INTERVIEW | Art needs new audiences, repackaging is what makes it attractive: Mallika Sarabhai

Becoming the Chancellor of Kalamandalam is an extraordinary experience. I am very excited. The possibilities are immense, says Mallika Sarabhai.
Mallika Sarabhai. (Photo | TP Sooraj, EPS)
Mallika Sarabhai. (Photo | TP Sooraj, EPS)

It is difficult to box Mallika Sarabhai into a particular column. She is a dancer, actor, activist, and cultural management expert. Recently, she took over as the Chancellor of Kerala Kalamandalam. Mallika talks to TNIE about her vision for the state’s celebrated institution of performing arts, the importance of packaging art forms for the new generation, her politics and, of course, her famed lineage. Edited excerpts: 

How does it feel to be working with artists in Kerala? How is Kerala treating you?

Wonderful... I feel much loved and very much a daughter of the state, much more than Gujarat where I live. 

What is your vision for Kalamandalam?

Becoming the Chancellor of Kalamandalam is an extraordinary experience. I am very excited. The possibilities are immense. Kalamandalam is an extraordinary institution with extraordinary branding. So why shouldn’t we do extraordinary things? Kalamandalam needs to take a leadership position in India’s cultural sphere.

We have to work out an economic model so that we need not depend on government subsidies. If there is one thing that India has to show to the world, it is our culture. I would like to see Kalamandalam become the place where policymakers, thinkers, and practitioners come together once a year and have an actual cultural conclave. 

It is the first time we are getting a performing artist at the helm of affairs at Kalamandalam…

I think that is a huge problem across the country and all educational institutions. The people are placed either for political reasons or just as nominal heads. 

Do you have plans to include courses on other Indian dance forms also?

We have entered into a memorandum of understanding with Kalakshetra. So from June, we will have full-time BA and MA in Bharatanatyam. We can have workshops on lots of different things. We have to create new audiences as we can’t depend only on the audiences who have been watching our art for the past 50 years.

Is caste still an issue at Kalamandalam? 

Caste is an issue because that’s how it was... the drummers came from a particular caste, Kathakali artists came from the upper caste etc. We have to actively change all that. Similarly, women are not allowed in a lot of the courses. We are changing all that.
You are a strong proponent of repackaging art forms for today’s audience. How do you consider criticism that this dilutes the original form and essence of the art form?

The repackaging is what makes it attractive. By bringing Bharatanatyam and rap music together I am bringing in a whole new audience. We don’t want to be fossil artists. When Scotland wanted to revive their Morris dancing they had to go and look at video footage, because nobody had done it for the past 50 years. We should not be in that situation.

You said you are planning to have a conclave. Will Kalamandalam take the lead? 

I would like it to be the Kalamandalam cultural conclave, happening once a year, bringing in inter-generational, inter-art people to talk and share a vision and solutions that others can try out and be able to get out of the silos the western thinking has put us in. I would like theatre directors from across the world to come and work with us. 

Are you suggesting making Kalamandalam a centre for all contemporary art forms? 

No, I still believe that we should continue specialising in Kerala art forms. 

Mallika Sarabhai. (Photo | TP Sooraj)
Mallika Sarabhai. (Photo | TP Sooraj)

You played Draupadi in Peter Brook’s production Mahabharata. Was that a defining moment in your life and career?

It was the first time I was living alone abroad. I was a mother for the first time and my son was just three weeks old. I was the only non-French-speaking person in this cast. The only one who didn’t have any professional theatre background. I became a different person in those five years. My marriage broke up after Mahabharata because I came back as a completely different person. 
How was Peter Brook’s style of functioning?

My interpretation of Draupadi was very different from that of Peter Brook. In the original Peter Brooks story, Draupadi never washed her hair with Dushasana’s blood. But for me, it is one of the most defining moments, when she kept her hair loose for 14 years and then finally tied it up.

But Peter said it is too gory. I told him if it is too gory you should have done the Ramayana (laughs out). Finally, it was six hours before our opening performance that he said fine, wash your hair. Can you imagine, after eight months of rehearsing... 

