118 years of Trust Interview THE TRIBUNE
sunday reading
Sunday, September 13, 1998
Bollywood Bhelpuri

Living Space
Speaking Generally

"I see myself as a communicator"

THE name Mallika Sarabhai conjures up the image of a beautiful classical dancer, choreographer, theatre personality, scriptwriter and an activist all rolled into one. Daughter of the renowned Bharatnatyam dancer Mrinalani Sarabhai and scientist Vikram Sarabhai, Mallika started off as a Bharatnatyam and Kuchipudi dancer.

She made a foray into films at the age of 16. Mallika then went on to become a catalyst-performer who challenged her audience to sit up and think of ecology, the women’s role in society, gender awareness and cultural atrophy.

Rejecting the need to be reverent towards a patriarchal society, Mallika’s attempt has been to discover the valiant female figures present in mythology history and contemporary time. Be it through Shakti - the Power of Women — a strong statement about the Indian woman, or Sita’s daughters — about women refusing to accept an oppressive system, or through Itan Kahani, a comment on cultural manipulation.

As a choreographer, she has felt the need to do away with the fossilisation of art forms. With Mallika, one sees a different idiom of classical dance forms emerge. This idiom is demonstrated through her experimentation on-stage with various Indian martial forms, elements of folk dances and even video accompaniments.

Mallika is involved with Mrinalini Sarabhai’s Darpana Academy of Performing Arts, Ahmedabad. As its co-director, she co-ordinates the training of hundreds of students in dance, theatre, puppetry and music, and directs the Darpan Dance Company, Janavak Folk and Tribal Dance Company and darpana for Development.

Recently in Chandigarh to perform V for...., a stimulating piece on why each one of us resorts to violence, Mallika was her boisterous seek while talking to Sonoo Singh during an exclusive interview excerpts.

You are perceived as a "committed feminist" after your productions Shakti... and Sita’s Daughters. Do you also see yourself as a feminist?

I was always a feminist. In fact, I was born as one. For me a feminist is somebody who fights for the rights and equal opportunities for women and everybody else around. It’s just that 55 per cent of the people who are exploited happen to be women.

If you take the Dalits, a Dalit woman is liable to be more exploited than the Dalit man, because the whole world would exploit the Dalit woman and so would the Dalit man. Similarly, the Blacks in Africa or in America, are viewed as an exploited race but women still get the end of the stick. If one is talking of human rights, or of helping to create a world where exploitation is neither the dharma nor the mantra, women are always at the bottom of the rung.

It is still very fashionable to go and see Mallika Sarabhai perform on-stage and the kind of theatre you do is viewed as "elitist".

I think that is a stupid view. Do you know that out of the 280 shows of Sita’s Daughters that I’ve performed, 150 shows have been done in villages in Gujarati and in Hindi?

People have hang-ups because they think that anybody with the tag of a Sarabhai name should be so and so, or such and such a person. A lot of these things have come from people’s own limitations of their own visions. They are jealous, insecure and bitchy. That’s all.

How has your being Mrinalani Sarabhai’s daughter affected you?

It hasn’t. For many years everything that I did was attributed to my parents, but it was fine by me. I come from a family where we do not feel threatened by each other since the family unit is so strong. After every achievement, each of us says. "This is for you, I love you". After every fall we go back to the family, get licked back to shape and are ready to push out into the world again.

Amma has been a classical dancer since 1949. In 1963, she did a piece on women’s dowry deaths even before the phrase was coined. I’ve been taught that art reflects life and art has to lead the way into issues that other people don’t know how to touch.

People do come up to me and compare. "Your mother is a better dancer than you", is what some say. Good. Would a right hand ever resent the left hand, or a right hand resent the left eye? Of course not! Today Amma is equally proud of me.

Surely, your being a Sarabhai, has touched you somewhere?

People think that if someone comes from a wealthy, well-educated family then the person has to be a rascal!

I would not exchange my parents (even my larger family) for anything in the world. Each one of them has played a significant role in this world. My aunt Lakshmi led the INA; aunt Mridula, dressed as a Pathan and helped 40,000 women cross both sides of the border during Partition.

My great-aunt Anusuiya Sarabhai started the first textile labourer association in this country. I’m extremely proud of my family.

