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TEN minutes from PEACE

Mrinalini Sarabhai is magnificently alive to the churnings in and around her being

Mrinalini Sarabhai: "Dance can be used for social change."

"LET ME ask you a terrible question. I don't want to, but let me try. What would be your age?"

"Age changes all the time. So, how do I remember?" "I think I will never ask you your age again."

"Don't' dare. I might just ask you your age. And I might find you haven't done anything... ."

"When you say this, one feels there's not much we've done ... "

"Better do something about it. Maybe join Darpana... that is where everything's happening."

It is indeed a mistake to assume that age has slowed down Mrinalini Sarabhai. She speaks with absolute conviction, clarity, and eloquence. And she still dances. The time spent with Mrinalini at Soukya, the health resort on the outskirts of the city where she planted a kadamba sapling to mark Earth Day on April 22, was inspiring.

Mrinalini and her friends recently set up Prakriti, an organisation concerned with environmental protection. Ahmedabad — where she lives — being a highly polluted city, the organisation plans to plant at least 10,000 trees. Referring to a newspaper photo where an old tree is being cut, Mrinalini asks: "Would you cut down old people? No. Why would you then cut old trees? I remember Bangalore as a city full of trees in my earlier days. I began my married life here... I feel sad this is happening now... "

A believer in non-violence, the Centre for Non-Violence Through Performing Arts, she has set up is the first of its kind, seeking to spread the message of peace and non-violence through performing arts. And Darpana, founded by Mrinalini, way back in 1948, does that through dance, drama, and puppetry. Incidentally, Darpana is 10 minutes away from the Sabarmathi Ashram.

This octogenarian dancer, choreographer, social activist recently performed at Chennai on the invitation of the Sangeeth Natak Akademy. "I danced my biography. No, I danced my life." Two Lives in Dance and Two More, it was called and her fellow dancers were daughter Mallika and her grandchildren.

"This is how dance continues in the family, spontaneously." The show was a success and she plans to bring it to Bangalore soon.

Dance and cause are not different for Mrinalini. To dance is to respond to things around her. She did one on the Silent Valley, the dying Ganga, a dance of ecology, on inter-community relations, dowry deaths, and atrocities against women, and water right from the Sixties. She recalls how she did not use words, but sollukattus, (bols) to depict the trauma of a young girl: "I brought this depiction to the home of Bharatanatya, Madras. I wanted them to see it. I wanted them to know that dance could be used for social change... "

Her dance has always been "a reflection of society". She has used the folk idiom to address social problems. "Twenty thousand people understood what the folk dance meant," she said, recalling an experience.

She is a traditionalist and yet rebellious — not only in promoting social causes through dance, but by subverting a form's essence. She performed the Kathakali without the traditional costume. For traditionalists, this is blasphemy. She is mildly sceptical about completely embracing contemporary forms, but not entirely perturbed by change in dance forms. "Mallika has differed. She says I am a communicator. I use words. I use visual effects with dancing. This is a new idiom. I am not like my mother. My daughter says I have too many hang-ups. But I would say they are barriers."

For someone who has trained under gurus who trained devadasis, who recognises that the devadasi form is a beautiful one, transformed first by Rukmini Arundale, and then by herself, and who has trained in Kumbakonam and Madras, the heartlands of tradition, she is remarkably contemporary in her thinking. "New dance forms evolve. They have to as each one finds a path of expression. But I would prefer that while you evolve a new form, there be some classical tradition behind it... A tree may grow in many directions, but it must grow with roots. This is what I think I have done. You can have different styles, but you must be perfect in one." Mrinalini dances Bharatanatya and Kathakali, but she is more than just perfect in the former. "It is like knowing both English and Kannada. You must be good in at least one."

On her activist-daughter Mallika's recent troubles, where attempts were made to tarnish her image through a cooked-up scam, Mrinalini remarked that her family had always stood up for values fostered by its ties with the Freedom movement. People of standing would always find a place in their house. Sarojini Naidu did. Her sister-in-law, Mridula, was a signatory to the Constitution... and her family had everything to do with politics of the fair kind... "Mallika's distress in a sense is a distress of what is happening to the country," she said in the wake of the relentless campaign against her daughter and Darpana.

She thinks while there is relative calm in Gujarat, pockets of restlessness persist. Today's peace is not like that of the old.


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