Remembering Mrinalini Sarabhai, the Bharatnatyam ace with wind on her feet

She was the first female choreographer to break the mould of gender dictated practices.

 |  4-minute read |   21-01-2016
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The art world had two MS ammas. One, MS Subulakshmi, the doyenne of Indian classical music who attained moksha, and the other, Mrinalini Sarabhai, the danseuse par excellence who left us today at the age of 97.

It is a very sad day for the dance world. It feels as if a giant tree has fallen and many will feel the tremors for long.

Sarabhai was witness to a century of dance. Born into the illustrious family of political activist and beacon of the Indian National Movement, Ammu Swaminathan, she went on to shape her interest in the arts at the prestigious Shantiniketan in Bengal.

Mentored in Bharatnatyam from the forms two greats, Guru Muthukumara Pillai of Kattumunarkoil Chidambaram and Guru Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai of Pandanallur in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, Sarabhai gave this dance an international recognition. Despite creating a prolific career for herself in the arts, she remained ever so modest and humble in life.

Artists are an arrogant lot. Dancers even more so because they have a shorter "shelf-life". A dancer has to care about his/her looks and physical agility. Arrogance also comes from competition, a feeling of superiority after successful shows or being awarded multiple titles. But Sarabhai remained unassuming and dignified; "sabhya" would be the right word here.

ms_012116073339.jpg Mrinalini Sarabhai's last picture with Ashish Mohan Khokar.

Not only did she have a vast cultural canvas, but was profoundly wise as well - a wisdom that can only come with experience and age. Born into an eminent family and later married to the distinguished scientist, Vikram Sarabhai, she was aware of her position of privilege and the responsibility that came from it.

At a time when Gujarat was a sleepy state hardly known to be a cultural hub known for its sand, tourism and vibrancy, she took a step that would put the state on the map of the dance world. In 1949, in the wilderness of a dusty and dry Ahmedabad, she created Darpana Academy of Performing Arts, an institution that has stood the test of time.

Today, her grandson Revanta, along with her daughter Mallika run the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts carrying forward her legacy.

Interestingly, during her time at Shantiniketan, Sarabhai shared her room with Indira Gandhi and Kamala Chaudhary. While the first went on to become the prime minister of the country, the latter was the founder of the first Indian Institute of Management at Ahmedabad.

These three young ladies grew up to be luminaries in their fields. One would think, Sarabhai would use her connections with her childhood friends to get awards and honours, but she never took the easy way out.

At the time when Sarabhai was still learning the ropes of Bharatnatyam, the form was largely taught by male choreographers like Uday Shankar and Ram Gopal. Sarabhai was the first female choreographer to break the mould of gender dictated practices and showcased her first choreographic work "Manush" in 1949.

Till this day, "Manush" remains a path-breaking work that paved way for gender equality in classical dance in India. One of her biggest contributions to the form was introducing "ensemble" or group work on stage in a dance form where dancers were trained by gurus to be solo performers. She was the quintessential guru.

She was the chairperson of the Gujarat Craft's Council, head of the Gurjari or Gujarat Sangeet Natak Akademi and board member of the National Institute of Fashion Technology and National Institute of Design as well. Her continuous efforts to promote arts in Ahmedabad helped transform the cultural landscape of the city.

Forever affable and adorable, to me Sarabhai will always be Amma. Once when a jealous critic decided to attack me, she took me in her car to a small Sai Temple and asked me to pray. She always believed in the power of the prayer and was deeply spiritual.

I am told that three days ago, Amma celebrated the company of her family and friend at a party organised by her daughter, Mallika.

One can say that she died with her boots on. She has gone to heaven and she must be up there, making the devis and devtas dance along with her as well.

She must be saying as she always did, "chalo utho kuch karte hain". (Come on, get up! Let’s do something.)

Writer

Ashish Mohan Khokar Ashish Mohan Khokar

The writer is a reputed culture critic, dance historian and publishes AttenDance.

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