“Vikram and I used to sit out in the open air at night and gaze at the stars, wondering what they were saying to us”.
Those were the first words I heard from the icon I had admired, read about, watched through black and white photographs and followed avidly for 20 years. For a young woman like me, in the mid-1970s Mrinalini Sarabhai’s seminal book Understanding Bharatanatyam broke through the daunting weight of history, tradition and heritage to bring the joy of her learned dance form to future generations of English speaking dancers.
It was in 1992 at a Baroda seminar on Art, Science and Enquiry that I found myself seated right next to the “grand dame” of classical dance. Her mythology had been created over several years, carefully constructed through a convergence of history, politics and destiny.
My argument at the seminar (fresh from my 15 years in the US) was for change in age-old traditions and a new approach to constructing choreography in India. Mrinalini’s comment seemed to go against her pioneering achievements in bringing the South Indian dance traditions to a largely dandia-raas, dhokla/thepla /finance focused Gujarat.
Various themes Her quilting of themes like dowry, rape, caste into dance presentations was unheard of until the 1950s! And, here, she was talking about abstractions when concrete ideas seemed to be needed! I could have contested her argument but my idol worship glasses were firmly placed on my nose. I let that comment pass to wild applause from the adoring audience.
Later that afternoon, during a visit to the famous Darpana Dance Academy, that she had founded in 1948, she walked up to me saying, “what a beautiful shade of orange! It’s my favourite colour,” commenting on my sari. She followed it up immediately with: “I can never wear orange again. And you please don’t wear it in New Delhi. The BJP will co-opt you!” Until then, I had not thought about the growing unease of symbols and shades becoming aligned with politics and schisms of suspicion.
Mrinalini “Amma” (she was known to the dance world with that maternal moniker decades before other politicians and religious leaders adopted that word) had firmly situated herself in the interstices of art, performance, business, politics and society from her early years of becoming a “bahu” of Gujarat in 1942.
Marriage to the handsome and charismatic scientist Vikram Sarabhai took this Malayali 24-year-old from an environment of learning, law and colonial resistance in Madras into the plush world of corporate gloss, textile looms and political intrigue. Prime Ministers and Presidents were in the front row seats of her performances. Mrinalini’s Swiss education, American theatre training and unusual grace had prepared this quietly intense woman to represent the ideal “new Indian” ready to embrace a young nation waiting to be born.
Command performances around the world studded her illustrious career. Whispers swirled of trains and planes being delayed or held for the arrival of “Her Highness”. World leaders waited to bid her adieu before departing for international venues. Such was the Mrinalini Sarabhai charisma that Prime Minister Nehru, an ardent fan of her aesthetic sensibilities and once confessed after one of her performances in New Delhi that “It is Mrinalini Sarabhai who has helped India understand herself in a myriad ways”.
Through a series of imaginative approaches to movements and performance, dancer and choreographer Sarabhai created a profound reflection on the ephemeral nature of the self and the body as the locus of artistic consciousness. Using the poetics of her favourite classical Bharatanatyam as a scaffolding, she delivered one of the most revealing legacies of what art creation entails and the ways in which the body, the centre of our aesthetic knowledge of the world, can become the most informed teacher.
Honours and accolades On stage for 80 years, numerous honours and accolades woven like gems into her dance tapestry, Mrinalini also distinguished herself in other areas — reviving Gujarati handlooms, establishing several women’s help organisations and pouring personal unrest into best selling books. She once confessed to me after writing a short work on Krishna, in the genre now known as historical fiction, that she completed the book in a week filled with strange dreams. “I was locked into a room with a fever and my book Kan wrote itself,” she said.
When Mrinalini was 93, daughter Mallika Sarabhai stunned me one day by asking, “Amma still wants to be involved with dance. Can she contribute to your dance portal www.narthaki.com ?” I was floored.
The great Mrinalini Amma appearing as a guest columnist on my portal? For four years we had a space titled ‘Ask Mrinalini’ where she patiently answered every question, however trivial or banal. Such was her love for dance that in her final months, after a fall had restricted her to bed and her health was steadily deteriorating, she would spend every lucid moment teaching her nurses the Bharatanatyam hand gestures.
Describing the scene, Mallika laughed and said, “When I go to her room in the morning, I hear the nurses saying the Sanskrit words Pataka , Tripitaka like obedient students.”
For me, Mrinalini Sarabhai’s unique contribution goes beyond the 20,000 students who have passed through the doors of Darpana — beyond the glitter of her global following and adoring biographers — far deeper than her influential writings on art, philosophy and life. It was her ability to portray women on stage with the nuanced complexity of neither victim or Goddess — departing from the conventional tropes and presenting through them a mirror to our complex notions of gender.
This peerless Natarani has now danced into the light.