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Political Activism and Dance: The Sarabhais and Nonviolence through the Arts1

Andrée Grau

This essay examines the work of a family of Indian choreographers and dancers, the Sarabhai family, focusing particularly on Mallika Sarabhai's background and career as a dancer-activist, her oeuvre, and her artistic techniques in creating issue-based works.2 I consider Mallika's social position, exploring the way she reconciles her sociopolitical engagements with being a member of an élite class in India, and the conflicts this disparity creates in some circles.

     Mallika is a committed artist who, in 2003, chose to put her artistic practice and livelihood at risk by taking a directly oppositional stance toward the Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP (Indian People's Party)3 during a period in India that saw the rise of a specific kind of Hindutva (Hindu-ness).4 In addition, in 2009 she decided to run—unsuccessfully, as it turned out5—as an independent candidate for a lower-house seat in one of India's most high-profile constituencies, Ghandinagar, the capital city of Gujarat (Lakshmi 2009).

     Ghandinagar's constituency includes not only the city itself, but also a number of districts in neighboring areas, such as Usmanpura in the city of Ahmedabad. This is where Darpana, an academy for performing arts founded in 1949 by Mallika's parents—the dancer Mrinalini Sarabhai (ne´e Swaminathan) and the scientist Vikram Sarabhai—is situated, along with the family home.

     In this study, I engage with issues of biography, politics, and history through a research methodology that is largely anthropological, combining experiential fieldwork, observing participation and participant observation,6 as well as longtime engagement with individuals. I have followed Mallika's work for some twenty years now, watching her performances, listening to her speak publicly, and having many private discussions with her about her practice. In the winter of 2002–2003, I was able to do three months of fieldwork at Darpana. I observed rehearsals, occasionally helping out the actors with their texts or even stepping in when one was absent from rehearsal. I watched performances of the Darpana Performance Group and of guest artists performing at Darpana's theater, Natarani. I went on tour with the company, staying with the performers, going out with them, and occasionally helping to prepare props and repair costumes. I attended company meetings and chatted with dancers, administrators, and other workers, mainly informally. I also conducted a number of focused interviews with each one of the company members and the members of the Sarabhai family.

     In May 2004 Mallika and the company were performers-in-residence at the University of Roehampton, London. During this residency, the company reworked aspects of Colours of the Heart, a human-rights piece they had created a few months earlier (see below). They also worked with local performers, especially through the use of rhythm, exploring methods of rendering movement more powerfully, and therefore more effectively, when dealing with issue-based works. In the winter of 2009–2010 I undertook one further month of fieldwork in Darpana, accomplishing archival research and more "observing participation," joining in daily yoga practice, and discussing their work with the Sarabhai family. In between the times we saw each other in person. Mallika, Mrinalini, and I kept in touch by e-mail and they continued to answer my questions as well as read and comment on my writings.

Dance, the Political, and the Expression of Raw Feelings

Like other socially committed artists around the world, Mallika uses her artistic practice as part of her political activism, creating powerful works that encourage people's awareness and understanding of contemporary issues, whether gender discrimination, poverty, the exploitation of migrant workers, world debt, or domestic violence. While most people do not have their first encounter with such issues through performance, and probably go to the theater already half aware and even convinced of a particular stance on the political issues raised, the lived experience of engagement with activist artists often strengthens and sharpens their commitment, making a deep, slowly unfolding, and long-lasting impression; one that reading a newspaper article or listening to the news is not likely to produce.

     In this way Mallika is not different from other artists who see their work as a way of engaging with the world. For example, in 2003 the British choreographer Darshan Singh Bhuller produced Requiem for Phoenix Dance Theatre, a work about a community traumatized by the abduction and murder of a young girl. He based his work on the murder of young children in the United Kingdom, especially James Bulger in 1993, and Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells in 2002. The choreographer argued that making dances is his way of "facing up to horror and evil" (cited in Mackrell 2004).

     That same year the Belgian-Moroccan artist Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui choreographed Foi for Compagnie C. de la B.; a work described as "fissured by images of conflicts" and "one of the most haunting responses to the post-9/11 world that appeared on the international stage" (Mackrell 2003a). It showed "how faith and obsession can both unite and divide the world, the way one group's wrong can be another group's right." (Mackrell 2004). In an interview with Judith Mackrell, the dance critic of The Guardian, Cherkaoui stated that "You have to engage with the world to influence it. I see everything I do as communication: making a dance, having a conversation, giving an interview—it's all political." (ibid.) Meanwhile, in 2006 the American choreographer William Forsythe created Three Atmospheric Studies, stating his position vis-á-vis the war in Iraq. The juxtaposition of Crucifixion by Lucas Cranach (1472–1553), a war photograph showing the despair of a mother facing the assassination of her son, and the broken movement vocabulary of the dancers created, in critic Rosita Boisseau's words, an "unbearable reality"(2006a). Forsythe was conscious that his "company [could] become a platform for what he [had] to say about the Bush Administration" (Boisseau 2006b). Many more examples could be presented from different parts of the world.7 My point here is that Mallika's work, while steeped in Indian culture, must be seen as cosmopolitan rather than as solely Indian. She does not see herself as a 'cultural bearer' representing Indian culture. Although deeply attached to her roots, she sees her message as universal and applicable throughout the world since, in her view, no society is devoid of exploitation, and violence can be expressed in many ways.

Figure 1
Figure 1. Mrinalini Sarabhai and Chathunni Panicker in Matsya Kanya (1950), a danced fairy tale about the mermaid Matsya Kanya's love for a human prince. Performed in large theaters around the world, the abhinaya—the expressive aspect of dance—emphasized the body rather than the face. Courtesy of Mallika Sarabhai.

     In contrast to these occasional forays into issue-based work, however, Mallika consistently chooses socially and politically engaged work. Indeed, she has very little time for 'art for art's sake', as was evident in the discussions she had with dancers at Roehampton, whose compositions she viewed. This activist artist regularly asked, "But what is this for?," "What does it say?," and "Whom does it help?" Even when Mallika performs works from the classical repertory, she uses songs to accompany her dancing whose texts have a quirky twist. Audience members and journalists often ask her if she writes the poetry herself, to which she replies, "No, it is a twelfth century poem" or "sixteenth-century," or whatever it is she is using.

     One could argue that dance, as a nonverbal practice, is not necessarily the best medium through which to deal with the political. American choreographer Merce Cunningham, for example, could not imagine why he would have wanted to deal with complex political issues when the effects would have been, in his view, like "sending a message on a postcard." (cited in Mackrell 2004). Similarly, British choreographer Siobhan Davies argued that "if I wanted to talk about feminism, I wouldn't use dance" (ibid). According to critic Judith Mackrell, dance is not efficient at discussing politics because it cannot contextualize, argue, or analyze. Thus, politics has been more the domain of drama. The situation is different in South Asia, however, in that, although dance as an activity can be considered separately, it is generally closely associated with music and text (whether or not it is accompanied by song). Therefore, rhythmic and narrative structures are central to most, if not all, Indian classical styles.

     Furthermore, despite the shortcomings of [the] dance as a political conduit, choreographers have long used it in this way and audiences have appreciated the resulting works. Examples from the European past include the opera-ballet Liberté des Negres, staged in Paris in 1793, which contributed to a political movement that led to the abolition of slavery in France under the First Republic the following year.8 In 1932, Kurt Jooss's famous antiwar work, Der Grüne Tisch [The Green Table] signaled "an ambiguous alignment with left-wing politics," with characters such as the Profiteer and the Gentlemen in Black responsible for "the continuing cause of war" (Manning 1993: 160–161). Examples from the present are even more numerous with identity politics afoot.

