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“The real self of an artiste lies in art, so when an artiste performs, all the pain, trauma and tension get released through art, be it dancing, painting, singing, writing or even martial arts” – Mrinalini Sarabhai.
As Google celebrates the birth anniversary of Mrinalini Sarabhai, the first Indian woman classical dancer to perform Kathakali, with a doodle today, I find myself looking back at the remarkable journey of this woman’s contribution in classical dance as a dancer, choreographer and a teacher. She was a celebrated dancer to many exponents of Bharatnatyam and Kathakali.
Born on 11 May 1918 in Kerala to S. Swaminathan, a barrister at the Madras High court and A.V.Ammukutty, a freedom fighter and social worker, Mrinalini spent her early childhood in Switzerland where she received her first lessons on the Western dance technique, Dalcroze. Thereafter, she also studied in Shantiniketan under the tutelage of Guru Rabindranath Tagore where she figured that dance was her true calling. She returned for a brief period to the United States and enrolled herself in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
She returned to India and began her training in South Indian classical dance forms namely Bharatnatyam under Guru Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai, Mohiniattam under Guru Kalyanikutty Amma and Kathakali under the fabulously fabled Guru Thakazhi Kunchu Kurup. Mrinalini carved out a separate nook for herself when she decided to smash patriarchy and train herself in Kathakali also which during those days were performed only by men. Post her training, she established herself as a dexterous and distinguished dancer. Being trained in several Indian classical dance forms she had an added precedence over other classical dancers who had been trained in just one form.
She was married to the charismatic and renowned physicist Dr Vikram Sarabhai and moved to Gujarat from the South. Vikram Sarabhai was very supportive of her dreams and with him, she set the foundation stone of Darpana Academy of Performing Arts, an establishment providing training on classical dance, theatre, music and puppetry, in the year 1949. Apart from arts, the organization also works towards women emancipation and addresses issues like human rights, dowry, rapes and other social evils.
Her move from South and establishing a dance drama institution in Gujarat had not been easy. It was during the Satyagraha movement that the couple had decided to relocate to Gujarat. Those days people had a very conservative mindset and Mrinalini had to fight to perform South Indian dance forms in the Western state of Gujarat.
People labeled her as devadasi and lamented the fact that a scientist of the stature of Vikram Sarabhai had married a mere dancer. It was in such a situation that she began to dance even more and she performed Bharatnatyam anywhere and everywhere to show to the people of Gujarat that her dancing was an offering to God. From being tagged a devadasi, she became known as “Amma” in Gujarat, and became a pioneer of the very same South Indian classical dance forms that had earlier brought her under the scanner.
Darpana Academy of Performing Arts kickstarted as a very small school handling a countable number of girls interested in dance. However, it was in the 60’s that the school gained momentum and disciples turned to Mrinalini to learn the several art forms which she had to offer. So, once again she smashed the patriarchal ego by breaking the tag of devadasi and becoming a role model to several girls. It was in the same year 1949 that she performed at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris which provided her with a lot of accolades and her dance gained momentum when her troupe started getting invitations from rest of the India and also from the West.
The couple were blessed with two children – Mallika and Kartikeya Sarabhai and it was in the year 1977 when Mallika took over as the position of Director of Darpana. Statistics say Mrinalini had trained more than 18,000 students in Bharatnatyam and Kathakali. Over the years she had choreographed more than three hundred dance drams.
She was first a dancer and then an activist and a prolific writer who authored several novels, poetries and stories for children. Anita Ratnam in The Hindu Business Line writes, that she was on stage for 80 years. During this time, she won numerous honours and accolades for her dance. Apart from this, Mrinalini also distinguished herself in other areas — reviving Gujarati handlooms, establishing several women’s help organizations and pouring personal unrest into bestselling books. She once confessed to Anita that while writing a short work on Krishna, she completed the book in a week filled with strange dreams. “I was locked into a room with fever and it was like Kanha wrote my book himself,” she said.
When Mrinalini was 93, daughter Mallika Sarabhai stunned me one day by asking, “Amma still wants to be involved with dance. Can she contribute to your dance portal www.narthaki.com?” I was floored.
The great Mrinalini Amma appearing as a guest columnist on the portal. For four years, there was a space titled ‘Ask Mrinalini’ where she patiently answered every question, however trivial or banal. Such was her love for dance that in her final months, after a fall had restricted her to bed and her health was steadily deteriorating, she would spend every lucid moment teaching her nurses the Bharatanatyam hand gestures. Describing the scene, Mallika laughed and said, “When I go to her room in the morning, I hear the nurses saying the Sanskrit words Pataka, Tripitaka like obedient students.”
With her years of hard work as a dancer and social activist, Mrinalini passed away due to old age complications on 20 January 2016 at the age of 97. In her lifespan, she had been a recipient of several recognitions and prizes. She was awarded by the Indian Government with the highest national civilian awards Padma Shri in 1965 and Padma Bhushan in 1992. She was awarded the Sangeet Natak Academy Fellowship, New Delhi in the year 1994.
The Darpana Academy of Performing Arts celebrated its golden jubilee on 28 December 1998, with the announcement of the annual “Mrinalini Sarabhai Award for Classical Excellence”, in the field of classical dance. She was the first recipient of the Nishagandhi Puraskaram, an annual award of the Government of Kerala. The award was presented in 2013.
This article is a tribute to the great danseuse and activist Mrinalini Sarabhai on her birth anniversary which Google celebrated with a doodle on May 11, her birthday.
Image via Google Doodle
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