Mrinalini Sarabhai is one of the foremost personalities in Indian classical dance. She was trained in Bharatnatyam, Kathakali as well as Mohiniattam and eventually turned to choreography as well as dance training. She’s known for her unique approach to both classical dance forms and reflecting social issues through her art. Through her career, she went on to gain fame and accolades not just in the country but also across the world, receiving numerous awards and recognition for her contribution to classical dance. Married to renowned physicist Vikram Sarabhai, she also became the mother of two children—Kartikeya and Mallika—both of whom continued to take her legacy ahead in different ways.
Sarabhai was born on May 11, 1918, in Kerala during British rule. She came from a family that was politically inclined, with her father being a renowned barrister at the Madras High Court as well as the principal of the Madras Law College and her mother was a social worker as well as a former Parliament member. As a young girl, Sarabhai had an early inclination to dance and learned the Dalcroze method of dance while she was being raised in Switzerland.
She went on to receive her education in Santiniketan in West Bengal, under the guidance of Rabindranath Tagore, where she found her true calling and went on to pursue a career in dance. She also went to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in the United States for further dance training. When she was back from the states, she trained in Bharatanatyam, Kathakali, and Mohiniattam from renowned Indian classical dance instructors Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai, Guru
Mrinalini Sarabhai and Vikram Sarabhai
Mrinalini met renowned physicist and astronomer Vikram Sarabhai in Ooty and the pair tied the knot in 1942. They went on to have two children- a son, Kartikeya, and a daughter Mallika, who ended up following her mother's footsteps and went on to gain fame in the world of dance and theatre. Even with her growing family, Sarabhai did not let her passion and career take a backseat.
As she made the journey from South India to Ahmedabad, Gujarat, to be with her husband, Sarabhai faced a number of cultural challenges when it came to the acceptance of South Indian classical dance forms in that part of the country. Even amidst this social environment, she persisted and would perform everywhere she was invited. She eventually went on to establish the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts in 1949 in Ahmedabad to train students in classical dance forms. What started with a few dance students went to become a huge success in the world of Indian classical dance and Sarabhai went on to be known lovingly as Amma in Gujarat.
Mrinalini Sarabhai, The Activist & Feminist
Sarabhai was known to beautifully but thoughtfully highlight several social issues translated through her unconventional performances. One of the most notable issues she highlighted was one of the dowry deaths, which learned of one day while reading the newspaper. Astonished by the torture women are put through for dowry, she decided to reflect the same in her art. As no songs existed back then about such issues, Sarabhai decided to use just music, which according to her would be more communicated and easily understood by audiences.
Her interest in issues of intolerance, caste-based discrimination, and women empowerment only grew through her career and she choreographed many of these issues into performances to get a subtle yet powerful message across. In 1977, she used Chandalika to highlight untouchability. In her choreography in Tasher Desh, Kingdom of Cards, she weaved a protest against various isms through the Kathakali performance. She also highlighted issues like rape, discrimination, and maltreatment of Adivasis as well as a host of environmental issues, through her work. In her 1985 production Ganga, she depicted how the sacred river had been polluted. She also made use of traditional textiles and handcraft in her performances so as to promote indigenous crafts.
Dance Academy Of Mrinalini Sarabhai
Sarabhai’s Darpana Academy of Performing Arts in Ahmedabad was started by her as she recognised the need of a dance academy that catered to Indian classical dance forms. In her autobiography, Voice from the heart, Sarabhai wrote: “As I was building up an entirely new atmosphere in Ahmedabad and had Vikram’s support, I, fortunately, did not have to worry in the beginning about finances. But I wanted someday to have a dance institution that would be self-sufficient. It was disappointing that I could find no students interested in dance and finally made a few of my friends join, just to have some company.’’ The academy went on to become a huge success and Sarabhai went on to perform at many international stages with Darpana through the years. But that’s not all it was for her. She also used Darpana’s platform to help empower those in need. She established the Centre for Non-violence through Performing Arts at the school to creatively reflect on issues the society was dealing with.
Today, the school offers training in Bharatanatyam, Indian Classical Vocal, Mridangam, Violin and Flute, puppetry, and martial art Kalaripayattu. It organises a three-day "Vikram Sarabhai International Arts Festival" at Ahmedabad, every year and celebrated its golden jubilee in 1998.
Awards and Recognition
In 1965 the Indian government awarded Sarabhai with the Padma Shri and the Padma Bhushan in 1992. the University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK also honoured her with the Degree of Doctor of Letters in 1997. She also received the medal and Diploma of the French association Archives Internationales de la Danse and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship, New Delhi in 1994. A gold medal from the Mexican Government for her choreography for the Ballet Folklorico of Mexico was also one of her international recognition. Google Doodle commemorated her 100th birthday on 11 May 2018.
5 Facts About Mrinalini Sarabhai That You Didn't Know
1. She has choreographed over 300 dance dramas and productions
2. Although Sarabhai is known for her prowess in Indian classical dance forms, her first dance lessons took place in Switzerland
3. As there weren’t many schools teaching dance at the time she was starting to train, she spent years in a village to learn Indian classical dance from her guru
4. Sarabhai has trained over 18,000 students in Bharatnatyam and Kathakali through her academy
5. She was the first recipient of the Nishagandhi Puraskaram annual award of the Government of Kerala in 2013
Mrinalini Sarabhai is celebrated today for her revolutionary ideas and unconventional take on classical dance forms. As her legacy lives on through her extensive body of work, Darpana, and her daughter’s work in the world of classical dance, she has proved more than once the importance of bringing to light many societal issues through any form of work. She breathed her last in 2016 at the age of 97.