     What is it, then, that makes dance so powerful? Danc[ing] is a practice that focuses on embodiment and if, as sociologist Jack Katz and anthropologist Thomas Csordas (2003) argue, embodiment is "the common ground for recognition of the other's humanity," then dance could be seen as a favorable medium for dealing with issues of social conscience. As anthropologist Judith Lynne Hanna has argued, "Humans come to terms with life crises, resolve conflict, revitalize the past, and face the future through dance" (Hanna 2005: 15). In Mackrell's view, dance not only expresses "raw feelings" (2003b) but also "movement may be more powerful and subtle than text when it comes to capturing the visceral dynamics of emotion, the sensual texture of experience" (ibid.). Dance may have this power because it brings together affect and intellect. Ethnomusicologist John Blacking, for example, argued that the arts have the potential to evoke powerful experiences because they "provide a way of discovering something about oneself and the human condition, and especially about the world of feelings" (1978). The arts are effective in that way because "the roots of our humanity, and of all our subsequent development, are to be found not in intellect based on verbal reasoning, but in affect, or the quality and intensity of feelings, as expressed primarily in nonverbal communication and ritual" (ibid.).9 The ability of artists to communicate across cultural boundaries was noted, for example, by New York Times critic John Martin, when he wrote of modern dancer pioneer Uday Shankar and his company in 1933:

Because Uday Shan-kar [sic], the Hindu dancer, is an artist in the universal sense, he is able to illuminate for the Western mind the dancing of his people—an art so delicate and with so many ramifications. The performances of his company of dancers and musicians at the New Yorker Theatre are revelations of a culture in many ways antipodal to our own and one which is not to be understood in any real sense by the perusal of books. When we are led through the sensitive agencies of kinaesthetic response to a sympathetic reaction to Hindu dancing, the door is thrown open for us to a genuine and trustworthy, if not an intellectual or rational, experience of Hindu culture. . . . When the Westerner approaches the dance of the East, it is useless for him to attempt to "understand" it; to do so is merely to raise a barrier that cannot be penetrated. (Martin 1933)

     Mrinalini Sarabhai, like Shankar, has been perceived to have this ability. In 1954 a Parisian critic praised, "Sarabhai's creations are not simply ethnographic evocations. Most certainly 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."10 A Swiss critic in Lausanne expressed it this way:

To transform dance into a prayer, and prayer into a dance, to evoke through the vibrations of the body those of the soul, without ceasing to celebrate the joys of life, one needs the backup of a world of tradition, of centuries of contemplation and patient effort. But it takes a Mrinalini Sarabhai . . . to make dance that, whatever its origin, can irresistibly charm the eyes, the heart and the spirit at once.11

     One could argue that if the power of symbols rests, in part, in their capacity to mean different things to different people, then it was largely this potential that made Shankar's and Sarabhai's performances powerful. Their dances were polysemic and they engaged the intellectual, kinaesthetic, and affective capacities of their audiences. Bringing together the power of embodied practice and strong stage presence with that of words is what allows Mallika to create, as choreographer Carol Brown put it, "a powerful alchemy which transforms choreography into social and political agency" (2004).

The Sarabhais: Truth, Value, Glamour and Conflict

In 1949, Mrinalini and her husband Vikram, set up the Darpana Academy for Performing Arts in Ahmedabad, in the western state of Gujarat, India.12 At first Muthukumaran Pillai taught Bharata Natyam and Chathunni Panicker taught Kathakali. Later, other teachers joined and departments of puppetry, contemporary drama, and other subjects were added. When the contemporary drama department was set up in 1959, Kailash Panda, who had been "one of the founders of the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA) in Bombay during the Freedom Movement" (Lynton 1995: 141) was invited to head it. The IPTA, founded in 1943, is generally seen as the cultural wing of the Communist Party of India (CPI). As an organization it strove for two primary goals: "One was to energize traditional rural and folk art forms; the other was, through them, to mirror contemporary social realities [and] promote the awareness of human rights" (Purkayastha 2011: 246). While the Sarabhais did not ally themselves to the Communist Party, being followers of the Indian National Congress (INC), they did agree with much of the IPTA's remit.

     Darpana has been described as combining "the best of being 'modern' and 'Indian'" and "blending aesthetics with science" (Joshi 1992: 23). According to journalist Amni Shivram, "[Mrinalini] visualised a temple of Art where dancers trained in the classical forms of Bharata Natyam and Kathakali, apart from her own solo compositions, would create a new pattern of dance dramas of the future based on the firm foundations of tradition."13

Figure 2
Figure 2. Mrinalini Sarabhai and Chathunni Panicker as Usha and Aniruddha in a scene from the Indian epic the Mahabharata performed in kathakali style (1952). It shows Usha, the daughter of the demon king Banasura, dreaming of Aniruddha, the grandson of Lord Krishna. Courtesy of Mallika Sarabhai.

     Historian Avijit Pathak (1998) has argued that "in the Nehruvian vision, [modern Indian intellectuals] found an opportunity to make their presence felt, utilise their knowledge and come closer to the centre of power." Vikram and Mrinalini undoubtedly belonged to this group. The Sarabhais and Swaminathans were wealthy and sophisticated, and belonged to a cosmopolitan élite. Attending school in Switzerland, Mrinalini was given a progressive education and she later went to Vishwa Bharati, the university set up by Rabindranath Tagore. Her family supported the notion that women should have the same education as men and be able to support themselves.14 Indeed, in 1954 she was quoted as saying that she "had no patience with women who do not have the initiative to combine a home and a career."15

     Both families were committed financially and personally to the independence movement.16 Mrinalini's sister Lakshmi, trained as a doctor, chose to become directly involved with the independence struggle by joining the all-female brigade of the Indian National Army under the leadership of "Netaji" Subhas Chandra Bose. She became captain of the famous Rani of Jhansi regiment,17 but Mrinalini became a Bharata Natyam dancer, learning the classical style that was being revitalized and reconstructed as part of a movement to valorize the Indian heritage after years of subjugation to the British.

     While continuing the repertory learned from her gurus, Mrinalini also chose to develop contemporary works in her choreography, using her art to urge people to reflect on social injustices that were, and still are, current in India. Indeed, when the Sangeet Natak Akademi, (the Indian national academy for artistic heritage), honored her in 1970 it was for "creative and experimental dance" rather than for Bharata Natyam.18

     Early in her career, a reviewer wrote that Mrinalini was "an intellectual and social rebel—a trait inherited from her family," and she "may be expected some day to live up to the ideal of democracy in Art—an ideal that inspires the People's Theatre Movement."19 For example, a work Mrinalini choreographed in 1963, Memory is a Ragged Fragment of Eternity, was inspired by the frequent suicides of young housewives who were killing themselves to escape the hostility of their in-laws.20 Over the years she has challenged the status of women, deforestation, and pollution, and she maintains that she was the first classical dancer in India to commit her art to social causes.

     Throughout its existence, Darpana has followed quite closely the Nehruvian philosophy of modernity, whose salient features include national unity, parliamentary democracy, industrialism, socialism, scientific temper, and secularism. Yet this commitment to a socialist ideology and democracy did not stop the family from mingling with the higher echelons of Indian society and the world at large. Coming from a world in which inheritance and dynastic leadership rather than equality were the norm, the Sarabhais never found the contradiction between personal life and political praxis to be an issue: they believed their social position gave them responsibilities and this was the way they led their lives. One could argue that this attitude was also "Nehruvian." Just as the "aristocratic Nehru, a polo fan, became a friend of the Jaipurs21 during [the] early years of independence" (Moore 2004: 252), the Sarabhais saw, and still see, no contradiction between their accumulation of wealth and their will to fight for social justice in India. For some commentators, their wealth was confluent with their humanitarian endeavor. In 1954 a journalist described Mrinalini as the "wife of millionaire scientist, mother of two children, hostess to a dance troupe, choreographer, costume designer, traveler, author."22

Figure 3
Figure 3. Mrinalini Sarabhai in a pose from the bharata natyam repertory (1955). Courtesy of Mallika Sarabhai.

