Dance, drama & change

Dance, drama & change

Dance, drama & change

Mallika Sarabhai employs the vocabulary of contemporary dance to evoke sensitiveness in the audiences on the pressing issues of society. Sunil Kothari engages the dancer and theatre artiste in a tête-à-tête.

Mallika Sarabhai began as an artiste with a strong foothold in Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi dance forms.

Daughter of renowed scientist Vikram Sarabhai, she has donned the role of Draupadi in Peter Brook’s The Mahabharata and introduced the character worldwide.

She has, since then, with the combined power of social activism and arts, churned out many theatrical performances to create awareness about several pressing issues in India.

For instance, she recalls how the dhobis (washermen) who had settled behind the Natarani theatre on the banks of River Sabarmati in Ahmedabad were evacuated for the project of beautification of the river.

Their displacement acted as a catalyst, and the issues of displacement helped her work on global issues.

The choreographer used the movements of Zulu dancers of South Africa, which were more evocative collectively.

Where necessary, the actors spoke dialogues that showed agony. Many of her performances like this have received a positive response for creating an awareness about several pressing issues.

Excerpts from an interview...

You have been involved with social and political issues in several of your choreographic works...

Post The Mahabharata, the idea of art as a language for change came home to me once again with force.

Having seen amma use dance to talk about issues, I was aware of this, but playing Draupadi brought it home personally.

It is too crucial a language not to use, if one is a concerned citizen of the world.

Playing Draupadi was the turning point.

Why did you feel a strong need to make positive statements about representation of Indian women?

I was constantly greeted with statements such as, ‘Why do we see such silly women models from India, ready to jump into the fire with their husbands, when such feisty women exist?’ And I thought it was a wonderful way to use mythology.

The very thing used to repress women, to liberate them.

How did the hard-hitting theatrical work, Shakti — The Power of Women, come about?

That was my first personal offering. John Martin, the British theatre director, played a pivotal role in pushing me to become a creator.

And I had to shed a lot of inhibitions to sing, act, dance and cavort on stage, rather than only dance or only act.

I broke through a lot of personal ideas of fear, of ‘what will people say’ nonsense, which covers us in mire.

And it has been exhilarating to be able to create without the fear of brickbats.

You have used ritualistic practice in Devi Mahatmya, where you have presented the power of Devi in a spectacular manner. Are spectacles a part of your group choreography?

I don’t follow one genre. I like to explore. I felt Devi required visual spectacle.

And I had just started working with Yadavan Chandran, who is a filmmaker and a visual creator.

I would dream visuals and he would realise them.

I was also fortunate to have working with me then Jodie Fried, an Australian costume and set designer. Revanata and Padmakumar helped with the choreography.

And yes, I wanted it to be larger than life. But some of my shows are very minimalistic as well.

In the last three choreographic works for the 38th Vikram Sarabhai International Arts Festival, the theme of displacement has played an important role...

As you know, I am involved with a lot of movements.


I have been witness to the cruel and heartless displacement of people for corporate gain, for ruthless projects that are supposed to be for the common good.

And I have worked with the dispossessed who remain so for the next couple of generations.

India has 65 million displaced people, but no policy of rehabilitation.

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, says less than 20 per cent get any kind of rehabilitation at all, and this is unacceptable.

We wanted to bring attention to the fact that these are people who hurt, who cry for help, for justice, not statistics.

Unearthed is based on Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s story, A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings, and is adapted by Gowri Ramnarayan.

How does it, in your interpretation, take geo-political and psychological overtones?

Today, we are a human race separated from our inner selves, determining our worth through what brand managers tell us we should own or look like.

Politicians, brand managers, sellers of products and services, advertisers — they all succeed in making us determine our self-worth through possessions.

We feel depleted and cheated.

We hate those who have a little more, who seem to take what we ‘should’ have, we demonise them.


All hatred is born this way — misogyny, racism, caste hatred, religious intolerance. This piece tries to say that the ‘other’ is our fear, not an outsider to blame.

We need to take the time to shed that belief and look inwards, and then we can learn to co-exist with difference.

Your son Revatna’s first full-length show, LDR (Long Distant Relationship), deals with what sort of displacement?

The world is on the move in search of better opportunities.

But often, what is seen as the El Dorado is in fact not so. But people have to make their own choices and need to live by them, so there is loss and longing, mourning for lost moorings and a need to hold on to loved ones in whatever form possible.

People spend their days and nights in the virtual world, trying to feel togetherness, interacting with technology rather than real people.

They fight the sense of displacement with technology, but does it replace feelings, holding someone, closeness, a touch?

The much-acclaimed The Damned, choreographed by Naomi Deira, resonates with contemporary issues of displacement succinctly. What was the seed that sparked into this heart-rending production?

She came on a visit.

I loved her energy and spirit.

On a hunch, I asked her if she wanted to work on this.

She said yes and spent months researching meticulously. It has been hard but rewarding, as all of us had to completely remodel the way our bodies moved.


And she is a merciless task mistress. I have loved being just a dancer in the group; not the lead or the choreographer.

Audiences leave deeply moved seeing The Damned. Your belief in theatre as an agent of change...

I strongly believe in theatre as an agent of social change.

The manner in which events are presented on stage by me and my dancers, actors, cinematographer, filmmaker and colleague Yadavan Chandran, using the latest state-of-the-art video projection, leave an indelible impression on audiences.

I also invited the displaced artistes, katputliwalas, who are asked to evacuate their residence from Muzaffarnagar colony in Delhi. They joined us in the last sequence.

People who face displacement also felt that I was appealing to the public to fight for their cause through theatre.

These are strategies that a socially-committed director employs to seek changes. People respond to it and start talking about these issues.

I strive hard without compromising on aesthetics and artistic aspects of a theatre production.

Your productions have used elaborate technology, video projection created by director Yadavan Chandran. To what extent does the mixed media push the boundaries of theatre?


Yadavan and I have now worked for 13 years together. He came straight out of a film school with a need to change the society.

And he was technically willing to experiment, take risks, learn to create. At the right time, technology presented itself in its greatest sophistication.


Since then, we have created a lot of mixed media work, but never using it in predictable ways.

It’s not necessary for everything, but in some, it becomes another player on stage.

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