Know More About the Beliefs of Mrinalini Sarabhai and Her Journey

Posted on the 04 December 2022 by Shoumya Chowdhury

There is a famous saying that goes:

Indian classical dance and music are not just for entertainment, but they are designed to elevate your consciousness. 

But the way indigenous classical Indian dancers, as in female dancers, were condescended to by society, tells a different tale altogether.

Not only were the Indian dance forms tagged as exclusive offerings of the Indian female dancers or devadasis to their deity but the dancers were also labeled as women of ill repute.

A country that worships Lord Shiva, who is known to have created dance forms according to Hindu mythology, condemned the women who practiced the art form.

Here is a blazing example of the hypocritical viewpoints that prevailed in Indian society at one point in time. 

One of the most renowned personalities who had been on the receiving end of this kind of hypocrisy was Mrinalini Sarabhai.

Mrinalini’s journey with dance started in the 1930s when she started taking dance lessons to become a ballerina in Switzerland.

Despite her deep Indian heritage, rooted in Kerala, her upbringing had more of a Victorian trace, owing to her British governess.

However, her passion for dancing was fueled during her days at Shantiniketan under the tutelage of the bard Rabindranath Tagore.

She took up dancing as a serious career and joined the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. After that, she started her official training in Bharatnatyam under Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai.

Additionally, she also started learning kathakali from Guru Thakazhi Kunchu Kurup. Mrinalini Sarabhai was the first Indian, who was bestowed with a diploma from the French archives Internationales de la danse.

Even The Mexican government honored her with a gold medal for her extraordinary choreography for the Mexican ballet Folklorico.

Mrinalini’s journey as a dancer took a new turn after she married Vikram Sarabhai in the year 1942 and became a proud mother of two children.

It was just after the year 1948 that Mrinalini Sarabhai established her dance school, the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts.

What made her dance institution of Mrinalini Sarabhai so different from the other dance institutes back then was the extensive purposes that it sought to fulfill.

Although it started as an academy where lessons on Bharatnatyam, Kathakali, Mohiniattam, and Kuchipudi were imparted along with promoting several folk theatres and puppetry groups from Gujarat, over the years, the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts under the aegis of Mrinalini, also started to address many social issues via dance performances that the students delivered on stage.

She voiced her protests against social evils like caste discrimination, communalism, barriers to women’s empowerment, and so on.

It was a silent but artistic and evocative method for Mrinalini to express her protests against the wrongdoings in society through her dance productions like ‘Chandalika,’ ‘Shakuntala,’ ‘Manushya,’ and ‘Ganga.’

Although Mrinalini Sarabhai had started her journey in Kerala, her iconic presence and contributions to Indian art and culture made her a famous name in India, especially in Ahmedabad, where she had relocated after her marriage with Vikram.

After Mrinalini Sarabhai shifted to Gujarat, in the backdrop of the satyagraha movement, the political unrest fueled the instant dislike and disapproval of the conservative people of the state and they refrained from welcoming a South Indian classical dancer like Mrinalini Sarabhai into their society.

She was even subjected to mockery and deemed a devadasi, and her husband Vikram Sarabhai was pitied for having married someone with such a lowly inclination.

However, the irony is that the state which initially tagged her as a devadasi began to admire and adore her as ‘Amma.’

She began to be lovingly referred to as ‘Amma’ by her students aside from several other Indian states as people began to get familiar with and construe her talent and determination.

The journey and success story of Mrinalini Sarabhai does not end as an eminent choreographer and dancer, she was an author as well, with several novels, plays, poems, and children’s stories to her name.

Among her creations, the novel ‘This Alone Is True’ has the theme of the reincarnation of Indian classical dance in the modern century. 

Mrinalini Sarabhai always wanted to make her journey as a danseuse memorable and inspiring while discrediting orthodox views associated with dance and female dancers more so with the powerful and mesmerizing performances on the stage.

She wanted to awaken the public imagination and regard towards the beauty of dance while inculcating in them an awareness about the prevailing ill practices of Indian society.

With her strong intent, she was able to shatter all the societal barriers, converting her critics and the condescending society into her admirers and supporters.

Her efforts gave a fresh lease of life to Indian dance forms and culture and promoted them on the international stage. 

Mrinalini Sarabhai always astounded her audience with her traditional Indian look evinced through her resplendent sarees.

She always believed that being a representative of the purest form of Indian art, she should always flaunt her pride in the Indian culture wherever she went.

She would always encourage young girls to wear Indian outfits because they promoted the beauty and distinctiveness of Indian handloom and designs.

She felt that Indian companies complemented an Indian face and overall appearance, in addition to a beautiful bun thoroughly decked up with flowers and a bindi at the center of the forehead.

Mrinalini Sarabhai, the pioneer of the Bharatnatyam dance form, was not just a distinguished dancer but also the embodiment of creativity and grace.

She always wanted to leave a mark in the world with her contribution to Indian dance, and she was successful in achieving that.

Not only did she encourage Indian girls to discover and pursue dance as their passion and helped them find their voice through dance and its inherent expressiveness, but she also silenced all those haters and critics and contributed immensely towards conserving Indian heritage, tradition, and culture.

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