Mallika Sarabhai: ‘For a gender-neutral Kalamandalam’

In conversation with the renowned classical dancer and Chancellor of Kerala Kalamandalam.

Published : Mar 23, 2023 10:35 IST - 13 MINS READ

“One of the things I did on my first visit was to get rid of the non-rule rules so that the girls could be as free as the boys to roam the campus..., or not wear odhnis if they don’t want to. [This was] met with great jubilation by the girls”: Mallika Sarabhai

“One of the things I did on my first visit was to get rid of the non-rule rules so that the girls could be as free as the boys to roam the campus..., or not wear odhnis if they don’t want to. [This was] met with great jubilation by the girls”: Mallika Sarabhai | Photo Credit: Jayanti Sagra

Amid the Left Democratic Front government’s long-standing face-off with Governor Arif Mohammed Khan over the functioning of universities and the appointment of Vice Chancellors in Kerala, the Pinarayi Vijayan government removed him from his role as the Chancellor of Kerala Kalamandalam, a deemed university and performing arts institute. In what was seen as a masterstroke, the government then named the renowned classical dancer, social activist, and Padma Bhushan awardee Mallika Sarabhai as its Chancellor.

Mallika has a PhD in organisational behaviour from Gujarat University and an MBA from the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad and has managed the Darpana Academy of Perfoming Arts in Ahmedabad for three decades. The academy was established by her parents, the renowned space scientist Vikram Sarabhai and the accomplished classical dancer Mrinalini, who belongs to the Anakkara Vadakkath family in Kerala’s Palakkad. Speaking to Frontline on a Zoom call, Mallika said she was honoured by her appointment, made in early December, and outlined her plans to take the august institute into the 21st century. Excerpts:

Were you aware of the political moves that led to your appointment? How did the government approach you? Did you have any concerns?

I had been following what was going on between the Governor and the Vice Chancellors through newspaper reports. In the middle of a grand rehearsal for a performance of ours called “Confluence of the Birds”, I saw six missed calls from a senior comrade. When I returned the call, I was asked, “Would you like to be the Chancellor of Kalamandalam?” I was taken aback for five seconds and said I would be honoured.

I was surprised and delighted. I felt I could bring to Kalamandalam all that experience of 43 years I spent in being a performing artiste and running an institution like Darpana, and overseeing its changes as the world, society, and technology changes. When I was growing up, Kalamandalam not only had a name but also lived up to the promise. For the past few decades, that has not been the case. The brand is still strong and deserves to be nurtured. I felt it was a wonderful opportunity for me at this point in my career to use my experience and, I hope, my wisdom.

“I felt I could bring to Kalamandalam all that experience of 43 years I spent in being a performing artiste and running an institution like Darpana, and overseeing its changes as the world, society, and technology changes.” | Video Credit: Frontline News Desk

What is your opinion of Kalamandalam’s artistic and academic standards?

My first visit there was early last month, and I spent four days trying to speak to all the stakeholders about any issues and problems they wanted to see changed and what they thought could be solutions. It was an extremely rewarding experience. I have an amazing team in Vice Chancellor Dr M.V. Narayanan and Registrar Dr Rajeshkumar P., both of whom think similarly and have a vision we can share with the rest of the stakeholders.

While I watched a lot of performances and think the standard is extremely good, I felt they were stuck in a time warp and much more needs to be done to revitalise interest in those arts for different audiences. I see a huge opportunity to repackage some things and reapply some of the things to other fields.

At Darpana, we have been working for many years with Ministries such as education, health, and science and technology to talk about social issues and enhance learnings through the performing arts. I think those kind of things have never been thought of here. Today, you can’t live in a silo called the arts. I also have to tackle the huge financial deficiency that Kerala Kalamandalam is going through.

Do you have memories of Kalamandalam as a child?

Only once when I tagged along with Amma. I spent six weeks with a Kalamandalam group in 1978, when Kalamandalam Gopi [Kathakali maestro] was a young dancer. Amma had led a delegation, sent by Prime Minister Morarji Desai and External Affairs Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, to China, just before the two countries reopened diplomatic ties after a hiatus of about 20 years. I travelled and shared the stage with them. It was a very special time.

