Indian Star Unites Art and Activism

Mallika Sarabhai, a woman of many talents (front), performed at SLC in October. Behind her is her daughter, Anahita ’12. Photo by Dana Maxson.Last year, internationally celebrated dancer and choreographer Mallika Sarabhai ran for Parliament in Gujarat, India, opposing a right-wing candidate. “Obama said, ‘Yes, we can.’ I say, ‘Now, we must,’” she declared. Her fans were unsurprised by her candidacy: it was right in line with her unconventional career, which has encompassed dance, film theatre, television, activism, and more—all of which she does in the name of communicating truth.

In October, Sarabhai and the Darpana Performing Group, which she founded, spent the weekend at Sarah Lawrence. (Sarabhai’s daughter Anahita is a junior at the College and dances with the troupe.) The group performed Sampradayam, a tribute to the joie de vivre of devotional songs from the Bhajan tradition, and taught a dance workshop for students. Sarabhai also gave a talk on Art and Social Change, explaining her approach to art and activism.

As the daughter of Mrinalini Sarabhai, the renowned Indian classical dancer who established the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts, and Vikram Sarabhai, one of India’s leading space scientists, Sarabhai grew up in the public eye. Educated at Darpana (which she now directs) and at Shreya, India’s first Montessori school, she acted in her first film, an Indian New Wave flick, when she was 15 years old.

Though dance was certainly in her genes, Sarabhai resisted a career in the field, in part because she’d grown up with a firsthand view of the less-than-glamorous moments in her mother’s career, including the long hours she put in daily. Instead, Sarabhai went to college and earned a doctorate in organizational behavior. It wasn’t until the end of a “lousy love affair” that she woke up and knew, without a doubt, that she was meant to dance.

“You can’t do Indian classical dance until you’ve had two lousy love affairs,” Sarabhai says with a smile.

In the Sixties, Sarabhai watched as contemporary dance took on a more political tenor. Sarabhai embraced the idea that the arts could catalyze change—whether social, personal, or political.

“Art can mirror life,” she says, “and show people what they might not necessarily want to see.”

Sarabhai spent several decades performing in film and theatre. In 1989, she turned to choreography, and has created more than 40 dance and performance works covering issues like human rights, violence, and women’s issues. Sita’s Daughters addresses the negative feelings that can accompany the birth of females in Indian society and sometimes result in feticide. V for… explored the idea that all human beings have the capacity for violence, incorporating quotes from perpetrators and peacemakers alike. The show was performed in 40 US cities in the late 1990s.

Though Sarabhai has achieved much success abroad (the French government made her a  Chevalier Des Arts et Des Lettres for her contributions to the arts), her work is largely dedicated to improving Indian society.

For example, Darpana’s theater outreach program travels to underprivileged areas and trains community members to become “actor/activists,” who perform educational shows for their communities on everything from the importance of hygiene to HIV prevention to reducing the maternal mortality rate.

But Sarabhai realized that “no amount of entertaining performances could reach the same number of people as television,” so she developed “television for change,” directing numerous shows that provide role models who are both positive and entertaining. On one talk show, she sought out the opinions of average citizens, in an effort to increase social awareness.

“Seventy percent of India goes to bed hungry every night,” she notes, adding, “This is a country in need of a conscience.”

In her bid for Parliament, Sarabhai was herself trying to be a positive role model for political candidates, and engaged with thousands of voters, many of whom live on the margins of society. Though she did not win the election, Sarabhai succeeded in setting an example of a clean and fair campaign, capturing the spirit of “by the people and for the people.”

“The idea is to empower people to make better lives,” says Sarabhai, “for themselves, the environment, everyone.”