A Great Artist and a Woman of Courage, Mrinalini Sarabhai

Published on: 02-08-2016


Born: May 11, 1918, Kerala
Died: January 21, 2016, Ahmedabad

Mrinalini was born to an unusually enlightened set of parents.  Her mother, Ammu, belonged to a matrilinear, Nair family of Palakkad, Kerala.  Her father though born a Palghat Brahmin, intensely disliked Brahminism, retrograde thinking and all aspects of caste superiority.  Their marriage had created a sensation at the time. 
 
Mrinalini’s father belonged to a very poor family.  Her maternal grandfather who was a petty government official had taken a great liking to the young boy who displayed his brilliance even at a very young age.  He helped him whenever he could and encouraged him to study hard.  Young Swaminadhan visited his benefactor’s home – his wife’s home was a Theravad named Vadakath in Anakara village – and he was very impressed by the imposing figure of the matriarch herself, A.V.Ammukutty Amma.
 
Many years later, Swaminadhan returned to Vadakath.  He had studied hard and won scholarships to study abroad and was now a lawyer who had started practicing in Madras and had become quite successful.  He felt it was time to marry and while the decision he took may seem patriarchal and patronising to us it was, for the times, quite revolutionary.  He had decided to offer to marry a daughter of his benefactor.  He remembered that he had had several.  When he entered Vadakath, however, and after he was affectionately greeted by Ammukutty Amma, he was told that not only was her husband no more but that all her daughters were now married.  ‘Except one’, she said. ‘But she’s very young’. 
 
Later, young Ammu, all of 13 years of age, joined them and Swaminadhan was much taken by her precocity.  He asked her, only half teasingly, if she would marry him and, after some thought, she said that she would if he accepted her conditions which were, that she would live in a city not a village; that she would be properly educated by an English woman and that he would never ask her where she was going and when she would be back, just like her brothers were never asked.  Much taken, Swaminadhan readily agreed to these conditions and marry they did.
 
But this was a time when the sambandhams (relationships) that were entered into between Brahmin men and Nair women were not marriages.  Swaminadhan, however, was determined to enter into a legally-binding relationship with Ammu and he not only married her in Vadakath but also at a registry office in London.  Tamil Brahmin society was appalled.  They were threatened with social boycott and met with derision. 

Swaminadhan, however, was determined to enter into a legally-binding relationship with Ammu and he not only married her in Vadakath but also at a registry office in London.  Tamil Brahmin society was appalled.  They were threatened with social boycott and met with derision. 
 
Swaminadhan’s success as a lawyer protected him and his family from caste-ostracism but they were all made aware of the hostility that the marriage had aroused.  This is what made all four of Swaminadhan and Ammu’s children – Govind, Lakshmi, Mrinalini and Subharam – extremely sensitive to the issue of caste prejudice.  All of them, in different ways, took a strong position against casteist intolerance and identified, in different ways, with those who were considered lowly in the caste hierarchy.  All of them experienced caste prejudice themselves although, of course, they were protected by their father’s success and economic well being.
 
Lakshmi and Mrinalini used to eat their lunch at their Brahmin uncle’s home, was near their school and they remembered being made to sit on the floor and eat by his mother-in-law.  When their father came to hear about this he insisted that meat with bones be included in their tiffin, everyday!
 
Later, their home became a hub of the national movement.  The Swadeshi movement was promoted by Ammu and both her daughters who were still children.  All of them participated in meetings, demonstrations and processions.  Their home was also a place where many singers, dancers and musicians who faced tremendous prejudice because of their mixed-caste origins were made welcome.  Women involved with the struggle of equal rights of whom their mother was a vocal one, were also to frequent their home.
 
Mrinalini went abroad to study at a very young age and this introduced her to Western culture, literature and liberal thinking.  She was obsessed with the urge to dance from an early age and in Switzerland and then the United States, she acquired a love for Western dance forms.  But they did not appeal to her as a vocation.  She returned thereafter to India and went to Shantiniketan where the open-mindedness and extremely emancipatory atmosphere created by Gurudev (Tagore) helped her to blossom and also find direction.
 
She then embarked on her journey of studying and mastering classical dance forms like Bharata Natyam and Kathakali, learning with the greatest living gurus.  The dedication and commitment that she displayed became part of her being. This dedication was to be her companion for the rest of her life.  Although she was not a healthy person and had been sickly throughout her childhood, her iron-clad determination to dance gave her the energy and strength to devote many hours, every day, to the rigours of classical dance training.
 
While she was studying dance, she met Vikram Sarabhai who was growing into an outstanding scientist.  They married soon after and made their home in Ahmedabad where Mrinalini developed Darpana which was first a dance school and then became a learning and teaching center for all the performing arts – dance, theatre, puppetry etc.
 
Mrinalini was uncompromising in her dedication to classical dance but she had the courage to use classical vocabulary for the depiction of social and contemporary themes.  She was extremely sensitive to the trials and tribulations of Indian women; to the fact that they became strangers after marriage in both their natal and their marital homes; to the denial of their individuality and autonomy; to the suppression of their talents.  She tried to make these the themes of many of her dance compositions and dramas and was a pioneer as a result.
 
Mrinalini was not a political activist who used her celebrity status to promote causes.  She said what she had to, through her art.  But sometimes she transgressed.  When the Gujarat carnage took place, she could not suppress the horror and agony that she felt.  She displayed exemplary courage in condemning what had happened and spoke out against those responsible.
 
Great artists are always inspiring.  When they are also extraordinarily committed and courageous human beings they are even greater sources of inspiration.

(Subhashini Ali, apart from being a political activist and former Member of Parliament from the Communist Party of India-Marxist is the niece of Mrinalini Sarabhai, daughter of Lakshmi, her older sister)