The dancer with a white parasol

Mrs. Mrinalini Sarabhai, noted Indian danseuse, who was invited by the U.S. Institute of Advanced Studies in the Theatre Arts; Mrs. Mrinalini was the first Indian woman who had been accorded such an invitation by the Institute to work with professional American Actors. She selected Bhasa's `Svapnavasavdattam' adapted in English by noted Gujarati poet Mr. Niranjan Bhagat to be presented in New York and Washington.  

When dancers look back at their lives, they often remark that they were born to dance. > Mrinalini Sarabhai, who passed away in Ahmedabad on Thursday at the age of 97, took that conviction a step further. At a young age, she already knew she was a dancer, as opposed to wanting to become one. Her life was a celebration of this belief.

Though primarily identified as a dancer, Mrinalini brought to her work an acute social and political consciousness, uncommon for the times she lived in. This awareness was home-grown — her mother, Ammu Swaminathan, was a freedom fighter and later a member of India’s first Parliament. Her sister, Lakshmi Sahgal, was part of the Indian National Army.

Sarabhai was born in Kerala, spending her early years in Switzerland. In school, she was introduced to Dalcroze Eurhythmics, a system of introducing musical concepts through movement. She spent time studying acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. On returning to India, she enrolled at Santiniketan where she was profoundly influenced by Rabindranath Tagore and singled him out as her only real guru.

Like many other dancers of her generation, Sarabhai trained in multiple dance styles. She learned Manipuri with Amubi Singh and Kathakali with Kunju Kurup. She also caught the attention of > dancer Ram Gopal, who went on to cast her in some of his productions. Further, she studied Bharatanatyam with Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai and Muthukumar Pillai.

She met the celebrated scientist Vikram Sarabhai, who is known as the architect of India’s space programme, in Bangalore. They got married in 1942 and moved to his home in Ahmedabad. There, Mrinalini had to counter the notion that being a performer was not an acceptable career choice for “respectable women”.

Living in the post-Independence India, there was much to rejoice about. Yet, Mrinalini was also disturbed by the inequality she saw around her. Very early on, she brought social issues into her choreographic practice. “I was looking for subjects that would shake people in dance,” she once said in a documentary.

For instance, Memory is a Ragged Fragment of Eternity (1960s) was triggered by the high suicide rate of women in India. It starts with an exuberant dance by three women celebrating their womanhood and their existence. It then segues into the story of one woman, taking us on a journey through her life. It masterfully eludes the literal in its depiction of the censure that drives this woman to the brink of suicide.

Dancing in a diagonal coming downstage, two dancers use the sharp lines of a simple Bharatanatyam adavu (step) to express their suspicion and resentment towards her. Thrown at the protagonist, the mudras (gestures) have the potency of poisoned arrows. The costume reinforces the message, bringing the piece closer home. While the vocabulary is drawn from Bharatanatyam, the dancers are clad in colourful textiles from Gujarat, wearing chunky silver instead of the detailed temple jewellery of Tamil Nadu.

Mrinalini was more inclined to performing, and was reluctant to teach. However, she realised in her new city that if she wanted more people to dance, she would have to train them. This laid the foundation for the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts, which was set up in 1948. It went on to grow into a centre for progressive arts in Ahmedabad, training thousands of students in dance, drama, music and puppetry over 68 years. Documentaries on Mrinalini’s life show her walking into Darpana, her back erect, with a pristine white parasol in her hand. She was at the centre of its rich, chaotic activity. Even in her later years, she actively taught, mentored and created new work for her students.

Mrinalini’s dance legacy is now in its third generation. She is survived by her daughter, Mallika, a dancer and political activist. Her grandson Revanta is an emerging choreographer, with roots in classical and contemporary dance forms, while her granddaughter Anahita pursues various interests in dance and choreography.

“Middle-class” women who, sheltered by the relative safety of marriage, created careers in classical dance, are both admired for the institutions they created and criticised for the conventional choices they made. Mrinalini Sarabhai is one of them. What matters most is not the institutions she gave birth to, or the dancers she trained. It is the image that she passed on to her students — that of the woman with a white parasol who danced every day, as long as she could, because she loved it.

( Ranjana Dave is a dancer and dance writer.)

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Printable version | Sep 16, 2021 3:25:52 AM |

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