Free Press Journal

The fearless dancer: Mallika Sarabhai


It is impossible to categorise Mallika Sarabhai only as a dancer. She wears many hats but while talking to Boski Gupta she tries to keep the conversation around her skills and performance

Dancer, actor, choreographer, director, politician, activist… Mallika Sarabhai maybe an amalgamation of several characters in one, but one look at her and you will know that she’s a woman of substance. Independent and uninhibited, Mallika is a name to reckon with the world over due to her fearless enactment of women form our past. She doesn’t bow down to hypocrite mythology and questions every illogical tradition. Daughter of danseuse Mrinalini and India’s eminent scientist Vikram Sarabhai, Mallika though had established herself as a prominent classical dancer in India, she is trained in Bharatnaytam, it was in 1989 that she changed the course of her terpsichorean journey.

She conceived and created the first of her hard-hitting solo theatrical works, Shakti: The Power of Women and since then has been working to bring about a social change. She also portrayed the character of Draupadi in Peter Brook’s nine-hour long play The Mahabharata, and garnered appreciation world over. Her latest performance again is about a woman in love with an older man with whom she communicates through letters.

With Love
Mallika and Tom Alter are coming together for With Love. A play based on the relationship between Rabindranath Tagore and Victoria O’Campo. Co-written and directed by Mallika, the play delves into the great Tagore’s life through poetry, drama, dance, and music. Tom will play the Bengali laureate’s older version while Mallika is O’Campo, her son Revanta is playing the young Tagore. “For the 150th anniversary of Tagore we decided to do a trilogy and called it Tagorenama. With Love was part of that. I have always wondered about Tagore. He was a writer, philosopher, novelist, lyricist, composer, painter… Yet people enjoy him in parts. Music lovers love Rabindro Sangeet. Actors love his plays.

Punters love his paintings. But these parts of him cannot be disconnected. So where did his inspiration spring from? Did he put in his works the women in his life? Was Chitrangada also part of his paintings? So in this performance I wanted to explore him. That’s why With Love is not a dance piece. It is a performance that uses all the forms that he created in. Then I suddenly came upon O’Campo and their relationship in the last 20 years of his life and that became the lynch pin on the script. Tom was an obvious choice for the 63-year-old Tagore convalescing in Buenos Aires, stuck with writer’s block and in love. And then my co writer Steve Miller and I chanced upon the idea of the older Tagore having a conversation with his young bold and curious self,” she explains.tom

Tagore and I
Mallika says she has grown up with Tagore… “I have always lived with him. In school, we sang him and danced him. Amma (her mother) considered him her true Guru so at home too we were full of his music and dance dramas. And when I was older I started reading him. ‘Where the Mind Is Without Fear’ is perhaps my anthem.” Tagore showed women in different light. They were not a showpiece, hey had life, and they wanted to live. Be it Chokher Bali or Gora, Tagore’s female characters were independent and opinionated. “All of Tagore’s women, the one’s he wrote and the ones he loved, were emancipated. There is an extraordinary line of O’Campo’s: His staying or going cannot deprive me of him. Her love was within her and total. And it was liberating. At her home he used to rest in an arm chair which travelled back to India with him, and in which he sat till he died. My mother remembers it from his home in Shantiniketan,” she adds.

Dance, my battery
Though her mother is an acclaimed danseuse herself, Mallika didn’t take it up professionally till long time. An alumni of IIM Ahmedabad, she also has a doctorate from the Gujarat University in Organisational Behaviour. She did her MBA at a very young age of 20, and completed her Phd two years later, in 1976. Ask her if it was her mom who inspired her to choose dance, the terpsichorean says, “No, not at all. I was going through a depression and woke up one day to realise that that is what I wanted to do,” adding, “Classical dance is my battery. I practice every day and I perform it constantly. It forms the trunk of all my work.” She also wants people of all ages to learn dance. “It is easier if you start at seven. But I encourage people of all ages to start whenever if they love it and have missed the chance of learning. In Darpana, in the first year we have students ranging from 7 to 60,” she shares.

Darpana of art
Coming to Darpana, this small dance academy started by her parents in 1949 saw a sporadic change after Mallika took over the reigns of the institute. Her management skills came handy in establishing it as one of the most talked-about dancing academy in the world. Mallika refuses to believe that today’s youth in not interested in classical arts. “I am constantly invited to perform by colleges and youngsters. Just because they like pizza, it does not mean they don’t like dosas!” she exclaims. And even before she’s done with With Love, the indefatigable Mallika is ready to take on her next journey. “We are working on an international feature film based on a hugely successful happening of ours called Kadak Badshaahi, based on 600 years of Ahmedabad’s multi cultural history. It is being directed by Darpana’s artistic director, Yadavan Chandran,” she says.