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Father

Y FATHER SUBBARAMA SWAMINADHA WAS THE PIVOT OF MY EXISTENCE


and I, being the youngest of four children, always felt deeply loved and
cherished by him. There was Govind, Lakshmi, Subram and myself two
boys and two girls. Every evening, when my father returned home, he
sat on the veranda in an easy chair, while people of all walks of life came
to visit lawyers, doctors, even bankers all seeking advice. At five years
old, I clearly remember sitting unashamedly on his lap,in the late evenings,
as he sat out in the garden, reading his legal briefs with him and ,
enjoying the gory tales of murder and revenge. Insects buzzed all over
his white khadi-clad form and I teased him calling him my puchi (insect)
cushion. He is as real to me today as then, his smile, his kind twinkling
eyes, and the proud way he steadfastly claimed this child will be
somebody when she grows up...

Daddy, as I fondly called him, was from a small village in Sekharipuram


in the Palghat District of Kerala, famous for its Sanskrit and Vedic
scholars of Brahmin descent.
His father, Subbarama Pattar, was an excellent scholar and, when he
was fifteen, was taken by his uncle, who lived in North Kerala, to live
with him, where he taught him accountancy and legal matters. Soon he
returned to his village and got married and it was here that young
Swaminadhan was born in December 1870. But soon the family moved
to Vellinayhi where Subbarama Pattar became a manager for the estates

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of a wealthy Namboodiri family and established himself as an advisor to


many of the people around, amongst whom was P. Govinda Menon, who
was also a landowner. They were all fond of my father and brought him
gifts of books which enabled him to be proficient in Sanskrit, Malayalam
and English.
The school in Vellinayhi depended on government grants and had
to prove its teaching efficiency. Swaminadhan, as the prized student, was
sent to represent the school. The inspector, impressed by the child,
especially with his knowledge of English, not only gave him a handsome
prize but increased the schools grant.
Everyone was delighted with Swaminadhans success and there was
much interest in his future. Govinda Menon, who was the district munsiff
of Manjeri at the time, suggested Subbarama Pattar move the family to
Manjeri, where there was a better school. Here began a lifelong friendship
with the Govinda Menons.

My father soon showed his brilliance. The annual examinations of the


school were held at Kozhikode (earlier Calicut)at the end of the year.
That year, at the examinations, the superintendent noticed a slim young
boy, sitting quietly, not writing his papers. Are you ill? he asked. Do
you need anything?
No, sir, came the reply. I have finished the paper and am waiting
for the bell to ring.
The superintendent looked around at the other students who were
still feverishly trying to finish their papers. What school do you come
from? he asked, surprised at the confidence of the youngster.
Manjeri, sir.
Well, I hope you pass with credits. If you do well, come and see
me and I will try and get you a scholarship.

And so it happened. The young Swaminadhan came first in the whole


of Kerala and went to join the school which was attached to the Provincial
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College of Kozhikode, where he met a truly great teacher, Padmanabha


Aiyar, who, apart from his solicitude for all the students, set aside one
sixth of his salary every month to buy books for his poor and deserving
pupils. Swaminadhan soon passed the matriculation examination, once
again first in Kerala. All seemed well, but then tragedy struck. His father
died suddenly. Because of his generous nature he had spent far more than
his income on hospitality to his friends and in helping his relations with
the weddings of their children, leaving nothing but liabilities and debt
to his family.
As the eldest son, Swaminadhan suddenly found himself alone in a
cruel world, where most of his fathers rich friends deserted him.
I can only imagine my father, a young boy, perhaps standing on the
banks of the river, gazing at the green fields of paddy, the coconut palms
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rich with fruit, the slim graceful areca trees swaying in the morning
breeze and wondering what to do.
There was no one to help him make his decision. I do not know
whether he consulted Govinda Menon or the teacher Padmanabha, but
he sold the house and bought a smaller one for his grandmother,
mother and the other relatives dependent on his father. Then he went
back to Kozhikode to continue his education, supporting himself by
tutoring children from rich families, often going hungry himself, working
day and night to a gruelling schedule. He was only eighteen. Living
in a small room, he brought his eight-year-old brother, Ranganadhan,
to stay and study with him. For two years, they lived in piteous
conditions, cooking their food in the morning and eating dinner only
when they were leftovers. So thin did he become that he was nicknamed
skeleton at school.

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My father had a photographic memory which stood him in good


stead. Helping his fellow students with his knowledge, he made friends
with many of them, one of whom, Seshu Aiyar, was to retain a deep love
for him all his life.
Most of his classmates left for Chennai after the final examination,
for the best colleges were situated there. But he had no money and had
a family to support. He became a clerk on a salary of twenty-five rupees
a month a job that was as tedious as it was taxing. One day, in
desperation, he took three weeks pay, sold a watch, a present, for the
pitiable sum of ten rupees, and went to Chennai to try his luck.
It was on a dark, moonless night that the young man walked through
the streets of Chennai, to the home of his friend, Seshu Aiyar. Fortunately,
he was warmly received and both of them sat up through the night
planning their future.

The next morning, Swaminadhan went to the famous Madras Christian


College to meet the Principal, Dr Miller, known to be a good and kindhearted man.
Yes, you can sit for the competitive examination to be held tomorrow,
he said, adding, This is a special case. Determined to succeed,
Swaminadhans next visit was to Pachiappa College whose principal was
Mr John Adams, where a similar request was made and granted. Sitting
for two examinations he stood first in both. Now Dr Miller and Mr
Adams both wanted him in their colleges, for they realized he was
brilliant and fearless.
What shall I do? he asked Seshu.
Toss a coin, Seshu laughed.
A coin was flung into the air and Dr Miller won. Even so, Swaminadhan
kept up a cordial relationship with Mr Adams through out his life.
Now began the terrible grind. The scholarship hardly sufficed and
Swaminadhan lived in utter poverty eating only one meal a day, walking
miles to tutor students, borrowing books from the library for study as
there was no money to pay for his own. Every scrap he earned went
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to his family and to his young brother still studying in Kozhikode.


