No one from govt contacted me after letter row: Mallika Sarabhai

Speaking to TNIE’s Manoj Viswanathan, she said nobody has contacted her from the government since the controversy broke out. But Mallika has a vision for Kalamandalam.
Mallika Sarabhai. (Photo | TP Sooraj, EPS)
Mallika Sarabhai. (Photo | TP Sooraj, EPS)

Pained by the row over her demand for a proper contract defining her duties as the Chancellor of Kerala Kalamandalam Deemed University, activist and acclaimed classical dancer Mallika Sarabhai said there was minimal communication between her and the government. Speaking to TNIE’s Manoj Viswanathan, she said nobody has contacted her from the government since the controversy broke out. But Mallika has a vision for Kalamandalam.

She wants the varsity for performing arts to evolve as a centre of excellence, where artists from across the globe can gather to learn, share and impart knowledge. Excerpts from the interview

It was reported that you have written a letter to the government seeking to provide a proper contract. Are you disillusioned?
I have not written any letter to the government regarding my contract. In fact, my contract has never been formally discussed with the government. The only interaction occurred many months ago when the vice-chancellor and the registrar prepared a contract and forwarded it to the government, which I have not personally reviewed. However, in jest, I occasionally inquire about the status of this contract. On a couple of occasions, I have written to the personal assistants of both the chief minister and the minister for culture to inquire if any progress has been made regarding the contract.

Is there a communication gap between you and the government? It seems there was no follow-up action after you took charge.
There has been minimal communication, both official and unofficial. Most of my interactions have been through the registrar and the vice-chancellor, who have conveyed messages from the ministries or the secretary for culture. I understand that a new secretary for culture assumed office a few months ago, and I have been looking forward to meeting her, although it hasn’t happened yet. I believe there is a tacit understanding because I am confident they are aware of my activities. During the few times I’ve met the CM, he has been extremely supportive. 

Do you believe the government viewed your appointment as merely symbolic and did not anticipate your active involvement?
(Laughs) Given the numerous public positions I’ve taken over many decades, I don’t think anyone is naive enough to assume that I would be in a symbolic role, staying quiet and merely looking pretty.

Has anyone from the government contacted you since the news about your letter triggered a controversy?
No, No one has contacted me since the controversy broke out. 

You have undertaken a mission to transform Kalamandalam into an international centre of excellence and enhance the learning experience. How has the response been from the students and teachers?
When initiating significant change, it’s vital to involve all stakeholders. I have been engaged in discussions with all relevant parties for each proposed idea. While this approach may take time, I believe it will lead to successful results. We are also reassessing each art form to discern what is truly fundamental and what has gained momentum over the past century, much like a rolling stone. I am particularly focused on identifying the core elements of learning in art forms like Kathakali, as opposed to the perceived tradition. For instance, consider the practice of waking up Kathakali students at 3.30 am. I question whether there are specific tasks that can be achieved at 3.30 in the morning that cannot be equally well done at 6 am. Furthermore, in today’s world, it is essential for individuals, regardless of their background, to be proficient in computer literacy and the English language. 

What are the shortcomings in the present curriculum and what are the changes you brought in? 
For regular classes, the studies used to start at 2 pm when they have done four or five hours of physical work and once it starts they all fall asleep. As a result, very little education was imparted. So now we have divided the day in such a way that there is two hours of physical work which is followed by two hours of school work. Then there will be two hours of physical work after which we give a break.

You have taken steps to dismantle the patriarchal system of learning and break the barriers of gender and caste discrimination? 
In fact, everyone has been supportive of our efforts to break down patriarchal, gender, and caste norms. While there may be some reservations, I believe that through continued dialogue, sharing experiences, and addressing difficulties, we can overcome these challenges. We now have a Muslim girl learning Kathakali and an Adivasi boy training in Koodiyattam, both for the first time. Girls now enjoy more freedom and responsibility, and there are no restrictions placed on them after 6 pm. It’s important to instil a sense of responsibility in these students and make them genuine stakeholders, so they consider Kalamandalam’s reputation as their own.

The students say that you have brought professionalism into the administration of Kalamandalam?
Kalamandalam comprises administrators, many of whom are government functionaries without a deep understanding of the arts. On the other hand, there are teachers, students, and performers who may not grasp the intricacies of administration. I find myself in a unique position, having been an art administrator for four decades and a performer for just as long. This unique perspective enables me to bridge the gap between these two aspects and facilitate better collaboration. 

Is there a plan for exchange programmes with foreign universities?
We are currently developing a framework for short-term courses. To accommodate students who may visit for two weeks or a month and may not intend to complete the entire course, we need suitable accommodations. We aim to provide facilities for students from various regions of the country, as well as from universities worldwide. This plan is already in motion.

What is your vision for Kalamandalam?
I have a multitude of visions for Kalamandalam. It should evolve into a centre of excellence, a melting pot where individuals from all corners of the world can gather to learn, share, and impart knowledge. We should open our doors to creative minds and create new artistic works. My hope is that, by the end of the year, we will have a well-devised plan in place and be able to generate substantial income. I aspire for Kalamandalam to achieve financial stability, transform into a sustainable and picturesque campus that demonstrates the harmony of being both environmentally friendly and aesthetically pleasing. 

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