Mallika Sarabhai is a woman of many interests. She is a Bharat Natyam and Kuchipudi dancer, social activist, feminist, stage and film actress, choreographer and writer, and holds MBA and PhD degrees
AVToday: Is this is your first visit to Auroville?
Mallika: No, the second. I first visited Auroville six or seven years ago, and spent four days here. My impressions then weren't positive. While the experience of being in the Matrimandir and meditating there was extraordinary, I had many questions about the community. I spoke to a lot of people, I am fairly sensitive in picking up vibrations, and I thought many of them were there simply because it was a good deal. For nobody is asking you anything, there is no demanding authority. And I thought that surely was not the idea. Not that I wish individuality to be regimented, but I didn't see a common sensibility.
Then why, if you had such a negative impression, did you accept the invitation to become member of the Governing Board?
Because I think the possibility of Auroville is incredibly exciting and in whatever small way I can, I would like to contribute to it. I believe in communities that can change the world and I do not think that such an exceptional idea exists anywhere else. The level of some of your people here is exceptional. But I think you need to impact more than just your own community, and not only commercially by selling beautiful products. More of India needs to be here and more of you needs to be in India . You are not on a separate planet.
Are you familiar with the vision of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother?
When I was 17 my mother Mrinalini Sarabhai, a Bharata Natyam and Kathakali dancer, created an interpretation of Savitri. She had met an extraordinary composer from New York, Joel Thome, who was deeply into Sri Aurobindo's work and who had been working for years on a score Savitri the Flame of the Future. Six or seven years later he came to Ahmedabad and they created a dance piece together. That was my first encounter with Sri Aurobindo's work. Within two years we did two versions of it, one to Thome's very New Age music, and another for young people, using passages from Sri Aurobindo's Savitri and Indian music. Otherwise I have not read a great deal of either Sri Aurobindo or The Mother.
You proposed to the Board that it initiates an in-depth investigation of Auroville…
I have been speaking to a lot of Aurovilians since my nomination to the Board. I have been receiving letters and articles every day and I realized that there are groups in Auroville which have very different perspectives. So I proposed something based on my own experience. My mother had founded the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts in 1949 in Ahmedabad to teach Bharata Natyam and Kathakali in the state of Gujarat . At the time, south-Indian classical dance and music were not understood and the notion of Gujarati girls from ‘decent' families learning dance and taking it up as a career was unpalatable. My mother's work was successful; the perspectives on dance gradually changed and Darpana expanded to become an umbrella institution not only for Bharata Natyam and Kathakali, but also for other traditional performances such as theatre and puppetry which were facing extinction.
But when Darpana was heading towards its fiftieth year, we realised that a change was needed. I invited two professors from the Indian Institute of Management to conduct six months of intensive discussions with the artistes and everybody at Darpana from the gardener upwards, in order to discover what their personal aspirations were, both for themselves as individuals and for the institution. As a result, there were dramatic changes.
One was the shutting down of the dance teaching department as this work was now being duplicated by many dancers all over the city. Another change was to turn Darpana into an institution for creative, cutting-edge thinking artistes to come together and think about world issues and explore how the arts could impact these issues. Darpana became committed not only to promoting genuine art, but also to using art to further socially-relevant causes such as protection of the environment, non-violence, fostering creativity etc.
Yet another major change was Darpana's management. My mother ran Darpana in a time when institutions needed to be led by a leader and there was a hierarchical structure. At present there is a different management style, a result of Darpana becoming a ‘flat' horizontal organization where each person carries responsibility. For if you want every single individual to have a stake in an institution, each of them needs to feel that his/her voice is not only heard but counts. The exercise was an extraordinary experience for many people. The fact that these professors came to spend hours with each individual was very enriching. Major issues came out, sometimes arising from silly things. The very fact of just voicing them got rid of much negativity. Darpana has metamorphosed into a forward-looking institution very different from what it had been
Because we went through this exercise at Darpana, I suggested to the Board that this might also work for Auroville – even if you would not immediately act on it. Let everyone over the age of 10 have an opportunity to talk about their understanding of what Auroville is so that the community can re-centre itself. For every generation needs to reinterpret the Dream and the ideals for themselves.
Was the idea appreciated in the Board?
Very much so. The Board is aware that only two or three hundred people are running Auroville, and not the 1200 adults Auroville has. There may be hundreds who feel that ‘we are never going to have a chance anyhow, so what's the point.' That would be sad for such a small community. And if you expand to 50,000 people, how are you going to get their active cooperation? Surely the beginning of self-growth, illumination or enlightenment, whatever you call it, is to be able to clearly voice one's opinion and be heard.
An exercise like this for Darpana, which has less than fifty like-minded people, is easier than for Auroville with 1200 adults of widely different backgrounds.
I am not saying it is going to be easy. An experiment like this is never easy. But the exercise itself might make it clearer for the larger community to understand ‘who feels what' as a first step of even saying what is wrong. Today, most people are not even voicing what they feel.
