Mallika Sarabhai's new dance recital questions relevance and creation of goddesses in a patriarchal society
Mallika Sarabhai, who essayed the role of Draupadi in Peter Brook's Mahabharata, says that it was when she saw the effect that the character had on her audiences that she realised the power a performance can have in bringing about change.
The artist staged a recital titled In Search of the Goddess as part of the ADD ARTS Festival at Mumbai's National Centre for Performing Arts.
One of her most favourite productions, is V for..., a composition exploring the concept of violence.
Mallika Sarabhai first garnered recognition across the world for her portrayal of Draupadi in the 1985 production of Mahabharata directed by Peter Brook.
“We put up walls around us to not have to be contradicted or to not have to be questioned about our beliefs. But through the arts, one can subliminally or more directly bring up conversations that otherwise would be blocked,” iterates renowned danseuse and artiste Mallika Sarabhai, whose performances have long been known for narrating stories that reflect our society, question our shared beliefs.
The dancer, socio-political activist, writer, and actor took the stage on 29 November with one such recital, In Search of the Goddess, as part of the National Centre for Performing Arts’ (NCPA) ADD ART Festival. The performance represents through a blend of Bharatnatyam, Kuchipudi, martial arts and dance theatre, Sarabhai’s exploration of how a goddess is created.
The ADD ART Festival celebrating the golden jubilee of the NCPA was a three-day long extravaganza complete with recitals and workshops by some of the most prolific artistes across the globe. While the Abay Kazakh School of Opera and Ballet graced the Indian stage for the first time at the event in Mumbai, also part of the festivities commemorating 50 years of the cultural centre were performances by Indian dance and music stalwarts. Hariprasad Chaurasiya, Zakir Hussain, Aditi Mangaldas, Mandakini Trivedi and Birju Maharaj were among the several renowned performers at the event. The show also hosted a stand-up act by comedian Zakir Khan, besides a concert on the opening night by the Symphony Orchestra of India, and Simon Stephen’s monologue Sea Wall, performed by Jim Sarbh.
Of the themes of her recital, Sarabhai says, “Goddesses have always intrigued me,” and through her performance, she addresses questions such as: ‘Who are goddesses and who are the ones who didn’t get to become them?’ ‘Why were some women tame enough to be made into goddesses in a patriarchal set up, and not others?’ ‘Are we still making goddesses, and for what purpose?’
The Bharatnatyam exponent of the Padanallur school has often described herself as a ‘communicator’, who uses the medium of art to take such issues to a wider audience. Daughter of renowned physicist and astronomer Vikram Sarabhai, and dancer extraordinaire Mrinalini Sarabhai, she has not only preserved the legacy her mother left behind by managing the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts, but has also carved her own niche through projects that are indicative of her passions.
Mallika Sarabhai first garnered recognition across the world for her portrayal of Draupadi in Peter Brook’s 1985 play, Mahabharata. It was a nine-hour-long drama that laid out the great Indian epic, touring the globe for four years. Sarabhai says that it was at that moment, when she witnessed the effect that the character of Draupadi had on her audiences, that she realised the kind of sway an artistic performance can hold over society. Now, the artiste often relays poignant social concerns to her audience through productions that question the status quo, bringing together in her choreography the articulated abhinaya of theatre, and the movement vocabulary of classical dance.
On being asked if art, science and education have contributed to bringing about change in peoples’ thoughts and opinions over the last 73 odd years since independence, she remarks, “We have never officially understood and supported the arts for change, in spite of being a culture where art was usually for education and enlightenment, be it the stories of good and evil in Kathakali, or the search for union with the supreme in Bharatanatyam, or the erotic sculptures on temples telling us that that state needed to be passed before renunciation.”
Sarabhai elaborates that while several countries officially sanction and fund projects that use the arts for behavioural change, Indian authorities have no such concerted programmes or mechanisms in place to undertake continued assessment of how effective 'who and what is.'
However, through the decades, Mallika Sarabhai has continued to explore a plethora of ideas; the artiste notes that she keeps on creating new work when she is moved. And in narrowing down to a medium of expression for every project, she asks herself questions about who the audience is, where the recital will be staged, and the impact of the performance she desires. Additionally, each medium, she says, makes her happy for different reasons. The perfectionist in the dancer enjoys films, as one has the freedom to redo a scene until it is perfect, while the performer within her "loves the immediacy of an audience."
One of her most favourite productions, says the Padma Bhushan-awardee, is V for…, a composition that explores the concept of violence. In a world battling with the repercussions of violence as an expression of discontent, this is a production that “tries to understand the minds of violators — from school bullies to dictators, and politicians and armies fostering killing.” The relevance of the subject is barely missed, as Sarabhai emphasises on the fact that in today’s time, such a work of art "needs to be seen everywhere."
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