Tradition that does not respect the rights of individuals as people needs to be changed
Photo: Rafiq Sayed. Exploring new areas: Mallika Sarabhai.
If defying stereotypes can be called a norm, Mallika Sarabhai is a conformist. She is like a diligent excavator digging deep in the veiled burrows of history, coming up with hitherto unknown narratives where iconic figures, communities and cultures r einvent themselves in new form and spirit. From the vantage point of this parallel history she explores the intricacies of the present through an assortment of media — dance, music, theatre, mime — in a bid to turn patriarchal tales on their heads.
“India lives by her icons,” says Mallika, “or at least, by the icons that patriarchy has put before her, and religion continues to extol. As a feminist, I would be stupid to say to the public that they must disregard these icons. I should be able to interpret them so that they become icons of change and empowerment for women rather than of subjugation. That is what my work constantly attempts, not by creating but by looking at source material and finding clues to their real characters.”Social commentary
Her works are replete with social commentary that doesn’t confine itself to gender politics. Being the responsive artiste that she is, Mallika’s work has thrown light on vexing issues such as environmental degradation and cultural atrophy to corruption and the role of the arts in society. If “Sita’s Daughters”, “Shakti: The Power of Women”, “In Search of the Goddess” and “An Idea Named Mira” highlighted gender, sexual violence and the crafty deification of women by patriarchy, “Unheard Voices” lent voice to the commoner’s angst.
“I think we are at a time in history when thinking people need to concentrate actively and act upon improving the social fabric,” avers the thespian. “The arts are an amazing language to break through our closed minds and prejudiced views. Artists of all kinds who are concerned about the mess and injustice around us must use this platform. Too few do. Too few care or are willing to go on a limb. It is too much of a hassle.” As one who faced the brunt of a vindictive campaign by a ruthless government, she should know.
Says Mallika: “Art in India has never been for entertainment. On the contrary, it was for enlightenment, but became extra-curricular with the advent of the Europeans. It is the most core-curricular… Either we teach tradition or its application, but rarely realise that India is about the interconnection. If I teach Bharatanatyam and do not teach how it could be used in different ways in society, we are completely missing the point.”
And the times warrant intervention, too. “We live in McCarthian times,” says Mallika, “especially at state levels, though thankfully not at the national level. The situation in Gujarat goes from bad to worse. People don’t care a fig even after the gory Tehelka expose. The attitude is, ‘so what? Gujarat is shining. There are malls and good roads and conspicuous consumption and hundreds of hoardings of the Common Man (as Narendra Modi likes to call himself). The Muslims deserve it.’ But what about the soul? What about the conscience?”
It was this idea of socially conscious art that launched the Darpana Institute for Performance, Arts and Cultural Studies. “My son Revanta wants to develop it into a full-fledged university for students who are interested in both tradition and new applications and directions for that. We want faculty that excels in tradition and those that use it for today with cutting edge ideas.”
She plans to set up, subject to availability of support by way of land or sponsorship, an international university for the arts and cultural studies in Kerala. Why Kerala? “Because my Dravidian genes are stronger than my Gujarati genes,” she says partly in jest. “I feel a sense of belonging here.”
Currently, Mallika is touring the country with “And then they came…”, her choreography on the Parsis. “They have never threatened anybody and they have never felt threatened. I’m trying to understand how it is that they have kept the ethical morality alive when no other religion has been able to,” she says.
But it is no apolitical story. For Mallika, “nothing is apolitical. Certainly nothing I do or even think. The Parsis are exemplary as citizens who live and let live, give and create. My only problem is with their issue on who is a Parsi. Why is a Parsi man with a non-Parsi woman any different from the opposite? Why then does the offspring of the first become Parsi and not the offspring of the second? I am glad that this is being discussed within the community itself.”
“We at Darpana feel that a lot of wrong continues happening in the family, in the community, in the village and in society in the name of tradition and religion. There is a false sense of maryada that keeps people suffering and silent. Not all tradition is to be valued. Tradition that does not respect the rights of individuals as people need to be changed…. Tradition is born out of circumstance and the need of the hour or the power of the hour. Situations change, our perspectives change.” Revival of theatre
Hence the relevance of theatre which she thinks will see a revival. “ All our attention and money, including the Government’s, goes to Bollywood. Was it right that the government spent Rs. 40 crore to send two Bollywood actors to the Commonwealth Games in Australia? Where is the encouragement when even the Government thinks Bollywood is India? Further, there is hardly any place where amateur theatre groups can rehearse and experiment without having a bill attached.”
Darpana’s amphitheatre Natarani, dedicated to her mother Mrinalini Sarabhai, was a consequence of this concern. A fitting tribute to an artiste who, in the 1970s, financed theatre groups to debut their work which subsequently gave a spurt of theatre activity until television proved much more lucrative.
“Sadly, we tend to do theatre that is no longer relevant, so people don’t connect with it. Nor is it fantasy like the films because theatre is much more immediate. At least in Gujarati, there is a serious shortage of relevant theatre-scripts now.”
The fire in her belly still burning, Mallika Sarabhai is all set to explore anew. “I want to try my hands at fiction,” she says. Also on the cards is a movie on the Syrian Christian community in Kerala based on a novel she read seven years ago. “I did nothing for many years; then early this year I got in touch with the author and got permission. So I hope that next year we can do it. It requires shooting all over the world.”
Yet another in her life unfolds.
6 months ago