How do you find it after all these years?

I came with no fixed view of what it would be like but with the brand Kalamandalam very much in my head. And also the fact that it was not doing as well as it should be. As someone who comes from the management field with an arts background, it is an exciting challenge to be able to nurture it back and to be able to take all the stakeholders with me in reinventing it for the 21st century without losing out on the core essence of the arts.

You have said that you wish to make Kalamandalam a gender-neutral campus and end discrimination. Could you elaborate?

Being my father’s and my mother’s daughter, I feel technology can enhance tradition. Tradition is not something that is stuck. Tradition is what we have today. What was seen as my radical work 30 years ago is seen as tradition today.

I am told that, sticking to old traditions, certain castes were Kathakali performers while others maddalam players, and still others chuttikarans [make-up artists]. We need to break this down and encourage all genders and all children to choose any stream. And do it proactively.

I was very surprised when the girl students said they were treated very differently from the boys. The Vice Chancellor, the Registrar, and I are certain that we want a caste- and gender-neutral institution. When I asked the girls who made the gender rules, they said they were long-standing, but the Vice Chancellor and the Registrar said there were no such rules. So, where did someone’s inherited patriarchy of half a century ago become the reality for today’s students?

One of the things I did on my first visit was to get rid of the non-rule rules so that the girls could be as free as the boys to roam the campus and not be confined to their hostel rooms, or not wear odhnis if they don’t want to. My announcements were met with great jubilation by the girl students.

I think a lot of the things that were true of the gurukul system of a century or half a century ago may not be valid today, where every child in every village may have a smartphone. I was brought up at a time when gurus used to throw their thattukazhi [wooden block and stick] sticks at students. Amma absolutely forbade that. There are a lot of things that may have been seen as vaguely right 50 years ago but are not right now, and we need to separate that from the classical styles. That is a big task.

You have managed Darpana Academy for three decades. What are your aspirations for Kalamandalam?

One of my challenges in Darpana was to see how I could get a 15-year-old in north India interested in classical dance in the face of competition from Bollywood, item numbers, and Punjabi pop music.

Similarly, a youngster in Ahmedabad is not going to be interested in seeing an all-night Kathakali performance in a temple; an all-night performance is not necessary to grasp Kathakali. So, I would like to go to all the film schools in Kerala and ask them to take one performance style and give me a 30-second video for social media. That is already bringing together filmmakers and performers, to make the arts eye-catching.

I am not suggesting anything stupid like wear a mask instead of chutti [Kathakali makeup]. That is blasphemy. But now the attention span of a youngster is about 25 seconds, so if we want to have a live audience, we have to change our concept of timing without bastardising the art.

We need an audience, we can’t just have a museum art. Our greatest strength as a country is that our traditions are living; we have not fossilised them and we don’t need to see them in a museum.

In England, when they wanted to revive Morris dancing, they had to look at it in film records because there were no Morris dancers left. When I was travelling to China in 1978, they were trying to undo all that Mao Zedong had done to the arts, and they would do Western ballet.

We have so much that is alive. We need to repurpose, refocus, and repackage it, without taking away the old. I told the artistes at Kalamandalam that I am interested in doing lots of interesting things, and if they don’t want to do it, that’s fine, but if I have a group that is willing to experiment, I would love to work with them.

I shall be reaching out to all Malayalis and asking them to put their wallets where their mouths are. Kalamandalam desperately needs funds, outside of government funds.

What do you think of the receptiveness of Kerala audiences to the traditional arts?

Coming from Gujarat and seeing week-long village temple festivals was like coming from a desert into a rainforest. The spread and percolation of the classical arts is just incredible in Kerala. Holding an eight-day long festival, even for us in Darpana, and to get an audience for it is so difficult. Here, I went to the Gowri festival in Palakkad and was also invited to a village festival that is not government-funded. People said they went from house to house collecting money for the festival; this is unheard of in the northern and western States.

Are you thinking of structural changes in Kalamandalam, which has 13 departments?

We want to create Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi departments so that by next June we can offer BA degrees. I am surprised that some of the departments now have a boys-only policy, which I need to change so that every course is available to all genders, not just two genders. I also think that having children wake up at 4 am and work till noon, and then go to a regular school for two hours doesn’t work; the schoolteachers say children are too tired.