You are known as a firebrand social activist and have had many stand-offs with the Gujarat government.
I continue to have them. I have raised my voice to ensure that the violence against Muslims in the riots of 2002 is addressed by the judicial systems. I filed a public-interest petition in the Indian Supreme Court against the Gujarat government for its role in the riots, calling for the protection of the rights of those injured, for a thorough investigation and for the punishment of those responsible for the carnage. So far, not a single person has been convicted in the genocide cases.
But Darpana and I have since been targeted by state authorities. One night, more than 200 right-wingers tried to break into Darpana. We received threats that bombs would be thrown inside. My passport was confiscated, charges were filed against me and there have been five police and two Central Bureau of Investigation enquiries. Artistes were phoned that their children would be abducted unless they gave evidence against me. This was all done to get me to withdraw the public interest petition. I live in a state where a right-wing government rules and I am a thorn in their flesh. But they found not an iota of truth in any of the allegations and I have won all the cases. We at Darpana lived through it together. Not one single faculty member left Darpana and they stood by me like a rock. But even today the telephones of the artistes have not been reconnected.
Why did you continue to live in Ahmedabad?
Because it would be a victory for them if I give up, and I have ultimately to live with myself. It would be a disgrace to me and to my family. I have fighters on both sides of my family, who fought for everything they believed in. I believe in the Indian constitution and am fighting for every Indian to have an equal right to live in our country.
You mentioned how Darpana is an institution for creative thinking artists. So what is the relevance of classical Bharata Natyam or Kuchipudi dance when art has to move forward?
Indian classical dance has an infinite alphabet; and it is hugely relevant. It is not a question of getting rid of one tradition to start another. You cannot say that in order to reach out to the sky, you should forget the roots. The roots are there not to hold you down, but to give the energy to make the branches strong so that they can reach out and assimilate other influences. Indian dance has that in-built possibility of change. The Natya Shastra, India 's ancient text on dance and stagecraft, says at the end of 1,500 pages ‘These are just the rules. Interpret them as you will.' Our classical dance is a language which can talk about anything. How you do that is your own choice. I reconnect with it constantly because it gives me a new energy, and there is the sheer joy of the form. If you have the impression of Bharata Natyam being a form frozen in time, then you have only seen it danced by boring dancers. Bharata Natyam as a form can be electrifying.
When I perform, I usually start with the absolute tradition, then go to something which moves in two or three aspects, and afterwards proceed to something which completely bypasses tradition. In that way the audience can see the continuity. Most countries try to rediscover their past, but in India the past lives with the present.
You mentioned in your public talk to Auroville that the five years of your acting as Draupadi in Peter Brook's stage and film versions of the Mahâbhârata have vastly changed your life.
Those five years were difficult. Draupadi has always been one of my favourite women. I fought a lot with director Peter Brook and playwright Jean-Claude Carrière – who after all were Anglo-Saxon males and I was the only Indian on the set – about my understanding of Indian civilization, Hinduism, the Mahâbhârata, the role of Shakti, and the concept of male-female parity in Vedic times. Hinduism is the only religion where women were not subservient to men; they were conceived as equal and that had vast consequences for the psyche and my performance of Draupadi.
The Mahâbhârata also led me to a better understanding of non-Western cultures. Before, I used to read Western books and was studying Western culture. But Brook's Mahâbhârata company included Africans, Eastern Europeans and Asians. The interaction opened my eyes to the sensitivities of those cultures, which were, I felt, closer to the Indian culture than the West. The Westerners had a completely different attitude than the Asians or the Africans. For them nothing was sacred. To give a simple example: a European sat during a performance with his feet stretched out towards the performers. I asked him not to do that, as it is disrespectful. He listened to me then, but after the performance I had to put up with an hour-long debate on why it was disrespectful. But the Africans and Asians immediately understood what I was talking about.
When I ended my work in the Mahâbhârata, I was no longer a dancer and an activist, but I had become a performer who used activism and performance together. All the work that I have done since then is really a result of those 5 years.
Will you come to Auroville only to attend Board meetings or can we look forward to a performance?
We from Darpana would love to come and do things together. There are so many possibilities! I would be happy to come as often as you want, I would also be happy to send people from Darpana – let's build bridges! One idea could be that the Darpana group would come to Auroville for a week or so to give three or four completely different performances with discussions and workshops. As all of our performances are socio-politically orientated, issues of gender, female infanticide, HIV, illiteracy, foreignness and Indian-ness are regularly highlighted. Aurovilians should also come to Darpana to create something together. There are immense possibilities for collaboration.
Perhaps I could also perform my latest piece Western Woman, which I presented with Italian actress Rita Maffei on the occasion of the Women's Day celebration in Udine , Italy . The piece looks at the West's perception of India as instant nirvana and the Indian perception of the West as instant riches. The entire show is a search for how one can get the best of both worlds. (laughing) Now wouldn't that be interesting for Auroville!