But at last the tide turned, and as he said himself, many years later,
it was the first ray of sunshine in a dark dreary night of sorrow and
desperation.

Ranga Reddy, the son of a rich landlord of Anantapur District in Andhra,


was deeply impressed by his brilliant co-student. Soon, from being just
acquaintances, they became friends and Ranga Reddy insisted that he
come to live with his family.
After years of absolute penury Swaminadhan lived comfortably and
perhaps had enough to eat. He repaid the kindness with his knowledge
and practicality, even learning Telugu in order to communicate with the
villagers and helping Ranga Reddys father on his official tours of the
district. The years passed. His life was one of constant studying.
Swaminadhan had to keep earning money for his relatives, always setting
aside his own ambitions for those who needed him. Anxious to learn
more he applied for the Gilchrist scholarship that was awarded for
studies abroad. Even when he secured it, there was opposition.
The Brahmins, many of them the relations he had supported for so
long, objected to the journey as, to cross the black waters (the ocean)
would make him a social outcast.
Swaminadhan smiled but did not budge an inch. If I had tasted one
morsel of their food, I would have been under obligation to them,
perhaps would have married one of their daughters and settled down in
life. Their failure to assist me contributed to my success in life, he
laughed later.

In London he began to work, joining London University and Grays Inn


in preparation for being called to the Bar. Not satisfied with that, he also
entered the B.Sc. course in Edinburgh, commuting regularly between the
two cities no easy feat in 1896. In 1898 he took his B.Sc. degree and
was called to the Bar.
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Having conquered London and Edinburgh, he now set his vision on


the Harvard Law School. The old difficulty of having no money cropped
up again. But his professors found him a small travelling allowance. With
hope in his heart and a deep faith in God, he sailed to the United States
of America.
Landing in Boston he enrolled at the Harvard Law School, working
day and night to eke out a frugal existence. His indomitable will kept
him going. Two eminent jurists, Dr Beale and Professor Thayer, took a
fatherly interest in the highly intelligent and studious Indian, the first
of his race they had met.
My father wrote his thesis on The Law of Nature and of Nation and
in three months he had completed his work. Would it be possible, he
wondered, for the Harvard University to waive its rules of three years
study and confer a doctorate in three months? It was an unprecedented
request. His financial position was precarious. Only a miracle could save
him! But he was used to facing the impossible and so he went to his two
well-wishers at Harvard and spoke to them of his work in England and
of his problems.
I am fully prepared to stand a full Viva Voce examination in all the
subjects covered by the course of study in Harvard, he said with quiet
confidence.
The authorities were perhaps rather astounded at this request of a
student from India and probably the novelty of the bold suggestion won
their admiration.
A round table Viva Voce was held, and for many days professors of
all the subjects bombarded the young aspirant with questions. Everyone
was struck by his answers and eventually there was no doubt in their
minds that here was a young man of genius. The thesis, with its vast
research and study endorsed this view and was considered by the judges
a real contribution to knowledge.
To have received a Ph.D. in six months was in itself an unusual event
and that a Hindu from India was the recipient made headlines. Newspapers
were filled with glowing reports and Reuters flashed the news all over
the world:
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Harvard has seldom conferred the degree of Ph.D. upon a


candidate who has not spent two to three years in the university.
But within a short time an exception will probably be made in
favour of a high-caste Brahmin who has been at Harvard only
a little over three months. Subharama Swaminadhan, who came
originally from India, has just passed the oral examination given
by a special committee of the faculty and will receive his Ph.D.
upon the approval of his thesis which deals with the
Administration of Oriental Law by British Tribunals.
Swaminadhan was suddenly famous and messages poured in from all over
the world. Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India, who was in Chennai at
that time, came to Dr Millers college and asked to meet Swaminadhans
younger brother. I congratulate you on your brothers brilliant success,
the Viceroy said. Convey my warm congratulations to him when you
write. I hope to meet him when he returns.
Swaminadhan was, in the meantime, on his triumphant journey home.
But sorrow dogged him. In Japan he heard the tragic news of the death
of his dear friend. Ranga Reddys death was a terrible blow. He learnt
that Ranga had been brutally murdered in broad daylight as he was
returning from court where he was a leader of the Bar. Swaminadhan had
lost his best friend and benefactor and could not share his achievements
with him. It was a sad and desolate homecoming.

It was John Adams who found the office for my father and no sooner
did Swaminadhan return, that he set to work. His reputation grew rapidly
and there was no one to touch his eloquence and his proficiency in law.
Again there were many who helped him, as he helped them, with his
detailed knowledge of the intricacies of the judiciary system.
Eadley Norton, a well-known criminal lawyer of India, consulted him
frequently. As he walked down the corridors of the courts he often met
the young lawyer and asked, What does the learned doctor have to say
today?

