With the passing of Mrinalini Sarabhai at the ripe old age of 97 in Ahmedabad, the universe of Indian dance lost probably its last diva. Always glamorously attired in ethnic textiles, always chic, and sporting jewellery that one would always ooh and aah over, Mrinalini Sarabhai was a superstar.
Hailing from a renowned tharavad in Kerala (her mother was the indomitable Ammu Swaminathan), Mrinalini was trained in both Bharatanatyam and Kathakali by renowned gurus; she also had the good fortune of learning at Shantiniketan under the watchful eyes of Rabindranath Tagore.
Married into the Sarabhai family in Ahmedabad, Mrinalini dared open doors in the then traditional society to the beauty of classical dance. With her varied skill basket of dance knowledge and her passion for excellence and institution-building, she soon etched a dominant position for herself in the world of Indian performing arts, and soon her reputation acquired a global gloss, and she was the favourite cultural ambassador of India for decades, performing and lecturing to audiences all over the world. She was thus not only one of the early pioneers of Indian dance abroad, but her excellent verbal and abhinaya skills also enabled her to fabulously communicate with people from different cultures.
But this was just about scratching the surface. Mrinalini’s engagements with new dimensions of dance would grow and she would become a veritable icon. Full of conviction in the values she believed in and totally uncaring of criticism that would be heaped on her, Mrinalini Sarabhai created new spaces for dance to explore. Contemporary themes that underlined her belief in human rights and social justice were to create new frontiers for her creative expression. Women’s equity and equality were another favourite area of her creative concern.
She went on to make dance presentations extremely professional, matching international standards that she had been exposed to during her many travels. The way in which she crafted her shows was truly novel; an evening could normally start off with pure classical pieces and in the second half she would present her more experimental work. She wanted people to be moved by dance. That was her only aim.
A polymath in the true sense of that word, Mrinalini Sarabhai worked in classical dance, in choreography, in publishing, in creative writing, in passionately saving craft and textile traditions, in representing the best of Indian thought, philosophy and culture. Seemingly, there was nothing she could not do.
She went on to become an institution builder. Her unique vision created Darpan in Ahmedabad, and over decades, thousands of students trained under her eagle eye in both classical and contemporary dance. She, along with daughter Mallika Sarabhai, went on to found Natarani, which is one of the most professionally run theatres in India today.
I remember inviting her to address the annual World Dance Day celebrations I organise in Delhi. That was in 2007; she was then 88 years old! But what a stunning lecture she delivered, inspiring youth to stay the course and craft their own futures. I went on to interview her for Doordarshan Archives the next day. And our conversation — so full of anecdotes and history and giggles and laughter — went on for hours, even though it was scheduled only for 60 minutes! Gosh! We got on like a house on fire!
As news came of her passing away, I opened my bookshelf and found a volume penned by her. KAN was a creative offering of her words and Shanu Lahiri’s images.
“I lit the lamps and opened the doors of the inner shrine. Ananda sat there. I knelt at his feet. His hand lifted in the abhaya mudra. His eyes looked into mine. Compassionate. Loving. Distant. From his feet I scraped the dust. Mutti. Vibhuti. I touched it to my forehead. And I knew it was the moment of separation!”
Mrinalini has moved to a better spotlight! She has found a better Ananda!