     In 1987 an article in the magazine India Today noted, "The Americans have the Rockefellers, Indians have the Sarabhais. Both are families with immense wealth and large corporate empires and contributions to society that go well beyond the world of business. Both have given generously to charity, contributed to the arts, figured in the world of politics, stood for taste and distinction" (cited in Datta 2003). More recently the Sarabhais have been portrayed as "a family considered among the bluest of blue in India, representing both the moneyed and cultural aristocracy of Gujarat" (Maluste 2004). The family is also said to have "always stood for value and truth" (Lynton 1995: 53). In 1995 the journalist and novelist Khushwant Singh wrote in the Hindustan Times, "In addition to being one of the biggest industrial houses in the country, it is also the cleanest. No one has yet accused them of evading taxes, indulging in black marketing, salting away money abroad or bribing officials" (Singh 1995).

     When, in 1946, Mrinalini followed her husband to the United Kingdom, where he was studying at Cambridge University to attain a Ph.D. in physics, she was very quickly introduced to key people in the art world who were able to help and to advise when she later returned with her company. However, in the beginning she only toured overseas when invited by international impresarios. As she put it, "Nobody could say that I went because I sat on a minister's knees!"23 In 1949 she was invited to perform at the Salle Pleyel in Paris under the patronage of Dr. P. P. Pillai, plenipotentiary minister for India: "We went there for just a single performance,24 but the Government signed a six months contract with us after seeing the show . . . that was a memorable event for me because I was put on the same stage as the world's best professionals."25

     In 1950 Sol Hurok signed Mrinalini on for a tour in 1952.26 It was only once she was solidly established as an international artist that she agreed to act as an official cultural ambassador for India. She was happy to comply with that role as both her family by birth and her family by marriage were actively involved politically prior to and after independence, but it had to be on her own terms, and her wealth allowed her to be assertive on this matter. In 1959 the magazine Femina remarked that "she [had] taken Indian culture into countries where India and Indians still [meant] no more than bejewelled Maharajas and naked snake charmers."27 By 1971 the Indian Express could truthfully say that "her untiring efforts to spread the dance forms of India [have] secured India a prominent place on the cultural map of the world."28

     The Sarabhais' social position, wealth, and interest in the arts meant that many artists visiting India made a detour when invited by the family. In 1964, for example, the Merce Cunningham Company visited Ahmedabad. Dance archivist David Vaughan, at that time company manager, wrote about their visit:

In 1964, we had gone at the invitation of the Sarabhai family, of which the dancer Mrinalini Sarabhai is a member by marriage. . . . After performances in Bombay, we went to Ahmedabad in our own private train, to be greeted on arrival by a band in starched white uniforms. . . . We stayed in the Sarabhai compound, The Retreat, and every evening, when we were not performing, there was a banquet and entertainment of some kind—by Mrinalini Sarabhai's company, by local musicians and dancers, by puppeteers (Vaughan 1991).

This glamorous, cosmopolitan lifestyle, combined with the financial ability to stage large-scale productions, has undoubtedly created a certain degree of jealousy among some Indian artists. In a country where people often feel they should not pay for the arts, and where artists cannot count on box-office income to sustain their artistic production, the Sarabhais have enjoyed a freedom that is enviable. As a result they are often perceived as arrogant. When presenting this work, I have been surprised by the hostility and vindictiveness some people expressed, thinking the Sarabhais were self-centered snobs always wanting "to be centre stage"! One cannot deny that they hold a privileged status, and when one occupies a prominent position for a long time it is easy to become somewhat autocratic; however, it is also apparent that the lifestyle of the Sarabhais is anything but ostentatious. Their homes may be filled with exquisite art, but they are not "grand" as some Indian homes among the wealthy can be. Furthermore, it is also true that many artists holding similar social positions choose not to speak up [politically]. Nor do they spend the amount of time and energy the Sarabhais do to sustain a complex [performing arts] institution that employs a large number of people and paying them a decent wage. It is also important to note that the Sarabhais' wealth is not what it used to be when Vikram was still alive and Sarabhai industry was a significant commercial venture in India. Mallika, for one, acknowledges that while finding money for a production is relatively easy, funding the basic running of the institution is a recurring problem.

Ideology in Practice: The Darpana Academy for Performing Arts

As may be gleaned from the previous discussion, Darpana is largely a privately funded family institution, able to set its own agenda. After Vikram died in 1971, Mrinalini took over its direction. She passed the mantle on to Mallika in 1977 but remains involved in, and regularly figures in, Darpana's productions. Occasionally, members of the family comment about the possibility of Mallika's son, Revanta, also a Bharata Natyam dancer, taking over in the future. Anahita, his younger sister, is also artistically involved in most productions.29

     Visitors to Darpana discover a strong sense of lineage and inheritance. Family tradition is both honored and enriched by every generation, and the stances—personal, artistic, social, and political—taken by its members come to public life through the institution, as well as beyond it. From its inception Darpana has been committed to diversity and to social justice. It employs people of different social, religious, and cultural backgrounds. It hosts a multiplicity of organizations, all with a sense of duty to use the arts to better the world in a practical sense. There are projects in the slums and in tribal areas dealing with domestic violence or health issues, alongside projects that place the artistic agenda front and center, but even so tackle social issues.

     Although in discussions Mrinalini and Mallika commented that their lives would have been a lot easier had they concentrated on their careers as solo artists, it was clear that, in their eyes, their social engagement through the arts was somewhat unavoidable. As Mallika wrote in another context, she is "the inheritor of the mantle of two families who have given their all to nation building and to spreading truth and love, fearlessness and pride in being Indian."30 Similarly, Revanta has stated that "there is a certain amount of responsibility involved by virtue of being born into this family and that's to live with good values and make a difference in people's lives" (cited in Khan 2008). Anahita is equally engaged with the family ethos. What Darpana represents, therefore, is three generations of artists who have used the arts to make the world a better place. The cornerstone of its ideology is that the performing arts can be an effective medium through which to bring about social change.

Figure 4
Figure 4. Mallika and Mrinalini Sarabhai in Nataraj Vandanam in praise of Lord Nataraj (1980), a work intended to reveal the "power, strength, vigour, and rhythmic syncopations" of bharata natyam. Courtesy of Mallika Sarabhai.

     When Mallika took over the running of the institution, she invited two professors from the IIM (Indian Institute of Management) to conduct six months of intensive discussions with the artists and all other personnel at Darpana, from the gardener [up], in order to discover what their personal aspirations were, both for themselves as individuals and for the institution. The Performance Group were given an opportunity to decide whether they wished to remain with the new version of Darpana, where mridangists [drummers] would have to learn acting and yoga, dancers would have to learn to throw their voices, and no one was safe in a stereotyped role (Rajan 1999).

     During my visits, however, it became clear that not all Darpana's employees were as committed as the Sarabhais to such an agenda of social change. Some would have preferred to engage in the arts without so much activism. Similarly, not all were keen on being "empowered" and expected to multitask. They would have been quite happy simply to be a dancer or a musician without having to take the personal responsibility, both artistic and social, expected of them.31

     As mentioned earlier, the whole family regularly engages in discussions about the institution, the projects it supports, the productions it invites to its theater, the kind of artistic works it produces, and the casting of artists. This can occasionally conflict with a democratic and self-empowering approach to work. In this matter, the interests of the family, artistic or otherwise, generally have the upper hand, and one could, therefore, attribute a degree of nepotism to the Sarabhais. Indeed, on my second visit I found that a number of artists had left, with the Sarabhais' blessing, to develop careers of their own.32 Those who leave, nevertheless return regularly to attend performances or to help Mallika in her political campaign.