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The Chennai Law College requested him to lecture to the students


and he decided on the driest of subjects, Roman Law, but soon made
it a fascinating study. Determined to bring his own experiences at Harvard
to Chennai, he worked tirelessly to make the young students of Law love
their studies, filling the library with the latest books and making them
available to the poorest.
Never content with mere teaching, he often visited the library at
night, chatting with the boys and discussing their work. He was soon
nominated Principal of the College and then there was even less time
to sleep and eat. He organized The Moot Club where young, wouldbe lawyers, donned gowns and argued cases as though in court.
Fate favoured him in his professional expertise but did not spare him
financially. He had, through the years, saved some money and deposited
it in the Arbuthnott Bank, which was considered one of the finest banks
in the country. In 1906 the bank crashed and he was left penniless. He
was only thirty-five years old but not for a moment did he moan his loss.
I am glad it did not happen later in life, he told his friends. I will simply
work with more vigour now.
At around this time Swaminadhan began to think about marriage. His
had been a lonely life, and now he felt a deep need for family. His
thoughts went back to his friends at Manjeri and he decided that he
would ask for the hand of one of their daughters. Govinda Menon was
dead, but his wife, Ammuamma, a woman of strong character, a true
Kerala matriarch, lived in a small village called Anakkara where she had
moved with her eight children after her husbands death. Their home
Vadakath was a Taravad of beautiful dimensions. When Swaminadhan
came in search of a bride, she told him that of all her daughters the only
one still unmarried was Ammu, the youngest, who was still at school.
In spite of her young age, Swaminadhan asked permission to marry
her. Ammuamma, who loved this young man, agreed.
Ammuamma always sat on the wooden padi (seat) around the
nallukattal, the central open courtyard, in the Kerala house. Her earlobes
dangled almost to her shoulders, empty now of the heavy gold earrings.
She wore no ornaments except for a rudraksha necklace. A mundu
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Gilchrist GardensMadras
(
)

around her waist and a mundu across her shoulder, formed her entire
wardrobe. Only prostitutes wear blouses, she told me once with disdain.
We were all rather in awe of her. As I grew older, the awe disappeared
and I would make her tell me all about the family and the history of our
Tharavad.
It was a strange romance between the studious man of thirty-five and
the child of thirteen. The courting was done with all the thoroughness
of a well-planned manoeuvre. Some of the family strongly opposed the
proposal and only one of Ammus brothers, Kutty Krishnan, (later to be
Principal of Zamarins College, Kozhikode), who was full of admiration
for Swaminadhan, helped him. Every day a letter for Ammu would come
by train from Chennai to a nearby station Kuttipuram. Here a special
messenger received the letter and practically ran the five miles to the
cliffs surrounding the Vadakath house. Kutty Krishnan waited there for
the letter and took it to his young sister. The letter was usually in English
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and more instructive than romantic. Questions were asked and she had
to reply. The runner waited to take her answers back to Kuttipuram to
post the same day.
The objections to the marriage were soon overruled and Swaminadhan
married the fourteen-year-old Ammu at Vadakath house in 1908 in a
simple Kerala ceremony.

The red brick bungalow named Gilchrist Gardens was made ready for
the new bride. An Irish governess, Miss Jordan, came to teach her
English and stayed on as a permanent member of our family till she
died. My mother, Ammu, soon became a fashionable young lady. She
drove her own horse and carriage and was friendly with many of the
women who were in the forefront of society. Amongst them was Lady
Benson, who took her under her British wing. My fathers juniors
usually accompanied Ammu as he himself had no time and was
completely immersed in his work. Yet, in his quiet way, my father cared
deeply for his young wife and wanted her to have all the things he had
missed.
My father had an extremely disciplined life and his law practice and
his involvement with setting up premier institutions took up all his time.
After office hours he often walked back all the way from Armenian Street
or took the train, which would specially stop for him by the wicket gate
at the end of our garden. While he never took off any time for leisure,
he pampered Mummy. He loved and cherished her dearly, and perhaps
because she was so young, indulged her in every way.
One of his most brilliant juniors being debonair and immaculately
dressed and, no doubt, was deeply in love with her.V.L. Ethiraj, was a
handsome escort for my mother. My father, whom we called Daddy
thought his junior should be well educated and arranged for Ethiraj to
have a tutor. He selected a distinguished professor called Radhakrishnan
to whom I hear he paid fifteen rupees an hour, a handsome sum in those
days. Dr Radhakrishnan, much later became the distinguished President
of India! Mr Ethiraj also rose to great heights as a lawyer. One of Mr
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Ethirajs young friends who often engaged him as senior counsel was a
young man called Venkataraman whom he affectionately called my junior.
He too went on to become the President of India.

