La Bombe Atomique Des Hindous (The Hindu Atomic Bomb), read a French newspaper review headline in 1949 — a day after dancer Mrinalini Sarabhai took the stage at the prestigious Théâtre National de Chaillot in Paris. Her expressive fluidity paired with techniques she had imbibed over the years from her gurus — Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai, Ellapa Pillai and Chokalingam Pillai — represented a newly independent and emerging India through Bharatanatyam, or Hindu ballet as the Westerners called it.
She was not only passionate but also adept at the complex conceptual study that went into honing the skill of an art form — one that made it so passionate in the first place.
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Almost 66 years later, Mrinalini Sarabhai’s death at the age of 97 is not just the death of a legendary dance exponent who was a representation of a life well-lived and danced, it is also a reminder of a significant combination of the Nehruvian ideas — an India that embraced every religion, ethnicity and language — and its companion Tagorean inheritance that was all about shared cultural and spiritual ideas among nations.
When Bharatanatyam moved out of the temples to the proscenium stage and the devadasis to the urban elite, the shrewd transfer of art and power led to a churning where dancers such as Mrinalini thrived, represented India abroad and did well.
Born into a famous family from Kerala, she was the daughter of Dr Swaminathan, a barrister in Madras High Court and social worker and Parliament member Ammu Swaminathan. Mrinalini later went to Santiniketan, where she was educated under the guidance of Rabindranath Tagore and also studied under Nandalal Bose. It is here that she decided on being a dancer.
After briefly training at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, she returned to India and began learning Bharatanatyam under the tutelage of legendary Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai and Kathakali under Guru Thakazhi Kunchu Kurup. She trained at the Pandanallur school and worked with noted dancer Ram Gopal before setting up Darpana Academy of Performing Arts in Ahmedabad after her marriage to the father of Indian Space Programme, Vikram Sarabhai.
Besides a very popular solo career, which was appreciated for precision, technical skill and abhinaya, Mrinalini always thought that a gamut of expressions felt by her on stage needed more people to represent them, which is why the dancer went on to choreograph more than a 100 dance dramas in her career. From Manushya, where she included movements she noticed of her son as a baby, to Meera, where she danced with her daughter Mallika to represent various moods of Meera; the legend also used classical dance to represent social issues such as dowry, women empowerment, environmental degradation and corruption, among others, bringing her own version of contemporary to the traditional.
“Vikram often remarked and talked of the marvellous universe beyond the Milky Way, and both of us, lying on our cots on the veranda of our bedroom, gazed at the stars differently, yet united in a shared experience of wonder,” wrote Mrinalini Sarabhai in her 2004 autobiography, The Voice of the Heart. Her dance was similar — often a singular experience that merged with life itself, where a sense of awe prevailed.
There have not been many dancers whose fame has endured after a certain age. Mrinalini’s did. Probably because she never retired. She kept dancing, teaching, drawing, working. “I said, I am a Dancer. Not will be, not was. But I am,” she had once said.
Mrinalini Sarabhai, who died on Thursday morning, is a dancer. She continues to glow bright. Exactly like the stars she would gaze at in the Milky Way.