     Despite the criticism directed at the Sarabhais, one cannot ignore the fact that they try to adhere to egalitarian values in a predominantly hierarchical society, where it is very difficult for an individual to escape the position to which he or she has been assigned at birth. Indeed, one of the recurrent comments about Mallika made by longtime company members was "she grew me." Not only did she advise them on their artistic practice but also on their life choices. This might be seen as patronizing and paternalistic by some, but deeply generous by others, and it was certainly appreciated by the beneficiaries with whom I spoke. What struck me was the incredible sense of loyalty toward the family, from both those still working at Darpana and those who had decided to leave. I observed what could best be described as a mutually concerned and respectful intimacy between the Sarabhais and their employees. Events since my first visit have shown that, despite the harassment and danger that confronted Darpana's employees because of Mallika's political activism, they continued to give her their full support.

Artist as Activist: Mallika Sarabhai

As a politically engaged feminist artist, Mallika can be said to exemplify interdisciplinary and intercultural perspectives in a number of ways. She intertwines the roles of artist, academic, journalist, and publisher. After gaining a master's of business administration from the Indian Institute of Management in 1974, she completed a Ph.D. in 'organizational behavior' at Gujarat University in 1976, writing a doctoral dissertation entitled "Psychological Maturity and the Power Motive: Dynamics and Development." As indicated earlier, she has put this research into practice to run Darpana. Her commitment to India in general and to Gujarat in particular is undeniable. She is, however, also a cosmopolitan professional working in Europe and the United States as well as in India. In 1998 the University of East Anglia in the U.K. awarded Mallika an honorary doctorate in literature for her contribution to the arts, and in 2005 she was knighted by the French government, which named her a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettre33 and described her as having a "myriad of talents in the field of culture" and being "an activist espousing causes for changing lives of people for the better."34 The same year she and her mother were also among one thousand women nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. During Mallika's election campaign of 2009 she described herself in an interview as "a pesky woman with a very strong voice"!35

Figure 5
Figure 5. Mrinalini Sarabhai and Revanta Sarabhai in Mira (2001). First created as a vehicle for Mrinalini and her daughter in 1976 and recreated, with her grandson Revanta playing Krishna, for a festival called Parambara (Succession) that showcased performing families. Courtesy of Mallika Sarabhai.

     Although generally labeled as a dancer, Mallika works in both dance and theater. Refusing to see a division between the two (she is also an accomplished singer), she states that dance and theater "are all different strings to the same instrument" (Rajan 1999). Her choreographic work explores both so-called "pure classical styles" and "fusion" work. But she is not interested in just repeating a classical repertory. Rather, she wants to question it, and explore avenues rarely visited by other artists. Mallika has always been in a position both artistically and intellectually to do what she felt was right for her instead of following contemporary trends or social norms. Protected by her wealth and social rank, to a certain extent she defies anyone to judge her or disapprove of her actions. While some may see aspects of her life as attention grabbing, to me her artistic choices are never gratuitous. In a published conversation with the British Pakistani singer Samia Mallik, who collaborated on Colours of the Heart, Mallika maintained, "I don't think either you or I have ever said 'Oh fusion is in fashion, let's fuse.' Ours comes from a passion to fight injustice, voice what is wrong and do it with a hope that it can be corrected" (cited in Devik 2004).

     When asked if she was a feminist Mallika replied, "I think I was born one. I can remember being so for a long time. In my earlier days I drew inspiration from my mother. Women's issues are human right issues. Women constitute 51% of the world population. Women are not a minority. To me feminist is not a dirty word. It's an honest fight against injustice" (ibid.). Furthermore, making an International Women's Day statement in 2004, she was quoted by the Times of India as saying, "Empowering women also means empowering men to allow them to be what they want to be" (2004b). In a talk given during her 2004 London visit she asserted, "What is anti-Muslim today will be anti-Dalit tomorrow and is anti-women all the time (2004c). In her outspokenness, one can say that Mallika is a true daughter of her strong-minded mother and father.36 In recent years Mallika's political engagement and her artistic life have become more and more intermingled, and she has used every platform to advance her agenda. For example, in her acceptance speech for the India Today Woman of the Year Award for 2003, she found a space to criticize corporate India:

I feel strongly that corporate India has shown its frailty over ethical and moral issues in the aftermath of the Gujarat genocide. This segment of society was the only one powerful enough to stand for truth against political leaders who backed violence. But they did not, because the bottom line was more important to them. Money is the only god. By giving me this award, one segment of this society is saying: "Mallika, we believe in you, we may not have the courage to say it aloud but by giving you this award we support what you stand for, for this country." That gives me a lot of warmth. (Sarabhai 2004b).

This justice-seeking spirit pervades her artistic production. As an artist she certainly wants her works to be judged on artistic merit, because for her a message gains its potency through its aesthetic dimension, but advocacy is nevertheless at their very core. For her, art and militancy are not separate domains, and she has never been shy about controversy in pursuing her ideals.

Art and Politics

A key moment and turning point in Mallika's career was undoubtedly her highly acclaimed performance as Draupadi in Peter Brook's The Mahabharata. In this production, which premiered at the Avignon Festival in France in 1985, she performed the same part for more than five years in the French and the English stage versions as well as in the film and the television series. Playing a woman commodified to such an extent that she could be put up as a bet in a game of dice transformed her. As she expressed it, "When I ended my work in the Mahabharata, I was no longer a dancer and an activist, but I had become a performer who used activism and performance together." Following the Mahabharata, Mallika developed new kinds of work geared toward political and social relevance. She undertook these projects in collaboration with the director John Martin and the Pan Project (now Pan-Centre for Intercultural Art), a London-based organization that uses theater for development,37 and is committed to the cause of the arts for social change. One of these works, Shakti—the Power of Women (1989), 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." It explored the real feelings of women who lay behind the heroines and legends of male fabrication, contesting the marginalization of women in the interpretation of myth and history by men. Another work, Sita's Daughters, created in 1990, somewhat paralleled its predecessor. Developed in collaboration with women activists, Shakti "spoke to educated women more that to villagers." Mallika had written to a number of women's activist organizations, inquiring about the most pressing problems encountered that could be explored through performance. The work engaged with issues of rape, female feticide, and infanticide. It also challenged the female role models created by men in male-dominated readings of mythology. In a similar vein, Itan Kahani: The Story of Stories (1991), a work created in collaboration with the Nigerian dancer-choreographer Peter Badejo, explored the hidden agenda behind folk tales.

     Of the works from this period, V . . . Is for Violence is significant for a number of reasons.38 Created in 1996, it was the last of Mallika's works produced in collaboration with Martin. Tackling the spread of violence throughout the world and especially in India, it marked another turning point in her career. The production was provoked by the traumatic destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992. In this catastrophe, fundamentalist Hindus destroyed the mosque and murdered Muslims in horrific acts of violence in an effort to reclaim the alleged birthplace of the Hindu god, Ram. Shocked by the event, especially upon seeing government ministers rejoicing at the news, Mallika set up the Centre for Non-Violence through the Arts, under the auspices of Darpana. V . . . Is for Violence explored violence in everyday life, not just from the perspective of the victim, but also from the perspective of the perpetrator. The artist posed the central question: "Why are we as human beings so violent?" By examining the psyche of the violator, the work attempted to get the audience to think about the causes of violence, especially how often violence emerges as a crutch to overcome insecurities and shortcomings.

     The 2003 work Colours of the Heart is worthy of consideration in the context of Mallika's other feminist works. In collaboration with the singer Samia Mallik and with four women dancers,39 its creation took place at a moment in Mallika's life when her activism almost obliterated her artistic livelihood as well as endangered her life, a situation that will be discussed shortly. As she put it, "when Samia Mallik landed in India I was issued with the arrest warrant and I had to go underground. . . . Luckily my senior dancers know my work and we worked through emails and phones."40 Like many of her productions, old and new, it is a work centered on women, exploring "different facets of [their] suffering, anguish, rejection, pain cut across geographical boundaries." The presenter described the work in the following way: "The singer and dancers weave personal narratives into a universal one, and focus on issues that impact women all over the world. This production talks about the loss of innocence and the shackling of women by customs and traditions." (Sunderlal 2004).

