Culture

Mrinalini Sarabhai: The Artist and Her Art

The Wire pays tribute to a life lived on the frontline of the recovery and reinvention of Indian classical dance in the 1940s, crowned by her lasting act of founding the Darpana Academy in Ahmedabad.

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Mrinalini Sarabhai
May 11, 1918-January 21, 2016

Renowned classical dancer, choreographer, teacher, author and environmentalist Mrinalini Sarabhai  – ‘Amma’ – passed away this morning at her home in Ahmedabad. She was 97. Her daughter, well-known artiste Mallika Sarabhai broke the news to the world on Facebook saying “My mother Mrinalini Sarabhai has just left for her eternal dance”. It was just what her mother, who “had wanted to dance ever since I was a child”, would have wanted to hear.

In that statement was an acknowledgement of Mrinalini’s long and rich life spanning an eventful century. A life lived on the frontline of the recovery and reinvention of Indian classical dance in the 1940s, crowned by her lasting act of founding the Darpana Academy in Ahmedabad.

The autobiography of the Padma Bhushan awardee, The Voice of the Heart written in 2004, is perceived by many as a significant effort to fill the gaps in the narrative of Indian dance these past seven decades. As critic Sadanand Menon wrote in his review of the book, “In dance there is a special kind of dark hole. Except for an impressionistic autobiography by the flamboyant Ram Gopal way back in 1957, there have been no attempts at memoirs by leading proponents like Rukmini Devi Arundale, Uday Shankar, Balasaraswati or Kelucharan Mahapatra.”

f513050f895daf3424ef5af97775a09fMrinalini studied at Santiniketan under Rabindranath Tagore. She learnt Bharatanatyam from Sri Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai, the master of the Pandanallur tradition;  Mohiniattam from the illustrious Kalyanikutty Amma and Kathakali from guru Asan Kunju Kurup at the Kerala Kalamandalam founded by the eminent poet Vallathol Narayana Menon.

She was also among the early classical dancers to turn to choreography, spurred by the conviction that even as new dance forms evolve, they should have the strength of classical tradition behind them.

In 1949, she founded the Darpana Academy and toured the world with her choreographic productions.

Over the years, the Darpana Academy expanded, teaching not just Bharatanatyam, Mohiniattam, Kathakali and Kuchipudi but also music, Gujarati folk theatre and puppetry, giving rise to performance groups that made a name for themselves.

The range of concerns communicated through Darpana’s productions also expanded, including issues of women’s empowerment, humanism, communalism and intolerance, caste-based discrimination and environmental degradation.

Some of Mrinalini’s well-known productions are ‘Manushya’ (1958); ‘Shakuntala’ (1971), ‘Chandalika’ (1977), and ‘Ganga’ (1985). Along the way she established the Centre for Non-Violence through Performing Arts at Darpana in order to creatively reflect on contentious issues of conflict in society. She also started a nature club Prakriti for children, encouraging them to explore ways of coming closer to nature.

Mrinalini Sarabhai in a 1954 performance. Credit: Photo Division, GOI

Mrinalini Sarabhai in a 1954 performance. Credit: Photo Division, GOI

The other passion in Mrinalini’s life was writing. She enjoyed writing on dance and mythology; among her works is a collection of letters exchanged between Sarojini Naidu and Mahatma Gandhi.

All of these concerns reflected the rich tapestry of Mrinalini’s life, which dovetailed into the story of India’s freedom movement as well as its phase of post-independence nation-building.

She was born Mrinalini Swaminathan on May 11, 1918.  Her father was a noted lawyer and her mother Ammu Swaminathan was involved in the freedom struggle. Sister Lakshmi (Sehgal) joined Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army.

In 1942, Mrinalini married physicist Vikram Sarabhai, a pioneer institution builder in the area of science in independent India and one of the most prominent families of Ahmedabad, and this marked a new turn in her engagement with the world. Darpana which in a sense was a distillation of all that she had learnt over the years is one of the enduring landmark institutions of Ahmedabad today.

An undated photograph of Vikram and Mrinalini Sarabhai with their son Karhikeya. Credit: Mid-day

An undated photograph of Vikram and Mrinalini Sarabhai with their son Karthikeya. Credit: Mid-day

The many facets of Mrinalini’s journey were captured in a 2012 documentary The Artist and Her Art, made by Mallika Sarabhai and Yadavan Chandran.

For many, the screening of the film at Delhi’s India International Centre was an evening to remember since both Mrinalini and Mallika Sarabhai – mother and daughter, partners and co-creators – were present in the audience. As Mallika said to a journalist interviewing Mrinalini on the eve of the release of her autobiography many years ago, “I believe she only really lives when she dances.”