Home > Britain, History, India, Politics, Social Trends > Looking At Mrinalini-Mallika Sarabhai: Progressive, Feminista, Activista

Looking At Mrinalini-Mallika Sarabhai: Progressive, Feminista, Activista

Using State patronage, Mrinalini Sarabhai emasculated Bharatanatyam, making it sterile and esoteric.

Annie Besant in Cardiff (1924) with two Theosophical Society officials from India greeted by Cardiff Theosophists at Cardiff Central Station. Back Row: (Left to Right) Miss Chambers (looking to right) Miss Wallis (almost hidden), Mrs Freeman, Mr Peter Freeman (General Secretary, Wales), Mrs Graham Pole. Front Row: (Left to Right) Mr Graham Pole, Babu, Dr Annie Besant, The Right Honourable Sastie. Lad presenting flowers is David Freeman, son of Peter Freeman.

Annie Besant in Cardiff (1924) with two Theosophical Society officials from India greeted by Cardiff Theosophists at Cardiff Central Station. Back Row: (Left to Right) Miss Chambers (looking to right) Miss Wallis (almost hidden), Mrs Freeman, Mr Peter Freeman (General Secretary, Wales), Mrs Graham Pole. Front Row: (Left to Right) Mr Graham Pole, Babu, Dr Annie Besant, The Right Honourable Sastie. Lad presenting flowers is David Freeman, son of Peter Freeman.

Over the last ninety years, women from three generations of Sarabhai family have been a significant fixture of the Indian media-elitist press.

Look Down In Anger

Led by Mrinalini – widow of Vikram Sarabhai, the leader-pioneer of India’s successful space program. Looking down at her husband’s traditional Indian family, but hanging onto her revered husband’s coat-tails, Mrinalini Sarabhai inveigled herself into India’s ruling elites.

Using State patronage, Mrinalini Sarabhai emasculated Bharatanatyam, making it sterile and esoteric. So much so, thanks to Mrinalini and her acolytes, Bharatanatyam to an ordinary Indian has become a laughing matter.

In parallel was Rukmini Devi Arundale, married to British Theosophist Dr. George Arundale. Mainly responsible for ‘sanitizing Bharatanatyam by ‘removing the extraneous sringaar and erotic elements from the dance’ to obtain Western respectability. A dance form that was enriched by more than 2000-years of Indian culture, has now become dead in just 75 years.

Following in Mrinalini’s footsteps, is daughter Mallika Sarabhai and grand-daughter, Anahita. Promoting the toxic sludge leftover by the British Raj.

The Arundale-Sarabhai women are a small part of a larger picture. Rukmini Devi Arundale sought to ‘improve’ Bharatanatyam ‘inspired’ by ballerina, Anna Pavlova  – while Mrinalini Sarabhai went to USA, American Academy of Dramatic Arts.

Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Col. Henry Steel Olcott,

Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Col. Henry Steel Olcott,

Cogs In A Wheel

Rukmini Devi Arundale was influenced by her own family’s links with the Theosophical Society with its tangled roots and thinking.

From Germany.

The German nation is less than 150 years old. Born out of Napoleonic wars, the idea of Germany depended on Indian historiography for a national narrative. Indic concepts like Aryan values, were distorted by Anglo-German academics into an Aryan tribal identity. Taking this Aryan philosophy further, German thinkers progressed to create a new theology for their new nation – theosophy. From Germany, these ideas travelled to Britain, where Madam Helena Petrovna Blavatsky formed The Theosophical Society.

Theosophists were used by the British Raj to make a flanking attack on Indian society. The British Raj made prominent land grants to The Theosophical Society. Its HQ at Chennai is a landmark even today. Superficially ‘sympathetic’ to an Indian viewpoint, Theosophists subverted Indian history, building a base for the acceptance of trojan ideas like Aryan Invasion Theory. Theosophists promoted the image of ‘reasonable’ Britishers with whom Indians could do business with.

British Theosophists like Annie Besant and Allan Octavian Hume, of the Liberal Progressive kind, promoted the Congress.

Indians soon took over the Congress and made it into a raucous, Independence-demanding, anti-colonial organization. In the Congress, those with Theosophist-linkages were immediately welcome – and given important positions (like George and Rukmini Arundale).