Figure 6
Figure 6. The first performance of the three generations of Sarabhai women, Mallika, Anahita, and Mrinalini, at the prestigious Qutub Festival (1999), sponsored by the Government of India Tourism Department at the Qutub complex in Delhi. Courtesy of Mallika Sarabhai.

     Of all Mallika's works, Colours of the Heart is probably the most directly autobiographical in that images and anecdotes taken from her life—as well as the lives of other dancers—were used to exemplify the shared plight of women around the world. In the words of the journalist S. Bageshree, "The 'porous' show incorporated bits of personal experiences of the participating women—ranging from Jeannine [Osayande]'s experiences of coming to terms with her black American identity to Mallika's mongrel pet being spurned by pedigree dogs!"41

     Following Colours of the Heart, Mallika started creating works that revisited Gandhian ideals. For example, Unsuni: Unheard Voices, a collaboration with director Arvind Gaur in 2007, was based on Harsh Mandar's 2001 book Unheard Voices: Stories of Forgotten Lives. Examining the lives of those who are marginalized and ignored in everyday life—the beggars knocking at car windows at traffic lights, or the children running across the street delivering tea to office workers—the work focused on its subjects' resilience in the face of adversity. As the publicity put it, theirs are "stories of struggle and courage. And of victories." Unsuni was toured throughout the country and was followed by discussions, where spectators were encouraged to create a grassroots movement, taking direct action in their everyday lives to change India's social stratification and to improve the socioeconomic environment of disenfranchised individuals. Working with Revanta and Anahita, Mallika aimed the work at young people, encouraging them to look at the Indian reality and to understand that making money and joining the hypercapitalism and consumerism of the West were not the only options in life.

     In 2008 Mallika collaborated with her mother on Khadi Gaatha, a short performance piece that narrated the history of handlooms in India and the part they had played within the Swaraj, or Home Rule movement.42 They used the metaphor of weaving (and the relationship between the warp and the weft) to create links between Hindu mythology and the Vedas, political engagement and the fight for social justice. The work premiered during Rajasthan Fashion Week in Jaipur on September 15, 2008. Similarly, SVA Kranti—The Revolution Within (2006), a solo that Mallika developed with filmmaker and multimedia artist Yadavan Chandram, explored the paths taken by different people over time to follow ahimsa—the principle of non-violence advocated by Gandhi—and how women the world over are taking up nonviolent struggles to change society.

Choreography and Issue-Based Work

The narrative and rhythmical qualities of the dance genres from which Mallika draws for her creative work give her powerful tools for issue-based work. One needs to be cautious in making generalizations about dance in India; within such a huge country there are so many dance genres that to talk about Indian dance in general can only be reductive. Nevertheless, even the "pure" or "abstract dance" of the classical styles to a certain extent tells a "story" through the use of a codified facial vocabulary depicting emotions. By way of contrast, one might consider the reception in India of the Merce Cunningham Company in 1990. David Vaughan (1991) claimed that "many among our audiences still found it hard to adjust to a kind of dance that has no story or emotional content, and is completely independent of the music." Twenty-six years earlier, commenting on the company's 1964 tour, art critic and scholar Naranayan Menon stated, "Merce Cunningham burst in on our complacent orderly orthodoxy like a resounding Diwali [fire]cracker a little before its scheduled time, and opened our eyes and ears to experiences which have a vital bearing on the Dance today in many idioms" (Menon 1964).43

     Another aspect that is shared by classical Indian genres is the way the performer-audience connection is articulated. In his book Balasaraswati (1963) Menon quoted Dhananjaya, an early medieval critic who argued that the spectator's "capacity for appreciation is more important than the perfection achieved by the dancer. . . . It is their own effort by which the audience is delighted. . . . The appreciation of dancing is left to the cultivated sensibility of the audience. The actor or the dancer or the musician merely creates the condition" (Menon 1963: 6). For Westerners this idea is very "modern"; as Vaughan noted, it is "analogous to Marcel Duchamp's dictum that the spectator completes the work of art, a principle [to which] Merce and John Cage have always adhered" (1991: 469).

     Both the implication of audience effort and the narrative-rhythmic structure of classical Indian dance genres are extremely important in Mallika's work. As noted earlier, she is generally not interested in dance for dance's sake; her works always invoke larger issues. More often than not, social injustice is at stake. Mallika sees her role as a creator as one of deepening the audience's awareness of the human condition. There is no doubt in her mind that the raison d'eˆtre of art is to promote social change and make the world a better place. Her work cannot easily be pigeonholed in the sense that she is happy to move from genre to genre, from one medium to another as befits her political message. Her collaborators generally refer to her as a "communicator,"44 since she often incorporates text in her works, sometimes because of their poetic quality, but more often because of their communicative value.

Figure 7
Figure 7. Mallika and Revanta Sarabhai performing a bharata natyam duet (circa 2006). Courtesy of Mallika Sarabhai.

     Music, too, is extremely important to Mallika's process. As she has acknowledged, "My kick-off point most often is music" (2004a). During her residency at the University of Roehampton, in an introduction to the company's training and compositional methods, she gave a workshop demonstrating how social and political issues could be animated through the abstract rhythmic structures of Carnatic music. In her work, then, music acts as a foundation for embodying political issues and therefore as a conduit for confronting exploitative ideologies and social injustices. The workshop presented a number of exercises that explored rhythm through different bodily actions, followed by guidance in developing choreography around issues, moods, and emotions. Participants worked on duets growing out of a given rhythmic structure. The rhythm gave rise to a simple movement sequence. The sequence was then given a theme linked to a political or social issue and further elaborated upon. Finally, a text, exploring the issue in greater depth, supplemented the whole. Choreographer Carol Brown, who took part in the workshop, commented on the process:

As a choreographer who does not work from a strictly musical base nor a very literal foundation, I found this work to be challenging. In adding an emotion or theme to a choreographed movement, the relationship between form and content had an arbitrary quality, which though it felt unfamiliar and anti-intuitive, nonetheless did create a degree of freedom to explore the movement fully before adding to it a narrative or literal component. The process emphasised a directness of content, which is unusual within the contemporary dance context in the U.K. It also proposed a looser relationship between movement invention and narrative content, thus departing from the more mimetic use of gesture evident in classical dance. In moving this way, effectively from the musical structure, to the embodied phrase, to the citation of dissent, the work held a powerful tension between innovation, as opposition to dominant forces, and tradition, as that which is habitually embodied in rhythm and movement shaping. (Brown 2004: 8)

The participants embraced issues like domestic violence, colonization of the land, stripping of resources, and poverty. Such weighty concerns pose subject matter that many contemporary choreographers in London avoid. As Brown put it, "This drew attention to the different imperatives at work for choreographers working in conditions which do not afford the privileges of a first world cultural industry. It also provided a wakeup call from the comfort zone and dominant logic of a late capitalist Western empire" (ibid.).

Art against Violence versus Hindutva

Looking at the political situation in India during the last quarter of the twentieth century, one can see a shift in the position of Darpana. The Indian National Congress (INC), the party of Independence, which dominated central government for four decades, became complacent after so many years in power. Corruption was rife and the affluent middle classes were disaffected. Nationalist-fundamentalist parties gained more support throughout the country, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was created in 1980 as the main opposition party. When the BJP came into power in 1998, the situation of the Sarabhai family and of Darpana changed profoundly: now they were part of the "opposition." Although critical of the INC, they remained loyal to it, seeing this party as the safest bet for a liberal and secular democracy.

     As long as Mallika's activism remained primarily social and confined to her artistic output, it was largely tolerated, if not necessarily valued or supported. However, as the power of the BJP increased and its lack of respect for human rights became more apparent, Mallika became more active politically. Her campaign for political awareness was soon paralleled by the Gujarati government's campaign of harassment against her. According to Darpana's staff, whenever the institution sought a permit to expand or transform its buildings, for example, government officials would find all sorts of bureaucratic problems that would delay essential work. In a similar fashion, according to Mallika, the financial accounts of Darpana were regularly scrutinized, and, even though nothing out of order was ever found, paperwork had to be immaculate since government officials would use any irregularity to cause trouble.

