Mrinalini Sarabhai: Classicist & activist

Mrinalini Sarabhai (1918-2016) believed strongly in tradition but did not hesitate to face contemporary issues head on. She gave classical dance new directions and a new vocabulary.

Published : Feb 03, 2016 12:30 IST

Mrinalini Sarabhai  performing Bharatanatyam. She played a crucial role in popularising Bharatanatyam and Kathakali the world over.

Mrinalini Sarabhai performing Bharatanatyam. She played a crucial role in popularising Bharatanatyam and Kathakali the world over.

REAMS have been written about Mrinalini Sarabhai, the internationally renowned Bharatanatyam exponent, who passed away on January 21, 2016, in Ahmedabad. She had lived a full life. Her outstanding contribution to the revival and promotion of Bharatanatyam and Kathakali, two major classical dance forms, not only in Gujarat but also all over India and abroad has been well recognised.

It was in December 1957 that I met her for the first time, at her residence “Chidambaram” in Ahmedabad. As a young, up-and-coming dance scholar, I was sent by Mulk Raj Anand to meet Professor Mohan Khokar at the M.S. University of Baroda. He had also advised me to meet Mrinalini Sarabhai in Ahmedabad. I had corresponded with both of them. The September 1957 issue of Marg on Bharatanatyam was edited by Mohan Khokar. I had read about Mrinalini Sarabhai in the “Contemporaries” section.

It was mentioned in a brief paragraph that she was an intellectual and was known for her modern innovations in traditional forms like Bharatanatyam and Kathakali.

The year I met Mohan Khokar, dance historian, scholar, author and my mentor, in Baroda (Vadodara) was a watershed in my life. Staying with him for four days, I saw his dance collection and realised what an amazing world of dance I was about to enter. I had by then read practically all the books available on Indian dance at the library of Bombay University. I had started writing in Gujarati in Kumar magazine on Balasaraswati, the poet Vallathol Narayana Menon, and Kathakali. And I was planning to write on Kuchipudi and visit Kuchipudi village to see the dance dramas.

Mrinalini had invited me to come over for breakfast at her residence. I had not expected Vikram Sarabhai to join us. I was received by him and told that Mrinal, as he used to call her, would soon join us. I was pleasantly surprised that he had read my articles in Kumar . He appreciated them. Mrinalini entered the room after her bath with her dark, black, long hair flowing on her back, lit up by the morning sunlight. Dressed in a yellow Banarasi sari, she looked stunning. I told Vikrambhai what a beautiful lady she was. They laughed and appreciated my remarks. Since I was to interview her, it was decided that I should see her after 3 p.m. and attend Bharatanatyam classes at her Darpana Dance Academy. The date was December 17, 1957.

I saw the dance classes and also part of the rehearsal of a Ramayana dance drama, which I was invited to see the next day at the town hall. Mrinalini introduced me to the Kathakali exponent Chathunni Panicker, who was to play the role of Vishwamitra. He had a vibrant personality and shook hands with me warmly.

The next evening, I saw the Ramayana dance drama with Gujarati libretto. It was archaic Gujarati. I did not enjoy it. But I liked the high production values, the perfect synchronisation of dance movements and music, the aesthetic costumes, the backdrop and the use of Japanese room dividers with back-up lighting and smoke emanating, creating an ambience of a forest when Rama and Lakshmana were taken by Vishwamitra to fight the demons disturbing the yajna . In the swayamvara scene, there was a petite young, beautiful dancer called Suman, in royal wedding dress and with golden anklets, and she danced in an enchanting manner. I understood that whatever I had heard about Mrinalini was an understatement. She indeed was a vastly gifted dancer and a brilliant choreographer.

Mohan Khokar and Mrinalini suggested that in April the next year (1958), I should attend the All India Dance Seminar and Festival, convened by the Sangeet Natak Akademi at Vigyan Bhavan in New Delhi with performances in the evenings at Talkatora Gardens. I went with Mohan Khokar. Attending that dance seminar was another watershed in my life. I had not realised then that dancers were busy with nation-building activity in the post-Independent years.

You name them and they were all there: legendary figures such as Rukmini Devi; Kamala Devi Chattopadhyay; Dr V. Raghavan; Balasaraswati; her mother, Jayamma; Guru Kunju Kurup; Gopinath; Mrinalini Sarabhai; Chatunni Panicker (Kathakali); Shambhu Maharaj; Lachhu Maharaj; young Birju Maharaj (Kathak); the redoubtable Kapila Vatsyayan, the dance historian; Justice Dr Rajamannar, Chairman of the Akademi; Mulk Raj Anand; his dancer wife, Shirin Vajifdar; and her sister Roshan with Devika Rani Roerich and the painter Roerich; the Hungarian archaeologist and critic Charles Fabri; G. Venkatachalam; the Manipuri guru Ojha Amubi Singh from Imphal; Guru Bipinsingh and the four Jhaveri Sisters from Bombay; Santidev Ghose and Srimati Tagore from Santiniketan; Vissa Apparao and Banda Kanaklingeswar Rao (Kuchipudi); Kalicharan Patanaik and Deba Prasad Das (Odissi); Shivaram Karanth (Yakshagana) from Udipi, and a galaxy of dancers.

