On February 3, the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, unexpectedly cancelled its convocation ceremony that was scheduled to be held on February 7.
This sparked speculation that the institute had cancelled the ceremony under pressure from the Modi government because it had invited dancer and performer Mallika Sarabhai as the chief guest. Sarabhai has remained a vociferous critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi since his tenure as chief minister of Gujarat.
In an interview with Scroll.in, Sarabhai said the institute did not offer any explanation for the cancellation. She said she knew “how much pressure” institutes were under. But she saw a silver lining in the ongoing protests against the Citizenship Act in India: “Suddenly, hundreds and thousands of people otherwise silent who never thought of themselves as activists, who never thought of themselves as defenders of the nation are out there. That is a huge silver lining.”
The 65-year-old dancer continues to run Darpana Academy of Performing Arts in Ahmedabad that was set up in 1949 by her parents Mrinalini Sarabhai, a classical dancer and Vikram Sarabhai, a scientist who initiated space research in India.
Excerpts from the interview:
How long ago did NID invite you as their guest and when did they inform you that the event was cancelled?
They invited me three or four months ago. On Monday [February 3], I got the same letter as everyone else [informing them that the convocation was cancelled].
Did the institute give an explanation as to why the event was cancelled?
How do you view the institute’s decision on cancelling the convocation because of “unforeseen circumstances”?
I know how much pressure institutions are under. It is on the board to take a decision on whether they want to give in to that pressure or not. We also know what happens to people who do not give into pressure. I might have taken a different decision had I been the chair…I don’t know.
It is also not an individual thing, right? There are so many things that one needs to…I am not condoning or approving, I am just saying that it is a difficult time.
What had you planned to speak about in your address to students at the convocation?
I am actually contemplating making public what I was going to say in the next few hours. I was going to talk about how the world has gone wrong because human beings think we are the centre of the universe, and the universe and everything on it is for our good and for our greed. That has got us to the state we are in where the world is falling apart and animal species are being destroyed and languages are being destroyed and diversity is disappearing.
If there is one thing that is the soul of India, it is our diversity…it is our culture that means 900 languages, 3,000 ways of weaving, 500 ways of placing embroidery, colours, the fact that dal is not the same from one village to the next…that is the only thing that makes us unique.
I think we have gone wrong when we are trying to catch up with what we think are our superiors because we have an inferiority complex. For instance, if you look at traditional building technologies, every school is teaching how to build with cement and concrete when we know that cement and concrete uses so much water in the making of it and then falls apart in 50 years. And if you go into traditional building then you have forts that lasted 500 years.
Why is it that when we have answers to the kind of crisis we are in just now, why is it that we are still copying people we think are our superiors. And this kind of muscular patriarchy and capitalism is what is wrong. I want students to be actually able to change their worldview from this lackey of the West to what we should really celebrate is where we can lead the world.
The terms have to be ours because we have things that should be shared with the world. We have the recycling culture and tradition that the world needs to follow and not that we need to follow the world. And that the diminishing of difference into only one thing that is right is killing the very essence of India.
Are you aware of the mock convocation that NID students held?
Yes, absolutely. I wish they called me. I would have loved to have gone...that is the spirit.
How far back does your family’s association with the institute go?
It goes back to its birth, to its very idea. My aunt and uncle Gira and Gautam Sarabhai were the ones who brought in [American designers] Charles and Ray Eames and founded it.
I have worked on and off with NID. We have had a lot of students coming and working at Darpana, studying dance, studying mudras, doing projects. I have been on their governing council.
You have been an active voice of dissent in the protests against the amended Citizenship Act and proposed nationwide National Register of Citizens in Gujarat. How do you view the current political situation regarding the ongoing protests?
For the first time in many years, I feel such a glimmer of hope that the young people are really taking on what is of absolute essential value to India, which is non-violent protest. More and more people are coming into this without a single leader…the women that have come out of it. For me, working in women’s empowerment, I think that this is amazing and thank god for breaking the silence and finally finding your own speech and your voices and the sisterhood.
Our Constitution and our flag have become genuine symbols of our good rather than something that you stand up and salute every few months.
What role do you think women have played during these protests?
Very primary. They are at the absolute centre. It is something that we are seeing for the first time. I have heard that during the freedom struggle there were a lot of women involved but I do not think women were leading it.
But certainly, in all my years of activism, I have never seen women as the force of the protests…The sisterhood that has come out is breaking through [the lines of] caste, community and religion, and their men who keep them at home.
At the Jaipur Literature Festival, protestors were detained by police. At the India Art Fair, a Shaheen Bagh-inspired exhibition was disrupted. How do you view such incidents as a performer and dancer?
When I first did Sita’s Daughters in 1990, I told Sita’s story from her perspective, I had right-wing Hindus trying to burn the theatre down in Pune. That was 1990. Two years ago, Professor [Shivaji] Panikkar at MS University [Maharaja Sayajirao University in Baroda] had to resign and leave the city because of [something like] this.
How do you think cultural spaces have been affected by this?
I think that while censorship is on at its fullest and most brutal, the fact that every kind of artist is using the art, poetry, painting, cartooning, songs is amazing. That is the true role of culture.
The bigger the festival, the more they feel scared. It is done to frighten people into silence into not protesting. What is a literature festival if literature is not dissent and debate?
Some observers say that these are the biggest protests since the Emergency in the 1970s...
This is the first time. Nirbhaya was one sort of thing, the anti-corruption [movement] was one sort, but this is about the soul of India.
This is about who we are. It is otherwise a very distant concept for those people looking at their rozi roti everyday but suddenly it is not a distant concept.
Suddenly, the Constitution is what makes us us. And suddenly, hundreds and thousands of people otherwise silent who never thought of themselves as activists, who never thought of themselves as defenders of the nation are out there. That is a huge silver lining. And I think it will turn into a silver cloud, not just a lining.
What are you currently working on?
I have just done a major tour a few months ago of a new piece that my colleague Yadavan Chandran and I created with a Pakistani British singer Samia Malik and the show is called Colours of Her Heart. It was looking at five individual personal stories of the five performers to try and build a post #MeToo dialogue between men and women, men and men and women and women. And it had tremendous success.
We did 10 cities in America and people from the audience would come and hold our hands and say that they had never spoken about this. There were men who came and said thank you for giving us the opportunity and we have felt so frustrated, so frightened and so guilty because no one gives us a chance to say that there are men who are different, who would like to defend you, and there are men who think that what we are doing is wrong, there are men who think that entitlement is all-pervasive and needs to be changed.
We have finished the building of our theatre which was necessitated by the Riverfront Sabarmati project cutting off our stage from the rest of us, a process that took three and a half years. We have created a very beautiful gallery that we have dedicated to my mother and because we were trying to get the theatre up and running we have not had time to do what we wanted to do which is for the first three months create an exhibition celebrating her many facets people do not know at all. That is one thing I am very actively working on.
For years, people have been telling me to write a book about the experiments I have done with health, food, nutrition and exercise because I am constantly asked how I look the way I do. So I am writing. I have never worked on a book before.