Mallika on a
Her beauty, her
IIM degree, her bindaas attitude and the Sarabhai suffix to her
name emerge as mere incidentals when you shake hands with
Mallika Sarabhai, the theatre artiste and activist who is out to
set many social wrongs right.
HER MOTHERíS DAUGHTER: Mallika finetunes her dance with her mother Mrinalini Sarabhai
dense, long mane is history. So is her once-raging reputation as
a sex symbol. Mallika Sarabhai, today, is a woman reinvented,
and liberated from the shadows of her past. Crisp, short hair is
just part of the makeover for this artiste, who is now
centrestage with her activism.
Not too long ago, she was seen
wooing a handsome Farooque Shaikh in the all-time film Katha.
That was, obviously, not the kind of job to have engaged a rebel
for long. Mallika was destined to move on, and she did`85
towards new horizons.
Not that she was ever afraid of setting
out new journeys. That, after all, was the family tradition and
business. At a time when classical dance was still considered
sacredly traditional, her mother Mrinalini Sarabhai was
modifying Bharatanatyam to create a contemporary dance idiom. At
another end, her aunt Lakshmi Sahgal was commanding the Indian
And then there was the celebrated family
history to fall back on ó her great aunt Amulya Sarabhai
headed the great Textile and Labour Association strike, the
first labour union strike of India. The agitation saw Mahatma
Gandhi negotiating with the management, on behalf of the
workers, and the results were heartening. The labourersí got a
half paisa raise in their salary; and Gandhi another affirmation
in the power of peaceful negotiation.
A young Mallika was,
thus, naturally trained to dare and explore, not so much by
virtue of her motherís artistic trespasses as due to her
father Vikram Sarabhaiís resoluteness that placed India on the
worldís nuclear map. Today, in Gujarat where she lives,
political masters mention her with a pinch of salt. She, after
all, bared the wounds that Godhra left, and dragged the state
Chief Minister Narendra Modi to court. Whatís more, she got
from the court a direction that cases ordered closed by the
Gujarat police be reopened and victimsí claims of compensation
be examined afresh.
Dancer with a voice
think of it Ė sheís just a dancer. But one who has found her
voice, a voice thatís strong enough not to be silenced. Not
even by the bombs extremists throw at Darpana, Mallikaís
academy of performing arts in Ahmedabad, which has become a
symbol of her activism. From Darpanaís compounds, Mallika has
initiated a chain reaction of change. And in effecting change,
art has been her first tool, management her second.
sequence was the reverse when Mallika was still on the threshold
of her career. Urged by her father, she went to IIM, Ahmedabad,
even when he was no longer alive to see her through the
competition. "I wanted to be a demographer, but papa wanted
me to take management training so that together we could build
great institutions for India, institutions that could run
without considerations of profit. He died in 1971. I remember
taking the IIM test a day after I cremated him," Mallika
says, with pride.
The next thing she remembers is that she was
in, filled with a desire to do new things. Her chance came when
David Mc Leyland, the Harvard professor who was christened the
founder of the motivational theory, agreed to guide her PhD on a
topic that was way ahead of its times. "I wanted to study
how to develop structures that could foster creativity. But a
more important part of my research was the study of power motive
in India, which has always revered those who have renounced
power," says Mallika who, through her research, proved that
only a fraction of the society was, eventually, interested in
working without the expectation of reward.
proved that at 11 years, 90 per cent of the people believed
there was a direct relation between input and output; the number
had dropped to 40 per cent by 15 years and just 10 per cent by
19 years. This 10 per cent was made up of students, whose
parents had not lied to them about society and its evils. They
had been forewarned of the all-pervasive rut and they were ready
for it," Mallika reasons, explaining how she applied
management training to Darpana, which gets no government or
corporate funding. "I donít think I could have ever run
Darpana if I didnít have my degree," she says.
range of conversation widens, Mallika makes another interesting
confession: "As a child, I had deep love for theatre and
puppetry. I never really wanted to dance. I was just too lazy or
perhaps afraid that I lacked the commitment my mother had for
dance. I learned dance only because others in the class were
Love for theatre
however, were going to change. In 1977, Mallika gave her first
performance as a dancer. A French government award followed.
