In the late '80s, Mallika Sarabhai went about interviewing doctors who encouraged sex-selective abortions. She also spent days at police stations to witness how policewomen treated abused women.
She combed through rape testimonies collected by an NGO. Alongside, she studied various versions of the Ramayana, to understand how the epic narrated a tale she thought was fundamentally unfair to Sita. The result of this research was the powerful solo performance, Sita's Daughters, in 1990.
Sarabhai says she wanted to look at women in mythology from the perspective of women, rather than through the prism of patriarchy.
The production - co-written by Sarabhai and theatre-director John Martin, and directed by Martin - saw Sarabhai narrate real-life stories of extraordinary women. She toured with it for 12 years, nationally and internationally (in Singapore, Africa and the USA, among other places), and performed more than 650 shows.
Her audience was varied - from 400 magistrates on one occasion, to 8,000 tobacco field workers on another, to 12 women survivors of gang rape. Eventually, Sarabhai shared the script with performers abroad (including students at Columbia University and University of Cincinnati). And as they took over Sita's Daughters, Sarabhai herself stopped performing it.
"I revived the show in Ahmedabad last year, after 12 years, because a whole generation in India hadn't seen it," Sarabhai says. This Saturday, she will stage it in the city for the first time since its revival. "I'd hoped that, in 10 years, the situation would change enough and I wouldn't need to stage it. Unfortunately, things are worse now."
Sita's Daughters is a narrative comprised of classical and contemporary dance, storytelling, humour and mime. And it gives Sarabhai the scope to bring in contemporary issues. For instance, last week, she performed in Trivandrum. On the same day, Samajwadi Party supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav had remarked that "a rape by four people was not practically possible". She weaved this comment into her show.
The Ahmedabad-based acclaimed Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi dancer's body of work features other productions as well, including Shakti: The Power of a Woman, Ahmedabad ki Aurat Bhali-Ramkali and Women with Broken Wings.
She was also hailed in 1989 for her portrayal of Draupadi in Peter Brook's Mahabharata (in French, then in English), which was staged internationally. Over the years, the performances have brought her various awards - Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (2000), Knight of the Order of Arts & Letters, French Government (2002), and the Padma Bhushan (2010). Yet, she's not one to revel in them. "They feel good for the first five minutes," is all she says about them.
And while it might strike one as odd, a little supercilious even, one needs to look at her upbringing to understand where she's coming from. The daughter of Vikram Sarabhai (regarded as the father of the Indian space programme) and renowned classical dancer Mrinalini Sarabhai, Mallika says she was never conscious of belonging to a famous family.
"I didn't think we were special. My family was austere. My grandparents wore khadi. I've never seen my mother go to a jeweller. It was all about work, never what you had. I enjoyed the fact that there were all sorts of wonderful people at our dinner table. And I thought that's the way the world was," Sarabhai says.
But the presence of intellectual personalities, and the exposure to diverse cultures and opinions in her childhood, shaped her forward-thinking personality. Sarabhai was married for seven years to Bipin Shah, and still runs Mapin Publishing, which produces illustrated books on Indian tradition, arts, crafts and culture with him.
The couple had two children - Anahita (25) and Revanta (30) - both dancers. Initially, though, Sarabhai wasn't keen to take up dance professionally. She started out as an actor in films such as Himalay Se Ooncha (in 1975) and Mutthi Bhar Chawal (1978).
But the sexism she encountered in commercial Hindi cinema led her to quit acting at a young age. A few years later, a heart-break turned epiphanic: the man the young Sarabhai was engaged to (she would meet Shah later in college) turned out to be "a male chauvinist pig", she says. He was okay with her dancing, but not in public. She called off the engagement, and realised how much dance meant to her.
Sarabhai strives to keep her work as accessible as she can. "A lot of Indian musicians and dancers mystify their work. I come from a different school of thought - I try and make it accessible. In my Bharatanatyam performances, I often have the lyrics projected at the back of the stage so that people actually know what I'm doing," she says.
