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Tributes to Mrinalni Sarabhai (1918-2016)

29 January 2016

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The Hindu - January 22, 2016

The dancer with a white parasol

by Ranjana Dave

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

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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The Times of India

Mrinalini Sarabhai: Dance was the breath of her life, stage her mother

TNN | Jan 22, 2016, 07.39 AM IST

At 97, she leaves behind her a legacy that includes an army of Bharatnatyam dancers who trained under her watchful eye for well over half a century. A Padma Bhushan recipient, she was fondly referred to as ’Amma’. She At 97, she leaves behind her a legacy that includes an army of Bharatnatyam dancers who trained under her watchful eye for well over half a century. A Padma Bhushan recipient, she was fondly referred to as ’Amma’. She breathed her last at 10.10am on Thursday at her Ahmedabad home nestled inside the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts which she founded in 1949.

She died of old age-related complications. In a befitting send-off, her daughter Mallika and granddaughter Anahita performed a classical dance rendition on the Darpana stage where her mortal remains were laid for people to pay their last respects. Mrinalini was born in Chennai on May 11, 1918, to a prominent family of freedom fighters. Ammu Swaminadhan, her mother, was a known Gandhian and her father an illustrious lawyer. Her sister Capt Lakshmi Sehgal, who had joined Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army (INA), died in 2012. Mrinalini belonged to Vadakath Tharavad family that has its roots in Anakkara village in Palakkad district of Kerala. After schooling in Switzerland, she went to Santiniketan as a pupil of Rabindranath Tagore and Nandlal Bose, where she received education in music and painting.

Mrinalini began her training in Bharatnatyam at a very early age. She became a favourite pupil of the great master Sri Meennakshi Sundaram Pillai of Pandanallull 1945. In an interview to TOI in 1999, she said, "I knew I would be a dancer when I was four years old. I started seeing everything in images. While listening to music at age four, I would create my own movement." She would add, "Dance is the breath of my life and the stage is my mother. I was born with a desperate consuming desire to create and the need to question." She moved to Ahmedabad after she married Vikram Sarabhai, the father of Indian space programme, in 1942. She met him for the first time in Bangalore through re nowned Bharatnatyam dancer Ram Gopal, who was known to Sarabhai. "Papa said my mother broke the negative aura around Bharatnatyam at a time when women who danced were known as devdasis," Mallika told TOI in an earlier interview.

Mrinalini is credited with popularising choreographic forms of Bharatnatyam and Kathakali on the international stage with performances in over 100 countries. Scores of foreigners still throng to Darpana every year to learn dance. In fact, there is a school in Tokyo by the name Darpana.

In 1960-61, for the first time in the his tory of Indian classical dance, Mrinalini started conveying through her dances con temporary social issues like women empow erment, dowry deaths, Dalit rights, environ mental degradation, corruption and degradation of human values.

"When nobody knew about the word `dowry death,’ she highlighted the issue in 1963 through her play after which the government published a white paper where the word was used for the first time," says Mallika.

"Coming to Gujarat from a very different culture might have been a kind of adventure for her and she took all in her stride," said son Kartikeya, leading environmentalist who represented India at COP 21 in Paris recently. He mentioned that she also was associ ated with initiatives such as Friends of Tree.

Mrinalini often blogged about how dance was her breath, her life. Till the last days of her life, she would oversee the affairs at Dar pana and remain present in almost all productions staged at the academy. In fact, her last performance was in Kadak Badshahi, a hit production celebrating the spirit of Ahmedabad in January 2015. She had over a dozen of masterpieces to her credit, including a choreography based on Beethoven’s "The creatures of Prometheus" in Italy where she worked with ballet dancing leg ends Milorad Miskovitch and Carla Fracci.

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