Excerpts from a recent interview with three-generations of the Sarabhai women. Ideas that are toxic-sludge dressed attractively.

Mrinalini: My mother Ammu was a fashionable young lady. She drove her own horse and carriage, and was friendly with many of the women who were at the forefront of society. After my father’s death, my mother made our home, Gilchrist Gardens, a centre for both social and political circles.

Mallika: The legacy I got from my mother was to not have to think in terms of gender, to celebrate being a woman, a feminine feminist.

A flavor of Pre-Independence India

Mrinalini: With the growing unrest in the country and Gandhiji’s call to women to participate in the freedom struggle, she joined the Congress in the late 1930s, became President of the All India Women’s Conference,Sarojini Naidu visited us often, with her sisters Mrinalini and Subhashini and brother Harindranath. My mother was drawn into the women’s movement and became active in the struggle for their rights through them. Subhashini was an ardent communist, an enemy of the British, and once took refuge with us.

On marriage to Vikram Sarabhai

Mrinalini: For me, getting married and moving to Gujarat was a big challenge. Especially since I married into such an overpowering family like the Sarabhais, I felt very alone. Vikram was immediately immersed in the business and his laboratory, and did not have much time to be with me. The whole family was extremely self-contained, and seemingly so confident, which made me feel inadequate. To live up to the high ideals of the family, which were never put into words but very obvious from my mother-in-law’s behaviour, gave me a sense of isolation that has lasted all my life. They conversed in Gujarati, which I did not understand. People do not realise the trauma a girl goes through when she marries into an alien background. Perhaps that is why marriages in India are still arranged by the families whenever possible. Even little things like food suddenly take on enormous proportions. It was as though I did not exist, except when we met at lunch or dinner. It was so overwhelming. Small happenings, but they leave deep scars.

On economic ‘independence’ – and its effects

Mrinalini: I think economic independence is very much required to live the life of your choice. My father’s will was unusual. He had left my mother her own income, and equal shares to each of the four children. So all of us were financially secure.

Mallika: It’s been very, very hard. When I took over Darpana — the institution for performing arts which my mother had set up — in 1977, about 30 percent of its funding came from the government. I decided that if I wanted to chart an independent course, I had to reduce our dependence on the government. By the 1990s, we used to get a fair amount of corporate funding for either individual events or for festivals. But after 2002, and my stand against Narendra Modi and my public interest litigation against him in the Supreme Court, the corporate sponsorships gradually stopped. For instance, we have an amphitheatre space that Amul used to sponsor events at. Post 2002, that stopped. A lot of these CEOs are my classmates from IIM Ahmedabad, and they would say to me: “Mallika, we can sponsor you anywhere outside Gujarat. But in Gujarat we are told in no uncertain terms that we will not be allowed to operate here if we associate with Darpana.”

Mallika: In 2006-07, we were going to do a performance at the Dhirubhai Ambani Institute in Gandhinagar. They were very keen to have us. The audience was in place and the show was set to begin at 6:30 PM. At 5:45 PM, the Director, looking very shame-faced, walked up to us and said, “Sorry, I have to cancel the show because I’ve just had a call from Anil Ambani’s office. The Chief Minister’s office called Anil Ambani’s office to say, ‘You will not have Mallika Sarabhai perform.’”

Activista Mallika

Mallika: But I continue the work because I believe it’s important. We’ve just done an outreach project in Jharkhand, in 400 villages. The performance was developed with the local people. It’s about the lives of two families — one has six children with one girl. At one stage, the woman is pregnant for the seventh time and she is brought in through the audience, screaming with pain. You had to see the faces of the women in the audience. Because this is all a nightmare they have lived. The woman goes into a government clinic behind the screen and there is silence. The doctor comes out and says, “We’ve lost her.” One year later, the university that sponsored this programme did a study and found that 85 percent of the people who saw that performance had adopted to family planning methods. It’s the highest they have seen anywhere in the world.

Mrinalini: It was always my desire to address the problems of life through dance. It was only when I came to Ahmedabad that I became aware of the problems of women. I was studying Gujarati and had begun to read the newspapers every morning. There were constant reports of young women who died, who were burnt alive. Slowly the horror of these incidents obsessed me and Memory, the dance drama about these hapless brides, was created. I set the plot in Saurashtra. It was the first time that Bharatanatyam spoke of a social problem. From then on, there was no looking back.

