Author: Gener, Randy
Date published: October 1, 2010
ALMOST NINE YEARS HAVE PASSED SINCE THE Gujarat riots broke out in late Fehraarv 2002 - one of die worst episodes of I lindu-Muslim violence in the history of independent India. And yet the Sondi Asian theatre artist who bravely took a stand against state government and police complicity in enabling the communal violence to spread rinds herself still confronting the deep-rooted hatred of Gujarat's right-wing nationalist forces. "I became enemy number one of the state government and continue being so." says Mallika Sarabhai, the actor, danseuse, choreographer and human-rights activist.
We are speaking on the impressive campus of Darpana Academy of Performing Arts in the northwest Indian city that Sarabhai calls home - Ahmedabad. An oasis of serenity amid the whorl of heat, sweat, dirt, spices and urban development, the academy is a multidisciplinary gem, one of India's oldest performing arts institutions; its verdant grounds, which include a cale, gallery and film studio, feel tucked away in this swirling industrial city· ahmedabad is the former capital of Gujarat, India's only dry state (alcohol is prohibited here) located just south of the border with Pakistan. (Gujarat's capital of ( randhinagar is about 20 miles away.) Replete with mosques, tombs, pilgrim sites and a stunning textile museum (managed by the Sarabhai Foundation). Ahmedabad was once home to Mahatma Gandhi. Sarabhai and I are sitting on the sprung wooden floors of a sun-dappled rehearsal space that flows down into a gorgeous ruby-red amphitheatre, known as Natarani, situated on the banks of the river Sabarmati. Melodies from Indian musical instruments waft in the breeze. Gandhi's famous ashram beckons a mile away. In two weeks, on Jan. 30, the anniversary of Gandhi's death, Darpana's vearh Festival of'Non-Violence through the Arts begins. Slim, short-haired, intense, with kohl-rimmed eyes and a red-glitter hindi on her forehead, Sarabhai has come down the stairs to relate a bit of good news - and some bad news as well.
Thanks to a grant from the Asian Gultural Council, she and her 10-member Ahmedabad-based performing arts troupe are touring to at least nine theatres, arts centers and colleges in cities across the U.S. (including Charlotte, N.C.; Chicago; Washington, D.C.; Cleveland; Boston; Bronxville and Purchase, N.Y.) in October and November to perform a repertory of classical and contemporary dance-theatre works (such as Nataraja laudanum) reflecting the ancient South Indian classical style of Bharata Natyam, as well as issue-oriented stage pieces (Sampradayam, I Rise and Kann) that reinterpret poetic texts and question social mores hiding behind masks of wealth and power.
Now tor the bad news: Ruefully, Sarabhai remarks on the cruel repercussions that shadow her ever since she openly criticized the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party-led state government for failing to stop the 2002 bloodshed. One dramatic remonstration from the Gujarat government, led bv Narendra Modi, is a persistent climate of fear and selfcensorship in the arts, Sarabhai says. At one point, Modi tried to halt Sarabhai's television project dealing with development issues (women's empowerment, health, water and rural problems), because as a producer of TV programming Darpana Communications did not first consult with the state. Moreover, as part of a large-scale effort to develo]) the Sabarmati riverfront, the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation proposed in 2006 to build its own theatre 500 meters from Natarani, Darpana's 450-seat venue, near enough to cause worries. Local critics viewed it as yet another attempt by the state government to teach Sarabhai a lesson, this time by directly undermining her theatrical activities. "Let there be more culture in Ahmedabad," Sarabhai told the Indian livpress. "But why righi next to Natarani?"
The proposal to build a rival amphitheatre was dropped, but already there is another threat: "See that Berlin Wall?" Sarabhai says, pointing to a looming cement wall that now obstructs a theatregoer's once-striking view of the river from Natarani's Greek-style seating. "The city of Mimedabad is building that wall between our beautiful theatre and the river," she says. "That wall stands many feet high, 20 feet from the back ol the stage. ( )n top ofthat wall there is going to be a highway linking the south to the north of the city, parallel to the one that already exists - therefore not really necessary. I am trying to work with architects and sound engineers. I'd like to create a bubble over the theatre to make it sound-proof and performable but still open to nature."
For Sarabhai, touring abroad and in major Indian cities outside Gujarat is a financial and artistic necessity, a chance to renew national and international ties, as well as a peripatetic strategy of grass-roots advocacy. "Darpana," she says, "desperately needs to be put on a sound financial footing that does not depend on my performing to make it run. No arts institution can run like that. Darpana has been funded primarily through fees I generate as a 'star' performer. That is a terrible burden on me. but it is also a very dire situation tor Darpana, which is neither funded nor government-aided." in India, Sarabhai adds, "funding comes with strings attached, and we want our intellectual independence to be able to comment on anything we want." Since 2002, Sarabhai says corporate sponsorship has dried up. "If a corporate type is seen coming in for a meeting," she continues, "that company's president receives a phone call reminding them that they do need government permissions to continue operating in the state. End of conversation."
