With the death of Mrinalini Sarabhai, we have lost a significant point of reference for Indian classical dance in the 20th century. Mrinalini was a true pioneer who used the movement vocabulary from several traditional dance idioms to create works that focussed attention on socially relevant topics.

"To me, dance, apart from its essential beauty, has to be awareness and a relevant force in contemporary life," she once wrote. "Can an artist truly exist without self expression? It was not to meet the current desires of the audience that I began to create new works, but an innate need to express my involvement with the world around me, the world I lived in, breathed in, the world of constant dualities, joy-sorrow, life-death, love-hate, construction-destruction, creating insights towards awareness."

Her work was a reflection of the milieu in which she was raised. Born to women’s rights activist Ammukutty and lawyeer Subbarama Swaminadhan on May 11, 1918, Mrinalini , the youngest of four children, grew up in a family, famous for its involvement in politics and civil society as the freedom struggle raged. Her sister would grow up to become Captain Lakshmi Sehgal and would fight alongside Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose.

As was commonplace for elite families of that era, the young Mrinalini's parents initially discouraged the girl when she wanted to take to dance. For upper-caste families, especially in South India, dancers were thought to be of questionable morality. In fact, Mrinalini's parents went so far as to send her away to Switzerland, hoping she would forget her passion. However, in Europe, Mrinalini began training in western dance. Seeing her keen interest in the art form, her mother realised that she had no option but to encourage her daughter to take to Indian classical dance.

Identity crisis

In the first part of the 20th century, Indian classical dance was at the cusp of a severe identity crisis. The livelihoods of traditional performers of dance in temples, who are sometimes called "devadasis", were under threat with the collapse of age-old forms of patronage. Many of them stopped performing. In 1936, the upper-caste theosophist Rukminidevi Arundale set up the Kalakshetra Foundation in Chennai "with the sole purpose of resuscitating in modern India recognition of the priceless artistic traditions of our country", she said. Several traditional gurus were hired as teachers. Mrinalini’s mother decided to enroll her daughter in this new dance school.

But the young woman would soon seek out other teachers. After a year of studying Bharatanatyam with Muthukumara Pillai, Mrinalini went to study in Rabindranath Tagore’s Shantiniketan in 1937. There, she trained in Manipuri with Amobi Singh and in Kathakali with Kelu Nair. Her interest in Kathakali and Mohiniyattam took her to the famous Kerala Kalamandalam, established by poet Vallathol Narayana Menon. Training under Kunju Kurup, she mastered the art of Kathakali, which was a male-dominated form. Mrinalini also studied Kuchipudi, another male dance form, with CR Acharyulu. Each of these phases of training would help her create some of her more significant choreographic works in her later years. However, her training was not complete. She was yet to meet her real Guru.

Mrinalini with Rabindranath Tagore in Shantiniketan in 1937.
Mrinalini with Rabindranath Tagore in Shantiniketan in 1937.

Pandanallur Meenakshisundaram Pillai was a direct descendant of the Thanjavur Quartet who had codified modern Bharatanatyam in the early 19th century. He had sensed the decline of the devadasi system and had begun training girls from non-traditional preforming families to dance. It was under his mentoring that Mrinalini really blossomed into a gifted Bharatanatyam dancer. She had already established a successful performing career when the celebrated Ram Gopal invited her to be his dancing partner.

Mrinalini Sarabhai with Pandanallur Meenakshisundaram Pillai.
Mrinalini Sarabhai with Pandanallur Meenakshisundaram Pillai.

Sometime in the early 1940s, Vikram Sarabhai, a student at Bangalore's Indian Institute of Science and scion of a business family from Gujarati, saw Mrinalani performing and fell in love with her. They were married in 1942. When they settled in Ahmedabad, Kathakali, Mohiniyattam, Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi got a home in that part of the country. In 1949, Mrinalini established the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts in Ahmedabad, which remains one of India's finest performing-art education institutions in India.

She once explained what she was attempting to do at her school: "Through dance, after the physical and mental training, we try at Darpana to teach the dancers the spiritual nature of gestures. For instance, the simple `namaskar' brings symbolically the conscious and the super conscious together. When the dancer pays obeisance to Mother Earth, and the hands are then lifted to the centre of the forehead which is considered the third eye, there is a new dimension. Each mudra has to be understood with its deeper meaning."

Around the same time, Mrinalini began to put all her training into use, going on to choreograph over 300 works using the various forms of dances she had studied. Mrinalini was a pioneer in Indian dance. For instance, she was the first to explore Tagore’s Chandalika in Bharatanatyam. She highlighted issues of social justice through her dance productions at a time when classical dance itself was getting stale with repetitive themes.

"Behind each movement was an inner energy, the result of years of training," she wrote. "It took hundreds of performances and relentless work to establish a reputation of classicism. Only then did I present my own perspectives."

Her interest in social activism encouraged her to look at the dying crafts movement in Gujarat. She served as the chairperson of the Gujarat State Handicrafts and Handlooms Development Association where she helped scores of artisans and craftsmen to establish self-help groups. She was also an environmentalist, a writer, poet and an avid book-lover.

It isn't as if she lacked detractors. Over the years, Mrinalini’s critics accused her of being a sort of early Page 3 girl, born into riches, married to riches and pampered as a dancer. She wasn't the first female artist to face such barbs. But in the history of Indian classical dance in the 20th century, very few have contributed to the growth of the art form like she has. For her contribution to dance, several awards came her way: the Padma Shri in 1968, the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1970, the Padma Bhushan in 1992 and the Kalidas Sanman in 1996.

Several documentaries have been made on her life and dance. In 2003, the Prasara Bharati made a half an hour documentary on Mrinalini titled A Life In Dance.

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Mrinalini is survived by her daughter, the dancer and social activist Mallika Sarabhai, her son Kartikeya and her grandchildren Revanta and Anahita Sarabhai. They and her thousands of students keep alive Mrinalini Sarabhai's belief in the raw power of her art.

She once explained what dance meant for her:

"Continuously through the years people ask me, 'What is dance to you?'It is my breath, my passion my self. Can anyone ever understand these words? There is no separateness in the dance and my entire being. It is the radiance of my spirit, that makes for the movements of my limbs. But what is meaningful, what is your fulfillment people ask me now. You have achieved fame, you are called the goodness of dance. Why do you go on straining yourself? I have no answer. How can I tell them that I am only 'I' when I dance. I am only that 'I AM' when I dance. I am only eternity when I dance. Silence is my response, movement my answer."

Mrinalini gets married to Vikram Sarabhai.
Mrinalini gets married to Vikram Sarabhai.

Veejay Sai is a writer, editor and a culture critic.

Images courtesy Viswanathan.