On their ‘brand’ of ‘feminism’

Mallika: I’m going to go back to Draupadi. Because in the Mahabharata, she said to Yudhishtra after he lost the game of dice, “I love you but you are a weak man and what you have done is wrong.” For us, when we say “I love you”, it means taking the whole package. We do not separate the fact that you can love somebody and still say, “you are wrong.” Draupadi also says: “I have a brain and a womb, and I’m proud of both.”

Mallika: I think where India can score is that our feminism does not have to equate with masculinity. I’m empowered because I’m empowered. Not because I’m powerful in relation to somebody else. It’s not a race with somebody else. That is essentially feminine. We were never a monoculture. The same woman could be a trident-wielding Kali and also become Parvati and who could then flow as Ganga. We are losing this.

via ‘Our feminism is not in opposition with masculinity. It’s not a race’.

Errata: Earlier version of this post wrongly linked the families of Rukmini Devi Arundale and Mrinalini Sarabhai families. Reader’s comments are pointers to the error. Suitable corrections made.

  1. February 20, 2013 at 4:04 am

    Mrinalini is not Rukmini Arundale’s daughter.

  2. S
    February 20, 2013 at 4:18 am

    “First was Rukmini Devi Arundale, married to British Theosophist Dr. George Arundale. Her daughhter is Mrinalini@

    Correction required.
    Mrinalini’s mother is Ammu Swaminathan ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ammu_Swaminathan)

  3. February 20, 2013 at 4:26 am

    http://books.google.com/books?id=sKDm8EH2L3kC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false A good first hand account of a devadAsI’s life from author Saskia Kersenboom (she became one too).

  4. Anon
    February 21, 2013 at 6:22 pm

    While mallika sarabhai and her ilk must certainly be castigated for their opportunism, the case of rukmini devi is slightly more complex. Due to excessive taxation and zamindari systems during the British raj, the temple culture in the southern regions suffered a great decline, and so did all the cultural activities associated with it. Military displays, music, dance, wrestling, sculpture, and even some types of gardening all used to be displayed during festivals and also as an offering to the gods. Gradually these people had to take up the so called morally bad professions. But still these arts continued into the beginning of the 20th century, for which credit should be given to its custodians. Now the British went further. They disarmed all Indians, and branded the devadasis as prostitutes and with the help of some Indians(who did not understand what a subtle game was played against them) got the entire system banned, and paraded themselves as the saviours of morality( of course, Christian morality). By this time, largely through the english print media, dance had been successfully associated with prostitution(on the contrary, orthodox Brahmins like muthuswami dikshitar used to freely teach devadasis in their own homes).
    Music could be learnt by listening; indeed many brahmana singers managed to pick up some of the music by listening to the nadaswaram vidwans. But dance is much more complex, and needs comprehensive training and moulding. There was a real possibility of the art dying out completely and sinking without a trace. In these circumstances, rukmini Devi and her father stepped of of their comfort zones and salvaged whatever they could, and more importantly disseminated their version of the art among a wider audience. Even if it was diluted or changed, the essentials had survived, and analysis, creativity and research could rejuvenate the dance form. Her promotion of the dance form brought prominence not only to her but also to the old dance teachers and devadasis, who benefitted monetarily and artisticallyfrom the exposure.So in my book this lady deserves appreciation and not criticism, and certainly not be mentioned along mallika sarabhai who is a traitor and a crass opportunist.

  5. desicontrarian
    February 26, 2013 at 2:24 pm

    A small quibble. Theosophists are unfairly blamed for Nazism, AIT etc. The term “Aryan Race” used by them was an other-worldly category – meaning a noble people. It is similar to the term “Sattvic people”. Annie Besant made The case for India in Dec 1917, and was in no way hostile to a rising Gandhi or the other Indian Nationalists. Blavatsky was totally other-worldly. That “Aryan Race” was appropriated by worldly Germans should not be held against them.

  6. Gautam Mukerjee
    October 23, 2014 at 9:19 am

    Ha ha ha — it is a free world, just so goofies can write articles like this. Audience must be Pluto and Donald Duck.

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