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Sensibility and SARABHAI

Mallika Sarabhai resonates with character. You see that in her acute sense of both aesthetics and politics.

Mallika Sarabhai: `We need to package our crafts for contemporary needs, but we should preserve their integrity too.'

THE LADY is confident, collected, beautiful, and articulate. If you are Mallika Sarabhai, you have to be all of that — full of character, in the know of what you want and what you are. In the city last week to inaugurate Vastrabharana, the annual and very popular exhibition of textiles and jewellery organised by the Crafts Council of Karnataka, Mallika, in the few minutes she spared during her hectic tour of the stalls, was provocative in her views on Indian craft and the contemporary global economy.

One began by asking her how she relates to Indian craft. "The thing that makes me tick is Indian handmade crafts and textiles. In college, when I would wear such stuff, people would say, `Oh! you like things ethnic.' I think the smirk is not necessary." But the smirk is no longer there, and "the ethnic" has an entire generation ticking today, bringing hope for India's rural folk even as it does. A lifestyle here is a livelihood elsewhere.

Mallika did not disagree, but made her point about some attitudes that have persisted over time. "Beauty in tradition is still seen as an anachronism to the market economy. What is unique in India is not information technology and electronics alone, but handmade craft too. All we need to do is to package this as a fashion, maybe like Bharatanatya, which to many looks oriental."

But what about all those who swear by authenticity? Tradition is not tradition if it is not authentic. Mallika was pragmatic. "You see, Indian crafts need a new look. Preserve the integrity of the craft, but make it a resource for contemporary living."

The versatile artist made a telling statement (keeping in view the Indian woman) on how she thought tradition helped in giving expression to a not-so-peculiar modern aspiration. "To show off your hip today means to show off your navel. Many think low-cut jeans does it well. But I think the sari does it better."

Mallika was certainly not apologetic about tradition in the modern economy when she observed that the Indian village needed to be catapulted into the world stage as a boutique. "Why are our fashion institutes not inspired by our villages? Do we have to wait for people abroad to tell us what we produce is good? Why do we have to feel inferior about our heritage?"

If she thought Indian craft wasn't doing too badly, Indian arts, she felt, had found its place. All classical forms were attracting talent and finding patronage. "Even at my age if I can keep pace with the invitations I receive, one can imagine what it is for the younger generation. These days I do a lot of contemporary and issue-based work. I believe every dance form has its place as long as one form is clearly distinguishable from the other."

Mallika carries her aesthetics with activism, something you don't find in too many people. There was just enough time to ask the dancer what went wrong in Gujarat. "Some of us are extremely depressed with the riots and I happen to be the pin-up girl for hatred. My PIL on the riots is coming up in the Supreme Court on October 9. But some hope is official India's first good response in the Supreme Court's order on the Best Bakery Case."

The dancer, actress, choreographer, writer, and activist, all rolled into one, has also been addressing questions of ecology, gender equality, culture and the arts. Her work on gender is considered significant. She has come to critique patriarchal practices in the Bharatanatya and Kuchipudi by valorising the goddess in the Hindu pantheon. Mallika, through her work in theatre interspersed with choreography, carried this critique further in her performance as Draupadi in Peter Brook's Mahabharata. The piece brought out the different stereotypes revolving around Indian womanhood. This was followed by her other work, Shakti — The Power of Women, in London, which eventually became popular in all of Britain, Holland, and India for its portrayal of mythological, historical and contemporary female figures. Sita's Daughters, which came next, was a comical critique of a system making women subservient. "The piece was performed all over India from slums to metropolitan festivals and has been invited to Singapore, U.S.A. and Britain."

It wasn't surprising to hear her say, disappearing into the stalls one last time, that the arts were the alphabet of her activism.


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