We were brought up thinking that since we’ve been given so much, we have to open windows to people’s lives. This was never fed to us, but was always a deep-rooted assumption.

We were never told, but assumed that we had to do something to further our privilege, which was in trust with us.

In what sense do you mean "privilege"?

I definitely to not mean wealth. What I really mean is culture. I mean sanskriti in the larger sense of the word. My parents felt that if their daughter did not have the right sanskaras at the age of 14 or 15, there is nothing that they could do to teach her the rights and wrongs at that age. I bring up my two children in the same way.

Mallika Sarabhai — the dancer, artiste, performer and what have you — has an array of colours, shades and hues attached to her. How would you describe her?

I see myself as a communicator. What I’m doing to you just now is what I’ll do on the stage. The same thing I’ll do on T.V. and the same thing I’ll say to my children at home. Writing scripts, publishing and doing films for children are all roles of a communicator.

If, while talking to you, feel that I would be able to communicate better while standing on my head, then I’ll do so! I certainly have a problem with people who say you are a dancer so why do something else? That’s their limitation, not mine.

It’s so much easier to deal with people when you can put them into a little box-"Oh, she’s a dancer and therefore... Oh, he’s this and therefore..." People have to break their intellectual laziness to cope with anybody who does not fit in with their definitions.

What kind of person is Mallika Sarabhai?

I’m exactly the kind of person that today’s India does not approve of. I’m a genuine mix breed, a genuine hybrid — a quarter Tamil, a quarter Malayali and half Gujarati.

I don’t know what caste I belong to and I do not want to know. If people ask me my religion, I ask them to mind their own business. When the so-called casteists and purists try to own me, I take great pride in declaring that I’m a mixed breed.

You come from an era that spawned "flower-children" and was anti-establishment. Did that influence you in any way?

I’ve never felt anything to become anti-establishment about. I was in a school that was run by my aunt. It had been started by Madam Montessori. We, the six or seven girls in the class, never realised that any woman could be treated differently in society, until I got into St. Xaviers’ College.

It was an absolute shock, a major revelation for me to discuss that we (women) were supposed to behave differently and talk in a certain manner. I constantly fought with professors who would say: 'How are you going to get a first class if you wear minis to college?' I answered back 'Will you look at my papers or my legs', and was rusticated for what.

At the Indian Institute of Management, we were the first group of women large enough to demand a hostel, as we didn’t have one. Horror of horrors we got the hostel. I don’t think all this was anything to do with the era.

Peter Brooke’s Mahabharata was performed for five years. How has it been, being Draupadi for these five years?

For me, in some sense, the crucible was in those years that I spent doing Mahabharata. Draupadi was a dream role, and working in it has been a great creative process. In fact, Draupadi seeped somewhere into me, just as some part of me seeped into Draupadi.

I started working as a young dancer at the peak of my career and was separately, an activist. At the end of five years & came out convinced that the two had to merge.

Post-Mahabharata, in all my work, even in the traditional forms, I would choose a Varnam that did not show the Nayika pleading or begging at somebody’s feet.

You have been working with John Martin for a couple of years now, out of which arose Shakti, Sita’s Daughters and now V for... How has it been working with Jon Marin.

When I was working with Peter Brooke there were many ego hassles between us. With John Martin there is no such thing. Both of us respect each other and know that we are working together to bring a "better reality".

Martin and me come from totally different backgrounds. We started working together in 1989 when Shakti was first born.

It was he who really kick-started me into discovering my creative self, by asking me to show him what all I had to say by shedding off all my inhibitions. That’s how it started.

We write our shows together, research, create and improving on them together. So if someone were to ask me who wrote a particular line or thought of a particular scene I would have no idea really.

How do you find the time and energy for your various roles?

I love life. I love everything I do. I wish I had 14 more hours more in my day. I’m lucky to have a very supportive family, who don’t doubt my abilities, howsoever unconventional, to manage things that I’m committed to do. Both my children, with whom I share an extraordinary relationship, know that they come first. Absolutely!

My role model has been my mother, Amma, throughout. She has stood by my side like a rock, telling me that her love for me is not dependent on what I do but for what I am.Back


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