Celebrating Mrinalini Sarabhai: 
Homage to Amma and her 70-year career in dance 
- Dr Sunil Kothari, Delhi
Photos courtesy: Darpana 
April 13, 2008 

On 9th April, all roads led to Darpana Academy of Performing Arts, at Usmanpura, Ahmedabad, in the evening. At 8.15pm, the legendary dancer Mrinalini Sarabhai was brought in a procession from her residence to the Natarani, the  open- air auditorium, to the  auspicious tunes of nadaswaram and thavil, with dancers clad in Kerala off-cream colour sarees and holding lamps in their hands. Mrinalini Sarabhai was received by a large gathering of her well-wishers and members of Darpana Academy, leading citizens of Ahmedabad, several students, their parents and family members.

Leading her to Natarani auditorium was Minal Mahadevia Daftary, the first student of Mrinalini Sarabhai and others. At the entrance was placed lamp, which was lit by Mrinalini and on the floor was a design with 70 number for the long career of hers as a dancer, performer, choreographer, writer, and a pioneer who brought Bharatanatyam and Kathakali dance forms to Gujarat.

There were life size enlarged digital photographs of Mrinalini, of her younger days and several others of her dance-dramas choreographed by her. A screening of 'Chandalika' was projected on one of the walls. There were excerpts from Mrinalini’s speech and the entire area was lit up by small lamps leading to the auditorium.

Mallika had requested one and all not to let Mrinalini know about the event, as it was meant to be a surprise for her. Mrinalini was away at Mahabaleshwar, a hill station near Pune. She arrived only in the afternoon. She was told that an American group of visitors was attending a special performance at the Natarani and she would be asked to come there around 8.15pm. Everyone including the media had kept their word and indeed it was a big surprise for Mrinalini to be a part of the celebration in her honour. Of course, she was overwhelmed and a large gathering welcomed her with flowers and rounds of applause when she took her seat in the front of the stage. 

A specially composed program of Bharatanatyam numbers was devised by Mallika and some of the disciples of Mrinalini including her seniormost students like Purnima Kantawala (nee Bhagavati) and Angana Desai. They performed abhinaya to Sanskrit  shlokas and a shloka  from Krishna Karnamritam.

The participating dancers spoke on a video, which was screened before they arrived on the stage to perform, about Mrinalini's teaching and their dance offering to her. It was an impressive array of presentation, slick and seamless, following one number after another. Mallika, Revanta, Anahita, Charmi Modi, Sonal Solanki performed group Alarippu. The Gujarati male dancer Bharata Baria and Manoj Bagga impressed the most with their energetic Bharatanatyam presentations of Ganapati Kavutvam and Todi Jatiswaram, as did Mallika in her Tana Varnam, "Sami Ninne"; Revanta (son of Mallika) and Anahita, (daughter of Mallika), convinced all present that the legacy of dance in the family would continue. Mallika with her stage presence and strong technique captivated the audience, as did Revanta and Anahita. Anahita enacted abhinaya to padam "Varugalamo," as it is a relevant issue even today about the Dalits being denied several rights. Vanitha Nair enacted abhinaya to a padam "Ethanai Sonnalum" with verve and many were moved by nostalgia seeing the padam in which a mother advises her daughter to behave properly after her marriage with her husband! Sonal Solanki, a disciple of Mrinalini, enacted “Krishna nee begane baro” and after a group Tillana, Mrinalini was led to the stage, when spontaneously she enacted abhinaya to "Krishna nee begane baro," which was very moving and brought tears of happiness to one and all when they saw Mrinalini at her age, performing with great intensity.

Minal Mahadevia Daftary recalled the early days, how in a small room at Mirzapure, the classes were held. She wanted to learn dance so she changed the school to adjust timings to learn from 'Mrinaliniben.'  Later on, classes were held adjacent to Chidambaram, the residence, and later on Darpana Academy was started. Minal said how in Gujarat, a former King Siddharaj had brought a princess from the South, after marrying her. Similarly Dr. Vikram Sarabhai married Mrinalini form the South and brought her to Gujarat and with her came the art of classical dance forms.

The rest is history. Credit goes to Mrinalini for introducing Bharatanatyam and Kathakali to Gujarat. Garba and Raas are a part of folk dance tradition in Gujarat. But with regular training of these classical dance forms, Gujarati young girls started studying and performing Bharatanatyam. After Darpana was established in 1948, there was no looking back. When Mrinalini looks back to those years, she recalls how difficult it was, but the progressive Sarabhai family supported her fully, when dance was looked down upon as an art of women of ill fame. 

Mrinalini brought great masters to Gujarat like Kitappa and Muthukumar Pillai for Bharatanatyam, the great Kathakali asan Kunju Kurup for Kathakali, and CR Acharyalu for Kuchipudi. With Chatunni Panicker, a brilliant Kathakali dancer, she choreographed several dance dramas including the path breaking contemporary work 'Manushya,' the story of man from birth to final journey. It was a pioneering work in contemporary dance  genre. Mrinalini also choreographed dance works dealing with social issues like dowry deaths, and Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore's 'Chandalika' dealing with issue of untouchables. 

In her acknowledgement of such wonderful homage for her services  to dance, Mrinalini bowed to the audience, with tears in her eyes and said that when she arrived after her  marriage in Ahmedabad, she did not know that she would be ushering classical dance forms in the land of Krishna. She said, "Let us have peace in this land. Dance has that great power of changing the world and bringing peace." 

To strike a personal note, I first met Mrinaliniben, (as we used to call her till we started addressing her as Amma) in December 1957 at her residence, with Dr. Vikram Sarabhai. Since then, we have remained friends. She guided me and encouraged me to write reviews by having my by-line, suggesting that one should own one’s views and develop constructive criticism. Now when I look back I realize that it is more than 50 years that I have known her. And a friendship has developed which I value the most. We have remained in touch all these years.

It was a very emotional moment for nearly four generations of dancers and the old guards who had gathered together on that night.  Mrinalini is a living legend and one prays for her good health and one is sanguine she will continue her amazing work for many more years. 

Dr. Sunil Kothari was Professor of Dance at the Rabindra Bharati University at Calcutta and the first to occupy the Uday Shankar Chair. A dance writer, roving critic, research scholar and author of many books, he is the recipient of the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, the Lifetime Achievement Award conferred by Kalanidhi Fine Arts of Canada, in March 2004 and the Padma Shri.