Deeply interested in handicrafts, Mrinalini took measures to revive handicrafts of Gujarat.
I am writing this tribute to Mrinalini Sarabhai sitting in her Darpana Performing Arts Academy in Ahmedabad, amidst too many things happening round the clock. After inauguration of the new renovated Natarani open air theatre with the world premiere of Mallika Sarabhai and Yadavan Chandran’s Mother River, new choreographic work on September 21, a series of plays are being staged under the title Sunday to Sunday. And rehearsals of Darpana’s own play Kaise the who log dwelling upon lives of Ismat Chugtai, Manto and Amrita Pritam, after the plays are over by 11 pm, the actors take to Plaza and start rehearsing!
My adrenalin is working high. The excitement is palpable and post performance discussions result into late nights. But it is most rewarding and enjoyable.
Chidambaram is the next door residence of Mrinalini and Vikram Sarabhai. It is at Chidambaram that on 18th December 1957 that one fine morning I had met Mrinalini and space scientist Vikram Sarabhai over a breakfast. I was up and coming writer on dance and was well known as I wrote in Gujarati monthly Kumar. Vikrambhai was familiar with my writing. Therefore when my letter reached him, he invited me for breakfast to converse with Mrinalini and see next day her choreography of Ramayana which had also a Sutradhar telling story in Gujarati.
When I arrived at their beautiful residence by architect Kanvinde, in the drawing room was a large Pichhawai of Gopis and Krishna. From the east morning sunlight was streaming in. Mrinalini entered from there, her glorious black hair cascading down her shoulders on exquisite Benarasi sari. She was stunningly beautiful. I told Vikrambhai may I tell her so? Vikrambhai said: ‘Go ahead, tell her and remember she is mine!’ At that time there was a popular Hollywood movie Take her, she is mine. I held Mrinalini’s hand and told her that she was a stunning beauty. She smiled and jokingly told Vikrambhai: ‘He is a charming young fellow. Vicky shall I take him as my youngest lover?’ We all laughed and sat in the dining hall for breakfast. I have told this story many times but it merits repetition.
Our friendship turned into lifelong. She was gracious and took me under her wings. She had already received a letter from Dr Mulk Raj Anand, the author, founding editor of art quarterly Marg, about my interest in dance and reviewing performances as up and coming dance critic. Next day when I saw Ramayana, I was impressed and wrote about it after a week. I had by then seen in Mumbai at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Rukmini Devi’s exquisite dance -drama Sita Swayamvaram performed by Kalakshetra dancers. It had left an indelible impression on me with its aesthetics, costumes, music, and Bharatanatyam technique. Mrinalini’s choreography was equally engaging with her aesthetics and imaginative approach, using a Sutradhar telling story in Gujarati so that with Bharatanatyam and Kathakali techniques and even Carnatic music the audience can still enjoy the performance. She had used a room divider behind were seated monks chanting shlokas, and smoke was rising from there. It evoked the atmosphere of an ashram. When Sita was introduced behind a curtain, her nimble feet had golden anklets. The scenes moved in a seamless manner. The commentary by Sutradhar in archaic Gujarati did not go well for me. My comment was taken note of by Mrinalini and she had introduced spoken Gujarati in other performances. Mrinalini asked me if I were to attend All India Dance Seminar convened by Sangeet Natak Akademi at Vigyan Bhavan in Delhi form March 31 till April 7, 1958. Dr Mulk Raj Anand and Professor Mohan Khokar had already asked me to attend it, as it was a most historic conference. Mrinalini had presented a paper on Traditional Concepts and New Trends. In the morning session she also presented an excerpt of her early choreographic work Manushya, enacted by Chatunni Panicker, a marvelous Kathakali actor. Though it was entirely in Kathakali technique, the dancer was not dressed in traditional Kathakali costumes and colourful make up.
He was dressed in a simple dhoti and performed with bare body, minus make up and ornaments. The story was of a man born, as a child he looks into mirror and wonders about how he moves. From childhood to youth, family, old age and final journey. The galaxy of gurus, dancers, writers, critics all were stunned at the use of Kathakali technique to such an advantage to tell story of a man. Mrinalini had produced it in 1949. It had received rave reviews. Presenting it at the dance seminar, she drove her point home that classical dance techniques can be used to tell contemporary issues.
