Rich life, poor account
Shastri Ramachandaran

The Voice of the Heart. An Autobiography.
by Mrinalini Sarabhai. HarperCollins. Pages 316. Rs 495.

The Voice of the Heart. An Autobiography.This is a book that one would pick up with high expectations. It is the story of and by an extraordinarily accomplished dancer who has an assured place in the history of dance, if not art and culture too. Covering, as her story does, nearly three quarters of the last century when Indian performing arts moved out of exclusive, elitist circles as well as from their traditional ‘lower’ origins, such as devadasis, Mrinalini Sarabhai has much to tell, and teach too.

This daughter of the famous Swaminadhan family married Vikram Sarabhai, pioneering scientist and institution-builder, of the equally famous Sarabhai house. This coming together of high art and visionary science — amidst an abundance of wealth, talent, enterprise, creativity and a culture fusing the traditional and the modern during the momentous decades of India’s political and social transformation — is not just the stuff of moving drama. It is riveting history peopled with historic figures from India and the world, and Mrinalini is a privileged witness.

Expectations of being drawn into an absorbing history of dance narrated by one of its most versatile and celebrated exponents are dashed by the book. True, there is some history of dance, but this is in patches and devoid of depth and context. Dates are treated as irrelevant, showing contempt for chronology. Mistakes in the spellings of people and places are galore, as are exclamation marks. Detail there is, loads of it, as trivia and gossip, of the greats in all walks of life — from Tagore and Vallathol to Gandhi and Nehru — whom she met, saw, hugged, kissed and partied with. Her own family members were or are too well known in India and abroad to need mention. After all, it was the original Page 3 family, except that there was no Page 3 then to record their dalliances. The private affairs of such a public family — such as Vikram Sarabhai’s relationship with Kamla Chowdhary — are all too well known to bear recall.

Mrinalini’s account could have been turned into a good history of dance — against the backdrop of the historic, social, cultural and political transformations in the country and society — if only to fill the gap at a time when it is fashionable to treat history as bunk.

However, the failure to do so is not Mrinalini’s. She is a dancer and her form and medium of expression are different, though she has written and published earlier. The blame, for this poorly stitched cataloguing of Page 3 type of stuff where history is lost in the maze of the personal and the private, should be laid at the door of the publisher. The rush to profit through celebrity-centric quickies where authors are condemned to publish and be damned alone explains a book that does such injustice to Mrinalini, her art and her heart. She deserves better. Surely, her publishers could have found the editors to mine, gather, shape, chisel and polish the material given its potential to be a gem.

"I am always accused of being a perfectionist, as though it is a crime against society," writes Mrinalini of the time she was recovering from a terrible accident and fearful of her future as a dancer. Obviously, her publishers were not made to take note of this line in her manuscript. Had that been done, the book would have been true to Mrinalini’s observation: "Putting some known vocabulary together is not creativity. There must be something vibrant that is a tangible quality of one’s own truth."