119 years of Trust Interview THE TRIBUNE
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Sunday, August 15, 1999
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"Dance and drama have always
been sisters"

PADMA SHRI, Padma Bhushan; Natya Kala Sikhamani, Raseshwar, Veera Shrinkala,Vishwa Gurjari, Kalidasa Samman, Onkar Nath Thakur Award, Hall of Fame Award, Honor Sammus Award; D. Litt. Honoris Causa from Rabindra Bharati, Vishwa Bharati, and University of East Anglia; Fellowships of Sangeet Natak Akademi and of Kerala Kalamandalam; and membership of the Executive Committee of the International Dance Council (Paris) — these are some of the honours bestowed on Mrinalini Sarabhai. She is internationally known as the most celebrated Bharat- natyam dancer, and hailed by the Press as ‘the mirror of Indian culture’, ‘the high priestess of Indian dance’, and ‘the Martha Graham of India’. Combining technical mastery and fanatic formal purity with creative expressionism and modish experiments, she has choreographed more than 300 dance-dramas and taken them around in all the five continents.

Born in Kerala, brought up in Madras, educated in Bengal, and settled in Gujarat, Mrinalini is a living symbol of national integration. She is the daughter of Amaswamy who was a dancing legend, sister of the legendary Captain Laxmi of the INA, favourite pupil of that other legend, Rabindranath Tagore and wife of a legendary scientist, Vikram Sarabhai. And going by the achievements of Mallika, her daughter, she might as well end up as the mother of a legend. Anyway, a veritable legend is that other child of hers, Darpana Academy of Performing Arts at Ahmedabad, which has to its credit about 17,000 students, over 600 workshops, about 500 productions in dance, drama and puppetry, over 23,000 performances in 91 countries, and the revival of 17 near-extinct forms. Besides programmes of teaching and performance, the academy has a publication unit, a communication cell, a multi-purpose theatre, and a centre of research in folk and tribal arts.

While most of these facts are quite well known, what is not known so well is Mrinalini’s interest in dramatic arts: she has acted, written scripts, directed plays, and has been the leading light behind the growth of Gujarati theatre through the production of over 100 plays by Darpana Academy. For her, dance and drama are inalienably related to each other, as Chaman Ahuja discovered in the course of an interview. Here are some excerpts:

Kailas Pandya has said you have also been doing plays. What have you done in this field?

Well, strange as it might appear to you, I have been doing plays all my life. For me, dance and drama are by no means different entities; our ancient drama was an integral part of classical dance. Anyway, my career in theatre started when I was eight years old with a role in a play The Parrot: Woman in the Cage by Hirendranath Chattopadhyaya who was a friend of our family. Thanks to initiation, I wanted to be an actress and dancing was to be a part of that pursuit. In Madras, which was a centre of powerful Tamil theatre then, I started seeing all genres of plays. At home, I would do plays with children; invariably, I would direct the plays and play the female lead. After marriage, I wrote a play on Gandhi and Nehru and did it with the students of Bangalore Science Institute. Of course, by that time I was getting more and more absorbed in dancing — a process that was completed whenI came to Ahmedabad where my ignorance of Gujarati stood in the way of my doing major roles. To sustain my interest, I would do minor roles of two or three lines — until I learnt to serve Gujarati theatre in other ways.

Did you take to directing plays?

Since Gujarati theatre was not so rich as the Tamil theatre, I found a meaningful role for Darpana. We started a drama group under the leadership of Pandyaji. Our first effort was directed towards the creation of good scripts in Gujarati.We persuaded good writers to try their hands at playwriting.One of them was the novelist Pannalal Patel. I told him a mystery story and he created a play called Chando Shesha (Night of the Moon), which was very successful. Soon we had with us regular playwrights — Bakul Tripathi who did Leela for us and Madhu Rye, the creator of Kissi Ek Phool Ka Naam Lo. As we had no theatre, we had performances in our drawing room for a small audience of 50 persons or so. Visiting Japan on a performance tour, I saw some modern Noh plays, and on return we did three Noh plays in that drawing room. This brought us the love of elderly artists like C.C. Mehta, Uma Shankar Joshi, Jayantibai, Dalal, etc. But since there was no regular theatre-loving audience, Darpana drama group was finding it difficult to make both ends meet. Col. Gupte of the Song and Drama Division started showing interest in our efforts and we started doing plays for him. Those were propaganda plays but we attracted good audiences and a number of our playwrights learnt to write popular plays. Once we did Agatha Christie’s Mousetrap, too. As the idea was to cultivate audiences, we created an organisation called Shatak; its members could see any number of our plays by paying a membership fee of just Rs 5 per year. We also created a cave-like, open-air theatre which the floods washed away soon after the death of its creator, my husband Vikram.

