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Even After Her Demise, This Legendary Artist Challenges Dance And Dancers Everyday

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A word that most people find so hard to incorporate into all spheres of life, especially art. How does a painter paint something that is relevant? How does a singer compose a song that is relevant? How does a writer write something that is relevant? How does an elocutionist speak of something that is relevant?

How does a dancer perform something that is of relevance today?

To Mrinalini Sarabhai, it had came so easily.  “I was always looking for subjects that would shake people in dance.”

Mrinalini Sarabhai (L) and daughter Mallika Sarabhai R) pose with the "Bharat Asmita Jana Shreshtha 2011". Source: Sam Panthaky/Getty
Mrinalini Sarabhai (L) and daughter Mallika Sarabhai R) pose with the “Bharat Asmita Jana Shreshtha 2011”. Source: Sam Panthaky/Getty

75 years of dancing, 90 countries, 70 productions. There is no word to describe this wonderful lady better than ‘unflinchingly phenomenal’.  Not only had she completely changed the face of Indian classical dance, but she had also been one of the very few people who didn’t ‘just dance’. She had a thousand thoughts swirling in her mind; had seen in this world a number of problems that desperately needed awareness and solving, had so many stories that she wanted to tell. The only method she had felt she could use to do these things, was through dance. And that is exactly what she had done.

From ‘Tasher Desh’, which shows her interpretation of strict, restricting Brahmanical taboos, to ‘Chandaalika’, symbolising the rash, inhumane conditions of the Harijans, termed by the British as the ‘untouchables’ and by Mahatma Gandhi as the ‘children of God’, to ‘Aspirations’, highlighting growing environmental issues, there is nothing that Amma, as she was fondly and respectfully called, hasn’t done. She had achieved what was termed as impossible in Indian classical dance. Take one of her productions, ‘The Dance of Life’, as an example, only Amma could have choreographed an entire dance piece based solely on the history of Indian science. She demonstrated the early decimal system of finger counting through the common taals or beats of Bharatanatyam – ‘takka dhimmi’. When I saw the video of this performance for the first time, I was left awestruck and speechless at the great chunk of genius I had just seen. It seemed like she had done it so effortlessly – like choreography just came to her, like dance flowed through her veins instead of blood.

Even today, most, if not all, artists are afraid to use art to show the ‘bad and ugly’, and prefer to stick with showing just the ‘good’. If these kinds of apprehensions prevail among great artists today, I cannot even imagine how Amma could have been fearless enough to break the stereotype as far as 75 years ago. She had been tired of people seeing dance as something that had to be beautiful all the time. She knew that were issues in this country and this world that were downright hideous, and felt the need to make people aware about this. And what platform would have been better for her to do this, than dance?

I am certain, everyone who had watched one of Amma’s productions, ‘Chandaalika’, would have had the same reaction as I had – it made me sit down in silence, and think. Think about how the Harijans were left voiceless because of the power of authority. I could almost feel the thousand emotions slowly taking over their grief, stricken faces and the treatment that they were being subjected to had infuriated me. That is the effect each and every production of Amma had on everybody who had watched them.

mrinalini funeral
The funeral of the late Ms. Sarabhai. Sam Panthaky/Getty

Having been a Bharatanatyam dancer myself for twelve years now, I find that I am still unable to understand some of the Sanskrit or Tamil lyrics of the songs that I dance to, without help. I have always wondered that, if I don’t understand some of these things, how will the audience watching me understand what I am telling them about? Amma had thought about this much before anyone else did. She wanted to interlink song and dance in such a way that the audience could clearly understand each and every movement – every mudra, every bend of the body, every bang of the foot – every single step. This is why she decided to use the sounds of the drum, and other instruments used in Indian classical dance, to accentuate the movements the dancer makes, instead of lyrics. In her documentary, ‘Mrinalini Sarabhai- The Artist and her Art’, a small performance incorporating this, was shown. It showed a woman reprimanding another woman, her eyes, feet and hands moving along with the sounds of the drum – sometimes jerky, sometimes smooth. As I watched them performing, I found that understanding the piece was so much easier. I could comprehend exactly what she was saying without having to worry about understanding any lyrics. It occurred to me how Amma had involuntarily proved that music and dance is, indeed, the clearest language.

At the end of the documentary, a small clip of Amma was shown in which she was dancing to a song about Lord Krishna. They had shot that only three years ago, when she was 93 years old. In the dance, she showed a gopi telling Lord Krishna to come back to her, moving only her arms, her slender fingers and her expressive eyes; her mouth curved into a slight smile as she absorbed herself in the dance. And she looked so beautiful.

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