I saw an excerpt of Mrinalini’s much-acclaimed and innovative choreographic work “Manushya” in Kathakali for the first time and was bowled over. Without using elaborate costumes and make-up, clad only in a simple white dhoti and using only the bare Kathakali techniques of hasta s and facial expressions, Chathunni Panicker performed with great virtuosity. The dancers, gurus, accompanists, critics and connoisseurs were astounded by the sheer strength of the dance form, revealing its inner core. And the imaginative way in which it was employed to convey a simple story. I understood what Mrinalini meant when she said how one could depict contemporary issues using classical forms, in her seminal paper on innovations in traditional dance forms.

Our friendship grew over the years, with regular visits to Ahmedabad to watch rehearsals and performances and accept invitations to special events like the Nobel laureate Sir C.V. Raman’s lecture “Why the Sky is Blue”. Meeting international creative artists, painters, musicians, photographers, theatre artists, puppeteers, designers and choreographers appeared a normal activity at Darpana, besides regular classes in Bharatanatyam, Kathakali, Mohiniyattam, Kuchipudi and Mrinalini’s own creative, innovative work.

In 1971, I attended a conference of the International Theatre Institute for Research in Amsterdam and presented an illustrated talk on Kathakali, with slides of dancers training in Kathakali taken by me at the Kerala Kala Mandalam. Mrinalini had informed me that she too was presenting at the conference her interpretation of Kalidasa’s Shakuntala , titled Curse of Durvasa . Knowing that I was well versed in Sanskrit and had studied Shakuntalam , she was keen that I see her production.

I did not then know the term feminism, nor was I aware of feminist theory. Mrinalini, as Shakuntala, asks her foster father Kanva and her two sakhi s, Priyamvada and Anasuya, why they did not welcome her back when Dushyanta refused to accept her as his lawfully wedded wife in the tradition of Gandharva vivaha. Why did the two rishi kumara s who accompanied her to Dushyanta’s court refuse to let her return with them to the ashram? Why did her foster father Kanva stick to the prevalent norm of not accepting a wedded daughter back into the ashram, when Dushyanta humiliated her?

As a self- respecting woman, in anger, she had dared Dushyanta and called him anarya , an uncivilised person, and stood questioning all the characters on the stage. And she, like an ill omen, let an actor cross the stage diagonally as the curse of Durvasa. Mrinalini’s Shakuntala refused to accept the social norm of punishing a woman just because her husband had had a bout of amnesia.

Mrinalini replied patiently to all my letters, questions and arguments. When I returned from New York in 1975 to enrol for a PhD in dance at the M.S. University of Baroda, she told me that as a critic, I must own my reviews. She spoke to Sham Lal, the editor of The Times of India , for which I used to write as a dance critic, to let critics use their own names, as was the practice in the West. She did not like the anonymous expression of opinions. It did help me when dancers found my criticism unpalatable and even threatened me with legal notices. The editor stood by me and told the dancers to send their responses to my critique to the readers’ column.

Mrinalini was not only a classical dancer. Married to Vikram Sarabhai, a physicist considered the father of space research in India, she had the chance to interact with scientists, philosophers, religious gurus, poets, painters, theatre workers and light designers. She had the good fortune of being with Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore at Santiniketan for three years and taking part in Tagore’s dance dramas like Chandalika , Mayar Khela , and Visarjan . She has said that at Santiniketan she breathed the freedom to dance as she would like to and not just repeat dance movements. She often told me how Tagore influenced her approach to life.

She loved writing. Besides poems, and a short novel called This Alone is True , she has written mythological stories and pieces on dance techniques and her productions. She was also a voracious reader.

She loved acting and had a stint at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts when she went to New York with her mother, Ammu Swaminathan, who was a parliamentarian and a freedom fighter.

Mrinalini studied dance under the legendary Bharatanatyam gurus Muthukumara Pillai and Meenakshisundaram Pillai of Pandanallur and also under Tanjore Kittappa, whom she invited to teach at Darpana. She learnt Kathakali under Guru Kunju Kurup, who was also invited to teach at Darpana. She had one of the finest Kathakali dancers as her partner in Chathunni Panicker. She built Darpana as a dance academy on the advice of Vikram and trained dancers in Gujarat, where raas and garaba were the norms for dance, and introduced south Indian dance forms. She also managed a repertory company with Gujarati girls. It was difficult to get Gujarati girls to learn Bharatanatyam. Using her social standing, she convinced Shakuntalaben Desai and her cousins from Chinubhai Baronet’s family (Chinubhai’s father, Ranchhodbhai Baronet, owned the first textile mill in Gujarat) to learn dance. Shakuntalaben and her cousins remained Mrinalini’s lifelong friends.