Darpana lost cverv last rupee of sponsorship overnight when Sarabhai became a thorn-in-the-side of the state's rightwing nationalist leaders. Her public criticism of the Modi government's role in Gujarat's sectarian riots came after the 2002 cycle of retaliatory violence, which erupted attera train ferrying H indus was set on lire, allegedly by Muslims, in a town called Godhra, killing 59 people on board and prompting Hindu mob attacks on Muslims across the state. The mobs stabbed, raped and set their victims on fire; they burned homes and businesses. According to the Times of India, 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus were killed; another 2,500 were injured; more than 150,000 Muslims were displaced to relief camps. Unofficial estimates put the death toll as high as 2,000.
Sarabhai stated in a first-person essay published in the November '04 edition ol this magazine: "There was a state-sponsored and government-encouraged anti-Muslim genocicle in my home stare. Civil society joined in the rampage and brutality. A 10-year-effort at building hatred toward this community paid rich dividends tor the right-wing fundamentalists. People were silenced and became accomplices in this attempt at ethnic cleansing." Taking up the cause of the victims of the mass upheaval - which independent human-rights observers have argued meets the legal definition of a genocide - Sarahhai filed (along with other petitioners) a publicinterest litigation in the Supreme Court India accusing the police and the state's minister, Modi, of aiding and abetting (if not demonstrably sponsoring) the politically motivated attacks on minorities in Gujarat.
Many Gujarati elites and fundamentalists turned against Sarabhai. They attacked her (and still do) as an "anti-nationalist," "a traitor" and "a whore lor the Muslims." In 2003, the state brought trumped-up charges against her, false accusations of trafficking in illegal immigrants to the U.S., which curtailed her freedom to travel outside Gujarat without the court's permission. Though for a brief time she went into hiding, she felt emboldened by the support she received from human-rights activists and artists from abroad, who remember her best on film and in theatrical memories as the exquisite longhaired beauty who played the feisty Draupadi in Peter Brook"s Theatre of Nations epic The Mahahbarata. Now 57 years old. Sarabhai was exonerated in 2004 by the Supreme Court, which also censured Narendra Mudi as "a modern Nero" who had stood by while the city burned. A year later, the U.S. revoked .Modi's visa on the grounds that he was responsible for "severe violations of religious freedom."
The nature of the communal riots remains politically controversial in India. A dynamic politician whose identity-based appeal issues from the philosophy of Hindutva (or Hinduness), Modi has publicly dismissed attempts at renewed focus on what role he might have played in the riots. Now serving a third term in office, he is viewed as a force of prosperity, new investment and security - a vanguard for a "vibrant Gujarat" (as dubbed by the state government's biennial global investors' summit). For cultural tourists, Gujarat is an amazing adventure. More important, there has not been a single incident of sectarian violence in Gujarat since the 2002 riots.
But while the ghosts of this city's savage past refuses to leave Modi's side, Sarabhai, too, has remained a magnet tor abusive epithets - attacks that continued when she decided to run in the 2009 Lok Sabba (lower house) elections as an independent candidate from Gandhinagar to challenge the might of BJP leader LK Advani. She lost. Running for office, she says, "has given me a much deeper understanding of the rot in the system." As lor how she's perceived among Gujarat's various religious communities, Sarabhai says, with a smile, "Hindus think Tm pro-Muslim. The Muslims think I'm pro-minorities. I think I'm pro-anybody who's getting a raw deal."
IN INDIA, THE SARABHAI NAME IS synonymous with dance, dance history and its promotion. Sarabhai's parents founded the Darpana Academy in 1949. At the time. South Indian classical dance and music, based in Carnatic music and languages, were alien to and deeply misunderstood by the local Gujarati. The notion of Gujarati girls from decent families learning classical dance and taking it up as a career was deemed too unconventional. In teaching Bha rata Natyam, Kuchipudi and Kathakali in Ahmedabad, Darpana literally created an appreciative audience for these dance forms and has been widely imitated. Today the Sarabhais represent three generations of aristocraticlineage. At the academy, 1 watch Sarabhai's 26-year-old son, Revanta, spinning in place on his bare feet in front of a flank of elderly musicians on rugs. It is a rare sight to behold: a bona-fide male Bharata Natyam dancer. The lanky young man in black tracks and yellow kurta was tuning up for his portrayal ol Lord Shiva the following weekend opposite his mother's tough-minded Draupadi in an intricate piece about a dance competition between the two Hindi gods.
