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Born to dance: Mrinalini Sarabhai never retired

Bharatanatyam exponent Mrinalini Sarabhai, who passed away at 97, represented an emerging India through her dance, which merged passion with the cerebral

Written by Suanshu Khurana |
Updated: January 22, 2016 1:33:12 pm
dance, bharatnatyam, mrinalini sarabhai, dancer mrinalini sarabhai, mrinalini sarabhai passed away, indian express talk Mrinalini Sarabhai file photo

La Bombe Atomique des Hindous (a “Hindu” atom bomb) — read a French newspaper headline in 1949, a day after Mrinalini Sarabhai took 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 such as Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai and Chokkalingam Pillai, represented an emerging India through Bharatanatyam, or “Hindu ballet” as the Westerners called it — that was not only passionate but also adept at the complex conceptual study which went into honing an art form.

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, it is also a reminder of the rare but significant combination of the Nehruvian legacy — an idea of India that embraced every religion, ethnicity and language and its companion, the Tagorean inheritance, which was all about shared cultural and spiritual ideas among nations. When Bharatanatyam moved out of the temples to the proscenium stage, and from the devadasis to the urban elite, the shrewd transfer of art and power led to a churning where the likes of Mrinalini thrived by representing India abroad and finding much popularity.

Born in Kerala to a barrister father, Dr Swaminathan, and social worker mother, Ammu Swaminathan, Mrinalini trained in Shantiniketan under the guidance of Tagore. After training at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, she returned to India and began learning Bharatanatyam under 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 marrying the father of Indian space programme — Vikram Sarabhai.

Besides a full-fledged solo career, Mrinalini always felt that a gamut of expressions felt by her on stage always needed more people to represent them, which is why she went on to choreograph more than a 100 dance dramas. From Manushya — where she included the movements of her son as a baby, to Meera — where she danced along with her daughter Mallika Sarabhai to represent various moods of Meera, she also used classical dance to represent social issues such as dowry, women empowerment, environmental degradation and corruption, among others. There have not been many dancers whose fame has endured after a certain age. Perhaps because Mrinalini never retired. She kept dancing, teaching and drawing. “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. Her legacy lives on.

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