Would you like to talk about any great production of yours?

Yes, my production of a Sanskrit play, Swapnavasudattam, that I did in the States at the Institute of Advanced Studies inTheatre. The Institute wanted American actors to be exposed to theatres of other kind, they had invited a Kabuki team before me and a Chinese before that. For me it was a great experience — working with the professional Broadway actors. The critic Walter Terry was probably right when he said to me, "You are taming the toughest people in America." We had gruelling session from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. On the first day, it was agreed that those who wanted to go out for smoking could do that, provided they left without disturbing the class; but nobody ever moved out. We would sit on the floor, as in India, start with shlokas, do exercise in mudras, and so on. As I could not teach them dancing in the nine weeks that I had, I had to be content with such simple mudras as plucking of a flower, saying namaskara etc. The Institute had asked me if I wanted to take people who looked Indian; I had said, yes, Indian from inside, not from outside. In fact, I cast blondes for my lead roles and gave them neither wigs nor brown make-up. And yet in simple handloom dhoti or sari, they looked and acted perfect Indians. So much so that Mrs B.K. Nehru simply could not believe that those performers were not Indians or that they had never been to India!

Doing so many dance dramas, are you trying to create the Indian counterpart of ballet?

Ballet is not a genre; it is the name of a western dance form. It is a pure dance in which the dancers don’t speak or sing, it tells a story but in a general way — with no interpretation.

Isn’t Bharatnatyam also a pure dance form?

No, it is a dance-drama — a soloist dance-drama. The story comes through dance as well as through song. Whether I speak and do it with action, or don’t speak but have a singer to speak for me, verbal interpretation is there. Dance is energetic; a dancer cannot always have the energy to dance and sing at the same time and so he/she has a singer to speak for him/her. That is what makes it drama, too. In India at least, dance and drama have always been sisters — very close sisters.We have always had dance-drama. Kudiattam is nothing but dance drama.

I thought that dance is a pure art and drama a composite one...

In Bharatnatyam, when I tell a story — from Ramayana, from Mahabharata — and play Rama, Ravana, Krishna, Arjuna, or whatever, is that not drama? The language of a drama can be Sanskrit, Hindi, English, it can be the language of mudras, too. In a Bharatnatyam piece on dowry, instead of music or song, I used syllables.Then came Manushya in Kathakali.

Would you say that the creative contribution of dancer like Chanderlekha, Maya Rao, Mallika, lies in bringing dance and drama close to each other ?

They have always been together, maybe, these people have brought them closer. Or, maybe, while a dance-drama brings more of dance into drama, they are bringing more of drama into dance.I can understand why the people in North see dance and drama as totally disparate entities. Thanks to a series of invasions and cultural turmoils there, the traditions of art and culture have undergone a sea-change and lost their intrinsic identities; thus while drama has come to mean the realistic stage of the West with minimal contribution from dance and music, dance means a matter of pure rhythm — as in Kathak. In the South, survives the old tradition which sees them as inalienable siblings.

Shyamanand Jalan once said that while the tradition of classical Indian theatre, as enshrined in Bharata’s Natyashastra, got lost somewhere on the way, the classical dance tradition has come down to us uninterrupted, and that to create a new identity for the modern Indian theatre, we should turn to our classical dances. Do you agree?

No, I can’t agree. What is Kudiattam if not Bharata’s drama? The work of K.N. Panikar is nothing but our dramatic tradition in its pristine purity. Kathakali also follows Natyashastra insofar as it implies speaking with mudras: the speech is not there but it has all the dramatic elements of Natyashastra. Kudiattam, I repeat, is Bharata in practice today. I turned to it for my Swapnavasudattam. Even now I am preparing a piece in which shalokas will be recited in the Kudiattam way — in the old ragas. Indeed, Natyashastra is very much alive in the South. Thanks to the North-South divide, people in Calcutta may not be able to see it.

Do you think we have been successful in turning to tradition, folk or classical, to evolve a new identity of the Indian theatre?

In Kerala, Tamil Nadu, as to also in Manipur, the results are there for anyone to see. Unfortunately, the North is finding it difficult to return to the roots. The discovery of roots may be a dream for the North, but for the South, it is a reality. The culture in South is well-rooted; go to the tribals in Kerala and you have the evidence. The way they speak or use gestures in their dances, it is Sanskrit theatre.

Just as Kabuki is typically Japanese, which of our forms can pass as uniquely Indian?

Kathakali. There were many more typically Indian forms but when these travelled to South East Asia and shaped the arts there, gradually their distinctness lost its sharpness. Take Karate, for example. It is Kathakali Kalari — substantially changed but essentially the same — their way of standing, the slow movements, and all that.Back

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