Legacy of a visionary

On Mrinalini Sarabhai’s birth centenary, her daughter Mallika remembers her

Style icon: Mrinalini Sarabhai, wearing a self-designed coat, is seen with classical dancer Chatunni Panicker | Photos Courtesy: Darpana Archives Style icon: Mrinalini Sarabhai, wearing a self-designed coat, is seen with classical dancer Chatunni Panicker | Photos Courtesy: Darpana Archives

We are very excited on the occasion of Mrinalini Sarabhai’s birth centenary celebrations because there are so many new things happening at Darpana [Academy of Performing Arts]. The theatre, Natrani, which has made Ahmedabad a vibrant culture centre over the past 22 years, has been shut for three years because the River Front Road cut into the theatre. It will open in a new avatar in September, along with a gallery, which we are calling Mrinalini Sarabhai Gallery.

The gallery will have a six-month immersive exhibition on my mother’s life. We are hoping that we can make it as exciting and diverse as her life was. She had so many aspects to her and was involved in the crafts, environment, mystical poetry, children’s books and, of course, dancing and choreography. The exhibition will bring to life all these aspects.

We have several things planned for the next few years. I want to have a version of Amma’s life to be published for children, especially girls, to inspire them. I want it to be a graphic novel or illustrations. I am pulling out instances from her biography that I feel can be fun and inspiring for children.

I hope to do it as a trilingual project—in English, Hindi and Malayalam—so that it will be accessible to everybody. Girls in India have few icons to look up to, and Amma’s life was such an inspiration. She fought many taboos and there were many glass ceilings she broke. More lives like these need to be highlighted.

Amma had written a book on her creations, published by Mapin Publishing. The book spoke of how and why she created pieces that concerned her. The book documented the work she had done till 1986. I want to add three or four of her seminal works after that period, and make it an interactive audio book. Mapin has just started doing it. With just a click you can get an interview of Amma talking about her work. I want to hear her speak of her own work.

We also want to get in touch with dancers, theatre groups and institutions she has been connected with or has inspired, and we want them to do something to celebrate. A group in Hyderabad conducted a dance festival. I am also talking to the Kerala government, which is very keen. After all, she is one of Kerala’s most famous daughters.

Sarabhai during a bharatnatyam performance. Sarabhai during a bharatnatyam performance.

Amma was famous for designing coats because when sari-clad women go abroad and it is cold, western coats look terrible on them. Shawls are often not enough. And, because Amma had been touring since 1949 and she always felt that she and her dancers were representing India, she designed a series of wonderful coats.

The coats were made of Indian textiles and fabrics and looked very elegant. So, we are thinking of reviving those coats as a brand to make it available to people who still like Indian attire. She must have designed 14 or 15 of them. Darpana dancers wear these coats when we go on tours.

The coats will be for sale. The exhibition will also have original pieces, like Kashmir wool and wool from the northeast. Amma used to be chairperson of Gurjari, the Gujarat handicrafts corporation, in its heyday from 1976 to 1988. This is the side of her that nobody knows. That was the period when Gurjari became the most well-known state handicraft brand.

When she came upon beautiful Kutch embroideries and what goes into the cholis, she and her designers in Gurjari were the first to design the yolk kurta. She used to tell Parveen Babi, my classmate, Shabana Azmi, who was a friend even then, and me to wear these kurtas in photo shoots so that these became fashionable. The whole trend of kurta-pyjamas in various forms and shapes became the rage because they were inexpensive, unique and beautiful. It was in the late 1970s that it went national. Till then, girls wore frocks, stretch pants, bellbottoms and two pieces that comprised of blouse and ghaghra.

We will show all this at the exhibition. The revival of Gujarat’s handicrafts for modern use was her doing, and I remember even The New York Times calling Gurjari the “jewel in the crown of Indian crafts”.

Anybody who wanted to buy a present went to Gurjari. She would sit for hours with the crafts people and she would know everybody by name. She had exquisite taste. Also, because she was an artiste, she had great respect for the crafts. Piloo Mirza and Jaya Jaitley were Amma’s designers. She had people like Ashok Chaterjee help her and work with her.

She fought many taboos and there were many glass ceilings she broke. More lives like these need to be highlighted.

In the late 1970s, Amma felt our children were not getting to look at real art. She rewrote our mythology for children. She worked with Jamshed Bhabha, and the Tatas brought out a series of books where the illustrations were beautiful miniature and Tanjore paintings. So, the children see not only Amar Chitra Katha, but also genuine Indian art.

Darpana has had more than 26,000 graduates in dance, drama, music and puppetry. I have found students of Darpana even in the remotest parts of the country. There are also those in the US who tell me they did two workshops with my mother in New York.

For most of us in Darpana, we do not think that she has gone. Her presence is so strong. Sometimes when I perform, a thought suddenly crosses my mind that this is not my arm, but it is Amma’s. It is a strange feeling. Even our former dancers have felt the same.

On the occasion of Amma’s birth centenary, my message is that life has to be a celebration. Don’t waste it. The greatest celebration of life is to make a better world. Do it with passion and nothing can hold you back.

Amma never felt that art forms were disrespected. She used to say that if I ate pizza today it does not mean that I have forgotten my dosa. And, even if I have forgotten it, somebody else in Japan is eating a dosa. She always believed that our roots are strong. Our arts can withstand anything. It might die in India, but by then it would have grown a thousand roots elsewhere.