Mallika Sarabhai: Arts for Change

Arts For Change: Taking the Arts to Centre Stage” by Dr Mallika Sarabhai

Co-sponsored with Akademi South Asian Dance UK

At the Centre for Creative Collaboration,  17 July 2010

Dr Mallika Sarabhai, co-director of the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India, offered a talk illustrated with video on the socially-engaged work of Darpana. Speaking autobiographically, Sarabhai spoke of her introduction to the idea that art could address social issues from watching rehearsals of a 1963 work created by her mother, the famed choreographer-dancer Mrinalini Sarabhai, on the theme of dowry death. The piece utilised the syllabic structures of bharatanatyam, India’s most classical dance form, to convey an emotion-laden insight into the mental anguish of a woman driven to suicide because of her family’s inability to pay her dowry. Sarabhai said her mother learned of these dowry deaths by learning how to read Gujarati (the language of her adopted home state) by following the newspaper. Taken to Delhi, the piece was viewed by Nehru, who subsequently set up a committee to deal with this matter. In this way, Sarabhai was introduced to the idea that dance could lead to political change.

Originally, Sarabhai admitted, she did not wish to be a dancer. She saw the life of the dancer as harsh and unrewarding – remembering her mother injecting penicillin into her feet in order to go on stage while injured. Her mother provided an example of how the arts could be used to reach people with ideas they want to talk about. Darpana was formed by her mother with a group of like-minded artists who used arts for social change. Among them was the puppeteer Meher Contractor, who worked with the energy commission to create puppet work encouraging rural women to purchase smokeless chula stoves. The traditional model emitted smoke that was harmful to health – the equivalent of smoking 80 packs of cigarettes a day, Sarabhai said. Darpana acted as a forum and think tank for artists using art for justice and empowerment.

Playing the feminist icon Draupadi for 5 years in Peter Brook’s Mahabharata was an eye-opener. Sarabhai was an accomplished dancer at this point of her career, but had only appeared in amateur dramatic productions. She was the only non-actor and the only Indian in the cast, and she had to use French in the first production of the play, a language she did not know at all. She nonetheless had the courage to argue with Brook.

‘That’s not what Kunthi would do.’

How would you know, asked Brook. I’ve been researching this for the past 12 years.

But I grew up on this.

‘You sound like a shrew.’

 ‘In India, there are no shrews, only shaktis.’

She found herself embraced – literally – by aboriginals and ‘big black mammas in Harlem’ for the feminist conviction she brought to the role.

Her work since has been about pushing barriers, and looking beyond the ‘target audiences’ traditionally associated with the arts. She has worked at the grass roots level with UNICEF on inoculations. She has come to realise that if you do something entertaining, people will come. If you then do something that makes people safe and challenge them at the same time that the audience will stay.

Part of the work has been about repurposing performers. The bhavai folk performers who find themselves without work due to the competition of modern media are instructed how to make new work and provided with new dramatic inputs, thereby keeping alive a traditional form and making an old form ‘necessary’ for modern audiences.

Sarabhai’s ‘star status’ allows her to ‘hit’ people (including Indian MPs) with issues they should know about.

Sarabhai’s video clips showed numerous examples of this. Vidya (1999-2002) a touring show on a bus that opened up as a stage dealt with the controversial theme of female infanticide and gender inequality. UNICEF funded work with non-trained performers on infant mortality, health and hygiene (including AIDS).

Sarabhai spoke at length about a project for municipal schools in which she encouraged kids aged 11-12 to become environmental activists in a project about water wastage based on a story about a girl who looks for the reasons behind a water shortage and is shown by the goddess of water in a dream about the many leaks and sites where water is wasted. To enact this piece children were divided into 3 groups charged with: 1. research, 2. monitoring (with scientific equipment), 3. investigating waste at school and home. Sarabhai reports about how a school headmaster was prevented from leaving the school by incensed children who insisted he fix 3 leaks, and being stopped in the street by a policeman who had been lectured by his children participating in the project for wasting water while shaving.

Sita’s Daughters, a monologue about gender sensitivity, was a compulsory performance for bureaucrats and police. It dealt with the inequalities of gender which start before birth with sex determination tests.

Colours of the Heart, created with Pakistani singer-songwriter Samia Malik (based in Norwich), toured to Kashmir. When Pakistan found out that Malik was touring with Sarabhai to this politically contested state, an official became so angry that he announced (via the media) that Malik would not be permitted to return to Pakistan. Which apparently did not bother Malik as she feels herself to be British.

Much of Darpana’s engaged work is created for a particular state in India, piloted and then taken up by a government department or NGO, ‘tweaked’ for different states. Yet state funding is hard to come by. ‘We don’t pay for song and dance,’ is the constant refrain. Sarabhai argues the state is not paying for art, but is ‘funding a malaria campaign’. Sometimes she is able to convince a government official of this, but then the office holder moves on and she has to begin her argument anew.

The performance work though is offset to a degree by Darpana’s media work. This includes a youth chat show titled Truth, dealing with issues like women’s legal rights of inheritance. The chat show address a culture of blame and creates a platform where people can work together for positive change.

A film series titled Tana Bana deals with handlooms, repositioning handlooms as a form demonstrating self-expression through clothes, concern with the environment, heritage, with the potential to rebuild communities.

Darpana is now engaged in putting material up on the internet.

In a question and answer session, Sarabhai explained that Darpana has run for 60 years from money generated by Sarabhai and her mother- always ploughed into the institution. Mrinalini Sarabhai’s initial goal was to build up an audience for classical dance, and the institution had a strong dance focus. This developed over the years to 6 subgroups- development, communication (film, tv etc), conservatory, puppetry, research (into traditional arts and heritage).  When Sarabhai took over from her mother as head, 30% of money was from government grants. This was winnowed down to 2% as Sarabhai felt that over-dependence on government funding would not allow them to be critical. 70 full time artists are employed, committed to changing mindsets. As these artists perform internationally, a high level of quality is guaranteed in the ‘agitprop’ work.

Much of the question and answer session focused on Darpana’s fund-raising possibilities. Avanthi Meduri also asked how academics might engage with Darpana’s work. Sarabhai emphasised how important it is to teach students that art does not equal technical accomplishment, it also involves learning how to be a meaningful citizen, with all the duties that this entails.

(Summary by Matthew Isaac Cohen)

Mallika Sarabhai is the co-director of Darpana Academy of Performing Arts and a pioneer in using dance and the arts for social change. She  is one of India’s leading choreographers and dancers, creating and performing both classical Bharata Natyam and Kuchipudi and contemporary works.  She first came to international notice when she played the role of Draupadi in Peter Brook’s The Mahabharata for 5 years, first in French and then English, performing in France, North America, Australia, Japan and Scotland. Always an activist for education and women’s empowerment, Mallika began using her work for change. In 1989 she created the first of her hard-hitting solo theatrical works, Shakti: The Power of Women.  Since then Mallika has created numerous stage productions which have raised awareness, highlighted crucial issues and advocated change, several of which productions have toured internationally as well as throughout India. In the mid 90s Mallika began to develop her own contemporary dance vocabulary and went on to create short and full-length works that have been presented in North America, Scotland, Singapore, China and Australia, and throughout India.

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