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We need to rethink the model or perish leaving India with Bollywood: Mallika Sarabhai

We need to rethink the model or perish leaving India with Bollywood: Mallika Sarabhai

  • Mallika Sarabhai talks about her dance academy 'Darpana', the present scenario of art and expounds on the role of democracy in promoting the arts.

Mallika Sarabhai is one of India’s most distinguished choreographers and dancers. She also holds a Ph.D. in organizational behavior and has been the Honorary Director of Darpana Academy of Performing Arts for the last 40 years. In a career spanning over four decades, she has created and performed classical and contemporary works and produced over 3000 hours of television work on issues pertaining to the environment, women, communal harmony and violence.

Titas Dutta: You’re a dancer, an actor, a social activist—which aspect is closest to you?

Mallika Sarabhai: Why are they separate? They are all part of me and make up the whole me.

Titas Dutta: How did the lockdown treat you? Could you concentrate on creativity or did the period prove to be too disruptive and enervating?

Mallika Sarabhai: It has been a bizarre time. I haven’t been home or in any one place for this long since I was about 14. But it has sapped my energy. Added to that was the fact that I got debilitating chikungunya and am still far from normal after nearly four months. I have never known such acute pain nor known a body that refuses to do anything, to move at all. But I have written a book that Speaking Tiger is publishing, on my rather incredible journey finding health and wellness. In April, my Artistic Director and I, both stuck in Darpana, conceived of a dance piece involving numerous dancers of many genres and generations and put it together to Tapan Bose’s track Rivulets of Innocence. It is on YouTube and is called Dance Unlocked. That was great fun. We have also been working on one of my solo one-woman shows, In Search of the Goddess, to reconceive of it as a piece for the digital medium. We have shown extracts and will release it shortly in its full form.

Reena Dewan: As digital media is also taking away the work of the laborers associated with live performances, how do you see the future of them? How the policy making caters to the arts in digital media?

Mallika Sarabhai: I don’t think we are only going to stay digital. We have to rethink how to go back to live performances. In “Natarani” we have started with some graduating performances where the audience is seated in accordance with the safety regulations. We are only allowed 100 heads as of now whereas the capacity of the auditorium is 400, so we can ideally work with 200 audiences. But even with full capacity we sometimes couldn’t manage to break even. So with all the other costs at their same place working with half capacity is difficult. So I think it’s time to go back to the intimate performances till we find a way out.

Titas Dutta: What was your experience of working in Peter Brook’s ‘The Mahabharata’ and has it changed you in any way?

Mallika Sarabhai: It changed the course of my life and work. I was a dancer and someone fighting justice in my personal capacity when I started. The experience of working with him, plumbing to my own depths, fighting for the Draupadi I believed in, seeing audiences react to my interpretation of her—all this meant that I came out wanting to use my performance for change, and all my subsequent work has been that.

A scene from Peter Brook’s The Mahabharata

Reena Dewan: Darpana has become an institute, instrumental for training of performing arts, women empowerment, rural development, gender sensitization and human rights movement. Was there any transitional friction in bringing different disciplines and different intentions together in a common ground?

Mallika Sarabhai: When Amma married and came to Gujarat she couldn’t speak Gujarati. While learning the language in early 60s she had a very astute teacher who taught her to read from Gujarati newspapers. Amma started reading about the young brides in Saurashtra jumping into wells and killing themselves soon after marriage. On asking around she got acquainted with the concept of dowry and dowry violence and got deeply troubled by this. In 1963 she used Bharatnatyam to talk about the hatred and violence and tormenting of young brides, instead of Shringara that it basically talks about, in a performance named “Memory is a Ragged Fragment of Eternity”. Pandit Nehru,  being a close colleague of my mother, dropped in when this piece was taken to Delhi. He asked what this was about and then constituted the first enquiry on dowry deaths and I grew up with the impression that a dance piece could lead to such a social change. 

Kailash Bhai and Damini Ben, who started the Drama Department, were from IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association) which already had an agenda of using theatre for social change. Mrs. Contractor too was interested in the field of development and so was I, when I joined Darpana. I found that the Puppetry Department, Theatre Department and Amma herself were working simultaneously for development and felt the need to create a synergy. So in 1980 I started a new department named “Darpana for Development” which was to encourage experimental work or research in communicating and combining different ideas and forms by anyone from the community of Darpana. Luckily for me, the transition was easy and we had a number of people who were  deeply committed to the purpose. We gradually stopped being strictly adhered to any respective art form and started combining them in a best suited way to convey a message. A young filmmaker, equally interested in development, joined us in 2001 and a Television and Film unit was started. That is how we created the many thousands of hours of work for television on the issues of human rights, education of girl child and others that we stand for, using music videos, quiz shows, chat shows, fictional and non fictional programs. This huge possibility of integration and collaboration excites me the most about working in Darpana. As an administrator of Darpana, I have been able to sustain and constantly rekindle an openness of spirit towards learning new things and bringing it into our game. We must be the most misogynist society in the world – even more so than countries like Saudi Arabia.

