Does a radiant personality ever stop shining? Does the glory of a star ever fade? The answers to these rhetorical questions are better answered with the example of the embodiment of charisma, grace, and talent, the famous danseuse Mrinalini Sarabhai. Although it has been a long time since this enigmatic star left for her heavenly abode, she is still an indelible name in the field of Indian art and dance. An exponent of Bharatanatyam, Mohiniyattam, and Kuchipudi, Mrinalini Sarabhai broke the gender barriers by learning Kathakali as well, which deserves a special mention because it has been a field or a dance form that was pre-dominated by men for a long time. Mrinalini Sarabhai did not limit her proficiency and passion to just the field of dance, in fact, she explored herself in the role of an author, activist, and connoisseur of traditional textiles and handicrafts as well.
Born in the year 1918, 11th May, in Kerala, Mrinalini had a disciplined life. Her mother was A. V. Ammu Kutty, who was a social activist and a parliamentarian at the same time, and her father was Subbarama Swaminathan, an eminent lawyer. She started her training in dance at the Dalcroze school, in Switzerland, but her rigorous practice of Bharatnatyam started under Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai after she returned to India. Followed by her marriage to the scientist, physicist, and the father of the Indian Space Program, Vikram Sarabhai, and the birth of her children Mallika and Karthikeya, she finally established the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts in the year 1948.
In a career spanning several decades, Mrinalini Sarabhai had numerous accolades and achievements in her kitty. Although her biggest achievement was the establishment of the Darpana Academy it was just the beginning of the laurels that she was about to receive. In the year 1965, Mrinalini Sarabhai was awarded Padma Shri followed by a gold medal for her choreography in Mexico in the Ballet Folklorico. In the years 1991 and 1992 she received the Pandit Omkarnath Thakur award and the Padma Bhushan back-to-back.
Besides being an extraordinary dancer and choreographer, she was an author as well who had penned several poems, novels, and stories. She was the author of two musical dramas, ‘This Mahabharata’ and ‘Krishna Gopala.’ Not only that, rather she explored her passion for writing through a vast array of topics, which also included mythology as well as a series of letters between Mahatma Gandhi and Sarojini Naidu. The stellar performances of Mrinalini Sarabhai left a lasting impression on the audience are her own productions like Ganga, Shakuntala, Chandalika, and Manushya.
Besides gaining prominence through her contribution to the gamut of Indian dance, writing, and theatrical performances Mrinalini Sarabhai felt a very strong connection with India’s freedom movement. She also had a perpetual urge to protest against social evils back then. The way she turned all her dance performances into mirroring the social evils with depictions of themes like dowry killing, patriarchal dominance, unfair orthodox social practices, brutal crimes and violence like rape, and different types of discrimination made her an exemplary figure who unflinchingly reflected the murkier sides of Indian society through her aesthetic dance performances and brought these conversations into public discourse. Some of the most critically acclaimed projects of Mrinalini Sarabhai are ‘Aspirations,’ which was about the ‘Silent Valley hydroelectric project in the Kerala movement,’ ‘Ranmalpur,’ the portrayal of the cruelty on the Dalit community, and ‘Memory is a Ragged Fragment of Eternity,’ which was purely based on incidents of dowry killings. Each of the dance forms and recitals presented by Mrinalini Sarabhai was incorporated with the theme of social justice and the narratives touched the heart in such a way that showed that in spite of being a distinguished celebrity and artist, she had her heart in the right place. Her achievements as a social activist did not just stop here as she also inaugurated a nature club called Prakriti to enhance the proximity of the children to nature. Being an enthusiast of art herself Mrinalini Sarabhai also never shied away from helping fellow artists, self-help groups, and craftsmen and encouraged them to grow.
Mrinalini Sarabhai was such an enigma that even her daughter was intimidated by her larger-than-life personality. This personality of Mrinalini could be accredited to her highly cultured background, with Swiss education, training from American theatre, and the unusual charm that made her the ideal modern Indian woman ready to be a role model for future generations.
Being an artist, Mrinalini Sarabhai felt like she had more to offer even when she was 93 years old. That is why she added another achievement to her feather by becoming a guest columnist for a dance portal. For the next few years, she was part of a guest column called ‘Ask Mrinalini,’ where she interacted with people to ask questions about Indian dance. Even when she was in her final months Mrinalini didn’t shy away from spreading her knowledge by showing some simple hand gestures of Bharatanatyam to the nurses who were treating her. She was ready to sign off after years of being an inspiration to the young women of India, she did not let go of her art. The most used vocabulary for her back then was the Bharatnatyam mudras, that is ‘Pataka’ and ‘Tripitaka.’
Not only did Mrinalini Sarabhai command a lot of fanfare in her lifetime because of her mesmerizing performances and contribution to the field of Indian classical dance, but also continues to do so after her death.
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