There are so many labels to describe Mallika Sarabhai—actor, dancer, activist, writer—that one is tempted to ask the question that Eminem once rapped about: Will the real Mallika please stand up? Mallika herself avoids such banal categorisation. She is at her elusive and playful best as she describes herself on Instagram as: Mongrel. Diverse. Green. Equitable. Humane. Hopeful. Confused? To solve the riddle of Mallika, one must go to her first love: Dance.
All her energies flowed from dance. And her dance flowed from grief.
In her new book, In Free Fall: My Experiments With Living, she describes her depression after the death of her father and a painful heartbreak. She remembers sitting on a large chair with armrests in her bedroom, which faced the lawn and the river. “I spent four months of nothingness sitting in this chair, with my legs propped up on the windowsill, looking at the river and asking, why? Why did Papa die? Why did this man let me down? And then, in a Eureka moment, I woke up one morning with a single thought: ‘All I want is to dance’.” Dance became her refuge where she could vent all her feelings. “And I don’t necessarily mean Bharatnatyam and Kuchipudi. Often I play music loudly in my room and just dance as though I was at a party or a discotheque,” she writes.
Her book works because it gives an insight into what makes Mallika work. Not just the parts of her that we are familiar with—the woman who gives back-to-back dance performances, takes on the ruling BJP in Gujarat or stands up for the victims of the post-Godhra riots. But the hidden and less savoury parts, too:
The Mallika who would smoke 40 cigarettes a day, induce herself to throw up her meals and experiment with all sorts of diets.
Published by Speaking Tiger, the book dwells on her obsession with reducing weight, her trials with methods like hypnotism to get off cigarettes and nonviolent communication to improve her relationship with her children. Much like her personality, Mallika’s writing is bold and honest. She speaks her mind without caring what others might think. “I am not sure whether everything [I tried] worked for me,” she tells THE WEEK. “For instance, when I was on a Complan diet, and another time, on an orange diet, it was my youth that carried me forward. I don’t think they would have worked had I tried them later.”
Born in the Sarabhai family—considered the first family of Ahmedabad—to renowned space scientist Vikram and dancer Mrinalini Sarabhai, Mallika had a privileged childhood. The chubby kid who led a laid-back life and preferred reading to anything else soon metamorphosed into the accomplished woman who dances, meditates, practises yoga, and manages Darpana Academy, the dance school set up by her parents. She loves to try new things and is currently learning to play the mridangam and also, a scientific way to balance the right and left hemispheres of the brain.
Now at 69, she is comfortable with what she eats and when. For years, people had been asking her about how she maintained her figure and where she got her energy from. Finally, during the pandemic, she decided to write a book on all her learnings over the years. She finished the first draft in three weeks. The book goes beyond diets and passing fads. It explores her past and her insecurities. She describes the drinking habit she developed when she took on the BJP after the post-Godhra riots. She tells of her weak resolve when she was living abroad and on the verge of quitting her role as Draupadi in Peter Brook’s Mahabharata, which catapulted her to fame. Every fifth day she would book a trunk-call to her mother and complain about the cold. Her son, Revanta, was only five months old and needed her, she would say. But her mother convinced her to hang on. If you quit, you will later regret it, her mother told her.
Interestingly, Mallika has also opened up about her relationship with her children, Revanta and Anahita. She describes how hurt she felt when Revanta chose to live with his father, her ex-husband Bipin Shah. Or how she had to ask her daughter Anahita, who came out as gay, to leave the house due to some differences. “Revanta and his wife are very close [to me]. Anahita is estranged and I feel there is some way to go before we can sort out our differences. She is happy with her partner and in her work, and that makes me relieved,” says Mallika.
The actor-dancer, who is currently working on an upcoming show as well as on Sony’s Rocket Boys, has done some drastic things in her life, like chopping off her knee-length hair after her breakup with her ex-husband. “I looked at myself in the mirror and I said that the person I have become at the end of five years of [acting as Draupadi in the play] Mahabharata is not the person I see,” she says. “I needed coherence.”
Her search for coherence ultimately led to a multi-hyphenated identity. But Mallika, as a person, is much more than the sum of her parts. Perhaps, she herself puts it best. “When asked what I like to be introduced as—dancer, choreographer, publisher, activist, writer, actor—I tend to say that I am a communicator,” she says. “And that all the others are the different languages in which I communicate.”
In Free Fall: My Experiments With Living
By Mallika Sarabhai
Published by Speaking Tiger
Pages 216 Price Rs450