My father continued his own spectacular career in law and travelled


widely, with frequent trips to London for special cases. His briefs (I
read them as stories) always interested me as a child and one in particular
as told to me by my uncle, Ranganadha Iyer, is worth relating. It was
called the Kadambur case and shows the skill, the energy and the study
my father brought to each challenge.
The Kadambur case was a sensational one as it involved the murder
of De La Hay, an Englishman, a terrible crime in the days of the British
Raj. The murdered man was very unpopular with his wards because of
the harsh manner in which he meted out severe punishments to young
zamindars. His obvious contempt for all Indians led to his tragic death.
The record showed that the foulest language was used against the wards
by De La Hay and he had had the audacity to call a leading zamindar,
held in high esteem by the government, that bloody nigger prince.
When these facts became public during the course of the proceedings
in connection with this case, the government at once abolished the
institution of which he was the principal, an act hailed with much
satisfaction by the public and those interested in the welfare of the
students.
One of the wards, Singampatti, was a prime suspect because he had
been unjustly punished by De La Hay and was also known to be a good
shot. Many of the wards possessed revolvers as they used to go on
hunting expeditions into the thick Chingleput forests nearby. On mere
suspicion, both Singampatti and his friend, Kadambur, were arrested and
put in the lockup. A lengthy account of the tragedy, with sensationalist
headlines, appeared in all the dailies in Chennai. Rumours were rife and
mere suspicions were published, even with photographs of the accused
while in police custody. The zamindar of Singampatti, the father of the
ward, came immediately to Chennai, had several interviews with his son,
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and on the advice of his legal advisers was prepared to make his son an
approver for the purpose of saving him. A chargesheet was filed against
both the accused and the preliminary enquiry was to begin shortly before
the Chief Presidency magistrate. The zamindar of Singampatti engaged
two well-known criminal lawyers and on their advice Singampatti was to
turn approver. A High Court judge in a casual conversation with the
member about the case came to know that no arrangements had been
made by the Court of Wards for the defence of other accused, Kadambur,
and that the Court had no intention of having him defended. He suggested
that they engage Dr Swaminadhan, the best lawyer in Chennai.
My father took up the case and when he interviewed Kadambur, the
boy swore innocence and showed great courage, a trait my father admired.
Soon after, my father received a summons from the higher ups, to try
and persuade him not to proceed with the case. My father refused the
summons but invited them to visit him at his office if they needed any
counsel, while objecting strongly to his ward Kadambur being treated
as a common criminal. Singampatti, who had become an approver, repeated
parrot-like a cooked-up story and the preliminary enquiry was concluded
with undue haste. After the court closed, my father visited Kadambur
in jail and found he had been sent a letter in Tamil from his friend
Singampatti begging forgiveness for his false statement in court, which
he said he had been pressurized into writing by his father. My father
immediately took the letter to the registrar of the High Court. However,
as he felt that his client would not have a fair trial in Chennai, he asked
for the case to be transferred to Mumbai though the Court of Wards
threatened him against this decision. Things had come to a serious pass
and even my fathers life was in danger. He took the bold step of going
to Delhi to see the Governor-General, who, in spite of his busy schedule
met him for five minutes after lunch, due perhaps to the fact that his
private secretary was an old friend of my fathers from his Edinburgh
days. The Governor-General promised every assistance when he heard
the true facts of the case.
The case went for trial before the Mumbai High Court to the
surprise of everyone in Chennai, especially the Court of Wards.
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Determined to save his young client, Daddy took the assistance of a


lawyer, Mr Wadia, in Mumbai, as he himself was not well acquainted with
Mumbais professional norms.
celebre
The trial which had now becomecause
a
attracted huge crowds,
especially as the Chief Justice was conducting the case himself, and a
special jury had been appointed. The Crown Prosecutor from Chennai
used all his skill to try and break the young accused, but did not succeed,
in spite of the approvers false testimony.
Mr Wadia skilfully extracted from the approver, Singampatti, the fact
that he knew both Tamil and English but preferred to write in Tamil. It
was a dramatic moment when my father brought out the letter which
the approver had written to Kadambur. Singampatti admitted that it was
his own writing and signature. My father had prepared an English
translation of the letter and copies were handed to the Chief Justice who
requested it be read aloud. The entire court-room was shocked as there
was no longer any case against Kadambur. My fathers wise decision to
transfer the case to Mumbai saved Kadambur. In spite of Mr Wadias
protests, Daddy insisted that he take the full fee for the case, though
most of the expenses had come out of his own pocket. His joy in saving
the life of a young, innocent boy and ensuring that there was no miscarriage
of justice, was reward enough!
My father came home to Chennai to a heros welcome. There were
crowds cheering him at the railway station. Disliking such demonstrations,
he bowed to the people and went directly to Armenian Street, where
Kadamburs mother was awaiting him. Tears of joy poured down her
cheeks as she embraced her son and fell at my fathers feet, much to
his embarrassment. He always disliked being thanked for doing what he
thought was his duty. I remember once, when a client brought a huge
basket of fruits as a gift, he kicked it down our passageway in a terrible
temper. You are paying for my work, he shouted, and thats enough!

I was not a healthy child and remember the time when I was critically
ill with typhoid for three months. There was an excellent Scottish doctor
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who looked after me. One day when I was better but still not allowed
to eat anything not even a teaspoon of karaboondhi for the New Year,
Daddy sat in my room having his tea a rare event. My mother said,
Dont eat in front of her, and I said, No, no, let Daddy be here. I loved
him so very much. Did he even know that? He always called me child
and that to me is now one of the most evocative terms of endearment
in the English language. The only time he was displeased with me was
when I would not practice the piano. Somehow I did not like the
instrument. Since I loved movement, sitting still was torture. Whenever
Mummy suggested taking a family photograph he would promptly have
his head shaved, so there are very few photographs of him.

My eldest brother, Govind, left home when he was twelve, for my father
felt that the best education was in England. So I hardly knew him and met
him only when he came back, a young man of twenty, a few months before
my father died. His very Britishness frightened me, and it was almost a
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decade later that I could come to terms with my terror and admire the
fine personality he was. My brother Subbaram went to England when
he was only seven. It was one of the cruellest things my parents did,
as a matter of course, because it was a British custom. Strange that I still
see him on the upper bunk of the ships cabin, crying his heart out;. That
awful picture has never left me though I was then a mere infant.
Decades later, when my grandson, Revanta, had to take a decision
to leave home for higher education at fifteen, I remembered the pain
that my brother must have gone through. After a harrowing, sleepless
night I pleaded that Revanta should not be sent away and fortunately
everyone agreed. It was only when he turned eighteen that he decided
with his parents to join the University of the Arts in Philadelphia to do
a course in Multimedia.
All my life, my relationship with my brothers was rather formal
though Govinds wife Sulochana became a dear friend.
Govind soon established himself as a brilliant criminal lawyer and
later in 1969 was Advocate General of Tamilnadu. His tremendous sense
of humour, honesty and charm, became a byword in Chennai and soon
all over India. Subbaram was a young businessman in Mumbai, extremely
popular in social circles, a good sportsman, and well-liked by everyone.
Lakshmi, I watched with admiration, though at that time, the difference
in our ages did not allow for companionship, though later we became
very close.

