Tribute

Mrinalini Sarabhai (1918-2016): Dance was the 'radiance of her spirit'

Infused with the passion of the Independence movement, the dancer saw art as a natural extension of her life.

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.

Play

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.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

The perpetual millennial quest for self-expression just got another boost

Making adulting in the new millennium easier, one step at a time.

Having come of age in the Age of the Internet, millennials had a rocky start to self-expression. Indeed, the internet allowed us to personalise things in unprecedented fashion and we really rose to the occasion. The learning curve to a straightforward firstname.surname@___mail.com email address was a long one, routed through cringeworthy e-mail ids like coolgal1234@hotmail.com. You know you had one - making a personalised e-mail id was a rite of passage for millennials after all.

Declaring yourself to be cool, a star, a princess or a hunk boy was a given (for how else would the world know?!). Those with eclectic tastes (read: juvenile groupies) would flaunt their artistic preferences with an elitist flair. You could take for granted that bitbybeatlemania@hotmail.com and hpfan@yahoo.com would listen to Bollywood music or read Archie comics only in private. The emo kids, meanwhile, had to learn the hard way that employers probably don’t trust candidates with e-mail ids such as depressingdystopian@gmail.com.

Created using Imgflip
Created using Imgflip

And with chat rooms, early millennials had found a way to communicate, with...interesting results. The oldest crop of millennials (30+ year olds) learnt to deal with the realities of adolescent life hunched behind anonymous accounts, spewing their teenage hormone-laden angst, passion and idealism to other anonymous accounts. Skater_chick could hide her ineptitude for skating behind a convincing username and a skateboard-peddling red-haired avatar, and you could declare your fantasies of world domination, armed with the assurance that no one would take you seriously.

With the rise of blogging, millennial individualism found a way to express itself to millions of people across the world. The verbosity of ‘intellectual’ millennials even shone through in their blog URLs and names. GirlWhoTravels could now opine on her adventures on the road to those who actually cared about such things. The blogger behind scentofpetunia.blogspot.com could choose to totally ignore petunias and no one would question why. It’s a tradition still being staunchly upheld on Tumblr. You’re not really a Tumblr(er?) if you haven’t been inspired to test your creative limits while crafting your blog URL. Fantasy literature and anime fandoms to pop-culture fanatics and pizza lovers- it’s where people of all leanings go to let their alter ego thrive.

Created using Imgflip
Created using Imgflip

Then of course social media became the new front of self-expression on the Internet. Back when social media was too much of a millennial thing for anyone to meddle with, avatars and usernames were a window into your personality and fantasies. Suddenly, it was cool to post emo quotes of Meredith Grey on Facebook and update the world on the picturesque breakfast you had (or not). Twitter upped the pressure by limiting expression to 140 characters (now 280-have you heard?) and the brevity translated to the Twitter handles as well. The trend of sarcasm-and-wit-laden handles is still alive well and has only gotten more sophisticated with time. The blogging platform Medium makes the best of Twitter intellect in longform. It’s here that even businesses have cool account names!

Self-expression on the Internet and the millennials’ love for the personalised and customised has indeed seen an interesting trajectory. Most millennial adolescents of yore though are now grownups, navigating an adulting crisis of mammoth proportions. How to wake up in time for classes, how to keep the boss happy, how to keep from going broke every month, how to deal with the new F-word – Finances! Don’t judge, finances can be stressful at the beginning of a career. Forget investments, loans and debts, even matters of simple money transactions are riddled with scary terms like beneficiaries, NEFT, IMPS, RTGS and more. Then there’s the quadruple checking to make sure you input the correct card, IFSC or account number. If this wasn’t stressful enough, there’s the long wait while the cheque is cleared or the fund transfer is credited. Doesn’t it make you wish there was a simpler way to deal with it all? If life could just be like…

Created using Imgflip
Created using Imgflip

Lo and behold, millennial prayers have been heard! Airtel Payments Bank, India’s first, has now integrated UPI on its digital platform, making banking over the phone easier than ever. Airtel Payments Bank UPI, or Unified Payment Interface, allows you to transfer funds and shop and pay bills instantly to anyone any time without the hassles of inputting any bank details – all through a unique Virtual Payment Address. In true millennial fashion, you can even create your own personalised UPI ID or Virtual Payment Address (VPA) with your name or number- like rhea@airtel or 9990011122@airtel. It’s the smartest, easiest and coolest way to pay, frankly, because you’re going to be the first person to actually make instant, costless payments, rather than claiming to do that and making people wait for hours.

To make life even simpler, with the My Airtel app, you can make digital payments both online and offline (using the Scan and Pay feature that uses a UPI QR code). Imagine, no more running to the ATM at the last minute when you accidentally opt for COD or don’t have exact change to pay for a cab or coffee! Opening an account takes less than three minutes and remembering your VPA requires you to literally remember your own name. Get started with a more customised banking experience here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Airtel Payments Bank and not by the Scroll editorial team.