INTERVIEW | We have made our philosophies, religions so debilitated: Mallika Sarabhai

On a new mission, having taken charge as the chancellor of Kerala Kalamandalam. TNIE catches up with the ace danseuse on her recent visit to Thiruvananthapuram.
The dancer, activist and new chancellor of Kerala Kalamandalam, Mallika Sarabhai speaks to TNIE.(Photo | BP Deepu, EPS)
The dancer, activist and new chancellor of Kerala Kalamandalam, Mallika Sarabhai speaks to TNIE.(Photo | BP Deepu, EPS)

The name Mallika Sarabhai is synonymous with classical dance. And over the past three decades, she has been presenting new meanings to the traditional repertoire of Bharatanatyam through contemporary interpretations.

The Padma Bhushan awardee has also been an activist who uses art as a tool for social change through her dance school, Darpana Academy of Performing Arts, in Ahmedabad. Now, she is on a new mission, having taken charge as the chancellor of Kerala Kalamandalam. TNIE catches up with the ace danseuse on her recent visit to Thiruvananthapuram.

How does it feel to helm an institute like Kerala Kalamandalam?

When I received the state government’s call to join as chancellor of Kerala Kalamandalam, the first thought that came to my mind was whether I was senior enough for the post – as, in my mind, I am still in my 30s! Kalamandalam is filled with memories for me. 

During my younger days, whenever on the way to our tharavadu in Kuttipuram (Malappuram district), Amma would take a detour via Kalamandalam to meet people there. During my college days, I visited the centre at least once every year. 

When I began my career in 1979, the then national foreign minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had sent a group of artists to China. Headed by Amma, the team had artists from Darpana, Kadamb and Kalamandalam, including Kalamandalam Gopi. We were together for six weeks. So, when I got the offer, I was delighted.

What are the challenges in your new role?

I think the big challenge is how you make a man walking in Kanpur suddenly get interested with the 10-second video from Kalamandalam. For that, we need to be intelligent enough to repackage art for the current audience. Repackaging does not mean changing the integrity of the art. For example, over the pandemic year, many artisanal designer works went online and now everybody knows different textiles and designs. It gave new life to artisans. Through the Biennale, visual arts are achieving it. We must achieve the same with performing arts, too.

But, puritans say repacking art mars its soul…

To date, if the Chennai Bharatanatyam community hasn’t criticised me, it is because if one asks me to do a complete traditional margam out of the blue, I will. My urge to experiment is not due to laziness or the lack of ability… rather, it opens the scope for creating something new. 

In 1999, during Darpana’s 50th anniversary, my mother’s choreography involved experimentation. As I was cross-trained in music, puppetry and theatre, most of my creative works were used in it. So, I had to go with the artists in the team and make them explore other arts, too. That said, we all learned Kalari, and some even practised chenda. Not because we were unable to include real chenda players, but, in a particular production, I may need the dancers to play the chenda or perform something related to Kalari. So they had to constantly train. Some people felt threatened by that and left the team. But 90 per cent of them stuck, and it eventually turned out to be amazing. 

After the Zoom years during the pandemic crisis, we now have the possibility of me, sitting in Ahmedabad, choreographing a piece with another artist in Scandinavia. Technology can draw attention to the nuances of art. With technology, we can open up arts to diverse audiences, even those who are not interested in arts.

How do you gauge the new art movements in India?

I find the works exciting; there are both good and bad ones. I think, for artists, we need to find our core, and to find the core we should go ashore. If one says he or she is a Kathakali artist and does not want to look at anything else, it deprives art of oxygen. I have now been a Kuchipudi and Bharatanatyam performer for over 40 years, and I can do whatever I want with them as long as I don’t claim it is the traditional version. I must have the logic to do it and explain it to my audience. 

The grammar of dance should be in your DNA. I have not had any resistance from the puritans, as I can do a margam piece in strict Pandanallur style in Bharatanatyam than most people today.

Could you give us a gist about your latest experiments?

My new solo production, ‘Past Forward’, is a journey of Bharatanatyam from the 12th century to the 24th century. The change of nayika to a feminist filled with questions – within the scope of Bharatanatyam. It starts with the traditional ‘Devi Sthuthi’, and jumps to 500 years ago when ‘Ninda Sthuthi’ was written. I have used radical nayikas, and end with the Bilkis Bano gangrape verdict. It was shocking, the worst travesty of justice in the history of murder trials and women’s rights. As a society, we have gone into a great slumber.
Do you feel the liberties of performing arts, including cinema, being axed?

Since 2014, the liberty of art is being axed. Somebody like Munawar Faruqui going to jail for the joke he made shows how we have become one of the most insecure nations. My question to Hindutva people is: If God is great and will protect me, who am I to protect God? Do I see myself as such a powerful person that I have the ego to claim that I can protect Rama, Shiva, Krishna or Devi? I am very much Hindu in the most liberal sense. I see myself as a tiny speck in the universe. I have a duty to make the universe more fragrant, and every day I do this. 

Be it in any religion, what is this ego that gives some people the feeling that they are custodians of Gods? The only two times I have breathed in the recent years were during the anti-CAA and farmers’ protests. Those were glimpses of India that I loved, where I felt at home… a democracy I loved. We have made our philosophies and religions so debilitated. 

Has any Kerala art form mesmerised you?

Kalari enchanted me. Mohiniyattom is very soft for me; it does not suit my personality (laughs). I am also learning chenda, along with 20 students at Darpana, and mridangam, too. Learning chenda has helped students enhance their sense of self with confidence, in and out of their bodies, especially women.

Could you please tell us about your new dance production?

It is a multimedia production that premiered in November last year, and is titled ‘Conference of the Birds’. From January 26, we will conduct six performances at Darpana. The production, involving 25 artists, is based on a 12th-century Sufi book of the same name, written by the guru of Rumi, Farid ud-Din Attar. The book remained unknown until 1970 when English playwrights Peter Brook and Jean-Claude Carriere discovered it while setting up their theatre group. From the 900-page book, they derived a theatrical adaptation of 70 pages. 

Our artistic director Yadavan Chandran (son of Malayali filmmaker T V Chandran), who has been with us for the past 22 years, adapted it for the production. The story is about how the ‘wisest bird’ hoopoe gathers other birds for a conference to find the legendary Simorgh, or true enlightenment. The work is also a reflection of the comfort stories of humans and the real meaning of life to be lived. 

The production is an existential story as to why people went into such depression during Covid days. The ‘blue tick’ is what life is about, and the ‘double tick’ is what relationships are about. The production has all the things we should have been asking each other, especially the young generation – about the real meaning of life.

Could you share some details of the ‘Kathaastu’ project? 

It was a festival aimed at reviving storytelling, held last December. Storytelling has been reduced either to children or superhero subjects. It is a comfort art; it made us think of a festival of storytellers. It featured national- and local-level storytellers who performed at Darpana. Actor and poet Danish Hussain was one of them. We chose storytellers who had some social content, reinterpreting stories from the Mahabharata or narrating contemporary stories. The five-day festival also featured a young storyteller, Abhishek Dukande from Pune, who had revived the dying Rajasthani art form named Chitrakathi. We have plans to organise the fest annually. 

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