Interview : Anjana Rajan meets Mallika Sarabhai



















E very dancer knows how nice it feels to look beautiful and to use the body to create
exquisite patterns in time and space. In the case of Indian classical dancers, it might even be said that most are quite obsessed with their looks. This is not surprising, considering all classical arts are based on a system of aesthetics. Consequently there are two things that are arguably the most difficult for a well trained dancer to accomplish: One is to take the risk of looking ridiculous, ugly, or anything less than poised and lovely. The other is to 'forget' the technique and to use the art of dance -- acquired over years of slogging -- as a language to communicate with the world at large, rather than only with a select audience of connoisseurs. Both these tasks require a process of internalization by which the art becomes absorbed into the personality of the dancer to such an extent that it is no longer simply a skill to be displayed for the benefit of others, but an internal voice that makes itself heard no matter which direction the dancer may turn to.

Mallika Sarabhai, Bharata Natyam dancer, social activist, stage and film actress, choreographer and writer, is an example of such a dancer. Whether it is the stylish, very short hair or the resistance to presenting 'pretty pretty' dances that don't address issues she considers important to society, or the refusal to step along the beaten track of becoming a guru in the normal course, Mallika Sarabhai does not fit into the stereotype of the Bharata Natyam dancer. In the capital recently with the Darpana Performance Group of which she is co-director, Mallika presented three very different choreographic productions under the banner of The Darpana 50 Showcase, which forms part of the Darpana Academy's Golden Jubilee celebrations.

The three productions, 'Conference of the Birds,' 'Cityscapes' and 'V For...' are not only dissimilar to each other but are also unconventional, at least from the point of view of the classical dance traditions in which Mallika is trained and for which her illustrious mother, veteran dancer-choreographer Mrinalini Sarabhai is renowned. Nowhere in the three shows would you find the glitter and finery of the costumes, the complicated rhythmic flourishes, or the customary choreographic patterns one associates with Bharata Natyam. Instead, there were gorgeous bird masks, swirling dervishes, a fruit seller's pushcart tumbling about the stage in various positions and roles, some guffaws and rousing songs, crowds of happy-go-lucky actors, and, on the final night, bone chilling dialogue designed to make you squirm and face the dark side of the world. Yet the discipline of dance was reflected in the co-ordinated movements of the actors, and their years of training showed through in the grace of their refined footsteps, even if they were waddling about like ducks or strutting like proud falcons.

The urge to be unconventional and take risks must run in the family. When Mrinalini Sarabhai founded Darpana to teach Bharata Natyam and Kathakali in Ahmedabad in 1949, it was the first institution of its kind in the area. It was an uphill task to evolve an appreciative audience for these south Indian dance forms with their base in Carnatic music and languages alien to the local population. The notion of Gujarati girls from 'decent' families learning classical dance and taking it up as a career was even more unpalatably revolutionary. Yet as the years went by, Mrinalini Sarabhai realized these and many other dreams. Darpana attracted more and more students from Gujarat as well as other states. The dance troupe performed to acclaim all over India and the world. While Ahmedabad and Gujarat accepted the dance forms of the south, Darpana -- as a true art institution would -- put down roots and began to reflect the rich cultural traditions of its birthplace. Therefore it became an umbrella institution not only for Bharata Natyam and Kathakali but also for theatre and puppetry, and helped revive these Gujarati traditions that were in need of nurturing in order to be safe from eventual disintegration or extinction.

Over tea in the semi darkness of the Shri Ram Centre auditorium where the troupe has assembled to rehearse and set up the stage for its second day's presentation, Mallika points out that over five decades of pioneering work, the cultural climate of the area has undergone a steady change. Bharata Natyam, Kathakali, Carnatic music, and other hitherto unfamiliar traditions are now the norm, and need not explain and justify their existence anymore. Whereas Darpana once stood out as a sore thumb in a conservative society that would not send its daughters to study there, today numerous other schools of dance have mushroomed and are flourishing, some run by alumni of Darpana. Thus Mallika decided that for Darpana -- which means mirror, in the sense that art is a mirror of society -- to remain true to its name, it would have to change so that it reflected the present reality.

'When we realized about two years ago that the institution was heading for its fiftieth year, I put Darpana through a big change of the sort undertaken at HRD departments.' This analogy is apt since Mallika has studied at the IIM and is equipped with MBA and PhD degrees. She did not wish to play 'mai-baap' like a matron figure to the institution, and she wanted to instill self reliance and versatility in her performance troupe. Also, Mallika had many interests other than teaching and visualized a distinct role for herself. At her invitation, two professors from the IIM conducted six months of intensive discussions with the artists and all other personnel at Darpana 'from the gardener, upwards, and including Amma and me,' in order to discover what their personal aspirations were, both for themselves as individuals and for the institution.