It is heard that was the time when you realised that Indians are the most racist of all people…

Some of the finest actors from Africa had done the roles of Krishna, Bhima, and Bheeshma. And that was something the Indian audience was not ready to accept. “Why these blacks?”, they would ask. Once we were in Mumbai Press Club and the first question asked was “why do you keep these black people, they are like baboons.” And it went on till we wound up in Bengaluru. A man, who was seven shades darker than anybody in Mahabharata, said: “But you know it is an insult to us to have these black people.”
India is turning into a hate society. There is growing intolerance. What’s your take?

Our top-layer skin seems to have disappeared. Everything becomes an issue that hurts sentiments. It is frightening.

Why is this happening? Is one particular party or political system or society in general responsible? 

The BJP is a party that is built on Hindutva and hatred. Look at what they have done to the figure of Ram. Maryadapurush has been turned into a six-pack figure. I think I have never seen Indians as frightened and as insecure as we are today.

We are frightened and frustrated, we think that our jobs might go tomorrow, and our children can be abducted and raped. These are realities. People are playing on that fear. I think one party is magnificently playing up the insecurity in the Indian psyche. Insecurity can be manipulated to do very different things.

You had a very good equation with Vajpayee. How did it happen?

In 1999, Vajpayee decided to take the bus to Pakistan. I was surprised when I received a telegram inviting me. On the bus, Vajpayee was calling one person after another to converse. When my turn came I asked him, “Why did you choose me knowing that I am opposed to your ideology.” He said: “To show our neighbours how our women are”. He said his granddaughter wants to know why I was wearing different earrings on both ears (laughs out).
What was your reply?

I asked why people are wearing identical earrings. Is there anything in nature that is exactly the same? It is my literal act of rebellion.
Your relationship continued for a long time...

The earthquake happened during the term of Keshubhai Patel in Gujarat. I was horrified to witness the corruption in the distribution of aid. I phoned Vajpayee and informed him about it. He wanted to meet me and I flew to Delhi along with my brother Karthikeya. He immediately changed the government. Karthikeya and I became his eyes and ears in Gujarat.

It was I who phoned Vajpayee during the 2002 riots and told him that it was a very systematic genocide. On my insistence, he came to Gujarat on April 4 and made his famous speech. But the next day he went to Goa and there he was told he would be thrown out. So he changed his approach. After that, we hadn’t talked much. 
Have heard Rajiv Gandhi had invited you to join Congress…

In 1984, he asked me to contest the election. It was soon after the Mahabharata. Otherwise, I would have joined. My mother and Indira Gandhi were in Santhi Niketan together and they shared a room. Whenever Indira Gandhi would be short of a sari or wanted something particular, she would call Amma and say Mrinal, this is what I need. It was very much a woman-to-woman relationship. So our relationship with the Gandhi family has passed through generations. But I don’t know either Priyanka or Rahul (chuckles). 

You had joined the AAP. What made you quit?

I was with AAP only for 24 hours. I had worked with Kejriwal, Manish Sisodia in the RTI movement. A day after I joined AAP, Kumar Gaurav gave a lecture that was so misogynistic and anti-women. So I resigned (laughs).

Recently the BBC brought out a documentary on Prime Minister Modi’s role in the Gujarat riots. The BJP had alleged a conspiracy behind the documentary...

Actually, there was nothing new in that documentary. All of that had come out in the Tehelka tapes, the Human Rights Watch report, and the various testimonies we gave to the SITs. So for us, there was nothing new. The only thing new was the statement of former British foreign secretary Jack Straw.

BJP is saying that there has not been any riot during the past 20 years. What do you think?

This is what happens if you terrify an entire community. It is a terrified silence. 

BJP is claiming that the Muslims also support them in Gujarat.

When you have no other way to survive in this country, what will you do? Every single Muslim that I know, who can afford it and is educated, is leaving the country. Because they say clearly you either live in serfdom or you leave.

So you are not ready to forgive Modi?

My issue is not with Modi. My issue is with a belief system that is non-secular and that divides people. I oppose any kind of ideology that lessens the freedom and rights we were given. The BJP and the RSS are making Hinduism into an Abrahamic religion. I would do the same against the Islamic state. If India was becoming either an Islamic state or a Christian state, my opposition would be the same.

But you hold him responsible for what happened in Gujarat in 2002?

Him and his administration.

