A well wisher of humanity

Mrinalini Sarabhai was a rare spirit who bridged cultures and traditions.

January 28, 2016 09:57 pm | Updated September 23, 2016 11:19 pm IST

Mrinalini Sarabhai performing during "Staying Alive"at the Vikram Sarabhai International Arts Festival  in New Delhi on Wednesday. Photo:Sandeep_Saxena

Mrinalini Sarabhai performing during "Staying Alive"at the Vikram Sarabhai International Arts Festival in New Delhi on Wednesday. Photo:Sandeep_Saxena

One does not need to be religious to realise that life on this earth is impermanent. The support that the world’s various religions offer, however, is an assurance that there is life after life, and therefore the intense turmoil, the activity and effort involved in mortal existence is not merely an offering into a great void. But even if we were to reject the theories of the soul’s journey as ‘opiates’, we cannot deny that the contributions made by people during their lifetime outlast them. The more abstract the contribution, the greater its longevity, it would seem, as is seen with the often intangible impact of artists.

And so they certainly gain a life beyond their lifespan. Thus, as we come to terms with the demise on January 21 of yet another of the great builders of modern India, the celebrated classical dancer Mrinalini Sarabhai, our sense of loss is balanced by the realisation of her immense contribution to, and influence on, the culture of 20th Century India.

Looking at the unusual life of Mrinalini Sarabhai, born in 1918, one is struck by the holistic nature of her education and accomplishments. She was a woman who, by her own admission, lived and breathed dance, but she loved beauty in its every aspect, be it in terms of nature and gardens or architecture and décor, or textiles and clothes.

Trained in Bharatanatyam and Kathakali, she authored books on technique and theory of classical dance, including “Understanding Bharatanatyam” and others at a time when such books were a rarity. Besides these, she wrote on textiles as well as works of fiction.

Perhaps best known as a performer, her underlying concern was for the wellbeing of humanity. The motive behind her path-breaking choreographic experiments, as she noted in her autobiography, “The Voice of the Heart” (Harper-Collins with The India Today Group, 2004), was to give expression to her own anxiety regarding the path society was taking.

“Any problem dramatically shown on stage touches the heart,” she explained once, during a lecture in New Delhi on the invitation of the cultural organisation Natya Vriksha in 2007.

Not surprisingly, she was possibly the first Bharatanatyam dancer to choreograph a work on deaths of young women due to dowry-related crimes. She also created pieces commenting on war and violence, taking mythology as a base but altering the ending or the emphasis of the story to put her point across — an approach worthy of note in today’s reactionary climate.

In her artistic endeavours, in her education and the scope of her work, one sees two ends of a spectrum — attention to detail and a wide vision unencumbered by conventional boundaries. Schooled in Chennai and in Clarens-Montreux (Switzerland), she found her heart’s peace in Tagore’s Santiniketan at a time when she was resisting a family tradition that expected her to complete her higher studies at Oxford or Cambridge.

Hers was an education that essentially continued all her life, as she travelled the world, first with her family and later with her troupe as a performing artist. It was an education imbibed too, from association with remarkable personalities: her sister Dr Lakshmi who led a battalion under Subhas Chandra Bose; family friends and caring elders who included stalwarts like Sarojini Naidu, Mahatma Gandhi, J. Krishnamurthi, Margaret Cousins and many others that pepper the history books of India and other countries.

Constantly absorbing aesthetic, cultural and educational influences from her environment, the daughter of Ammu and Subbarama Swaminadhan of Kerala, Mrinalini married Vikram Sarabhai in 1942. Her marriage took her across India to Ahmedabad. Here, parallel to her own career, her husband’s eminence as one of India’s leading scientists rose, while she added to her interests the arts and crafts of Gujarat.

If you were a kurta wearer in the early ‘80s, you might remember how kurtas with embroidered yokes from Gurjari, the handicrafts emporium of the Gujarat government, were all the rage. It is no irony that this trend was kicked off by the Malayali Mrinalini, then chairperson of the Handicrafts Division and one of Gurjari’s guiding forces.

As a disciple of Rabindranath Tagore, she was a pan-Indian soul. An incurable romantic, perhaps, but an inspiring example nonetheless, for all those who choose to sidestep the highway of harsh commercialism and meander the paths that lead inwards to a greater freedom.

The 20th Century has seen countries like India change in particularly dramatic fashion. One small example is in the relationship of the guru and disciple. Up until the 1970s and ’80s, reverence for the guru frequently meant a blinkered rejection of any other artist’s worth. In today’s internet-technology linked world, such a mindset is obsolete. But back in the late ’70s, for a devoted disciple of Rukmini Devi Arundale to say, “Mrinalini Amma is a great lady, like our Athai (Rukmini Devi),” was conceding undeniable greatness.

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