Art for a change

The women of the Sarabhai family fought for India’s independence. Mallika, the daughter of Dr. Vikram Sarabhai and Mrinalini Sarbhai, has inherited the spirit to fight for truth. “I don’t know any other way to live life, I have grown up seeing my family fighting for the truth, for the rights of under-privileged people,” she says. Mallika Sarabhai, a trained Bharatanatyam and Koochipoodi dancer, is a leading choreographer. When she was 18, she won the first of her many awards. She is also trained in Kalaripayattu, theatre and puppetry. She came to international notice when she played the role of Draupadi in Peter Brook’s Mahabharata for five years, first in French and then in English. Mallika uses her art for change. In 1989, she composed Shakti: The Power of Women, a solo theatrical work. Since then Mallika has choreographed several stage productions to highlight crucial issues, to spread awareness and to advocate change. In the mid-nineties Mallika began to develop her own contemporary dance vocabulary and went on to create short and full-length works which have been presented abroad as well as in India. Unsuni - Unheard Voices, The Mask, An Idea Named Mira, The Journey Inward, Devi Mahatmya, The Conference of the Birds, V for, Sva Kranti- The Revolution Within, Sita’s Daughters and In Search of the Goddess are some of her noteworthy choreographic works. If Mrinalini brought south Indian classical dances with her to Ahmedabad, Mallika has brought the arts of the world to Ahmedabad. Every year Darpana hosts the international festival of arts at its amphitheatre called Natarani. Mallika founded the Centre for Non-violence through the Arts in 1997. The Centre provides facilities to artists to share their ideas about nonviolence with an aim to encourage artistic creation and spread new light on the issue.

Mallika speaks her mind “I grew up hearing Amma talk about the issues she felt most, that mattered to her, through her dance. I remember at the age of eight or nine, I fought for the rights of teachers in my school because I thought they were badly treated. There is always somebody fighting for something in my family, so I too learnt to fight for other people’s rights. And while I did the role of Draupadi in the Mahabharata for five years I observed people’s reactions to issues on women and gender. I was convinced that the best way for my activism was my arts. I also realised that I did not want to speak, I wanted to use only dance. As I wanted to use only what was required to tell a particular story to a particular audience, I learnt Kalaripayattu, mask work,puppetry and theatre. In some sense
it also broke down those boundaries—this is dance, this is theatre…

Of course I still do Bharatanatyam and Koochipoodi kutcheri-s but when I am doing my creative workI don’t limit myself to only dance or theatre. In the production Unsuni we use dance, theatre, and we sing. The arts have the greatest language of communication. You can communicate anything through them—hatred, good things, empowerment, liberation… it’s the question of how you use the arts. Television and films are very good extensions of the arts. Talking about popularity – how many people understandBharatanatyam? It is a serious, elite dance, it’s not for the masses. Television and films are for the masses and I am also into them to communicate with the people. I am here in this world of arts not to win a popularity contest. I am in this because there is no other way I know how to live. I need to say what I need to say and I will say it in a language that I think is most effective.

The numbers game “I don’t know who has given him/her the right to judge! I don’t need anybody’s stamp of approvalto justify what I am doing. I do what I have to do because I have to do it. This is my thirtieth year of dance and I still dance 80 to 100  times in a year. That’s the number of invitations I can accept.“I was at the top as a Bharatanatyam and Koochipoodi dancer, I was oneof the most in-demand dancers butmy niche is not Bharatanatyam. I have created a new genre for performance, and of developmentand communication. That is myniche, that is Darpana’s niche. I am a very good Bharatanatyam dancer but it does not bother me whether this kind of jati was used in the 13th century or not. That is not where my interest lies. I am interested in Sopanam-s, in Sangam literature, I want to find feminist padam-s and varnam-s or dalit varnam-s related to my social activism.

“Today if someone asks me to do a Bharatanatyam kutcheri, I will do it but there won’t be any joy in presenting it. But Bharatanatyam is certainly an amazingly powerful language of communication, and most of my creations fall into the roots of Bharatanatyam.” A world citizen “I take my responsibility as an Indian citizen, as a world citizen very seriously and strongly. With everything that I have—education, background, exposure I will fight for the people. It is very easy for me to get swallowed up as ‘Page-3’, but I don’t want to be on Page-3, there are enough people going for that and it’s shocking that we have become so completely ignorant and blind about the world around us.

If you do not listen to the deprived and try to help them, they will become violent. And who is going to suffer? All of us will suffer. So even out of selfish self interest the rich should be looking at how equitable and humane society could be made.”

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