     The Godhra massacre and its aftermath in February through March of 2002, was a turning point. Fifty-eight people, returning from a Hindu pilgrimage, were burned to death. The Sabarmati Express, the train they traveled in, was attacked by a large mob, and gasoline was poured over the compartment, which was then set on fire. Few people managed to escape. The attack was allegedly preplanned by Muslims.45 The event prompted retaliatory attacks against Muslims by Hindus throughout the state. Such communal violence was not new to Gujarat. Indeed, there had been similar riots in 1969 and 1992–93. On previous occasions, however, the government condemned violence publicly and pleaded for communal harmony. In 2002, in contrast, according to British academic and politician Sir Bhikhu Parekh, any pretense at neutrality disappeared.46 The government openly encouraged Hindu violence against Muslims. Most of the Gujarati media were progovernment, responding to the tragedy in a provocative and grossly biased manner.

     With violence so close to home, Mallika immediately became involved, publishing an article on March 5, 2002, in the Times of India, titled "I accuse," recalling Émile Zola's activism in the Dreyfuss Affair during the nineteenth century. Upon its publication, she immediately received personal threats, yet she continued and on April 1, with Digant Oza and Indu Kumar, she filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court of India against the government of Gujarat for its involvement in what they referred to as "anti-Muslim pogroms." Thereafter, the government tried to intimidate her into silence, as with other critics of its position, in the hope that she would withdraw the litigation. Mallika, however, continued with both her litigation against the government and with her work at Darpana. Moreover, needing to earn money to cover employee wages, she planned national and overseas tours. On one of these tours, the government attempted to silence her, accusing her of illegal human trafficking. Details of the affair have been discussed by scholar-performer Ananya Chatterjea (2004) and by me (2007) elsewhere. Suffice it to say that Mallika was accused (under sections 14, 34, and 420 of the Indian Penal Code) of allegedly using the tour of her folk dance company, Janavak, to smuggle Indian nationals into the United States.

     It was immediately obvious that the government's allegation was untenable, and civil liberties groups both at home and abroad rallied to give their support. Nevertheless, Mallika had to surrender her passport and request permission to travel outside Gujarat. Through its action the government, in effect, undermined the very livelihood of Darpana. Mallika was not able to plan or guarantee her presence in advance at the major festivals in India (occurring between November and January), and was forced to apply for permission to travel one trip at a time, which often led to the cancellation of her engagements. As most of Mallika's dance earnings fund the running of the institution, this loss of income had a great impact on Darpana, and there were talks of making staff redundant if the institution was to survive. Furthermore, as the government campaign intensified, in addition to Mallika largely being denied access to the festival circuit—the lifeblood for any Indian artist—Darpana lost much of its corporate sponsorship, amounting to twenty-seven lakhs of rupees, close to £40,000 (about $64,000) at the time—roughly a third of Darpana's basic yearly running costs.47

     On December 12, 2004, after thirteen months, the case against Mallika was dropped and Darpana has since rebuilt its financial base.48 The harassment, however, has not stopped. According to Mallika, its latest installment is the building of a road at the bottom of Natarani, Darpana's open-air theater, which overlooks the Sabarmati River.49

Figure 8
Figure 8. Mallika Sarabhai in Bhakti Rasa (Devotional Expression) in classical bharata natyam style (1994). Courtesy of Mallika Sarabhai.

Gujarat, Issue-Based Works, and Censorship: The Fight Goes On

While officially the constitution of India guarantees freedom of expression, anything that can be seen as capable of sparking "communal violence" risks being banned. For example, Rakesh Sharma's film Final Solution (2003) set in Gujarat during the period of the Godhra massacre and its aftermath, was banned under the BJP government and continued to be banned after the INC returned to power in 2004, because the government perceived it as a possible catalyst for "communal violence"—this despite the fact that the film presented views from both sides and won prizes in Africa, Europe, and the United States.50

     The BJP has remained in power in Gujarat, having been reelected in 2009 and, according to human rights activists, victimization and terrorization of Muslims continue. Innocent people are regularly detained illegally before being charged under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), and individuals criticizing government officials can be charged with "anti-national activities." 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."51 Amnesty International filed a report in May 2005, and in the same month the Indian government declared that its review committee had established that "no prima facie case under POTA existed against the accused." Even so, the Gujarati government ignored any form of criticism (Nandy 2008). Furthermore, in June 2011 the Times of India reported that "the state government [of Gujarat was] reopening old cases involving IPS [Indian Police Service] officers who dared to act against the establishment," and that police officers who had spoken against Narendra Modi, such as Sanjeev Bhatt, had been intimidated and suspended.52

     People like Mallika, however, refused to let the issue go. Natarani, for example, hosted the fourth Nazarya Films for Peace Festival in December 2009, and Nandita Das's Firaaq (2008) was screened, a fictionalized version based on true accounts of the 2002 train tragedy and the ensuing violence in the lives of individuals. In her film Das "wanted to explore the fierce and delicate emotions of fear, anxiety, prejudice and ambivalence in human relationships" after the carnage53—an agenda that fit very much with Mallika's own. It is, therefore, fascinating to see how the film was reviewed in the Gujarati press. The reviews were so vague that, unless one had seen or heard about the film's content through other means, it would have been impossible to know what it was about.

     Clearly, under Modi's government, the media is cautious about saying anything about the riots. Many members of the middle class want to believe in the slogan "Vibrant Gujarat" used to advertise the state, despite the fact that many people see it as a myth (Puniyani 2011). Moreover, several people who spoke to me outside Darpana were not particularly troubled by Modi's politics.54 They saw Gujarat as having gained prosperity, evident, for example, in the good road system throughout the state and the modern buildings arising everywhere in Ahmedabad. Admittedly, Islam's presence is audibly felt in the calls to prayer that punctuate the soundscape of Ahmedabad, and Muslims as a whole are certainly not in hiding. Yet many people talk about "Gujarati" and "Muslims" as separate entities, as if the latter were not also of the former. Few talk explicitly about the communal violence that has erupted at regular intervals over the years. Indeed, the media and general public generally use the word "incidents" to refer to the violence.55

     In such times of polarized political factions, artists often find themselves on the front line. In 2006, for example, Maqbool Fida Husain's painting Mother India enraged Hindu groups, and allegedly "a local leader in Gujarat promised 1 kg of gold to anyone who gouged out his eyes."56 In 2007 a group of activists belonging to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council), led by local BJP leader Niraj Jain, vandalized works by Chandramohan Srilamantula, a final-year postgraduate student of graphics at Baroda University's School of Fine Arts, and physically assaulted him; they had found that his art offended their religious feelings. The police intervened only after the damage was done, arresting the artist rather than the ransackers and charging him with public obscenity and incitement of communal disharmony. When Shivaji Panikkar, the head of the department, refused to close down the exhibition, he was suspended.57 Likewise, in 2011 the book Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India, written by the Pulitzer-winning former New York Times journalist Joseph Lelyveld, was banned in the state of Gujarat because it allegedly denigrated the national hero.

Figure 9
Figure 9. Mallika Sarabhai in Hot Talas and Cool Rasas (2005), a piece choreographed by Mallika Sarabhai, Revanta Sarabhai, and D. Padmakumar. Courtesy of Mallika Sarabhai.

