Asian Music and Dance

The Artist against the Politician: Mallika Sarabhai against Narendra Modi

Dancer and social activist Mallika Sarabhai, Director of the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts, has been crossing swords with the BJP and Narendra Modi. She has been detained and later released by the police and her confrontations with the government in Gujarat have been at considerable cost to Darpana. Professor Andrée Grau of Roehampton University writes about the background to her activism and current position.

Most readers of Pulse will be familiar with the name Sarabhai, as it is associated with what has indeed become a dynasty of performers. Mrinalini was one of the early pioneers who brought ‘Indian dance’ to Europe in the 1940s and 1950s to great acclaim. A Parisian critic commented that “her dances are always impregnated with a Hindu soul but they also possess a universal aesthetic emotion, which makes them accessible to all the peoples of the world.”1 Her daughter Mallika is no less famous and is remembered by many for her Draupadi in Peter Brook’s Mahabharata. After the production toured the UK and was shown in Glasgow in 1988, Mallika was reported as having made ‘a considerable impression’.2 Readers will remember Revanta, Mallika’s son, for his participation in Akademi’s Daredevas and Choreogata in 2011 and his ability to engage with the classical repertoire as well as with contemporary technology-based works.

“The family is well-known for its stance on social justice and especially on the suffering of women” 

The family is well-known for its stance on social justice and especially on the suffering of women: Mrinalini’s Memory is a Ragged Fragment of Eternity (1963) was inspired by the frequent suicides of young housewives, killing themselves to escape the hostility of their in-laws and, according to scholar-performer Ananya Chatterjee (2004: 104) Mallika “has continuously performed critiques of patriarchal politics and repressive state action”.3

“Undoubtedly the two do not see eye-to-eye and Mallika has recently been referred to as ‘Narendra Modi baiter’”

Readers may be less familiar with Mallika’s direct engagement with politics and with her regular confrontations with Gujarat Chief Minister – and now BJP’s PM candidate – Narendra Modi. Undoubtedly the two do not see eye-to-eye and Mallika has recently been referred to as ‘Narendra Modi baiter’4 by Cable News Network – Indian Broadcasting Network (CNN-IBN), a largely American-sponsored, English-language current affairs television channel based in the state of Uttar Pradesh.

“I cannot think of a more dangerous situation for the country than if Modi becomes PM”

Prior to writing this article, I asked Mallika how she would view the future with Modi as possible PM. Her answer was unequivocal: “I cannot think of a more dangerous situation for the country than if Modi becomes PM. He is a megalomaniac, forever searching for more power. In his much-vaunted development model, 60,000 small and medium industries have shut down, while huge industrial houses and multinationals have taken over. This is his brand too. He takes over the state, all decisions, all credit. He believes in the survival of the fittest, everything big at the cost of small, and powerful at the cost of the weak. So where will he dump the 800 million Indians who are weak, poor, malnourished and in search of opportunities, dignity and empowerment?”5 This picture is in great contrast to the smiling face of Narendra Modi dominating posters throughout the state and his description as a modest, middle-class man promoted by his followers.

I have written a number of academic essays on Mallika as a dancer-activist, looking at her work from both aesthetic and socio-historical perspectives.6 Here I will give a short précis to explain how she came to be at the forefront of activism against the Modi government. 

“…two traumatic events … were to transform her career…”

Mallika grew up in a family that epitomised the values of newly-independent India: her parents represented science (Vikram Sarabhai is generally seen as the father of India’s space programme) wedded to the arts (Mrinalini wrote as well as danced). The family has been described as ‘representing both the moneyed and cultural aristocracy of Gujarat’.7 They were culturally sophisticated, politically emancipated and believed in equality for all. They saw themselves as citizens of the world, while being steeped in Indian culture. In their world of privilege, they considered it a duty to fight for social justice. This world view was transmitted to Mallika and then to Mallika’s children. 

“Mallika filed a Public Interest Litigation in the Supreme Court of India against the government of Gujarat for its involvement in what were described as anti-Muslim pogroms”

While always socially engaged, post-Mahabharata, Mallika developed works more directly geared towards political and social relevance. Shakti – the Power of Women (1989), for instance, focused ‘on the elemental forces of the female principle as it has asserted itself in myth, literature, history and in the chaos that confronts present-day India’.8 She could have confined her work to such social activism had it not been for two traumatic events that were to transform her career: the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992 and especially the Godhra massacre and its aftermath in her home state of Gujarat in 2002. These horrific acts of violence shocked her to the core and even more so when the government encouraged openly Hindu violence against Muslims and much of the Gujarati media became both provocative and grossly biased, condoning the actions of the government.9 