Once the troupe was formed, she started travelling with the dancers to France, the United States, South American countries, Japan, Australia and other countries, performing and winning audiences and making classical dance popular. Before her marriage with Vikram, she had partnered with Ram Gopal, who had made Bharatanatyam and Kathakali dances well known the world over with his international tours. Rukmini Devi, Shanta Rao, Balasaraswati, Chandralekha and Bhaskar Roy Chaudhary, son of Deviprasad Roy Chaudhary, the great sculptor, had all contributed to the recovery and reinvention of dance. Like Rukmini Devi did with Kalakshetra, Mrinalini understood that institutionalising dance was important.

The term “dowry death” was not known to her. Of course, Mrinalini had no clue, living as she did at “Chidambaram”, that such atrocities were committed on women who could not bring dowry in marriage. When she learnt about it, she was horrified and decided to expose the social evil through dance, using the Bharatanatyam technique of sollu s, mnemonic syllables, to tell the story of how a newly married young girl was harassed and was forced to commit suicide. Her choreographic work Memory was a departure from mythological themes.

Mrinalini was interested in women’s empowerment and humanism, and was against communalism, intolerance, caste-based discrimination and environmental degradation. Taking her cue from Tagore, she choreographed Chandalika in 1977, weaving in the issue of untouchability. In Ganga , she depicted how the river had been degraded and polluted. Choreographing Tasher Desh , Kingdom of Cards, she protested against various isms, not just one, using the power of Kathakali. When it was staged in China, she was discreetly requested by the Indian Ambassador to withdraw it as it gave a bold message against communism.

Her other productions noted for contemporary issues showed a shift in the themes portrayed. However, she firmly believed in tradition and maintained that without thorough training in classical dance forms one could not think of innovations and that one should not attempt to create new work just for the sake of novelty. She was a pioneer who gave Indian dance new directions.

At Darpana, she established the Centre for Non-violence through Performing Arts in order to creatively reflect on contentious issues of conflict in society. She established the Prakriti Foundation to teach children ways of coming closer to nature. I had once travelled with her in Kerala. She took me with her when she went to meet a few important persons and explained to me why the destruction of trees in Silent Valley had to be stopped when a hydel project was planned there. She was the president of the Association of Friends of Trees. Deeply interested in the revival of handicrafts, she had an abundant love for ethnic clothes. She had impeccable taste and wore a big red bindi on her forehead. She liked young dancers dressed in saris.

Once, during the golden jubilee of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, she, as a senior dancer, was billed with the legendary master of Odissi, Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra, and the Kuchipudi guru and exponent Vedantam Satyam. She decided to tell her life story: coming to Gujarat, marrying Vikram Sarabhai, performing raas and garaba , and agonising over the riots and the communal disharmony that had taken place recently. It also happened to be January 30 when the Akademi held the event at the huge Siri Fort Auditorium. She asked: “O Krishna, where are you? You from the land of Gujarat, Dwaraka, come and bring peace.” She danced to the well-known song of Purandaradasa, “Krishna ni bega ne baro”, begging him to come soon, and disappeared in the wings.

The entire audience got up as one and gave her a standing ovation for weaving in a contemporary issue so imaginatively. The Government of India acknowledged her contribution to dance by giving her several awards, including the Padma Shri, the Padma Bhushan and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award.

I loved Mrinalini. She was my friend. Even when we agreed to disagree, there was mutual respect. She had a great sense of humour. I knew her brother Govind Swaminathan, the renowned barrister, and also her sisters and other members of her family. We had gone for a holiday to Anakkara Vadakkath, Mrinalini’s ancestral home. Govind, seeing us together, pulled our legs, saying: “Ah, see how clever my sister is. She brings a dance critic for a holiday so that she will have the best reviews!” Mrinalini replied with a smile: “Govind, it is not just him that I have to treat well. Come and join us for drinks!”

Her elder sister, Lakshmi, was also there. I was in awe of her. I had only known about her as Captain Lakshmi, a soldier in Subhas Chandra Bose’s Azad Hind Fauj. Her cousin G. Susheela, 95, a freedom fighter, was also there but was bedridden. She had spent two years in the Vellore Central Jail for participating in the Quit India Movement. Lakshmi’s daughter, Subhashini Ali, was also there. Muzaffar Ali was at Vadakkath to shoot for a documentary. He filmed Mrinalini’s daughter, Mallika, and Subhashini running around in lush green rice fields. Later on, all the women sat around the nadumuttam , the square in the centre of the traditional Kerala house, talking and laughing.

Mrinalini shall always remain a dear friend, a pioneer in showing new directions in Indian dance using traditional dance vocabulary. Mallika is also a very dear friend, and in her Mrinalini’s legacy continues. One cannot forget Vikram Sarabhai’s ideas of development, too. Kartikeya Sarabhai, Mrinalini’s son, is the founder-director of the Centre for Environment Education in Ahmedabad. That dance can be an agent of social change is well demonstrated in Mallika’s multifaceted activism. One is also sanguine that Mallika’s son, Revanta, and daughter, Anahita, will continue that trend.

Sunil Kothari is an eminent dance historian, author and critic. A former Professor and Dean of the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, he is a recipient of the Padma Shri and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award.

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