My father was my entire life. Early mornings and late nights belonged
to me. Somehow we found time to be together, but for such a short a
time. He died when I was very young. We had gone to Kerala with
Mummy when the message came he had collapsed with a stroke. We
rushed back. It was awful to see him lying so still. He could not speak.
That was enough to bring home to me the terror of death, or more than
that, the terror of living death. He wanted to comfort me, his lips moved,
but no sound came. His hands twitched with a longing to place them
on my own. I waited beside him silently, not knowing what to say for
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I had not yet begun to learn the soothing comfort of words. On the third
day, exhausted, I slept by my mother, and woke again in sudden fright.
She looked at me and answered the fear in my eyes with a shake of her
head. I knew then that he was gone. It was December 31, 1930. I was
not interested in the comforting words of my relations. My father had
gone on a journey. He lay there calm and cold. I wanted him to talk,
to be with me.
Only someone who has been through such an experience, who has
lost a parent in their childhood, can understand the trauma it produces.
I had no one to turn to except my Ayah who understood my sorrow
to some extent. For one year I went to my fathers room and locked
myself in, just to weep and weep. It was a harrowing experience. That
year, I learnt that life doe not bring happiness alone; that sorrow is part
and parcel of living and that loneliness is something that has to be
accepted. After my fathers death I have never trusted life, even in its
happy moments. It took me years to understand and appreciate that
living in constant apprehension was wrong, that it was wiser by far to
think in terms of the now.
The fear, that if I loved someone, he would disappear and leave me
all alone, was deep-rooted in me. I had to learn to rely on myself. Years
later I found myself dealing with the same scars when Vikram died and
I felt my world come apart.
Missing my father desperately, I took to working a planchette and
constantly the words spelt out work, work child. Weekly fevers persisted,
perhaps because of my fathers death. The doctors decided on having
my tonsils removed, which was the usual remedy for all illness in those
days. Dr Cherian, a surgeon of repute, performed the operation. When
he came to see me the next day, he gave me a big thump on the back
and said, Now talk, and eat as much ice cream as you want! Years later,
when he was Governor of Mumbai and presiding at my dance recital he
gave me the same thump and said to the audience, I made her well
enough to dance!
Recently someone wrote to me, exclaiming on how the years roll
by. Reading the letter I began to wonder, when did I grow up? Was it
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after my fathers death? Is there a defining moment of maturity? Yes


there is. The young tearful child, unconsciously realized the new role
that had to be played in life, to be a witness of oneself and yet to be
immersed deeply in the process of living fully.

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A

FTER MY FATHER S DEATH, MY MOTHER MADE G ILCHRIST G ARDENS A


centre for both her social and political circles. With the growing unrest
in the country and Gandhijis call to women to participate in the freedom
struggle in the late thirties, she joined the Congress, became president
of the All India Womens Conference, and later a member of the Legislative
Assembly in Delhi from Dindigul in Tamilnadu.
My fathers will, like the man, 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. My mother had indeed been fortunate in her
marriage. It was my father who introduced her to Mahatma Gandhi. She
had met him several times and he helped her get interested in the
struggle for freedom.
When Gandhiji met my mother some years later, he said, This is
not the girl Swaminadhan married. She was a timid country child!
I peered at the toothless old man from behind my mothers sari. He
noticed me and pinched my cheek so hard that I almost cried out. What
will you give me? he asked. I had nothing but my two gold bangles.
Silently, I took them off and put them in his hand. He looked at me
lovingly, patted my head and went on, my bangles in his hand. It was
my first voluntary gift for freedom.

My mother was strangely rigid in some ways. She became involved in


politics even before my father died and was very much a leader in the
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social life of Chennai. She was a member of the ladies club, she took
part in all the dramatics, usually as the heroine. She also played tennis
and was one of the first women to drive a car. She was a very talented
person, a gracious and charming hostess, but she had no time for her
children.
Mummy was away a great deal of the time and I wonder now why
she seemed to care so little for us. She was extremely sarcastic and never
encouraging. I always thought it was only towards me that she behaved
harshly. But Lakshmi told me years later that she had felt the same way
too. Lakshmi was so lovely to look at and I, at that age, a real ugly
duckling. What did not help was my mothers insistence on cutting my
hair short, so I looked like a boy! Though I hated it she had some idea
that it gave strength. I was presumed a weakling because I was very thin!
What I can remember most clearly are the scoldings that I used to get
and the beatings I suffered. I was often punished by my mother and
locked up in the bathroom. I now think my claustrophobia stems from
these chastizements.
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I hated eating too and Mummy used to always keep a stick with
which to rap my knuckles when I protested about the amount of food
on my plate. She swore she would make a gramophone record that went,
Mrinalini eat, Mrinalini eat! The servants understood my anguish and
often intervened on my behalf. Vadivelu, our butler, would snatch fistfuls
of food off my plate when Mummy was not looking. They all loved me
as I loved them.
In our society, at that time, there was no hugging or kissing of
children as it was considered not done. Perhaps this notion was due
to the influence of the British who believed that children were to be seen
and not heard. I had decided then and there (I must have been only ten!)
that if I ever married and had children, I would care for them deeply
and make them feel loved and wanted.

Only my Ayah, my dearest Bhatatayah, understood me when I was little.