     In this climate of political uncertainty, committed activists like Mallika tend to be seen "not as dissenters but as treacherous troublemakers," as political psychologist and social theorist Ashis Nandy puts it (op.cit). Indeed, Mallika's 2011 petition to the commission probing the 2002 "riots" to question the police officer who had testified against Modi was not only rejected, but her action was perceived by some as publicity-seeking rather than a desire to get at the truth.58 In many ways she is a lone player, unable to stick to a single cause. As she put it in a 2009 interview, "I live in plurality. If I identify with a certain cause, I'll work for it, I'll back it." (Sarahbai 2009: 31) Much of her life is dedicated to making the world a better place, and in this way she is single-minded. As she states in the introduction to one of her blogs, "There are many things that concern me. . . . The world is not in a happy or healthy place. Yet wonderful, optimistic, hope-filled attempts at changing [what is wrong] are happening all around. We need to bring these together so that we can form the critical mass of opinion, of energy, of effective change to say: ENOUGH OF ALL THAT IS WRONG."59

     Mallika reminds everyone that a great deal remains to be done in the fight to secure justice; however, through the will of individuals the world can be changed for the better.


I am grateful to the Sarabhai family who have welcomed me, opening their homes to me, never dictating to whom I should talk, what to research, or what to write about. I would also like to thank all at Darpana who have made my stays so enriching.


Newspaper articles referred to in this essay have been retrieved online, in the archives of the Theatre Museum of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, or in the Sarabhai family's personal archives.

1 This article first appeared in Dance Chronicle 36(1): 1–35, 2013. Reprinted by permission of Taylor & Francis Ltd,

2 Following the Indian usage, Mallika Sarabhai will hereafter be referred to as Mallika, which will also avoid unnecessary confusion with the other members of her family mentioned in this essay.

3 The BJP was created in 1980 as the main opponent of the Indian National Congress, the party of Indian independence that dominated the central government for four decades. The BJP led the government of India between 1998 and 2004, and is still in power in the state of Gujarat.

4 'Hindutva' is a word coined by the Hindu nationalist Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (1883–1966) in his 1923 pamphlet Hindutva: Who Is a Hindu?

5 She faced a veteran of Indian politics, the shadow Prime Minister L. K. Advani (in the parliamentary systems of Britain and a number of Commonwealth countries, the party opposition has a shadow cabinet). 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, April 11, 2009).

6 I differentiate between the two methodologies because at times in fieldwork one may do more observation than participation and vice versa; different types of engagement and gathering of data emerge.

7 For further discussion of dance as social movement in South Asia, see also Grau (2010) and Purkayastha (2010).

8 The Consulate, however, reinstated slavery in 1802. It was finally abolished in 1848 under the Second Republic. See also Grau 2005: 149. For a more general discussion see Kolb 2010.

9 It is important to stress, however, that Blacking acknowledged some contradictions and did not consider the arts as necessarily "worthy." As he put it, "Appreciation of Beethoven's music did not restrain the jailers of Auschwitz." See Blacking (1986: 5).

10 "Les re´alisations de Sarabhai ne sont pas seulement des e´vocations ethnographiques. Certes ses danses sont toujours impre´gne´es de l'aˆme hindoue, mais elles posse`dent en plus une e´motion esthe´tique universelle qui les rend accessibles a` tous les publics du monde ("Le Ballet Indien Mrinalini Sarabhai," Dimanche Varie´te´, October 3, 1954, translation by the author).

11 "Pour faire de la danse une prie`re, et de la prie`re une danse, pour e´voquer par les vibrations du corps celles de l'aˆme, sans cesser de rendre hommage aux joies de la vie, il faut avoir derrie`re soi un monde de traditions, des sie`cles de recueillement et de patients efforts. Mais il faut eˆtre Mrinalini Sarabhai . . . pour que la danse, qu'elle qu'en soit l'origine, ravisse si irre´sistiblement et tout a` la fois les yeux, le cœur et l'esprit. "La danse hindoue a` Lausanne: Mrinalini Sarabhai et sa troupe" (R. F. L., Gazette de Lausanne, November 9, 1954, translation by the author).

12 That same year, Vikram's siblings, Gautam and Gira Sarabhai, started the now world-famous Calico Museum of Textiles in what used to be the family home, The Retreat. Indeed, the family is often said to comprise "institution builders," as its members have founded or helped to found so many: the Ahmedabad Textile Industry's Research Association (ATIRA), the National Institute of Design (NID), and the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), to name a few.

13 Vikram Sarabhai, who died in 1971, is considered the father of India's space program. From Mrinalini's perspective he was also her strongest critic and supporter. She told journalist Shivram, "Vikram was attracted to me by my thorough involvement in dancing"; and "He loved my dancing. It was the seriousness of the art and my deep involvement in it that endeared me to him. He himself liked involvement and dedication and that was an important bond between us. Even our children have inherited that spirit of involvement." (cited in Shivram 1977).

14 In an interview with the author, Mrinalini argued that she "came from a family where women were never downtrodden," adding emphatically that she had "never felt unequal as a woman in [her] life, ever!" (Ahmedabad, December 27, 2001).

15 Clipping from Trend Cover, 1954. In folder "Articles on Amma from 1945–1981." Sarabhai Archives.

16 The famous freedom fighter Mridula Sarabhai (1911–1974), was Vikram's sister, for example.

17 See Hills and Silverman 1993.

18 It was only the second such award given by Sangeet Natak Akademi. The first had been awarded to Uday Shankar in 1960. The award for Bharata Natyam in 1970 was given to Shanta Rao. See "Akademi Award for Mrinalini," Times of India, January 23, 1971.

19 See Shah 1945.

20 After moving to Ahmedabad, Mrinalini learned Gujarati by reading all the Gujarati newspapers. Appalled by the number of reported deaths of young women, she discovered over the years that the situation was not unique to Gujarat but was rather a pan-Indian phenomenon that has persisted to this day. Interview by the author, Ahmedabad, December 14, 2009. Mallika would later use such material in Shakti (1989–90) and Sita's Daughters (1990).

21 Man Singh II and Gayatri Devi Ayesha, princess of Cooch Behar, were the last Maharaja and Maharani of Jaipur.

22 Cited in Trend Cover 1954, Sarabhai Archives.

23 Mrinalini Sarabhai, interview by the author, Ahmedabad, December 28, 2001. This correlates with Darpana's approach today as articulated on its website: "We do not accept funding from governments or corporations in any way that compromises or conflicts with our mission," (accessed May 2018).

24 According to the program, the company, in fact, performed twice, on March 15 and 18, 1949, so Mrinalini's words are more a figure of speech than an accurate statement.

25 "Mrinalini Sarabhai Signs with Hurok," unidentified newspaper clipping from folder "Articles on Amma from 1945–1981," Sarabhai Archive (1951).

26 The tour could not take place in 1951 because Vikram told Hurok, to the surprise and delight of Mrinalini, that they were planning to have a second child. Interestingly, the person managing the tour was none other than Dorris Barry, the sister of Alicia Markova. It is worth noting that having children never seemed to impede the artistic careers of either Mrinalini or Mallika, who took her infant son along when she toured in Peter Brook's Mahabharata.

27 "Mrinalini Sarabhai," Femina, November 27, 1959.

28 Tribute to a Creative Dancer," Indian Express, February 10, 1971.

29 Revanta graduated in 2006 from the University of the Arts (Philadelphia) with a Bachelor's degree in dance and multimedia, and in 2011 from the University of Roehampton (London) with a master's degree in performance and creative research. In 2009 Anahita started a degree program, specializing in dance, at Sarah Lawrence College (Bronxville, New York).

30 Mallika Sarabhai, e-mail letter to her friends and supporters on February 11, 2004, after the High Court rejected her appeal.

31 This desire to relinquish self-empowerment is not unique to Darpana. Choreographer Carol Brown commented to me in a conversation that sometimes her dancers would urge her to "just tell [them] what to do"! (London, April 3, 2006). Nonetheless, a 1982 article published in Femina stated, "It is said that this academy has become a centre where the people of Ahmedabad can send their young sons and daughters and be sure they become responsible and ideal citizens. Many of [Mrinalini's] students are involved in social work" (Eswaran, 1982).