In April 2002 Mallika filed a Public Interest Litigation in the Supreme Court of India against the government of Gujarat for its involvement in what were described as anti-Muslim pogroms. From then on she was at war with Narendra Modi. She was accused of illegal human trafficking under the Indian Penal Code, for allegedly using the tour of her folk dance company Janavak to smuggle Indian nationals into the USA and had to surrender her passport and request permission to travel outside Gujarat. Through its action, the government was in effect undermining the very livelihood of Darpana, the academy founded by her parents that she now directs. Apart from being largely denied access to the festival circuit, the lifeblood for any Indian artist, Darpana lost all its corporate sponsorship as the government campaign intensified. The spurious case was dropped in December 2004, having done significant damage. Mallika argues that since then, whenever it could the Modi government has harassed her and Darpana. In 2009 she decided to run, unsuccessfully, as an independent candidate for the Gandhinagar Lok Sabha seat10 to reclaim democracy from the politicians. As she put it then: “I am not becoming a politician; I am entering electoral politics.”11 

“She was accused of illegal human trafficking… The spurious case was dropped in December 2004, having done significant damage”

Numerous civil society organisations and human rights groups found that there was strong evidence against Modi, which points towards criminal negligence,12 if not direct involvement in the riots. Furthermore, innocent people are regularly illegally detained before being charged under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), and individuals criticising government officials can be charged with ‘anti-national activities’.13 Despite this, however, in December 2013 the court decided in Modi’s favour and with strong support from the middle class and the diaspora14 he has now embarked on a spirited campaign for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections that could see him as India’s next Prime Minister. Mallika, for her part, decided in January 2014 to join and support the anti-corruption party started in 2012, Aam Aadmi Party – or Common Man Party – as a ‘foot soldier’15 as she feels her values sufficiently match that of the party.

1. Translated from the French by the author, ‘Le Ballet Indien Mrinalini Sarabhai’, Dimanche Variété, 3 October 1954.

2. Brennan, Mary (1989), ‘Exploring resistance to male oppression’, Glasgow Herald, 17 August.

3. Chatterjee, Ananya (2004), ‘In Search of a Secular in Contemporary Indian Dance: A Continuing Journey’, Dance Research Journal, 36(2): pp.102–16.

4. http://ibnlive.in.com/news/narendra-modi-baiter-danseuse-mallika-sarabhai-joins-aap/444166-3-238.html 

5. Email communication on 10 February 2014.

6. See Grau, Andrée (2013), ‘Political Activism and Dance: The Sarabhais and Non Violence through the Arts’, Dance Chronicle 36 (1): pp.1–35; (2010) ‘The Sarabhai family and the Darpana Academy’ in John D.H. Downing, [ed.] Sage Encyclopedia of Social Movement Media, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications Inc., pp.454–7; (2007) ‘Political activism and South Asian dance’, South Asia Research, 27, 1, pp.43–55.

7. Datta, Jyotirmoy (2003), ‘Actor-Activist: Mallika Sarabhai in Citigroup’s Women of Asia Series’, News India Times, 14 March.

8. Massey, Reginald (1991), ‘Mallika Sarabhai’, The Dancing Times, January, p.354.

9. See Parekh, Bikhu (2002), ‘Making Sense of Gujarat’, India Seminar, website: www.india-seminar.com (accessed online 18 March 2004) and Ghassem-Fachandi, Parvis (2012), Pogrom in Gujarat: Hindu nationalism and anti-Muslim violence in India, Princeton: Princeton University Press. 

10. She faced a veteran of Indian politics, the Shadow Prime Minister L.K. Advani. As journalist Soutik Biswas put it, “As a battle between political rivals, the fight for Ghandinagar [could not have been] more unequal – the Indian version of David and Goliath” (“Dancer Steps into Indian Politics”, BBC News, South Asia, 11 April 2009, http://newsvote.bbc.co.uk [accessed on 17 May 2009]).

11. See interview http://www.moneycontrol.com/video/special-videos/mallika-sarabai-aims-to-reclaim-democracypoliticians_392037.html 

12. According to a number of sources, no proper investigation was carried out. See, for example, Amrita Kumar and Prashun Bhaumik, eds (2002), Lest We Forget: Gujarat 2002, New Delhi: World Report, and Rafiq Zakaria (2002), Communal Rage In Secular India, New Delhi: Popular Prakashan. 

13. Political scientist Ujjwal Kumar Singh has commented on the asymmetrical application of the law: “The most prominent selective use of POTA has been in Gujarat, where out of the 250 people against whom POTA has been imposed, 249 were Muslims” (2006), ‘The Silent Erosion: Anti-terror Laws and Shifting Contours of Jurisprudence in India’, Diogenes, vol. 53, no. 4, pp.116–33.

14. Political psychologist and social theorist Ashis Nandy argues that in Gujarat the “middle class controls the media and education, which have become hate factories in recent times. And they receive spirited support from mostly non-resident Indians who, at a safe distance from India, can afford to be more nationalist, bloodthirsty and irresponsible.” See ‘Blame the middle class’, The Times of India, 8 January 2008.

15. http://www.ndtv.com/article/india/mallika-sarabhai-joins-aam-aadmi-party-468538



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