Dancing in the dark: Mallika Sarabhai on beating bulimia,finding dance amid loss
Sarabhai is usually described as beautiful and accomplished. For large parts of her life, she says, she felt like neither. Her new book, In Free Fall, traces how that changed.
“People would ask, ‘How do you keep so fit’, and I would shrug and say, ‘Hard work’. Now I want to tell the truth about how difficult the journey has been,” says Mallika Sarabhai. The 69-year-old is an actor, human rights activist and acclaimed Kuchipudi and Bharatanatyam exponent. She’s usually described as beautiful and accomplished. For large parts of her life, she says, she felt like neither.
In her new memoir, In Free Fall: My Experiments with Living (Speaking Tiger; August 2022), Sarabhai discusses growing up as the daughter of renowned Indian classical dancer Mrinalini Sarabhai and Indian space-research pioneer Vikram Sarabhai. She speaks of battling bulimia and anorexia; finding dance amid the trauma of loss.
There have been tremendous highs: playing Draupadi in Peter Brook’s The Mahabharata (1985), a nine-hour theatrical retelling that caused ripples around the world; running the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts, set up by her mother, and using it to advocate for change; raising her children, Revanta, now 37 and an actor and choreographer, and Anahita, 32, a gay rights activist. Then there were years spent healing, from a rare skeletal disorder, from grief, divorce, depression.
When I became a parent, I knew that I wanted my kids to be able to look back and say, ‘Maa never lied to us.’ In the same way, I want to tell people that you can make mistakes, fall flat on your face, only to get up and go on,” Sarabhai says. Excerpts from an interview.
How does one prepare to bare it all?
People who are seen as successful often don’t share their traumas enough. I’ve been in the public eye since I was 15, which is when I acted in my first film, Sonal (unreleased). Back then, Amma and Papa would get letters about how dangerous the film industry was and how they were sending me into “prostitution”. It didn’t faze them, and I decided early on that I would always be honest and open about my life. When my marriage was ending, for instance, I spoke about the pain I felt. Now I want to tell people that a lot else hasn’t been easy, but if I could find hope, so can you.
What helped you turn the corner with your body image issues?
When I was growing up, I wanted to be beautiful. I did compare myself to the models in fashion magazines. After about 10 years of struggling with disorders and multiple diets, it all started to feel more and more stupid. There was no eureka moment, but over time I realised that health was more important than being thin.
In those years, we had nothing like the constant invasion of this idea of the ideal body type. Today, irrespective of gender, millions around the world are battling body image issues, and brand managers play on these very insecurities.
How did the turn towards dance come about? You say it changed your life…
Dance came to me as an epiphany. After a romantic relationship ended in 1976, I was heartbroken and felt let down twice, first by the loss of my father a few years earlier, and now by someone I trusted. I spent four months doing nothing, just looking out of the window at the Sabarmati river. One day I woke up and decided all I wanted to do was dance. I went to my mother’s room and told her this. I still remember the look of surprise on her face.
It was a rebirth for my mother too, a way for her to get over her grief. And with the realisation that this is where I want to be, came so much joy and euphoria. Dance is my go-to place for all my moods and emotions. It doesn’t have to be Bharatanatyam or Kuchipudi. I sometimes play music and just dance as though I am at a party.
I truly believe that the search for “you” or what drives you is very important. Especially in Asian countries, the pressure from parents and society to excel leads people to live to a script written by somebody else. Suddenly, before you’ve taken a single decision in your life, you are a parent who has to keep the cycle going. How many people can answer with conviction if asked, “Are you where you want to be?” Facing this question can be a crucial point in your life.
Are you now where you want to be?
Absolutely. There are other things I would like to change, like living in a politically inclusive India or having a better relationship with my daughter…
Watch: Mallika Sarabhai on regret, loss, recovery and dance
Was that hard to write about, the rift with your daughter?
It was a very difficult phase of my life. We had disagreements over each other’s partners, about the company she kept. We both said and did things to hurt each other; we stopped talking. I miss Anahita and the extreme closeness we shared. I wish I knew how to change this, because I shared the most astonishing relationship with my mother.
Your book is called In Free Fall, and it’s often in our most heart-stopping moments that we find ourselves. What have some of those moments been for you?
At 17, when I lost my father, I had the courage and support from my family to cremate him myself. For me, it was an important act of reclaiming the Hinduism of Ardhanarishwara (the deity who is half woman). Another moment I am extremely proud of is being able to send my mother off with a dance performance. My mother always said she was only alive when she danced; the rest of the time she was a shadow. I danced to her favourite hymn, when she was brought to Darpana before her last rites.
What’s the one piece of advice you would give your younger self?
That I was right to be as bindaas as I have been, because it’s the best way to cope with the world.
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