Soon, she was being hailed as the prefect protagonist for her
motherís choreography. "I never thought I could create,
until Peter Brookís Mahabharata happened in 1980,"
Mallika had portrayed the character of Draupadi in the 12-hour
theatrical, which was later made into a movie.
Drapuadi remains the perfect feminist: "She is the only
woman in our mythology whom men could not reduce to a goddess
because she was just so strong. They could not limit her to the
altar. She was courageous enough to tell Yudhishthira Ė `You
may be a great man, but youíre a weak maní. I respect her
Draupadiís role brought Mallika closer to her
real self: "I realised that the best language for activism
was artistic expression. With this language, I could engage with
everything I ever wanted to. I started telling social realities
through dance theatre. Gradually, I found global partners in the
campaign for human rights."
Mallikaís first dance
theatre production Shakti: The Power of Woman became a
rage in art circles. With Shakti, she had arrived on the
contemporary Indian dance scene. Her ability to write her own
works, transcend tradition and employ idioms like martial arts
to project human longing lent her the edge that still sets her
apart. As co-director of Darpana, founded by her mother in 1949,
she went on to fashion several productions, while managing the
academyís other wings, including development, folk/tribal art,
centre for non-violence through arts and conservatory. Her skill
lay not just in her mastery over dance forms, but also in her
ability to adapt the realities of gender-based violence for
finest specimen of Mallikaís talents remains Sitaís
Daughters, her most celebrated production, performed across
40 countries, in three languages. The piece engages with issues
like female foeticide and domestic violence and inspires women
to "never give in". In Search of the Goddess is
another striking theatrical which Mallika uses to explore
Hinduism and womenís role therein. Itís this understanding
that leads to her conflicts with radicals, who fear her for what
"Itís fine if Modi has problems with me. I donít
require a stamp of good housekeeping from him. I have a strong
moral code thatís my own and I will live by it. I have always
done things without hiding them," says Mallika, remembering
her college days, which saw her wearing mini-skirts, dating men,
even going in for a live-in relationship. She finally married
and then divorced Bipin Shah, with whom she now runs Mapin
Publishing. "We share a great friendship now, although we
had an unhappy divorce. I was actually talking about my divorce
so that everyone could learn from it," says Mallika, fire
rising in her eyes as she continued talking of Hinduism and
"Seventy per cent of the sex workers in Gujarat
are such whose husbands are pimps, but the radicals have a
problem talking about sex. They have ended up "Talibanising"
Hinduism by ignoring its basic tenets. The religion directs us
to never accept anything without questioning; these people donít
let you question. The religion preaches Vasudhaiv Kutumbhkam.
I know no other way of living but by taking them on,"
says Mallika, the activist, who has paid a heavy price for
speaking her mind.
For the marginalised
perhaps, the only woman artiste in the country who has never
been honoured by her government, although she has countless
"foreign" awards. "When I went public with my
anti-Modi stand post-Godhra, I lost every single friend in town.
I also lost corporate funding for Darpana. Now, every single
penny that I earn goes into running the institution. This is one
area where I feel my surname has gone against me. People canít
believe a Sarabhai being short of funds," she laughs,
admitting that she has been a maverick, who had raised her
children on the diet of reality, no matter how
"This society stinks more than ever before and I
have told my children that it stinks. Itís for us to warn them
that times need change. My latest work, Unsuni, based on
Harsh Manderís book Unheard Voices is about these
realities, which I have showcased to enable change. The stories
celebrate the spirit of five real people ó one of them a woman
who has spent a lifetime carrying human waste on her shoulders.
If not anything else, we owe her our attention. Incidentally,
the government tried to censor Unsuni," Mallika
gloats, mentioning also of the Unsuni voluntary movement, which
seeks support for the marginalised.
Next from her repertory
will be Swakranti and Colours of the Heart. The
first (literally meaning a revolution within) is a reflection of
Mallikaís Gandhian beliefs; the second is a reaction to her
encounters with people with extreme views. But topmost on
her mind is something she calls "voluntary action through
art", a new mission in which she finds her son Revanta and
daughter Anahita, by her side. Both, like her, are generously
endowed with traits that are typically Sarabhai.