Titas Dutta: What do you feel about the farmers’ protest? Interestingly, one is witnessing several artists—singers, filmmakers, painters, photographers and documentary filmmakers joining the agitating farmers. 

Mallika Sarabhai: It has given me hope that there are still elements of democracy left in India. The anti CAA protests, and now this, make me want to cry for joy – this is true democracy, not merely the holding of elections. In an increasingly brazen government that cares nothing for the people but rides roughshod overall ideas of transparency and agency to the people, to come to joint decisions that affect them is wonderful. May there be a hundred such revolts by the people. We, the people of India, will speak. This is our right and our duty.

Reena Dewan: While one problem is the funding coming in, another is the lack of clarity in its distribution. There is no transparency in the whole process.

My question to you is, although there is CSR, art is not directly a part of it. So when I talk to corporates, it seems easier for them to support health or education by setting up a medical camp or opening a school. But when it comes to supporting art, they lack the understanding as to how to support and why. There has been no such campaign for protecting arts as there has been for health and education. Is there any way that we can educate them through seminars about the support that is needed? What are your thoughts on this?

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Mallika Sarabhai: Arts and cultural preservation and encouragement and art education does fall under the purview of CSR. Also, after 70 years of health and education being considered as crucial, we are still one of the most uneducated and unhealthy societies; but the arts are still surviving. When president Clinton comes, one of us is called to perform for him rather than taking him to a factory. But they only see Mallika Sarabhai who has made her career and is up there but not the ones who are still struggling on the path. 

25 years ago, I was working in England when the lottery funding came in. They had something called the ABSA. It was an institution to bring the arts and corporate thinking together. Very interesting studies were done. One of the banks started a scholarship for A level students to find classical musicians, just before they finish their school. There were several categories of singers and instrumentalists. A lot of children participated in this scholarship and it was hugely talked about in their circles. It was seen that the same bank was the first preference when these children went to open their first bank account. It is a great business scheme. It also happens in cricket. 

Sustainability is important. People want immediate things, like a festival. But they don’t want to sustain what will enable the artists to participate in that festival over the years. I think corporates need to come together and understand the need for a transparent funding mechanism that is handled by professionals, unrelated to the funder or some high ranked government official, who have the understanding to sit for a year and make strategies to sustain different forms of art and help the artists to scale up and market the arts.

This was the idea when Rajiv Gandhi opened the zonal centres. In those years they used to get a huge funding of 5 crores. When I visited our zonal centre in Udaipur in the early years, they were doing nothing other than a small festival. There was no sustainable plan that is expected of a zonal centre. About ten years ago I was trying to bring artists from eastern and north eastern India. So I contacted the east zone centre but absolutely in vain. So it’s a waste of time to entrust a government officer who is apathetic about being in art. The government must put in some funding but in a corporation that is open to questions and proposals and is capable of training people in writing proposals and overseeing the research and production aspects. It is as complicated as best education and needs to be viewed likewise. But the way our education failed, where is the hope?

Titas Dutta: ‘Darpana Academy of Performing Arts’ has been consistently working for decades now. Is funding still a problem? Also, what is your model considering the government’s ever diminishing budget for the arts and the inherent hesitancy of the Indian audience to pay for live performances?

Mallika Sarabhai: The arts have always been in a ‘poor’ state since the break down of the maharajas and temple patronage. The formation of the Ministry of Culture, later the zonal centres with huge budgets, then the Academies – all of these are reduced to personal favours and patronage of a particular individual to a favoured artist. CSR was supposed to be the saviour but has turned into a damp squib.

All of us survived the last year because of access to the arts—from the wretched migrant holding music to her ears through her barely charged phone to all of us stuck to Netflix or to other similar platforms. And yet, no one is willing to fund us! There are artists reduced to breaking stones in quarries, others begging. And I refer to all the ancillaries as well, the instrument makers, those who provide ghunghrus and cymbals, and saris for costumes.

Wiser governments have given grants to artists to reinvent and survive the year. Ours is hardly that, even at the best of times. The insensitivity to the arts is abysmal. We need to rethink the model or perish leaving India with Bollywood.

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  • One performance of Mallika Sarabhai, way back in the 1980s, is permanently etched in my memory. This was dance narration, but not a convention one, on the theme of drapery. She demonstrated the various uses of drapery and suddenly and most unpredictably with that same strip of cloth she struck a pose which cast 3 shadows on the background, of three hanging girls to send an electrifying message to the audience reminding us of three girls who had recently hanged themselves in Kanpur, to relieve their father of the anxiety of providing dowry.

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