Who is Mrinalini Sarabhai? A legend and icon as well as a social reformer and activist, Mrinalini Sarabhai rendered all these roles beautifully but was yet so much more than the whole of it.
An acclaimed dancer of Indian classical Gharana, Mrinalini received worldwide recognition for her mastery of various Indian dance forms. As early as a 5-year-old girl, Mrinalini was convinced that she wanted to make a career as a dancer. Through practice, self-belief, and perseverance, Mrinalini emerged as one of the brightest stars in Indian classical dance forms, and soon became the face of women empowerment as well as an activist fighting against several social justices in India. She was undeniably the epitome of elegance and a master of creative genius.
Born into a family of progressive minds, her conducive years witnessed the beginning of her inclination towards intellectualism that demanded a creative outlet. That her parents, her father, Subbarama Swaminathan, a Harvard-educated expert on criminal law practising at the Madras High Court, and her mother, A.V. Ammukutty, a famous social worker and Parliamentarian, realised early. And they made sure to facilitate their daughter with every necessary support to make her dream come true while nurturing her to bring her up as an individual who was passionate, open-minded, and empathetic. Her childhood received the seeds of her ambition and passion that eventually led her to become the icon we are talking about today.
She received her primary education in a boarding school in Switzerland, where she was introduced to the liberal ideas of the European world. Upon returning to India, she was educated under Rabindranath Tagore at Shantiniketan, which furthered and solidified her understanding of modern thoughts and observations. It was while she was at Shantiniketan that she was reassured about a creative career, precisely Indian classical dance, which was her true calling and decided to pursue it.
Introduction to dance under the guidance of Meenakshi
Mrinalini was enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where she learnt about diverse western dance forms. Upon her return to India, she continued her education in dance from some of the best and most highly acclaimed gurus of Indian classical dance in the country. Having had the good fortune to have been guided and mentored by none other than the great dancer Meenakshisundaram Pillai, who taught her Bharatanatyam, and Guru Thakazhi Kunchu Kurup, who taught her the essence of Indian classical dances, the Kathakali dance form, Mrinalini was ready to shine on the world stage.
Adulthood and Marriage
Mrinalini Sarabhai married the renowned scientist Vikram Sarabhai, the Father of the Indian space program and moved to Gujarat with him in 1942. However, this alliance posed a challenge for the prospect of her career, as a dancer, in those days, was perceived as a ‘devadasi.’ It was difficult for her to perpetuate her career in a place where others looked down upon her choice. But she was never the one to give up. Further convinced to fight off the orthodox mindset, Mrinalini continued her pursuit regardless of others’ opinions. She started performing in every venue she could find, and within a year, she was dubbed “Amma.” She soon became a rising star in the state and sooner enough across the whole country.
Besides, she was mindful of the fact that she would never allow her husband’s aura and stature to eclipse her virtues and dreams. She was a visionary who showed that dance could not only be a profession to be reckoned with but also was determined to stage Indian classical dance forms on the international stage and bring adulation and global recognition to Indian dance forms. For her contributions, she was later adorned with the Padma Bhushan and the Padma Shri by the government of India as she had brought the classical dance form of Bharatnatyam to the forefront of national attention.
Darpana Academy of Performing Arts: a project closest to her heart
In 1949, Sarabhai established the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts in Ahmedabad with the support of Vikram Sarabhai, her husband. While the germ of opening the school had lain in the idea of training young talents in her dance crew, it went on to become a full-fledged dance school that offered courses to budding talents from all walks of life. The school also aided in her attempt in empowering as many women as she could. Not only did she show young girls that they could make their dreams come true, but many of the dancers who were trained at her academy went on to become successful professionally, and yet many more became famous dancers in future. The Darpana Academy was Mrinalini’s first step towards empowering women in India.
Even after all her achievements, associations, and passions, there was more to Mrinalini Sarabhai. Not only was she a choreographer and dancer of worldwide renown, but she was also one of the most important women’s rights activists in India. She raised awareness about the issues women in India faced and she highlighted their experiences, pain, joy, and aspirations through her biggest weapon: her tell-tale and moving dance performances.
Sarabhai designed her performances around themes of social injustice and oppression of women, and it left the nation thinking and cogitating on the mental visuals created through her stage performances. From anti-dowry and dowry-driven deaths to the discrimination and distinction made on the basis of the heinous practice of ‘untouchability,’ she protested against all.
Mrinalini Sarabhai indeed was a decorated dancer, choreographer, and environmentalist, but she was also a ray of hope against social injustices that were meted out to the powerless in the country. She dedicated her life towards not just pursuing her dreams but also creating awareness and opportunities and establishing hope in the hearts of women about the possibilities of materialising their dreams.