No one else. Lakshmi, my sister, was older and busy with her work and
my brothers had already gone abroad. All my sorrow was soothed by
Ayah. She taught me nursery rhymes, she hid me in the folds of her sari
when I was crying, and she brought me food when I was punished. In
those days Ayahs often looked after the children of British sahibs and
so were well-versed in English. I owe her a great debt of gratitude
because she was the only person who really loved and mothered me. It
was in her lap that I felt comforted. She will never know how much
strength she gave me with her love and devotion. It was her care that
helped me to get over the terrible periods in my life.
I was away at school when Lakshmi got married. Nanja was a
Theosophist and one of Indias first pilots. We thought his life very
exciting and romantic, especially when he flew over the house and airdropped flowers for Lakshmi. She married him, but came home almost
immediately, perhaps realizing that she was not really in love with him.
We were brought up rigidly, in true British fashion, and knew nothing
of sex or about the changes in our body or what marriage implied. What

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awful experiences children go through because of their parents hangups. I wrote a letter to Mummy about all this years later but even then
instead of feeling sorry she was very angry. She never had patience with
any one of us, which was very tragic because after we grew up it was
too late for understanding or love, though we both tried.
My father was the only one who used to repeatedly say, This child
will do something worthwhile in the world. I was dark complexioned
and skinny both terrible social handicaps in my time. In India you have
to be round, fair and plump to be called beautiful. My mother always
emphasized the fact that I was not worth much. I dont think I have ever
got over that. Only my art gave me the courage to live, and through
the years, my marvellous friends and my audiences have helped me build
up my self-esteem. I like to feel now that there was something in me
that attracted people and made them trust me not just the women,
but the men too. Every little incident of kindness mattered to me. I
remember that once, a relation of ours, Gopiettan, who was an engineer
in Chennai, was sitting at our dinner table. We were all discussing
something animatedly when suddenly he said, Mrinal is going to be the
beauty of the family. That completely spontaneous remark gave me so
much happiness!

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Today, if I find anyone who is a little diffident or lonely, I always try


to reassure the person and say some words of encouragement, especially
if they are children. Often, human beings dont show their appreciation
or love, even if they feel it. It can be as simple as writing a letter.
Needless to say I am still an avid letter-writer in this world of emails
and faxes!

Early in life I found an inner strength in God. Perhaps that faith saved
my sanity. My beliefs have never wavered. One does not know how these
things become so deep-rooted in ones soul. Where did my innate trust
in a Supreme Power come from? Perhaps it was an overflow from my
prarabda my past life. Our family was not particularly religious. At
home we had a small puja room, but then so do most people in India,
a place where they light a lamp and say a prayer to God both morning
and evening, almost by reflex! It is part of our heritage. But somehow,
I had a forceful awareness of Krishnas presence in my life. From that
day of realizing his presence to this, he has been my main source of
strength. And yet I cannot say I am religious in the normal sense of the
term. It is like having a very good friend, and the knowledge that the
friendship will last forever.
I have always felt surrounded by Krishnas love and it has been with
me all my life. I have written books about him and also choreographed
dance dramas based on him. Often when I have to make an important
decision, I talk to Him. He has guided me throughout my life. This
oneness has grown stronger over the years.

There were also many happy days in my childhood!


We had an old Austin, a huge yellow car in which Lakshmi and I went
to the Marina beach every evening. Here we played exciting games of
pretend-adventures in the sands and in and out of the old boats, that
lay discarded on the shore. The Kumaramangalam children, Mohan and
Parvati, were our companions. We also had a horse carriage in which we
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went to school. Once the horse had an accident just outside Government
house and landed inside a tram! What a to-do there was with all of us
scrambling out, the Ayah, Lakshmi and me! We were rescued by some
friends and taken home. It was quite a lot of fun but the carriage was
discarded and much to our distress, the horse sold soon after.
We had a tennis court at Gilchrist Gardens and every Sunday evening
there were tennis parties. Many guests were local champions and I did
not mind picking up the balls from the sideline as they played. I remember
Balagopal, Krishnaswami, V.L. Ethiraj and others at our home. I practiced
regularly with the marker and became quiet proficient. Afterwards there
was always a delicious tea served in elegant china cups with an artistic
camel design. I still have some of them! In true British fashion we had
cucumber and tomato sandwiches, cakes and curry puffs. A huge mango
tree nearby gave the players plenty of shade.
I loved exploring Gilchrist Gardens. There were terraces all around,
some of which were only accessible by climbing the roofs. My cousin
Sarojini, Gopalamamas daughter, who was staying with us,often climbed
the fences with me. From the top we would jump onto the mattresses kept
for airing below and run away before we were discovered. Unfortunately
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our feet would leave their prints and Mummy would find out and what
a scolding we had then! We were always up to some new mischief.
Once,when everyone was away, we climbed through a high window
into the storeroom. The ladder slipped and our hands slid down the wall.
We told the servant Raman to clean up the mess but he did not bother!
What followed was an awful showdown. Sarojini was banished to her
home in Vadakath and I never heard the end of the story!

Ever since childhood, the sea has been my great love. The vast expanse
of blue-green water, the sky, the surf of the waves, the sands stretching
endlessly, so white and beautiful, the heavenly feel of the sand between
my toes. The tranquillity, the rage, all merging and forgiving the hurts
of our past.
And, of course, the fun at festivals. Deepavali was always an exciting
day at home. A cart filled with crackers would arrive in the morning for
the evenings spectacle. I hated the noise though it was very enjoyable
to meet friends who dropped in. I went around with my hands covering
my ears, trying to smile and talk to the guests dressed in bright clothes
and sharing delicious food with everyone who had come to visit.
Going to the Theosophical Society at Adayar with my mother was
a weekly occurrence, starting when I was three years old. There she
spent most of the time with Malati Patwardhan (later Navroji), one of
her closest friends, whom we called Akka.
Krishnaji (J.Krishnamurthi), his friend, Jadunandan Prasad, Bhagirati
Sri Ram, Dr and Mrs Cousins, were all part of my mothers intimate
circle. Often we travelled together to the same places, and I remember
a trip most probably made in 1929 to Varanasi. Everything was so dirty
by the Ganga that I refused to bathe in the filthy water. The burning
corpses made me ill and I developed a high fever. Mummy decided to
send me home. Krishnaji was leaving for Chennai, so I went with him.
I do not remember much of the return trip as I was burning with fever.But
Krishnajis cool hands on my forehead and his feeding me with carefully
peeled oranges, is a strong memory that has remained with me till this day.
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My mother, my grandmotherAmmuamme
(
) and my uncles and aunts

