Mrinalini Sarabhai hated ageing. As she begins her final journey from the dance floor of Darpana Academy of Performing Arts in the Usmanpura area of Ahmedabad, she leaves behind a timeless legacy for a state that had few acclaimed performers of Indian classical dance when she first came here in the early 1940s.
Having learnt Bharatanatyam from Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai, Mrinalini was among those danseuse who brought the dance form out of the devdasi closet and made it not only acceptable but respectable. By the time she gave up regular public performances, almost seven years ago, she had choreographed over 300 dances. A pivot of the Sarabhai family whose four generations lived together at Chidambaram, their home on the banks of the river Sabarmati, she was always at Darpana, the academy she and her late husband Vikram Sarabhai, father of India’s space programme, set up in 1949.
The academy, in 1994 added an amphitheatre – Natrani — which has staged revolutionary theatre and been a platform for bold works of arts, and films.
Mrinalini’s coming to Ahmedabad, her marriage with Vikram Sarabhai, and starting a family and institutions that became iconic, are now part of Ahmedabad’s history and folklore. In her autobiography, Voice from the heart, Mrinalini, known in Ahmedabad as Amma, 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.’’
“Shakuntala Desai of the Chinubhai Baronet family (the family of Ranchhodlal Baronet who set up the first textile mill in Ahmedabad) and her cousins were the first and she became a lifelong friend. “Before our marriage, my father-in-law, Papa, (textile baron, Ambalal Sarabhai) had qualms about my dance career….. Once we were married, Papa always supported me. He used to sit in the front row at my performances in Ahmedabad and comment on the dances. He never liked going out at night but did it to show his approval which I really needed. Often he held a small umbrella to prevent pigeon-dropping falling on his head! He even marked out some passages from the Kena Upanishad and asked me to depict them in dance, which I choreographed and danced for Swami Chinmayananda in his ashram.
“Gujarat had no background of classical dancing, steeped as it was in folk art and culture, mostly in the villages. On festival days like Navaratri, everybody participated in the Garba and the Ras in the streets of Ahmedabad”. Born in Kerala, Mrinalini trained as a ballerina when she was at a school in Switzerland in the 1930s and also learnt Mohiniyattam and Kathakali. The younger sister of late captain Lakshmi Sehgal of the erstwhile Indian National Army (INA) Mrinalini had a very Victorian upbringing and even an English governess.
As long as Vikram was alive, she depended heavily on him for judging her stage performances and sets. She details in her autobiography how he would deeply involve himself in the lighting, and even choosing the curtain cloth for the stage on which ‘Mrinal’ as he called her, would perform. Darpana today also hosts the Vikram Sarabhai International Arts Festival every December to commemorate the scientist’s death anniversary.
That role was taken over by her daughter, also an acclaimed dancer, Mallika Sarabhai, who is currently making her first feature film Kadak Badshahi from the play on 600 years of Ahmedabad. Her son, Kartikeya is founder director of Centre for Environment Education (CEE). Coming from a family of freedom-fighters Mrinalini was devastated when in her first year in Ahmedabad, the police burst a shell while she watched a women’s freedom movement rally in 1942, leaving a deep gash in her eye.
She writes in her autobiography, “Without an anesthetic, the doctor stitched the eye-lid which had been split open. Papa (Ambalal Sarabhai) called a doctor from Bombay. He insisted that the eye be removed because infection had set in. But Papa stood firm and protested, for which I am eternally grateful. ‘She is a dancer’, he said, ‘we must try and save her eye at any cost’.”
A strong advocate of Indian culture, she was strongly in favour of girls wearing Indian clothes. She herself was always impeccably dressed in a saree. Barring the lines that usually came with age, the image of her radiant face, flower-bedecked bun and the large bindi on her forehead will continue to linger along with the sound of feet rhythmically tapping on hard stone at Darpana.