Mrinalini Sarabhai was born in Kerala to S Swaminathan, a lawyer at the Madras High Court, and A V Ammakutty, a freedom fighter. Her mother, also known as Ammu Swaminathan, was a fiercely independent woman who fought for equal rights for women in India. She was an active social worker who worked relentlessly for the cause of women empowerment.
In 1917, Ammu formed the Women’s India Association in Madras with Annie Besant, Margaret Cousins, Malathi Patwardhan, Mrs Dadabhoy and Mrs Ambujammal. They highlighted the problems faced by women workers and their economic plight. It was one of the first associations to demand adult franchise and constitutional rights for women. In 1952, Ammu was elected to the Lok Sabha and in 1954 she was an elected representative of the Rajya Sabha. She was also a film buff and it was because of her love of movies that she went on to become the president of the Censor Board.
Ammu had once openly criticised the then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru over his nickname ‘Pandit ji’. She believed it to be an upper-caste entitlement, and since Nehru didn’t stop people from calling him by that name, she thought he may have enjoyed it too.
Incidentally, Mrinalini’s older sister Lakshmi Swaminathan, also known as Lakshmi Sehgal, was part of the freedom struggle too. Lakshmi had received an MBBS degree from Madras Medical College in 1938. After her first marriage failed, she left for Singapore where she was convinced by some members of the Indian National Army to join the freedom struggle. She was eventually made chief of the all-women regiment called the Rani of Jhansi regiment. Lakshmi was arrested by the British in 1945 when the Indian National Army was forced to retreat.
She later joined CPI(M) and represented the party in Rajya Sabha. In 1998, Sehgal was awarded the Padma Vibhushan by Indian president K R Narayanan. Mrinalini had been awarded the Padma Shri in 1965 and Padma Bhushan in 1992.
Mrinalini’s brother Govind Swaminathan was a barrister and was a former attorney general of the state of Madras. Her husband Dr Vikram Sarabhai was a physicist and was dubbed as the father of India’s space program. It is said that they had a troubled marriage. Mrinalini gave an up close access to her life in her autobiography which is titled ‘Mrinalini Sarabhai: The Voice of the Heart.’