Has Prime Minister Modi ever contacted you?

He came to our house as Prime Minister to unveil my father’s statue. There was no conversation. I know his views and he knows mine. He was perfectly civil.

You have roots in Kerala and Gujarat – two states which are diametrically opposite in many ways… While Gujarat takes pride in being entrepreneurial, Kerala likes to rest in its intellectual aura. BJP is strongest in Gujarat but it is weakest in Kerala… 

I am very much a Malayali. I do not like Gujarati food. I am not interested in business, the share market, or making lots of money. My father’s DNA was also not like that.

How was it growing up as the daughter of two famous people?

In the early years, it was my father who was babysitting. My mother was already a very famous dancer. Till I was 12 years old, one parent was always there with me in Ahmedabad. It was invariably my father. Amma was an extraordinary mother. I was really Amma’s baby. She would write me a letter every day when she would be away.

All of them would have been written while in Ahmedabad. She would leave the whole pack of letters with my nanny, who would hand me one every morning. Lunch was always Indian and dinner was always non-Indian.

How was it working with your celebrated mother? 

Amazing. Amma and I were exceptionally close. Pappa died by the end of 1971. In 1976, I was going through severe depression and for four months didn’t know what to do. Then one morning I ran to my Amma’s room to tell her I want to dance. I could see her entire body and face transforming at this news. When Pappa died she lost the will to dance and we pushed her into dance. Because we knew that was the only way she can get over the grief. Then for the next 25 years, we had an extraordinary relationship. 
How do you deal with negative responses to your performances? 

When I got my first bad review I cut out the review, made a paper boat of it, filled the bathtub with water and I sunk it. I was around 18 at that time. Even today if somebody writes horribly about me or incorrectly, I sink it mentally. These are my ways of dealing with a hostile world.


How do you look at activists in social media?

Even if the activists are doing it to get media attention, somewhere they will get involved in the issues they take up. So I think more activism is better.

You have done a few movies in your career. Why did you stop completely?

I acted in 28 movies. In Gujarati, the first film I did was Mena Gurjari. It was the longest-running and the most successful Gujarati film ever. Later films started getting bad and I stopped. I did one Malayalam film Danny with T V Chandran. Once, I got signed up for a Hindi film by Prakash Mehra with Amitabh Bachchan, Zeenath Aman and Vinod Khanna.

I was paired with Vinod Khanna and we were doing a song number. The dance director went for 10 takes. I asked him what the problem was. He said move your chest. I picked up a chair, broke it on his head and walked out of the industry.

You recently worked with the web series ‘Rocket Boys’. There is a criticism that scientists were turned into Bollywood stereotypes. Are you happy with the outcome?

I am very happy. I worked on the script for two years. I don’t agree at all with the criticism. I have never seen a Bollywood production company respect the wishes of a family as much as they did. Just 24 hours before the release they flew me to Mumbai and said if there is anything that is against Vikram Sarabhai they will take it off. That kind of love and respect I have never seen in Bollywood.

It is not a documentary. So, you have to take liberties to make it interesting. They have 10 million hits. They wanted people like Homi and Vikram Sarabhai to become icons and they have succeeded. If we have touched a new generation that is so cynical with some idealism, that’s great.

What’s your take on the debate that Tamil Brahmins have monopolised Bharatanatyam? The question is in the context of dancer Nrithya Pillai’s arguments…

She comes from a Devadasi family and she says the upper caste people have taken it over. Today we live in a world where anybody can take any culture. If Devadasis did it we are grateful to them for having continued it. But the Devadasi system itself is exploitative. I am happy that I am not in Madras and do not get into these ridiculous arguments which continue in the dance fraternity of Tamil Nadu.

Kerala is one of the few states where men and women do not dance together. Have you noticed it?

Kerala is peculiar in different ways. On the one hand, men and women do not dance together, which is rare. On the other hand, you can see one Hindu, one Christian, and one Muslim in the credits of a film or the editorial board of a magazine. That, again, is rare. (chuckles)
You are an actor, classical dancer, writer, and social activist. Which role have you enjoyed the most?

These are all different strings on the instrument I played to communicate ideas. And I use whichever combination I think is best for that audience. My speech is no different from my dancing. It is really just communicating.

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