Interview: Mallika Sarabhai, author, In Free Fall: My Experiments with Living – “Every human with a heart should speak for Bilkis”
Your book is so talkative and entertaining that I wanted to read it in one go. How long did it take you to put your thoughts down?
I’m glad you liked it. To be honest, it only took me three weeks to write the first draft.
You seem to write as fast as Akshay Kumar shoots movies!
Haha! Yes, we can say that but he is certainly not my favorite actor. Writing came easily to me because everything was there inside me, waiting to be written. After the first draft, I did a lot of editing. I went to look for books. I visited my doctors to get reference materials to cite. My editor said things like, “Could you please write more about this? Readers may not know what you are talking about. They will need more context, so give them that. The comments were very helpful, so I incorporated them. The book was ready earlier but publication and release was delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. I’m glad he got out.
Let’s talk about dance since it’s such an integral part of your life. It is an inheritance from your mother Mrinalini Sarabhai, and your son RevantaSarabhai received from you. Tell us about the continuities you see, and the moments of rupture.
Bharatanatyam was the common thread connecting Amma, me and Revanta. Amma used to tell me that she wished her mother would allow her to explore many dance forms. She encouraged me to learn whatever I wanted, whether folk or classical. That’s why I was able to incorporate poetry, dance, theater, so many things into my work. Speaking of progression, Revanta not only trained in traditional Indian forms, but she also trained in Western dance. Things have to move forward.
Do you ever worry about diluting the so-called purity of your classical training?
I understand what you are saying. I feel totally grounded in my Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi training, and it’s my solid foundation that gives me the freedom to explore and experiment. I never feel anxious watering it down because I trust my credentials. I can do a traditional show but I can also follow my training and go to unimaginable places with it.
In the book you mention the practice of inviting families from tribal communities to teach Darpana, sharing their dance, music, stories and customs. Have you tried to challenge the idea of who is considered an expert and what is worth teaching?
Yes, we did for about 15-18 years through Janavak, our folk and tribal dance center. It was a wonderful experience. People in urban India need to understand that tribal dance and music – be it Kalbelias, Gonds or Ao Nagas – is not just entertainment. They emerge from a way of life. The clothes they wear, the colors they use, the things they make are rooted in their geography and in the stories of their ancestors.
What are you currently working on?
I am working with Yadavan Chandran on a 12th century Sufi poem by Farid ud-Din Attar. It is called The Bird Conference. Yadavan is the artistic director, and I will choreograph it. This text, which was originally composed in Persian, seems so relevant to our times, especially with the horrible things happening in India right now. She denounces absolute power, which corrupts human beings. He asks us to stop looking for answers outside because they actually lie inside and can be found by probing the depths of ourselves. It also warns us against greed, which makes people so self-centered and oblivious to the suffering of others. We hope to have this performance ready by October. We’d also like to bring it to schools and colleges, because children and young adults need to be part of the conversations about where our nation is heading and what kind of citizens we want to be.
You wrote about filing a petition in the Supreme Court to hold the government and administration of Gujarat, including the police, accountable for the 2002 riots. What do you think of the early release of convicts in the Bilkis Bano rape case?
Remission of their life sentences is a stain on humanity. It is not just a women’s issue or a minority rights issue. This is a question that should concern everyone. Every human being with a heart should speak up for Bilkis, otherwise evil will continue to be celebrated with impunity. We must use our constitutional rights and fight for it.
How involved were you in Abhay Pannu’s webseries Rocket Boysbased on the life of Dr Homi Bhabha and your father Dr Vikram Sarabhai?
I was approached for my thoughts on the script and worked closely with the team for two and a half years. It was a pleasure because they were sincere and respectful. When they asked for my feedback, they really listened and did their best to use that feedback. Of course, it’s a series so some things have to be dramatized to have an effect. Some things need to be shortened or changed. All of this is understandable. What I really appreciate is the way they managed the relationships, keeping the complexity but not missing out on the tenderness. I also liked working on the choreography. My son has now joined the production company.
Tell us about your association with Auroville. You refer to it in the book but don’t go into detail. Have you been drawn to Sri Aurobindo and the Mother?
I was on the board of Auroville for 10 years and loved it. Karan Singh was the chairman, and I met a lot of great people and made great relationships. Unfortunately, we were all kicked out and replaced a few years ago. What is happening with Auroville is terrible and completely against what this place was supposed to be. I was drawn to Auroville because I was interested in the idea of an experimental township where people are into solar energy, water conservation, organic farming, slow food, working with the hands and not just with the mind. These things appeal to me. I have an organic farm not far from Ahmedabad, so I tried some things I learned. I invited people from the Earth Institute in Auroville to come and teach mud block architecture in Ahmedabad. I am still in contact with Mita and Tapas who run the Tomatis Research Center in Auroville. You must have read about them in the book.
Was it not Peter Brook who sent you to the Center Tomatis in Paris? I think you had trouble learning French for his Mahabharata production. Is it correct?
Yes, I enjoyed being there so much. Alfred Tomatis was this genius of the ear, the nose and the threat who liked to work with the musicians. He developed a theory that many vocal problems were actually hearing problems and that people learning a new language could easily understand it if they had a perceptual understanding of the musicality of that language. He researched how the micro-muscles of the ear can be awakened and trained. Going to Center Tomatis helped me to listen to French differently, and it helped me speak fluently. I had to work really hard to play Draupadi, and I’m glad I did. I learned so much from this experience.
Speaking of recently deceased Peter Brook, what was it like to be part of a cast that was considered so radical in the 1980s because it was diverse and multicultural?
It was radical for sure. His casting choices ruffled many feathers, especially when we had desires in the audience, whether we were performing in Australia or the United States. They couldn’t handle the fact that black actors were playing characters from the epic. Let me tell you about this interaction with the audience after one of the shows. I got so angry when a man stood up and asked, “Why is Arjuna being played by a black person?” I took a mirror and showed him his own face which was three shades darker than the people on stage. It silenced him. On tour with the play, I saw that design are obsessed with fairness and are extremely racist and castist. People use scriptures and myths to justify fanaticism which should have no place in a civilized society. We talk about the glories of our culture, but we’re so good at covering up the violence. We are not talking about Dalit women being raped and killed, or Dalit children deprived of education in schools and beaten for drinking water from a pot.
I learned from your book that your mother disapproved of you smoking and drinking, but owning those choices. Have you ever questioned your choice to be a vegetarian?
My vegetarianism has been questioned by others. I’m happy with my choice. I don’t like the idea of having dead things in my stomach. Aesthetically speaking, it doesn’t look bad to me. I was totally disgusted when I read autopsy reports of people who died with undigested meat in their bodies. I don’t tell others what choices they have to make. My son and daughter are vegetarians by choice. In our family, vegetarianism is not essential. Now, some people might say that even vegetables come from plants, which are living creatures. True, but we all draw our lines differently. Most people in India who eat fish and chicken don’t eat dogs and cats. Some people do not even consume milk and dairy products. They may make these choices for a variety of reasons. For me, it’s an aesthetic choice.
You have written about exploring Ayurveda, homeopathy, pranic healing, hypnosis, color therapy, and other systems of knowledge and practice. Since your father was a scientist, did you feel conflicted about trying what others deemed pseudo-scientific?
Never. I don’t see any conflict here. I also keep myself informed of the latest developments in brain research. I read, I sign up for short courses, I keep myself active and informed. I am and will remain open-minded and open-minded. There are so many things we don’t know.
Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, journalist and educator who tweets @chintanwriting