Veteran dancer Mrinalini Sarabhai was present when a film on her life and work was screened in New Delhi the other day
Perhaps the best method of capturing for posterity the noteworthy contributions of legendary dance figures is through sensitive films made with integrity and aesthetic flair. Close on the heels of the excellent film on Alarmel Valli, now comes “The Artist and Her Art”, by Mallika Sarabhai and Yadavan Chandran, produced with the support of the Public Diplomacy Division, Ministry of External Affairs, as a tribute to one of the oldest pioneer figures of the classical dance renaissance in India of the ’40s and post independent days, Mrinalini Sarabhai. It was a nostalgic event when at the India International Centre, in the presence of Mrinalini Sarabhai and daughter Mallika, the film was screened before a packed auditorium. Poet, dancer, choreographer and writer, born to a feisty family of freedom fighters, Mrinalini moved from dances like Garba to studying Bharatanatyam under the redoubtable Guru Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai and Kathakali under Kunju Kurup — both family upbringing and years spent at Santiniketan sensitising her mind acutely to social issues.
The filmmaker, with the daughter who has shared in the mother’s dance journey, has created vivid images capturing the inner workings of the artist’s mind through a long career of productions spread over a 70-year span. Powerful and relevant excerpts from each production immaculately rendered by the Darpana group of dancers, often juxtaposed with the creator Mrinalini also in the frame, with brilliant lighting and camera action fluidly changing from the dance to Mrinalini’s own explanations, along with Mallika’s communicative interventions at crucial points, all add up to a narrative visually dynamic while also very informative. With a dance partner in Chatunni Panikkar the Kathakali maestro, Mrinalini’s mind constantly turned to how the vocabulary of art forms emerging from the temple context and its environs could be harnessed for making art statements on burning social issues.
From “Manushya” produced in 1958 to collaborations even extending to the western art world, Mrinalini was one of the earliest dancers to experiment with Kathakali presented without the heavy make-up, to give people the real feel of the powerful art beneath the aharya. She used the dance in all the ambit of its movement power to show liberation and also caricatured it as a rigid strait-jacketed absurdity in “Tasher Desh” (1961), converting it into an expression symbolising stifling Brahmanical taboos. Her “Shakuntala” produced in 1971 had an original perspective bringing out the loneliness of woman, and in 1977 “Chandalika”, with Tagore’s work coming at about the same time, focused on the brutal treatment of Harijans. Accenting environmental issues was “Aspirations” in 1979, and in 1985 came “Ganga”, a powerful work woven round the myth of Bhagiratha’s prayer and descent of the Ganga, to express how man had abused and sullied this great bounty of Shiva. Bigotry, communal hatred, suicides, every issue became fresh provocation for Mrinalini’s creativity. The artist even rose to the challenge of showing science through dance, with the geometry of the triangle and square vividly standing out in the choreography. Working with just earth sounds, drum mnemonics and sollus of jatis, poetry of movement was created. Simple tasteful costumes sans ornamentation enabled the body lines and group formations to stand out in profile. Copies of such films with social messages imparted through dance could be screened in schools and colleges by organisations like Spic Macay to sensitise the young on societal issues — underlining the implicit message that classical dance dealing with idealised states of being can be a powerful medium even in highlighting contemporary concerns.