Mallika Sarabhai's father was the affluent physicist Vi'kram Sarabhai, the father of India's space program. 1 1er mother, the celebrated Bharata Natyam dancer Mrinalini Sarabhai, who to this day writes politically engaged plays and dance-dramas, altered the course of Indian dance. In a 40-minute 1963 piece called Memory, about the psychological anguish of a woman driven to suicide because of her family's inability to pay her dowry, Mrinalini Sarabhai became the first classical Indian danseuse to use the syllabic structures of Bharata Natyam (called in Dravidian languages sol/ukattu, because the syllables correspond to a garland of musical notes) to convey emotion-laden insights into social issues like women's rights and pollution. This innovation was modern and daring, because these bundles ol sol/ukattu have been used for more than a thousand years only lor devotional prayers to the gods. "The finance minister of India's parliament, who saw Memory, set up a committee to investigate dowry deaths - the first of its kind - and the central government followed suit.
This incident, which iMallika Sarabhai witnessed as a child, introduced her to the notion of dance as an instrument for confronting social injustice. Five years ot workingwith Peter Brook, and Living with her strong-willed interpretation oi'Shakti (sacred force) through the character of Draupadi in The Mahabharata, sealed the deal. "My first two years workingwith Brook were perhaps the unhappiest of my life," Sarabhai recalls. "Yet he forced me into introspection, into learning how to garner all my intellectual faculties to make a winning defense of my point of view. He stripped me of false vanity and modesty. Everything I've done since, in the field of performance, took root from those years of having to light for my right to say what was right." From then on, in such sacrilegious plays as Sita's Daughters, a feminist take on the model Hindu wife of the Ramayana; In Search of the Goddess, in which she denounced as liars those who burn widows at their dead husband's funeral pyre; and Shakti - The Power of Women, in which she debunked male clichés of Indian womanhood, Sarabhai reappraised all sorts of Indian mythological, historical and modern female figures to show how they refused to accept an oppressive system.
Malllika Sarabhai's current innovation is to completely blur the boundaries of media genres and then to apply that hybrid aesthetic onto social developmental projects. She acts. She dances. She choreographs. She makes films. She anchors TV shows. She edits and publishes books. She can paint Ganesha with her dancing feet (a portrait that former president Bill Clinton begged to keep). What binds them all is a stubborn desire to marry art with social-justice work. Darpana has partnered with the United Nations Children's Fund and received support from the philanthropic foundation ArtVenture to train what she calls "actor-activists" for a host of developmental projects, including the UNICFF Peer Educators Project, which uses theatre to educate and counsel Gujaratis about the importance of using iodized salt, registering births anil maintaining personal hygiene in poor, rural villages. Darpana has recently embarked in a three-year project with the Boston University School of Public I lealih, a controlled experiment of art intervention on the diseases related to diarrhea.
Sarabhai has justly merited praise: In 200'), organizers of the World Economic Forum in Davos honored her with a Crystal Award tor her work toward promoting global peace through arts and culture. In 2005, PeaceWomen Across the Globe included her among 1,000 women whom this .Switzerlandbased group collectively nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Sarabhai's latest show- is Ramkali, a I lindi reinterpretation of Brecht's The Good Person of Szcchzvan, staged by Delhi-based theatre director Arvind Gaur. In this Darpana coproduction with Gaur's Asinità Theatre Group, Sarabhai plays the eponymous double role of Ram kali, patterned after Brecht's prostitute, Shen Teh, who welcomes the gods despite her own poverty, is rewarded with money and with the advice to be good and do the right thing, but is cruelly left on her own to fend for berseli. To protect hersell in a world of corruption and exploitation, an Ahmedabad where honesty is a virtue that cannot survive, Ramkali creates a coarse male alter-ego who eventually dominates. Notcoincidentally, Ramkali is festooned with songs and dances that mock the shoddiness of the current system, references to a/legations of corruption and mismanagement related to India's preparations to host the Commonwealth Games (starting this month, it the athletes are lucky), and pointed allusions to Sarabhai's Gujarat foe, Narendra Modi.
"Ramkali very pointedly looks at pure, unadulterated greed," Sarabhai says. "You don't look to the gods [read: right-wing politicians] for solutions. Fear translates into violence. Politicians try to frighten the nation with cries of impending terrorist attacks, creating a hate and fear psychosis."
In 2011, Ahmedabad turns 600 years old. Darpana is planning a city-wide arts celebration for its InterArt festival (lull name: Vtkram Sarabhai International Arts Festival) at the end of December this year. "More people in the Gujarati mainstream accept me today than they did before," says Sarabhai, a firebrand with a myriad of avatars, all striving to channel her social activism. "More people have seen things from my point of view. I'm not trying to give a bad name to Gujarat. My work is to get people to see the issues, even if seeing makes them uncomfortable."