Mallika Sarabhai's ‘600 Not Out’ merges diverse art forms and spaces to celebrate the culture of Ahmedabad

‘600 Not Out' sounds like another cricket score, but is actually the title of the 35th Vikram Sarabhai International Arts Festival that embarks on remembering Ahmedabad as it completes 600 years.

Is it Ahmedabad or Amdavad? The river Sabarmati divides it into the old and the new, unlike Paris that is Rive Gauche and Droite. In a collective endeavour ‘to take a new look at this old city', and reclaim both celebration and voice, ‘Painted Poems', an evening of live painting and poetry was organised in a public garden on December 26th in Ahmedabad.

Spectators got the rare treat of watching different stages of an artist's construction as they matched words to visuals. Poet Saroop Dhruv and artist Amit Ambalal curated the show where the rhythms of poetry and the tempo of artists' brushes were interspersed with Carnatic and Swiss fusion music.

The next event, from December 28 to 30 was ‘Kadak Badshahi', a title that sums up Ahmedabad's culture of kadak' chai (strong tea) and hospitality.

But, how does one depict a city's 600-year history in a single show? Well, with Mallika Sarabhai as choreographer, you can rest assured that it is not ‘his story'. In fact, it is ‘her stories' — of eight women who contributed to Ahmedabad's past, but find no space in history textbooks. For example, who knew Noor Jahan ruled the city? Who remembers that Saduba took up the cudgels against the ‘subas' in 1820s and sacrificed her life? Weaving legends and history into a narrative, women's voices waft through time.

On entering Darpana, Mallika's dance school, the spectators are absorbed in a kaleidoscopic exhibition of recreated city scenes: a laari offering famous kadak chai with muska bun, young boys shouting ‘boot polish' against a backdrop of painted posters of Mother India (reminiscent of M.F. Husain's own journey in this city!), cooks offering the famous food of Bhatiyar gali and a multimedia installation of photos and films.

The dance of lights

Yadavan Chandran, the show's technical and conceptual director, brilliantly merges space and temporality with the extension of the open-air stage area of Natarani into the riverfront. This elevated area, covered with sand, is layered with lighting in green, blue and red, giving an operatic grandeur as historical figures enact their roles in the distance. If horizontal distance is created visually, vertical distance is created with muslin screens that demarcate both time and space. Additionally, three screens, including one in the shape of a kite hanging over the audience, are used for projections to convey visuals and voices such as those of Noor Jahan in a grave. “The term multimedia has become banal,” says Mallika. “One uses technology when it is not possible to convey the message in another medium.”

In Mallika's choreography, diverse art forms merge using different spaces: from Kutchi musicians, songs of Ghanshyam Gadhvi, and the Bhavai to puppets, and dancers mingling amongst the audience. Large props — such as the boat recreating the scene of Jehangir giving trade concessions to Sir Thomas Roe — add volume and beauty.

Mallika brings together the city's artists to construct a mosaic of plural voices. Artist Amit Ambalal's sketches are projected live onto muslin screens. Bharatanatyam and Kathak dancers come together in a choreography that ends with the gurus of both dance forms — Mrinalini Sarabhai and Kumudini Lakhia — regaling the delighted audience with a few steps. Architect B.V. Doshi speaks about his experience and Le Corbusier while the contribution of other foreign nationals — Lord Ellis, Maria Montessori and Erik Erikson — are enacted.

Steering clear of the trappings of a linear narrative, the dialogues cross over time. For example, Gandhi saheb, while acting as the arbitrator for mill workers' demands, projects himself into the future and says: ‘Erik Erikson will later write about this episode'.

Mallika takes up the legend of Lakshmi, who is trapped in a stone city gate. “You made a mistake,” says Lakshmi seen inside a section of a gate that is rolled onto the stage. “I symbolise prosperity, not wealth. If it was wealth you wanted, you should have gone for Kuber!” “You need to share your wealth,” says Harkunwar Shethani. As Saduba's sister-in-law, Mallika urges ‘Amdavadis' to unite and bring down unfair regimes.

The audience is continually surprised with the different art forms, and tickled when actors distribute mouth-watering gathias, dhoklas and bhajias. The show ends suddenly with everyone coming on stage, and saying: “Now you go home and write the rest of the script of ‘600-Not Out'!” The message is clear — celebrate, but step out of your comfort zone. ‘Not out' also means include everyone.