'A lot of angst came out,' she admits frankly, but finally Darpana was metamorphosed into a forward looking institution very different from what it had been, except in its commitment to genuine art and the using of art to further socially relevant causes such as protection of the environment, non-violence, fostering creativity, etc. One dramatic and probably heart rending change was the shutting down of the dance teaching department, based on the acceptance that this work was now being duplicated by many dancers all over the city. Darpana however remains a teaching institution for post graduate students. The reorganized teaching wing is known as the Conservatory. Other units include Darpana Communications, which handles the work of audio-video production and publication; Janavak, a centre for tribal and folk arts; the Centre for Research and Creation, where artists from various genres and countries are invited to create and instigate new work; and the repertory company known as Darpana Performance Group. The Performance Group were given an opportunity to decide whether they wished to remain with the new version of Darpana, where mridangists would have to learn acting and yoga, dancers would have to learn to throw their voices, and no one was safe in a stereotyped role. Most of them opted to stay, and were retrained and auditioned. They undergo constant training to meet the requirements of their varied performances. Mallika is particularly proud of the blossoming personalities of artists, who are discovering new facets of themselves, and the hearty team spirit. Her endeavour is to make sure all performers are adept at the different aspects of a production, including technical work.

The amphitheatre, 'Natarani' with a seating capacity of 450 people, and the artists' cafe, on the banks of the Sabarmati are unique features of the institution. Darpana today describes itself as a 'crucible for the arts across the world.' Crucible is a lovely word that evokes the fiery chemistry of many art forms and artists sharing ideas; blending, creating and evolving as individuals and as a group. The credit for the 'glasnost' at Darpana must no doubt be due equally, if not more, to the open mindedness of the founder as the innovative outlook of her daughter.

Raising public awareness of the invidious existence of violence against women in every strata of society is an important facet of Mallika's work. The Darpana 50 Showcase in Delhi is presented in collaboration with Sakshi, an NGO that works for women's empowerment and, through intervention with schools, colleges, people involved in health care, social work and public life, seeks to realize a 'vision of equality and the basic right of women and children to a life free from violence.'

A life free from violence is not really too much to ask, come to think of it, but it is a distant dream to many, many people powerless to take control of their lives. Disturbing issues like this seldom get treated on the proscenium stage where nayikas are still wont to wait eternally for their Lord while he dallies with other women; where the devotee is typically female and the Lord-With-A-Capital-L is always male. Meera and other saints have pointed out that in Vrindavan, there was only one male, and that was Krishna. All other humans are females according to the allegory. But somehow isn't it much cozier for our contemporary Indo-Western mentality when the wives behave like Rukmini so that their men can be free to pretend they are Krishnas all (in the matter of dalliance only, mind)? Mallika mentions a comment from one of the Sakshi members that the audiences that come to plush auditoria to watch her shows are the toughest to communicate with on such sensitive issues, because they are part of that section of society that turns its head or muffles unpleasant topics under the clinking of crockery. Thus it is a happy alliance that Darpana and Sakshi have forged.

The issue of injustice to women has been a theme of both Mallika and Mrinalini Sarabhai's work for decades. Darpana for Development and Centre for Non-Violence Through the Arts points to their commitment in this direction. The Centre works with schools, NGOs and government bodies to create performances and creative projects dealing with social issues.

Mallika Sarabhai is quite a firebrand. It's not just that she is as much at ease dancing luminously in a Bharata Natyam katcheri as prancing across the stage dressed in a black tuxedo, rapping a cane and spewing venom while denoting the violence latent in the most innocent seeming nooks and crannies of life. If she takes a somnolent audience by the collar, so to speak, she also expects a great deal from herself. Her idea of perfect well being includes not only top notch physical fitness, which gives her a great sense of euphoria, but also the ability to look at herself in the mirror in the morning and say to herself that yesterday she did not consciously hurt or exploit anyone, and today shall be the same. In addition to this inner satisfaction she needs ' to feel challenged all the time, creatively, intellectually, and through my commitments as well. That's why my sense of well being is never at the optimum when I'm on a holiday,' she says. 'When I steal a one day holiday I feel good.'

Now that Darpana has been reborn as it were, and has become a pioneer all over again, Mallika Sarabhai can certainly expect plenty of challenges to pepper her well being.

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