While we lived in Chennai, we often went to my grandmothers


home, Anakkara Vadakath, in Kerala during the summer vacations.
Vadakath was a great place to go to for the holidays. All the members
of the family gathered here. We children swam morning and evening,
spending hours in the huge tank and playing train around the garden.
In the evenings after the lamps had been lit, prayers would be sung and
we would all join in. Then at dusk some of us would play cards especially
a game called 28 which was a favourite. The nights were filled with
mysterious happenings and the stories told to us were always of the
supernatural. The madham where the ceremonies were held was in a
small building near the house. Often during the puja the priest or
Vaddiar would go into a trance. We would shiver with him as he shook
and muttered, leaping around, supposedly possessed by the Goddess,
answering questions in a disembodied voice. Then there were the
Moosads coming to visit, who gave us strange herbal medicines and
Prashnas were drawn on the floor with conch shells to answer problems
and predict the future. For me the atmosphere took on a romantic
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mysteriousness, especially at night when the oil lamps cast huge shadows.
It was a home I loved, a home to which I felt I belonged. All these
happenings must have had a deep impression on me for they often
became creative forces in my dance dramas.
My grandmother, Ammuamma, (we were a matrilinear family) was
the most powerful person at Vadakath followed by my uncle Gopalamama
and his wife Kunhilakshmi Ammayi. Years later I learnt that my grandfather
had shot himself in the madham and that was why the pujas were always
held there. It was said that he had an incurable illness and was always
in dreadful pain. My uncle, Kuttiamaman, (the Kutty Krishnan who
helped my father) had found him lying there, and ever since suffered
from terrible nightmares.
Many famous women belonged to the tharavad of which perhaps my
mother was the best-known after her marriage. Because of her dedication
to womens causes she helped organize the Womens Indian Association
as early as 1917, later becoming its president. In 1930, deeply impressed
and inspired by Gandhijis call for engaging in the final conflict, she
joined the Indian National Congress. Her interest in education led her
to becoming a member of the Chennai Corporation and Chairperson
of the Committee for Education, from 1934 to 1939. A Swadeshi
emporium was started by her and other women in Chennai, to support
the boycott of foreign goods, and often as a child I used to help in the
shop. I have always instinctively loved old fabrics and this gave me a
chance to learn more about the weavers and their skills.
Later, in 1947, my mother was elected as a Member of Parliament
from Dindigul. It was Kamaraj Nadar who persuaded her to stand for
elections as she was already immersed in social welfare. Today Vadakath
at more than a hundred years old is still a wonderful, peaceful home for
all of us, but my cousin Susheela (the daughter of Gopalammama) is the
only inhabitant. Yet it is always filled with travellers passing by and
relations from many parts of the world, and Susheela continues the
hospitality and warmth that characterizes the Taravad tradition.

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My kindergarten school was a convent in Vepery. Reading was my


passion and I must have started very early, when I was about four years
old. I was very mischievous and the nuns often had to scold me. But they
were kind women. One day I went to school and was told that the
Mother Superior wanted to see me. I was sure that I was going to get
a scolding and hid in the garden, but she finally caught up with me, and
to my surprise gave me an exquisite doll in a cradle, as I had scored the
highest marks in English!
About the same time I made my debut on the stage at the Museum
Theatre in Chennai. I remember it so clearly, because I had to recite the
nursery rhyme To ride a cock horse. There was a wooden horse, on
which I raced around the stage. The horses head soon fell off but I still
went on with the racing not stopping for even an instant! Perhaps the
seeds of professionalism were sown on that day!
Here in this school I also committed my first and last theft! One
of the library books fascinated me. It was full of pictures and rhymes.
I had a pink velvet bag into which it fitted beautifully. The temptation
was too strong. I brought it home and put it with my other treasures
but it did make me have some guilty feelings whenever I looked at it!
Mummy would not give us money to buy books except at Christmas,
so often I had to wait many months for books, which was very frustrating.
Once there was a second-hand dolls house for fifteen rupees that I
desperately wanted. I came home for lunch and left a note asking my
mother for the money. Akka saw my note and generously left the amount.
The joy of that gift was immense. The hunger for books still persists and
they continue to be my most valued treasures.
There were many well-known women who stayed at Gilchrist
Gardens and we grew up entertaining guests. Mrs P.K. Sen, one of my
mothers dearest friends, told me that once, when I was about eleven,
Mummy had asked me to entertain her, so I seated her in the drawing
room and asked, Would you like to talk politics or art? Sarojini Naidu
with her sisters, Mrinalini and Subhashini, and brother Harindranath
visited us often. My mother, I am sure, was drawn into the womens
movement and became active in the struggle for their rights, through
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Sarojini Naidu. Subhashini was an ardent communist, an enemy of the