Born in an aristocratic family of Keralite lawyer Swaminathan and his wife a Member of Parliament Ammu Swaminathan in Chennai, Mrinalini was at a very young age sent to Switzerland for health reasons. There she studied Dalcroze style of Western dancing. She believed that she was born to dance. On returning to India, Ammu, her mother sent her to Kalakshetra, where she studied for a while and asked her mother to send her to traditional gurus. She studied under Chokkalingam Pillai and went to Pandanallur to further study under the great guru Meenakshisund-aram Pillai. When in Bangalore, she met Ram Gopal, the brilliant exponent of Bharatanat-yam and Kathakali. She joined his troupe and studied under Guru Kattumannar Muthukumar Pillai. Ram Gopal and she partnered for some time. At that time she met Vikram Sarabhai who was studying under Prof C V Raman. Vikram and Mrinalini got married. Thus she came as a bride to Ahmedabad. She was warmly welcomed by her parents-in-law Ambalal and Saralaben Sarabhai.
Mrinalini had studied Kathakali under the great asan Kunju Kurup. Ammu her mother sent her to Shantiniketan where for three years she studied dance and participated in dance-dramas of Gurudev Tagore. She was much influenced by Tagore’s philosophy and humanitarian approach towards untouchablity. She performed in Chandalika and many years later choreographed dance-drama about atrocities committed upon untouchable class. After moving to Ahmedabad she established Darpana Academy of Performing Arts in 1949 and since then she never looked back. She presented Kathakali and Bharatanatyam forms in Ahmedabad inviting local dancers interested in classical dances. She had invited Chatunni Panicker from Kerala and together they choreographed several dance dramas.
Few Gujarati young women joined Darpana to train in Bharatanatyam and Kathakali. It took quite some time to establish in an alien state. She choreographed with brevity her works and allowed audience to ask questions, interact with her principle dancers Minal Daftari, Purnima Bhagavati, Rupande Shah and Darshini. Once the audience received understanding to what was presented, she also followed up encouraging audience to ask questions. Her early productions like Maya and disciple, Matsya Kanya, The Song of Creation, Shakuntala (titled as Curse of Durvasa) drew attention for the use of excellent technique. Also her own interpretation of classic like Shakuntala, where she interpreted Shakuntala as not a meek young woman who King Dushyanta had married according to Gandharva vivaha tradition. When Durvasa assured Priyamvada and Anasuya that once the King will see the ring he had given to Shakuntala, his curse would end. When the ring fell in river and Shakuntala could not show it, Dushyanta rejected her. Shakuntala questioned him if the ring was not with her then where King had kept it? She called him ‘Anarya’ for his behavior and questioned Kanva rishi, Anasuya and Priyamvada if they knew why they did not tell her? She made it clear to Dushyanta that as a woman she would not accept his behavior. As a self respecting woman she rejected him. This was the twist that turned her production feminist, though the term was then not known. Mrinalini’s depiction of women was of dignity. She had a keen sense of focusing on issue using mythological themes and resonate them with contemporary sensibilities. I was attending the same conference in Copenhagen where Mrinalini presented Shakuntala. It was received with appreciation. We went to London from Copenhagen and at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan we presented lecture demonstrations when young Mallika also took part. Both Mrinalini and I believed firmly that classical dance forms need to be explained and also how age old tradition can metamorphose into contemporary dance. What is outstanding about Mrinalini Sarabhai’s several works is that they address several issues: social, environmental, untouchables, care for trees, pollution, even science and mathematics. When she came to learn about the social evil of dowry in Gujarat, she choreographed the theme Memory in which without using libretto, she used sollus, mnemonic syllables, effectively like dialogue which people could follow. A young bride is tortured by her husband’s people, she is frightened, could not understand why they snatched away everything from her, demanding money, ornaments, and also beating her, and finally she committed suicide. Because her parents had not given dowry money. These dowry deaths were depicted symbolically to bring attention of audience to the evil of dowry.
Choreographing Ganga, Mrinalini recalled the horror of seeing dirt, the burnings on the ghats, the throwing of dirt, chemicals in Ganga. Her choreography based in mythological story of Ganga’s descent on earth and later on how people threw all sorts of things, polluting the waters was performed with such clarity that audiences everywhere saw how dance can be an agent of change in hands of Mrinalini.