32 For example, some artists occasionally go abroad to work on specific projects that allow them to earn substantially more pay than Darpana can offer. Kathakali artist Sasidharan Nair and Kalaripayattu specialist Pappan K. Padmakumar have worked independently in the United Kingdom and the United States without breaking artistic links with Darpana. Bharat Barya, on the other hand, established himself as a popular singer and actor in Gujarati films, and Akshay Patel joined him later as his apprentice. Together they set up the company Nrityavali and seem to be very successful commercially. It is worth noting, however, that on the company website each presents himself as "Dancer, Choreographer, Actor, Trainer, Activist" (—accessed May 20, 2018) and both artists helped in Mallika's 2009 political campaign.

33 The other Indian artists knighted at the time were the dancer Alarmel Valli, the writer Nirmal Varma, and the visual artist Naresh Kapuria.

34 France in India. The French Information Resource Centres in India. (accessed May 20, 2018)

35 See Video clip uploaded by the Indian news portal on April 6, 2009 at 597492 (accessed May 20, 2018).

36 It is worth noting, however, that while India and the world-at-large saw Vikram as the renowned scientist and Mrinalini as the international artist, for Mallika they were "incredibly open parents who demanded that their children have an opinion, that their children make value judgements" (Roy 2005). She regularly comments on how their nurturing made her what she is today and how she tries to do the same with her own children.

37 Theater for development is a participatory way of working, somewhat related to how theater director Augusto Boal describes his work in Theatre of the Oppressed (2000 [1974]), where improvisation is encouraged, the audience is fully part of the play—audience members occasionally taking roles in the performance—and the play is not necessarily fully scripted or staged.

38 Mallika used V . . . Is for Violence alongside Conference of the Birds (1998) and Cityscapes (1998) to showcase Darpana's work for its fiftieth-anniversary celebration in New Delhi in 1999.

39 Indians Sonal Solanki and Arundhati Sinha, permanent and occasional members of the Darpana Performance Group respectively, Italian Ambra Dergamasco, who was studying at Darpana at the time, and American Jeannine Osayande joined the company for this production. Osayande is a performer, educator, and choreographer of African and Brazilian dance. She is director of Dunya Performing Arts Company and adjunct associate professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and Bryn Mawr College nearby.

40 Mallika came out of hiding to join the company for the premiere of the piece and played to a packed house at Natarani. An eyewitness told me that it was an extraordinarily emotional event with the whole audience in tears.

41 The review as a whole, however, was not entirely complimentary, referring to "The disappointment the show itself turned out to be—with nothing sparkling to offer in terms of music, choreography, or even interpretation of women's issues," and asserting that "as an artistic effort, they failed to pack a punch or present some semblance of cohesiveness." See S. Bageshree 2004. This critique is worth noting because India generally lacks a discourse of dance criticism comparable to what exists in Europe and North America. Very few writers stick their necks out and mutual back-scratching is commonplace.

42 In the early years of the nationalist campaign in India, Mohandas Gandhi started a movement named after the hand-woven cloth called khadi. The Khadi movement—part of the broader Swadeshi (indigenous goods) movement—was used by Gandhi to promote Indian production through the boycotting of foreign, especially British, imports. It was through such movements that Swaraj, or home-rule, was to be achieved. See Trivedi 2003 and Ramagundam 2004.

43 This does not mean, however, that Indian audiences necessarily understood John Cage and Cuningham's works. Mrinalini told me that she had devised a gesture—putting her hand through her hair—that would indicate to judiciously placed audience members when it was time to clap! Cage's musical experimentations at the beginning of the performance had the audience especially bemused (interview with the author, Ahmedabad, December 28, 2009).

44 It is interesting that they see it as an "acting" quality rather than a "dancing" one. The label of communicator is one that Mallika herself happily endorses, as her blog Mallika Speaks attests ( (accessed May 20, 2018).

45 While nobody denies the attack and the horrific deaths that resulted, it is not clear who was responsible for it. According to a number of sources, no proper investigation was carried out. See, for example, Kumar and Bhaumik 2002 and Zakaria 2002.

46 See Bhikhu Parekh (2002). Parekh is a member of the House of Lords in the U.K. He was chair of the Runnymede Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain (1998–2000), whose report, The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain, was published in 2000.

47 Mallika Sarabhai, e-mail to the author, January 15, 2005.

48 This estimate is based on costs for 2004 of running the institution on a "survival" budget. In 2010 Mallika said in an interview that to put Darpana on an even keel she would need a fund of six crores of rupees, equivalent to about £800,000 (or $1,200,000). See "Multifaceted Mallika Sarabhai," The Brew: Cinema, Music & Art (April 2010): 28–35.

49 During my visit in 2009, ten major building projects were going on as part of a larger development project started in 1961, when "Bernard Kohn, a French architect residing in Ahmedabad, visualised the development of the Sabarmati Riverfront with a mix of commercial, recreational and residential developments along both the banks of the river," Sabarmati River Front ( [accessed December 26, 2009]). It seems that a six-lane highway will be built on the east side of the river, while a four-lane highway will be built on the west side, where Darpana is located. Overall, a third of the project is to be devoted to roads, a third to gardens and promenades, and some twenty percent to commercial or residential use. There is no doubt that the development project will have a major impact on Natarani, which will undoubtedly have to stop being an open-air theater.

50 See the film's website for full details of awards and censorship: (accessed May 20, 2018). The French newspaper Le Monde commented briefly in its August 9, 2004, edition.

51 These accused persons had been witnesses of either the Godhra massacre or the police's lack of intervention when Muslims were subsequently attacked. See Singh 2006.

52 See Anonymous 1 2011 and Versey 2011. Narendra Modi, Chief Minister of Gujarat since 2001, has been extremely important to the rise of the political dominance of the BJP in Gujarat. According to the biography on his website, he joined the BJP in 1987. Within a year, he was elevated to the position of General Secretary of the BJP Gujarat unit and in 1995 he was made its National Secretary (http// [accessed May 22, 2018]).

53 Firaaq is an Urdu word meaning both separation and quest. According to the filmmaker, "What happened to Muslims in Gujarat was not a communal riot, it was a carnage. My film is not pro-Muslim. It's pro-humanism. Period." See, see also Indo-Asian News Service, "No Reason to Screen Firaaq for Modi: Nandita Das," Hindustan Times (Mumbai), March 20, 2009.

54 Note also Ashis Nandy's view published in the Times of India, 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 most non-resident Indians who, at a safe distance from India, can afford to be more nationalist, bloodthirsty, and irresponsible" (Nandy 2008).

55 This euphemism is analogous to Northern Ireland, whose inhabitants referred to what some would have described as civil war as "the troubles."

56 In 2008 Husain's work was removed from the Indian Art Summit held in Delhi because of threats to the gallery, and an exhibition of his paintings was vandalized by members of Shri Ram Sena (The Army of Lord Ram), a right-wing Hindu group. See editorial "MF Husain: From Four Annas to a Million Dollars," First Post, June 9, 2011; see also "Ram 'Warriors' Smash Husain Works," The Telegraph (Calcutta), August 25, 2008. Following Hussain's death, however, his work was back at the Summit, with the "Ministry of Culture and Delhi Police [taking on the] responsibility of ensuring security." See "MF Back at Art Fair," Times of India, January 23, 2011.

57 See the following newspaper responses to such incidents: Jayant Deshpande, "The Rise of Fascist Acts in India: The Chandramohan Incident and Its Implications—A Review," New Quest: A Quarterly Journal of Participative Inquiry, vol. 168 (2007); Anil Dharker, "Beauty and The Beast," Times of India, May 17 2007; Ranjit Hoskote, "Painting the Art World Red," Hindustan Times, May 13, 2007.

58 See Anonymous 2, "Godhra Panel Rejects Sarabhai's Plea to Examine Bhatt," Times of India, July 20, 2011.

59 [accessed May 19, 2018].

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