Forging her own path

Mallika Sarabhai Photo: K.K. Najeeb   | Photo Credit: K.K. Najeeb

“Art is creation of beauty but it is also a powerful language that can express our deep emotions most effectively.” For Mallika Sarabhai, her words are not just rhetoric. She has walked the talk over the past five decades of her career as a dancer, choreographer, thespian, writer, publisher, film maker et. al. An artiste with social commitment, all her productions have been vehement reactions to the wide spectrum of evils related to religion, gender and the environment that have fetched her accolades such as the Padma Bhushan. Born to celebrity parents, Vikram Sarabhai, renowned space scientist, and Mrinalini Sarabhai, legendary dancer-choreographer, Mallika is presently the director of Darpana Academy, Ahmedabad, founded by her parents in 1949. Though trained as a dancer from early childhood, she turned a professional performer after securing her MBA from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and a doctorate in organisational behaviour from Gujarat University.

Mallika was in Thrissur recently with her team of dancers to present ‘Dance for Life’ for a palliative care centre. In an interview, she explained at length about her own upbringing, the teaching methodology in Darpana, her famous productions such as ‘Sakthi’ and ‘Sita’s Daughters’ and also about the contemporary cultural scenario in the country. Excerpts:

Did your training start with your mother?

She was the inspiration. I was initiated into classical dances at an early age. My guru for Bharatanatyam was Kittappa Pillai and C. R. Acharyalu for Kuchipudi. I actually used to cry whenever Amma came to my dance class, for she was such a distinguished dancer and I held her in high esteem. At Darpana, we had scores of artistes from Kerala, including Kavungal Chathunni Panicker, who was Amma’s dance-partner for many years. We had Sathyan Narayanan Gurukkal, a Kalarippayattu exponent from Thiruvananthapuram. Also many musicians, percussionists and dancers from across the country served Darpana. As for my gurus, Kittappa Pillai was the son of Ponniah Pillai of the Thanjavur Quartet, whose maternal grandfather was Pandanallur Meenakshi Sundaran Pillai, Amma’s guru. Acharyalu taught me the traditional style of Kuchipudi with all its attendant rustic beauty and raw energy. This is entirely different from the polite, Sanskritised version that is all too common now.

You were also trained in Kathakali and Mohiniyattam?

I got training in Kathakali only for a few veshams that were necessary for the Darpana productions such as Usha’s role in ‘Banayudham.’ As for Mohiniyattam, I did not practise the entire repertoire. Training for Kalarippayattu, though, was done on an elaborate scale, which has been very useful for my productions. I actually began my career as a puppeteer. Darpana had the Andhra version of shadow puppetry brought by Masterji (Acharyalu). In fact, my training in puppetry has been of immense use to me in my later productions, especially the use of masks.

What prompted you to take to theatre?

I was a rather lazy child and dance demanded a lot of work. Still, I wanted to be on the stage. That happened with Peter Brook’s epic production ‘Mahabharata’. The only Indian in the multinational cast of the play, I donned the role of Draupadi for five years when it was staged in 25 countries. You can understand my plight of arguing with five husbands in French! I lived with Draupadi for such a long time, which was a turning point in my career. I delved deep into our mythology and comprehended the potential of women. Patriarchy has a language that makes women weak. I realised my vulnerability and started writing, creating and performing. ‘Sakthi’ rolled out, which was a demonstration of the power of women. ‘Sita’s Daughters’ followed. For this, I got down to the brass tacks of women’s issues. I read one thousand testimonies of rape victims and visited police stations to understand how rape victims are treated. The title was puzzling. Many wondered whether Sita had daughters. I believe that any woman who questions the status quo is a daughter of Sita. Issues relating to abortion, female foeticide, sex determination, Chipko movement… were all delineated through a fusion of varied art forms, solo. The production had 650 shows across the globe for 12 years to varied audiences. I staged it under a tree in Kutch for 12 rape victims. The communication with all them was total.

What is the mode of training in Darpana?

We are keen about breaking the compartmentalisation in art training. You can’t say ‘I am a dancer so I can’t sing’ or ‘I am an actor and so I can’t dance.’ I make even the light technician to act or dance as he/she has to be conversant with each item. Compartmentalisation is a Western concept. Even the musicians have to practise yoga. That is the secret of the success of our productions. As for me, I learnt Carnatic and Hindustani music for five years each. Nowadays, it’s difficult to get long-time dancers. They go ‘shopping’ for dances; learning this from here and the other from there. This is not allowed in our institution.

How did a classical dancer like you evolve a vocabulary for contemporary dance?

It was necessary for some productions. But my school of contemporary dance is rooted in Bharatanatyam and not borrowed from the West. It sheds the ornamentations of the dance form but stretches its movements with sound added. I have experienced how of all the classical dances of India, Bharatanatyam has a unique sophistication for branching out for creativity. My children are well-versed in Western contemporary dance and are choreographing their own productions abroad.

You are an artiste but always a crusader too…

It is in my DNA. I get it from both the sides of the family. So it is only natural that I imbibed these qualities. Apart from performances, I use to write columns for periodicals, some of them Malayalam, for many years.

How do you assess the contemporary cultural scenario in the country?

Very distressing. It is really encouraging that the literati are strongly protesting, though belatedly. But what about the artistes? The artiste community too has to join the chorus of protests.

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Printable version | Apr 11, 2021 12:00:42 PM |

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