I travelled with her in Kerala when Silent Valley issue came up. She met many people and explained why trees need not be cut or destroyed. She wrote the libretto and Darpana dancers performed in various villages and cities in Kerala, driving attention of public to the disaster brought upon them by cutting trees.
When she saw the violence committed upon women, dalits, she rebelled showing why it was unjust. She sent message through dance for women to wake up and stand against violence.
In another production of social message she conveyed through enactment of people committing violence that Lord forgive them for their not knowing what they are committing, BUT do not forgive them because they know what they are doing. Violence, symbol of Christ, a dancer standing like Jesus Christ with two arms spread, and showing his being killed, sitting on the floor and spinning wheel to produce khadi, women rising themselves to fight against people who attack. Such productions have been created with social consciousness.
She has when challenged by a scientist to choreograph scientific formula in dance, choreographed geometry, and mathematics, Pythagoras theorem in a group dance. There was no limit to her creativity.
During the Golden Jubilee of Cenrtal Sangeet Natak Akademi in Delhi at Siri Fort auditorium along with legendary traditional gurus and exponents like Kelucharan Mahapatra in Odissi and Vedantam Satyanarayan Sharma in Kuchipudi were invited to perform, she took up theme of her marriage in Gujarat with Vikram Sarabhai, and addressed Krishna as Mohan, asking him to come to succor of Gujarat, where riots were taking place. Krishna’s other name is Mohan. It was 30th January, the day when Gandhij was shot dead. Mrinalini while dancing sang O Mohan when would you come again to save Gujarat from riots? Mohan meant Gandhiji. Contemporising the situation and unrest in Gujarat, she through suggestion conveyed the present plight and begged of Mohan/Gandhi to come again and save people from madness.
The entire audience understood and gave her a standing ovation. Her this particular performance is etched in my memory.
When in Shantiniketan she had imbibed the spirit of Gurudev Tagore’s opposition against any ‘ism’.
Gurudev was against divisions created by caste, creed, religion. In Tasher Desh he demonstrated through symbolic manner of a prince coming to a country where everyone had to follow rules and regulations they had no freedom to move freely. The prince explains them why they have to move freely, break those barriers. Mrinalini had taken her choreographic work during a tour of China and the Chinese authorities did not like the subtle protest against communism. But audience understood what Tasher Desh stood for!
Mrinalini was a multi-disciplinary artist. Deeply interested in handicrafts, like Rukmini Devi and Kamala Devi she took measures to revive handicrafts of Gujarat. She established Society of Friends of Trees. When she saw traditional guru C R Acharyalu performing rare traditional numbers in Kuchipudi, she invited him to Darpana Academy and started training young dancers in Kuchipudi. The legendary puppeteer Mehrben Contractor and Mrinalini established puppet section revived the leather puppets of Andhra Pradesh.She opened a section for plays and revived traditional Gujarati plays know as Bhavai. Staged plays of renowned theatre directors and playwrights. Herself was a voracious reader and also a writer and a poet. Her novel this alone is true, poems on Krishna as Kahn, book on her dance choreographies Creations, book on Bharatanatyam, books for children and her own autobiography form part of literature.
Darpana today stands as a beacon light in Ahmedabad, where Mrin-alini’s daughter Mallika has been carrying on her legacy, expanding artistic horizons. Brilliant Bharatanatyam Kuchipudi and contemporary dancer, performer, she is an activist, feminist, actor, choreographer, curator of festivals. Her son Revanta has received training from Mrinalini and Mallika and he performs with Mallika with synergy which amazes one. Mallika’s daughter Anahita has studied Bharatanatyam bus is interested in sports and education. Darpana’s students are a legion. They are spread all over the world carrying on legacy of Mrinalini.
Mrinalini passed away two years ago. Fortunately Yadavan Chandran,a young filmmaker, son of the renowned Malayali film director Chandran, looking after Darapana’s documentary film section and a creative director along with Mallika has made a film on Life and Art of Mrinalini Sarabhai produced by PSBT. It captures the spirit of this legendary artist, with recreation of choreographic works of Mrinalini by Mallika, filmed in unusual manner in a studio, with exquisite lighting, camera work, in cinematic language. It is an exceptionally outstanding film which I have been screening within India and abroad during my travels, before young generation of dancers and students, making them aware of dancers of exceptional gifts and values. Public memory is short. But today technology has created opportunities to remind us with such films the greatness of our artists and also our Indian culture.
The writer is a well-known critic and dance historian