Bharatanatyam was her chosen dance form. But Mrinalini Sarabhai, who passed away aged 97 on Thursday, was more than a great Bharatanatyam dancer and guru. Her persona encompassed multiple identities and gave her the aura of a public intellectual and an institution builder. In a sense, she represented the idea of the artist as a nation builder, a role she assumed naturally after having grown up in a family that was immersed in the national movement.
Mrinalini was born into wealth and was educated in Switzerland and Shantiniketan. She realised early in her life that she was a dancer and trained under eminent gurus like Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai, Mylapore Gowri Ammal and the Kathakali maestro, Guru Kunchu Kurup. She was exposed to Western art traditions, but Rabindranath Tagore came to be the preeminent influence in her life and art. Her idea of the nation and art, unsurprisingly, was expansive and bereft of narrow nationalistic or parochial influences. She was a dancer, choreographer, writer and teacher, and Darpana Academy of Performing Arts, the institution she built in Ahmedabad, trained students in dance, drama, music and puppetry. Mrinalini’s mother’s family had its roots in Kerala but her mother, Ammu Swaminathan, had come into her own as a political activist in Madras. A Gandhian, she nurtured a free and independent spirit in her children. Mrinalini’s sister, Captain Lakshmi Sehgal, chose to become a doctor and led the Indian National Army’s women contingent. Mrinalini’s partner-in-life was an equally celebrated figure, Vikram Sarabhai, who founded the Indian space programme. The Sarabhais were a major industrial house in Gujarat, known for philanthropy and support to the national movement.
Dance was a metaphor for civilisational values in Mrinalini’s life, and the dancer and the dance were indistinguishable.