Asian Music and Dance

Mrinalini Sarabhai – An Artist of Conviction


n 21 January Mallika Sarabhai announced: “My mother has just left for her eternal dance.” While not unexpected – Mrinalini would have been 98 in May – her death affected many and an era ended: one of the doyennes of bharatanatyam, she played a significant, if somewhat marginal, role in its twentieth-century development. 

The breadth of Mrinalini’s life astonishes. Born Mrinalini Swaminadham in 1918, she was brought up in an intellectually rich environment. Family members were academics and freedom-fighters. Her father, barrister Subbarama, was educated in elite institutions in England and the USA. By the time he married in 1908, his practice was thriving. Ammu, his wife, hailing from Kerala, was only 14. As Mrinalini put it, “he brought her up.” He promoted her independence and the family home became a hub of social and political activities. She took part in dramatic productions, played tennis and drove a car, all quite daring for a woman in colonial India. She engaged with politically- and spiritually-minded people, including theosophists Annie Besant and Margaret Cousins who had been suffragettes back home, and Rukmini Devi, one of the pillars of the dance revival. In 1930 she was left a young widow with four children to raise, finding herself in the same predicament as her own mother had been. 

This sketch outlines Mrinalini’s early years. The family circle included women friends who were doctors, publishers, politicians, writers and more, supported in their endeavours by their male partners. As she remarked: “I came from a family where women were never downtrodden, I have never felt unequal as a woman in my life, ever!”, relating this to the matrilineal system of Kerala, where women are generally accorded a higher status than in many other Indian states. Her childhood was somewhat lonely, being raised by workaholic parents. Very close to her father, his death when she was just 12 deeply affected her. She was a serious child, yet the pranks with visiting cousins and friends or the description of the sporting and social activities at her Swiss school confirm that she was fun too. Very young, she declared that she was a dancer. When, many years later, she was asked how long she had been dancing, she answered: “Since my previous birth”! In the deeply intellectual and politicised environment of her family, to dance was somewhat incongruous but not outrageous. Rukmini Devi had paved the way and learning bharatanatyam was as much a political as an artistic act.

Mrinalini’s training was eclectic. In Switzerland she learned ‘Greek dance’, a Duncanesque/Dalcrozian technique inspired by the moves depicted on classical Greek vases. Returning to India, she studied briefly at Kalakshetra, training with Muthukumaran Pillai whom she always credited as her initiator into bharatanatyam, repeatedly returning to him to study and later inviting him to Darpana, her academy in Ahmedabad. She needed, however, a more rounded education. This she found at Shantiniketan with Rabrindanath Tagore, who had a long-lasting influence on her vision of the world and aesthetic sensitivity. Travelling extensively with her mother in South-East Asia and the USA, she also took dance classes whenever she could. 

This cosmopolitan lifestyle continued following her marriage to the nuclear scientist Vikram Sarabhai. His unyielding support gave her the courage and confidence to dance internationally. Her first such appearance was in the UK in 1946, when Vikram was in Cambridge finishing his PhD. The critic Arnold Haskell remarked that “practically every member of the dancing profession not performing that night” attended her lecture-demonstration at the Royal Academy of Dance. He praised her ‘subtle and sensitive artistry’. Returning in 1949, The Times reported her ‘technical perfection […] that promises aesthetic edification as well as satisfying entertainment’ and that ‘her beauty of line, gently expressive hands, and meticulous sense of rhythm all combine to make an artist of unusual grace and accomplishment.’ 

Vikram helped her to create Darpana, a conservatoire and performing arts centre that welcomes artists from all over the world. While their relationship was complex, it was a true partnership and when he died in 1971 she was left bereft. In our conversations she recognised that, while her husband’s career somewhat framed her own life, unlike many women in India then and now, she had always been able to do whatever she wanted because, as he put it, “a wife who would be totally dependent on me would be intolerable” and he expected great things of her. Exploring her art, she developed complex group choreographies, expanding bharatanatyam’s bodily geometry onto the floor space. Using a vigorous dance style, she expanded it musically too, for instance exploring the spoken rhythms, solkattu, as expressive tools to convey emotion. She was the first of the classical dancers to have choreographies based not just on myths but engaged with social and environmental issues. 

To see the news clip showing Mallika dancing for her at her funeral was heart-wrenching; even more so when all the dancers joined her. As Mallika put it: “We are dancing to honour her and to ease the loss.” Jayaraj Thayyil, Mrinalini’s assistant, commented: “Though Amma is not with us, her unseen presence we see in every object, in every red brick and in the gentle breeze that arrives and envelops us from the river Sabarmati.” Darpana, Mrinalini’s and Vikram’s vision, is a place of beauty and love, a legacy cherished by the dancers she nurtured.

Andrée Grau is Professor of the Anthropology of Dance at the University of Roehampton, London. She is writing a book Three generations of activists: Politics, dance, social justice and the Sarabhai




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