Remembering the legendary danseuse Mrinalini Sarabhai

Remembering the legendary danseuse Mrinalini Sarabhai

Legendary dancer Mrinalini Sarabhai passed away on January 21, at the age of 97. Her dance was so closely intertwined with spirituality, that her very existence was indistinguishable from her dance.

Legendary Indian classical dancer Mrinalini Sarabhai is known for many things — for being an excellent danseuse who trained thousands in Bharatanatyam and Kathakali, an activist, a pioneer in promotion of Indian classical dances, daughter of a freedom fighter, wife of renowned physicist Vikram Sarabhai, mother to two illustrious children — dancer Mallika Sarabhai and environment activist Kartikeya Sarabhai. As the country mourns the passing away of the great dancer on January 21, here's a look at her journey, her thoughts and her work.

The Padma Bhushan awardee passed away at her Ahmedabad home in Usmanpura area on the morning of January 21. She is survived by her children Mallika Sarabhai, Kartikeya Sarabhai, four grand-children and three great-grandchildren. As a poetess, much of Sarabhai's writing came from not only her dance but the spirituality IN her dance. She once wrote: "How many lives before / I danced away the passions / Of my heart / How many fires lit my body into nothingness / Releasing again the energies / More real than life / Curled into my very atma / For each new life renewed / I dance / And will dance again." Here she is pictured with Japanese politician Midori Ishii reading a Screen newspaper. (Source: Express archive photo)

On the morning of her passing away, her daughter and noted danseuse Mallika Sarabhai shared the news on Facebook: “My mother Mrinalini Sarabhai has just left for her eternal dance.” It seems fitting to recall one of her mother's own quotes here: "Dance I feel is a fundamental spontaneous expression of humankind from the crudest leaps around a fire to the sophisticated forms of the dynamic spirit within us. Creative work is a mystical experience." (Source: Nervous taboo via Twitter)

A trained Bharatanatyam, Kathakali and Mohiniyattam dancer, Mrinalini Sarabhai was born in Kerala on 11 May 1918, raised in Switzerland and had studied at the renowned Shantiniketan university under the tutelage of Guru Rabindranath Tagore. She once said: "From the moment of my knowledge of existence, I claimed the dance as my own life. It shaped the entire consciousness of my being and never changed — for it was the only direction of my heart, mind and innermost soul. It has, till now, been my state of enlightenment — my closest experience of divinity." (Source: Express Photo)

The last rites of the danseuse will be held at a farm house owned by the family in Pethapur village in Gandhinagar. Sarabhai, who regularly wrote a blog, spoke often on the topic of contemporary versus classical with respect to dance. In one such post on the subject, she wrote: "To be traditional in art is to be able to recognise a known structure which has retained a clarity that has withstood time. It is the art of perceiving a reality in patterns formed by years of experience. But, it is not a static entity...To me, dance — apart from its essential beauty — has to be awareness and a relevant force in contemporary life." (Source: Indianhistorypics via Twitter)

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A funeral procession will be taken from her institute, the Darpana Dance Academy, at Usmanpura at 3 pm and the last rites will be performed in the evening around 5:15 pm, said her son Kartikeya. In this file photo, Mrinalini Sarabhai is seen launching the free electronic English magazine, 'The Malayali Wings' from her home in Ahmedabad. Always involved in literary pursuits, she talks about her connection with dance in her blog: "Continuously through the years, people ask me "What is dance to you?". My reply usually is, "It is my breath, my passion, my self". Can anyone ever understand these words? There is no separateness in the dance and my entire being. It is the radiance of my spirit, that makes for the movements of my limbs. 'But what is meaningful, what is your fulfillment?', people ask me now. "You have achieved fame, you are called the goodness of dance. Why do you go on straining yourself?" I have no answer. How can I tell them that I am only 'I' when I dance. I am only that 'I AM' when I dance. I am only eternity when I dance. Silence is my response, movement my answer." (Source: Express Archive Photo)

She was also the chairperson of the Nehru Foundation for Development (NFD). She says, "In this creative journey, my realization always was that we are all part of this great cosmos — continuously, this awareness reiterates itself more and more. I try to tell the world how each one of us belongs to the other and that those relationships must be cherished, and I know that there are many who respond. And as we gather our forces, there will surely come about a world consciousness that truly believes in peace and understanding." (Pictured here: Mrinalini Sarabhai with Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Source: Wikimedia Commons)

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. (Source: RahulBal/Twitter)

Though known mainly as a Bharatanatyam dancer, Mrinalini Sarabhai was also an excellent Kathakali dancer as well. She trained under under Guru Thakazhi Kunchu Kurup.

Mrinalini married the Indian physicist Vikram Sarabhai who is considered to be the Father of the Indian Space Program in 1942. Vikram Sarabhai allowed considerable freedom to Mrinalini to develop her own potential. Quoting him she says, "`Sarva shrishti parinamam' — all creation is limitless — is a basic tenet of Indian philosophy. A dancer has to be an observer of all movement(s), as does a scientist. Vikram's remark that "It is necessary in creative work to be able to see the squirrels and the birds" is a profound statement. It means to awaken the relationship with nature — the spirit of our Vedic heritage which tells us that we are each a particle of the universe and share in its wholeness." (Source: Prasar Bharati via Twitter)

Here is one of the rare photos of her wedding with Vikram Sarabhai.

The danseuse with her children Mallika and Kartikeya at their home in Madras.

The dancer — a pioneer in many ways — started the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts in 1949 in Ahmedabad. Here she is pictured with her group before embarking on a 10-week dance tour to Europe. The fact that she constantly thought about how to improve her work and the world around her can be clearly sensed in her approach towards her art form: "I began to create new work (to fulfil) an innate need to express my involvement with the world around me, the world I lived in, breathed in, the world of constant dualities, joy-sorrow, life-death, love-hate, construction-destruction...creating insights towards awareness." (Source: Express Photo)

The dancer also wrote an autobiography titled 'Mrinalini Sarabhai: The Voice of the Heart', which is a warm and vivid memoir of a life optimally lived. Seen here is Sarabhai delivering the Presidential address of the 14th Natyakala conference of Museum Theatre, with Guru Chokkalingam Pillai and writer SV Venugopan in attendance. (Source: Express Archive Photo)

A more recent photo of Mrinalini Sarabhai with her students from the Darpana Academy.

"Inspiration is itself the result of many years of study — a deep knowledge of the subject and hard work," she said in one of her blog posts. This inspiration is has been constantly visible in the subject of her many choreographies. In this file photo, the artiste is pictured with actor Prithviraj Kapoor (third from left) and his wife, as then education minister Dr Saiyadain secretary sees them off at the airport in Delhi. They were part of a cultural delegation visiting South East Asian countries. (Source: Express Archive Photo)

Fondly called 'Amma' by those who knew her, Mrinalini Sarabhai (extreme right in this picture) was part of many cultural delegations. While on such tours, she spoke eloquently on the subjects of dance and Indian culture. Here she is pictured during one such tour to South East Asia where she, Mrs Prithviraj Kapoor (extreme left) and a leading Indonesian film actress Netty Herawati visited a Persari film studio in Djakarta. (Source: Express Archive Photo)

Mrinalini Sarabhai performing the Nataraj Vandanam with her daughter Mallika in 1980.

Mrinalini Sarabhai and her fellow dancers performing Geet Govindam in 1958.