Dancer, activist, author, pioneer: The legacy of Mrinalini Sarabhai

  • Soma Das, Hindustan Times, Mumbai
  • Updated: Jun 25, 2016 13:52 IST
Mallika Sarabhai (left) performs with her mother Mrinalini (Photo: Mallika Sarabhai)

The late Mrinalini Sarabhai — a dancer, activist, and Padma Bhushan winner — was ahead of her times. This weekend, her daughter Mallika pays tribute.

When classical dancer Mrinalini Sarabhai (97), passed away on January 21 this year, her daughter Mallika (62), a dancer and an activist, gave a touching farewell to her beloved “Amma”. Mrinalini’s body, decked in her signature red sari with ghungroos (bells) tied to her feet, lay at the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts, Ahmedabad. Mallika performed Krishna Nee Begane Baro, a Carnatic composition that was a favourite of Mrinalini’s. “The dance was a spontaneous decision, and my gift to her. It was a way of saying goodbye, but also symbolic of how she lives on and is part of us,” says Mallika.

A Kathakali performance by Mrinalini Sarabhai (Photo: Mallika Sarabhai)

Half a year later, Mallika is set to host Mrinalini Sarabhai: Celebrating Life, a memorial event to showcase the contribution Mrinalini made to classical dance.

It will include a Bharatanatyam performance by Mallika with her son Revanta. Rare audio-visual footage of Mrinalini’s Bharatanatyam performance, and footage from The Mahatma and the Poetess, a play she acted in with Tom Alter, will also be shown. Alter, dance critic Sunil Kothari and Mallika’s brother Kartikey Sarabhai will share anecdotes about Mrinalini.

Alter will share his memories of collaborating with Mrinalini for the The Mahatma... (a book she edited), while Kothari speaks of how she made classical dance contemporary, and Kartikey on her stance on environmental conservation.

In the beginning

Mrinalini, who studied in Switzerland, and later at Santiniketan, West Bengal, trained in most of the classical disciplines. Apart from Bharatanatyam, Mohiniyattam and Kuchipudi, she also trained in Kathakali and was one of the first women to perform this dance form. To nurture classical dance forms, she founded the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts in Ahmedabad in 1949 with her husband, scientist Vikram Sarabhai.

“She was a purist, and emphasised on a vigorous as well as rigorous practise of Bharatanatyam, but she was also ahead of her time. Through her performances portraying mythological characters, she still highlighted contemporary issues of social justice,” says Mallika.

Mallika Sarabhai performing with her son Revanta (Photo: Mallika Sarabhai)

Speak up

Mrinalini’s most acclaimed productions were Memory is a Ragged Fragment of Eternity (on dowry deaths), Ranmalpur (on violence against Dalits) and Aspirations (inspired by the movement against the building of the Silent Valley Hydroelectric Project in Kerala).

“For my mother, these issues were not a fad. She was genuinely keen on raising awareness. She spoke of dowry deaths back in the ’60s. There were few people who spoke of such things,” Mallika adds.

Aside from dance, Mrinalini was also involved in helping artisans and craftsmen establish self-help groups, and she wrote several books and poems on dance, history and mythology. To honour her achievements, she was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1992.

Mrinalini in the 1958 production Geet Govindam (Photo: Mallika Sarabhai)

As a child, though, Mallika admits to having been daunted by her mother and her larger-than-life persona. “I would burst into tears when I was in her presence. I never learned Bharatanatyam from her (she only taught senior dancers and was impartial towards all her students),” recalls Mallika.

Initially, she admits she was not keen on dancing either: “There was too much hard work involved, and I wanted to do cinema and theatre. It took me 22 years to realise that I wanted to dance.”

Once she found her calling, she remembers her mother being her biggest cheerleader. Their performances together were special as well, says Mallika: “She [my mother] was 100% alive only when she was dancing. Performing with her, I never felt any competition; when we danced, we were the same person.”

Mrinalini Sarabhai: Celebrating Life will be held on June 26, 7pm
At: NCPA, Nariman Point
Call: 6622 3737
Tickets: Rs 500 and Rs 400

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