Stuff like this needs to be looked into to see how they can be changed and made more effective.

There are things on various levels; like everyone needs to speak English. It is a great limitation that they don’t, and we are trying to bring in an English course. The girls need a one-month self-defence course; I think every woman in the country needs this. We can think of behavioural changes in the long run.

We are probably getting an additional 10 acres. I would like to make this a sustainable campus that showcases Kerala architecture. I would like this to be a campus that people visit even if they are not interested in the arts. We have done this with the Darpana amphitheatre, which is probably the only green, technologically equipped amphitheatre in India, and perhaps, even Asia.

“I felt I could bring to Kalamandalam all that experience of 43 years I spent in being a performing artiste and running an institution like Darpana, and overseeing its changes as the world, society, and technology changes.”

You seem to be a traditionalist-cum-modernist.

I am an Indian.

Tell us about some political troubles you have faced.

I took the administration [then Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s government] to the Supreme Court as being responsible for the 2002 genocide against Muslims. For many years false cases were filed against me and I had to surrender my passport. I had to report to the police station twice a day. The attempt was to stop me from being a dancer, deprive me of my income, and so shut down Darpana. Phone calls went from political offices to those who wanted to hire me as a dancer. It was all-pervasive.

It was terrifying. I was worried about my children, my mother, and my staff at Darpana. It is more terrifying today because when the government wishes to unleash its power on you, you are nothing. But my truth is my truth, I can’t live any other way. When I see injustice of any kind, or exploitation of the poor or the minorities, I dance about it, I sing about it, I speak about it. I am afraid for the identity of India at the moment. Thank god for some of the States in the south and the rest of India which have opposition governments that are speaking about it.

In late January, Union Minister for Culture G. Kishen Reddy forbade the Kakatiya committee [Kakatiya Heritage Trust] from having me dance at the World Heritage Site of the Ramappa temple [in Telangana] because I am a critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. So the Telangana government had me perform outside. Why this fear of questioning? Questioning is in our Vedanta, in the Upanishad. Questioning is the real essence of sanatana dharma. All Abrahamic religions demand that you don’t question. Why are we becoming like them? We have such a wonderful pluralistic culture in India. We should be leading the way.

What is your view on former Delhi Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia’s arrest?

Arrests and raids by the Enforcement Directorate, whether on the BBC or Dainik Bhaskar, Amnesty International, individuals, or on my friend Harsh Mander, are completely unconstitutional. My question to a government with such a huge majority is, “Why are you so insecure? Why do you need to kill a mosquito with a hammer?”

I have known Manish Sisodia personally even before the Ministry was formed and I believe in him. I think what he has done with the education system [in Delhi] is amazing. And basically with the godi [lapdog] media, you can make the most innocent act look like the most heinous crime. I have been at the receiving end for many years in Gujarat, so I know.

How connected do you feel to your Malayali roots?

I feel very much a part of my Malayali lineage. Kerala food is my favourite. I understand about 90 per cent of Malayalam. I have promised my students that in a few months I will try and speak it.

What excites you about being in Kerala at this time?

The political freedom. In film credits here, you will see as many Christian and Muslim names as Hindu ones. That is impossible in Gujarat. That for me is such a breath of fresh air. It is a weight off my back that people do not think of religion first. I have suffocated for 30 years in Gujarat. Also, at the drama festival in Thrissur, it was amazing to see queues every evening. The love and passion for the arts is so much more alive in Kerala. It makes me feel intellectually and artistically excited and nourished.

Tell us about your personal artistic projects.

“Until the Lions”, written by Karthika Nair who is based in Paris, features the voices of the lesser-known women characters in the Mahabharata. I’ve started research on it because I love reinterpreting the mythological characters from a non-patriarchal point of view.

We have done several performances of a huge production, titled “Confluence of the Birds”, directed by Yadavan Chandran, the artistic director of Darpana and the son of Malayali director T.V. Chandran. It is a 12th century Persian poem written by Athari, the guru of Rumi. It is a metaphor for the political, existential crisis that the world sees today but told through a story of birds searching for the meaning of life.

Anna Mathews is a Kochi-based journalist.

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