A journey of discovery

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Mallika Sarabhai talks to Saraswathy Nagarajan about tracing her roots, deciding the course of her life, and issues such as women empowerment

It's a journey of discovery for one woman, and one of nostalgia for another. The bold and beautiful Mallika Sarabhai, and her mother Mrinalini Sarabhai will be in Palakkad this month on a mission — to document the dancer's roots. Says the firebrand multi-tasker: “From Vadakkath Tharavad near Aanakkara in Palakkad, we plan to go to Java. When Amma insisted that she wanted to be a dancer, she was sent on a world tour in the hope that it would make her re-think her priorities. In Java, she managed to learn dance with the princesses there — the only foreigner to do so — and all of them performed together. We will meet one of the princesses there, and then go to Switzerland, retracing Amma's journey. Her life and career are linked to the modern history of performing arts in India.”

Tracing an artistic path

Mallika is hoping her daughter Anahita, a student in the U.S. will join them. The documentary will be co-directed by Yadavan Chandran, son of film director T.V. Chandran, and Mallika herself, an actor and filmmaker, in her own right. The danseuse, who has redefined multi-tasking with her many avatars laughs when she is asked who the real Mallika is.

“She is a dancer, filmmaker, manager, theatre person, publisher, writer, social activist, politician… Depending on the situation, one of these comes to the fore. I'm fortunate that my hobbies happen to be my profession or vice-versa,” says Mallika. “For instance, I enjoy reading and writing, and I've had my own column and publishing house (Mapin). I love theatre, and we just staged a new play ‘Ahmedabad ki Aurat Bhali Ramkali', an adaptation of Brecht's play ‘The Good Person of Szechwan'. I am a music buff, and I work with musicians. Recently, I choreographed Sampradaya bhajans in Bharatnatyam. I was blown away when I listened to musicians in Darpana (The Darpana Academy of Performing Arts) render the bhajans the way it should be — sans unnecessary instrumentation. It has not been done since the 17th Century,” she says.

Mallika says she sees herself as a communicator who uses different kinds of media and the arts to address the issues that are dear to her heart; issues such as women empowerment, development, communal harmony, preservation of crafts and so on. Perhaps, it is her belief in living each day to the fullest that sees her excel in so many different streams. “It is also because of the way I was brought up. There was no topic that my brother Karthikeya and I could not discuss,” recounts Mallika.

She reminisces that when she was all of 12, her father, Vikram Sarabhai, told her that she could choose to either live her life the way she wanted to or let others or society dictate how she must live. And, the little girl chose the former. “I made my debut as an actor when I was 15. I live for today. All my life I have chosen to be the architect of my life.”

Is that the advice she would give her daughter? “And to my son, as well” she replies. And, it is not an easy decision, she adds: “My son Revant was five, and I was pregnant when my husband Bipin Shah and I divorced. There was heartbreak, and yet I had to ensure that the bitterness (that I eventually overcame) did not taint my children's relationship with their father. Today, they are the best of friends.”

She says with pride that to her truth is important, and that she has never lied to her parents or her children. “Not even a white lie!”

Contesting the election

And, it is this belief that, she says, made her contest the Parliamentary elections in Gujarat. Her determination to bring to justice the perpetrators of the communal carnage in Gujarat made her the target of hate campaigns and threatening calls. But, Mallika refused to give in, and recently even wrote to Amitabh Bachchan, requesting him to rethink his decision to be the brand ambassador of Gujarat.

“I derive my courage from my artistes. When they received threatening calls, they disconnected the calls, but did not leave Darpana. I derive courage from ordinary people who tell me ‘you are our voice',” she says. Mallika declares that she has learnt from her foray into politics. “Now, I know how Parliamentary elections work, and I plan to use that to reshape my strategy,” says this IIM-A management postgraduate.


As a woman I feel I must do my best to keep fit and healthy. I am careful about what I eat, my exercise and work-out. I feel that if I am fit, I can take on anything

I never used to like cooking. But now I have started cooking a little

Reading is my passion. Some favourites are Freakonomics and The Argumentative Indian

I am now directing a film on our traditional food and the amazing food diversity in India




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