As the co-director of Darpana Academy of Performing Arts (founded by her mother), the passionate Sarabhai is committed to using the arts for social change. One of its initiatives, STAGE (Sensitising Through the Arts for Gender Equality), is a three-year-old project that works closely with educational institutions and the youth to initiate gender equality. Darpana's amphitheatre, Natarani, now in its 20th year, also brought world-class music and theatre to Ahmedabad. "We give out the theatre space at no cost to those exploring experimental Gujarati theatre. Our series, The Third Bell, encourages new theatre by letting out the space to young Gujarati directors on a no-risk-but-profit-sharing basis," Sarabhai says.
Initiatives like these are important, since Gujarati theatre is largely stuck with the reputation of doing farcical comedy. Sarabhai credits her own drive to produce quality theatre to her mother. In the '70s, Mrinalini made an open call to Gujarati playwrights for new scripts which Darpana would produce.
"Even back then, Amma felt that Gujarati playwriting needed to be encouraged to become more contemporary," she says.
The freethinking Sarabhai, however, wasn't satisfied just being an agent of change through the arts. So she fought the elections as an independent candidate in 2009. And though she lost (to LK Advani) by a huge margin, she continued to be vocally critical of the government: "I thought if there were even a few people in the parliament who are genuinely committed to the country and its secular values, we can make a difference. But today, party politics makes it practically impossible to stand as an independent politician," Sarabhai says. As an artist, though, she continues the crusade for gender equality.
The greatest problem in India, she feels, is misogyny, because instead of being seen as a plague, it's accepted as normal: "How can you talk of development when half the population lives in fear of verbal or physical abuse?" Sarabhai asks. "Women in parts of the country can't even go out to relieve themselves without the fear that they might be raped. When I'm the only woman in an elevator with eight other men, there's a tightening in my stomach. Privileged or not, every woman in India knows that fear."
Sarabhai Through The Ages
1954 Mallika is born to Vikram and Mrinalini Sarabhai.
1971 Mallika loses her father.
1972 Debuts as an actress with the Hindi film, Sonal.
1974 Obtains an MBA from IIM Ahmedabad.
1976 Receives a doctorate in Organisational Behaviour from Gujarat University.
1976 Breaks off an engagement and, through the trauma, realises dance is her calling.
1977 Takes charge of Darpana Academy of Performing Arts as co-director.
1984 Mallika marries Bipin Shah.
1984 Mallika has her first child, son Revanta.
1984-1990 Plays Draupadi in Peter Brook's Mahabharata.
1990 Creates her first performance piece, Shakti: The Power of Women.
1990 Mallika has her second child, daughter Anahita.
1990 Ends marriage with Shah.
2002 Files a PIL contending that Gujarat's state administration and Narendra Modi (then CM) were
complicit in the Godhra riots.
2003 Cases of fraud and human trafficking are registered against her.
2013 Gujarat police drops the cases due to "lack of evidence".
2009 Mallika enters politics as an independent candidate.
2010 Mallika is conferred with the Padma Bhushan.
2014 Revives Sita's Daughters.
Book you're reading?
A series of books translated from various Indian languages into English for the first time. Lakshmi Kannan's Nandanvan and Other Stories (Tamil), and Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay's Pather Dabi (Bengali), for instance.
Last good film you saw?
A lesser-known film called Antardwand (2010).
A recent TV show you liked?
A Danish political drama called Borgen. Also, Da Vinci's Demons.
Watch out for
Looking into Darpana
Screening of the film, Mrinalini Sarabhai: The Artist And Her Art, followed by a conversation between Yadavan Chandran, Mallika Sarabhai and Kathak exponent Gauri Sharma Tripathi.
When: August 28, 7pm
Little Theatre, NCPA, Nariman Point
August Dance Residency
Mallika Sarabhai will stage her acclaimed solo act, Sita's Daughters, a 70-minute performance.
When: August 29, 7pm
Experimental Theatre, NCPA
Tickets:`400 onward on bookmyshow.com
Dance, Movement and Theatre
A workshop by Mallika Sarabhai for amateurs and professionals.
When: August 30, 11am to 1pm
Westroom 1, NCPA
Tickets: Rs 500
Register: 98691 12010 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org