As Mallika Sarabhai and her troupe performed for the adivasis in Gudalur, it ignited a spark, of using dance for social change.

“Adivasis dance for everyone. How nice if you could dance for them,” I remarked, not completely seriously, to Mallika Sarabhai. “What a lovely idea,” she responded. “I'm sure it can be done. I'll let you know when I'm next in South India.” Barely a week later, I received an email from Mallika's executive assistant that Sarabhai and her group will be travelling to Gudalur to perform for us…

Tucked away in the Gudalur Valley, the not-so-famous part of the Nilgiris, we could not believe what we'd heard. Mallika Sarabhai coming to dance for the Gudalur adivasis.

They came, they saw and they conquered.

We planned for the performance to take part in a remote forested village so that the adivasis living there could enjoy it. Mallika decided that rather than do a classical Bharatanatyam or Kuchipudi, the troupe would perform a poem composed by Mrinalini Sarabhai called “Is it a Dream?' choreographed by the mother and daughter duo, Mrinalini and Mallika.

The setting was perfect — hills, valleys, forested slopes, a gentle breeze making it cooler and far more pleasant than Gudalur town, half an hour away. Sylvan serenity personified.

Riveting performance

The adivasis knew little about theatre or formal dance, but they were rivetted. The poem and the dance performance had a universal appeal. The substance of the poem was lyrical, it ran thus: In this century, India has distorted the voice of its soul and sold itself to corruption, violence and the devastation of the earth. It is a tragic turn in the life of a great civilisation that valued tolerance above everything, welcoming new ideas and sheltering people from other lands, whose religion was all embracing, recognising that the Atman resided in all beings irrespective of outer labels, a land that peacefully sent its cultural ambassadors far and wide, taking gifts of the arts and crafts of our heritage.

Artistic traditions are one of the few remnants of the wonder that was India. Our folk culture, our traditional forms, still weave a pattern of serenity, thoughtful of caring values, of the togetherness of humanity.

This new venture of Darpana covers main concerns that plague India today: communal violence, dowry deaths, women's issues, racial problems, national disintegration, ecological imbalance environmental pollution and other connected subjects. This is a plea to understand and imbibe once more the ancient prayer of the oldest literature of our country.

May all be joyous!

May all be free!

May all be prosperous!

May none fall on evil days!

Peace! Peace! Peace!

The dancing and choreography was perfect, more powerful than anything the people here had ever witnessed before. They were held spellbound even though the song was in Hindi and they understood not a word. They didn't need to. The dance spoke to them in a language comprehensible to everyone. The words became superfluous.

What struck a chord with the greatest force was the action of the dancers cutting trees. It was interesting that we, the non-adivasis immediately thought Chipko. The visual was of trees being cut with a great destructive forceful swing of the axe and people rushing to protect the trees, hugging them. But several adivasis remarked, “It shows that trees are our life, without them we will die”.

They wept at a sequence in which a poverty stricken couple with a babe in arms begged piteously for food while a rich group feasted and waved the beggars away dismissively.

Cultural differences

Interestingly, the only sequence they did not understand was dowry, perhaps because it's still an unknown entity in their circles. Some of the young people understood the message because of television. The Chief Minister's free TV sets have reached some of the remotest corners of Tamil Nadu.

The Kattunayakans and Mullukurumbas then proceeded to dance for the Darpana troupe, to a totally different rhythm and beat.

Not a single adivasi knew who Mallika Sarabhai was. Yet, the response was tremendous and instantaneous. Some of the people were inspired to use dance as a communication tool. “They danced for an hour and not a soul moved. We should learn to dance in this way and take the message of an anti-alcohol campaign from village to village.” Tamil Nadu is reeling under the impact of alcoholism and domestic violence. We asked Mallika if she would do a small training programme to help this campaign. She agreed immediately.

The teachers and young people will write a culturally appropriate song and she will come back, choreograph it and teach it to them. So a training programme is on the anvil when she returns.

Mallika explained that Darpana, the institution created by her mother Mrinalini, is the only one of its kind because it promotes dance for social change.

If one hour of dance could be so effective, we should use ii more. Let the music commence. Let dance lead the way.

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