the vahana of Saraswati. The ‘shuddha vastra veena mandita shwet padmabh asana sad sad pujita’ – these are the aspects of Lord Saraswati. Again, very subtle movements and aesthetic, controlled dancing.

About the costuming, Sandhya said that she did not want the colour for each bird to be brought out loudly but very subtly, like in a patka worn around the neck or a blue drape for the peacock. The voiceover said, “Be the pallu, live life to the full. Be untrammelled, be multi-hued. Shun the uniformity of prejudice.”

Life is bound by  the borders, but in its finality, like in the pallu, the flows merge. Life, like the flow of a river, is at its greatest just before the union with the sea. Speaking of the end of the sari, the tassels, the voiceover in Malavika’s voice said, “We dance the dance of the sari, it speaks to me. We dance the dance of the sari, it sets me free. Finally, I become the tassels. I am infinite. The same threads that had started off as the warp and weft, had been motifs, had been colour and design, are now floating free. Nothing can contain them now. They are free.” The group of dancers, moving with nritta to the front of the stage, captured the essence of this freedom through their dance. The lights dimmed and changed to bright stars in a dark sky, projected on to the stage and the dancers, moving and fading. “And yet something is left beyond the space of life and death. How should we speak of what is left, beyond the warp and weft?” The final echoing of the lines, ‘hamsa’ turning gradually to ‘soham’, ‘hamsa, soham’, created an out-of-this-world experience. It was a very thought-provoking, philosophical concept and an awe-inspiring performance by Malavikaji’s group of dancers. It was a heady mix of music, rhythm, movement, coordination and uniformity, and precise, formidable execution. The vocals were so powerful that they permeated your soul to let the lyrics seep in.

The production showed Malavika’s brilliance, with the creative collaboration of Sumantra Ghoshal. Sandhya Raman did the beautiful costumes, critical in this production. The music compositions were by Sheejith Krishna, Aditya Prakash and Prof. C.V. Chandrasekhar. The other musicians included Nellai D. Balaji (mridangam), Srilakshmi Venkatramani (violin), Bhavani Prasad (veena), Vishnu Vijay (flute) and L. Kishore Kumar (sitar), with location sound recording and creative editing by Sai Shravanam.

All Pics: Anoop Arora