British and once took refuge with us. The government appointed a CID
sleuth to follow her wherever she went. When she stayed in our house,
two officials sat at the gate. She would sing Wherever you go, whatever
you do I want you to know-Im following you! in a loud voice. She would
also send out cups of tea to them! Once visiting us was the well-known
woman communist, Lester Hutchinson. I was given a letter to smuggle
out hidden in my pavade (skirt) and thought it all a great deal of fun,
like being part of a detective novel. I made him sign my autograph-book.
I still recollect the words he wrote, We dance along deaths icy brink
but is the dance less full of fun?
I was only three when Sarojini Naidus family first came to visit us,
and they soon became great friends of my mother. Mrinalini
Chattopadhyaya, whom we called Gunnu Aunty, later became the principal
of the Ganga Ram School in Lahore. I was named after her. Harindranath
Chattopadhyaya used to make my sister Lakshmi and my cousins act in
his plays. I was deeply influenced by his charm, his endless stories and
his songs. How he would sing! The rehearsals fascinated me. It was very
much the kind of life I wanted and Harindranath was full of poetic wit
and boundless energy.
When I was eight, Harindranath, whom we used to call Carb Uncle
(at his request!) asked me whether I would take part in a play called The
Parrot. So at an early age, I made a professional appearance in a proper
drama at the Museum Theatre in Chennai. There were only three
characters in the play, the Mother, Father and their little boy, played by
me. The theme was simple. The husband was a drunkard and constantly
abused his wife and child. Once under the influence of drink he drowns
his son in the sea. Everyday Carb Uncle merrily came in and changed
the dialogue, because he never remembered the script. But I somehow
took up the cues, which, when I look back now, was very professional!
Swarajya
I was delighted by what the critics said about my acting, in
the ,
Chennai:

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MISS MRINALINIS ACTING TRIUMPH!


Miss Mrinalini Swaminadhan achieved a great acting triumph
in the impersonation of the boy. For a girl of her age, she
acted with admirable skill and was never stage struck. She
caught something of the pathos and the terror of the boys
existence.
How I loved being on stage! I think that it was my stage personality that
gave me the courage to face my normal life. In so many ways, the Naidu
family influenced us. Lakshmi became a communist through Subhashinis
example.
Amongst the other outstanding women who often visited us at home
were Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, who wore exquisite khadi saris and carried
herself with regal dignity; Lady Dhanvanthi Rama Rao (Dhanmasi to us);
Mrs Cousins, (who introduced a bill to abolish the Devadasi system);
Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy, (who in 1932 started the anti-nautch campaign);
Sister Subhalakshmi (who helped destitute women); Achamma Mathai
whose husband John Mathai was Finance Minister in Nehrus first
government of Independent India; Gandhijis friend, Muriel Lester, and
many others, all of whom greatly contributed to the womens movement
in India.

Mummy loved travelling and decided to take us children abroad. My first


voyage was on March 25, 1933. We sailed on the Italian ship the Conte
Verde and were given a big send-off in Chennai from where we had left
by train. My diary records the journey as being terribly terribly hot and
that I ate lot of ice-cream while my sister Lakshmi tried valiantly to diet.
At Suez, we left the ship and with some friends, went to Cairo by
car through miles of desert.
Then we left by train for Port Said, where we rejoined the ship.
Passing the island of Crete with its mountains covered with snow was
a lovely experience. We disembarked at Brindisi and I got my first view
of Europe. My diary states, What a dirty place with everyone staring
at us as though we were monkeys in a zoo. A man actually pulled
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Lakshmis long hair and she was furious. Brindisi doesnt give the visitor
a good impression of Italy.!
Going by train to Naples, sitting up all night, was tiring. We went
to bed as soon as we got to the hotel though not for long, for we didnt
want to miss getting a look at Pompei. The city is huge and it is pathetic
to see the destruction by the volcano, I noted in my diary. From Naples
to Rome, and on to Venice and Vienna where I saw an operetta for the
first time and was thrilled with the music and the decor. It was in Munich
that I heard the terrible voice of Adolf Hitler for it was on his birthday
April 20th , that we arrived, in the midst of a snowstorm. I wrote a long
letter to a journalist friend of the family, C.V. Pathy, who had reviewed
the play The Parrot in which I had acted.
Here, I wrote, everyone seems bewitched by a man called Hitler and
his voice blares out everywhere. I feel he is evil from the sound of his voice
but he has some uncanny hypnotic quality. Pathy published the extract
praising the perceptive letter from such a young girl! Pathy and I became
friends and our friendship lasted for many, many years till his death.
From Munich we went on to Paris. Subram or Suds as he was called
joined us from England. He was given charge of Mummys briefcase with
the passports, travellers cheques and other documents, while she looked
after the luggage. When we arrived at the hotel, the briefcase was
missing. Suds had forgotten it in the taxi!
For the next few days we were all in the doghouse. I can well
understand my mothers anger. She had to go to the embassy to get new
permits and to borrow money. It must have been a traumatic experience!
We did some sightseeing and them left for London and Birmingham
where Govind and Suds guardians in England, Dr and Mrs Pardhy,
welcomed us. He was Indian and she was British and my brothers were
to make their home with them and their children, Anand and Urmila for
many years, spending every holiday with them, as later I did too.

An English school was thought of for me, but, according to a distant


uncle, Dr Radhakrishnan, who lived in London, the climate was too damp
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With my friend PamelaMargetson


(
) Blactie in Switzerland at school.

for someone like me, who was suspected of having T.B. It was decided
to send me to Switzerland to the Ecole St. Georges in Clarens, Montreux.
The doctors there did not find anything wrong with me except that I
was frail and delicate.

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At first I was miserable, being the only Indian in the school. Fortunately
I soon made friends.
At the Lady Willingdon Training School in Chennai, the school I had
been attending up until then, I had been good at English and History
and all the sports. History interested me because it was about the past;
English, because I loved the language. Now sports helped to boost my
morale in a new environment! From our dormitory window we looked
out on to the Lac Leman and in the distance the Rochers de Naye
mountains. It was a wondrous landscape. But within the school, the
discipline was strict and there were too many rules.
Miss Hawtrey, an excellent though rather sarcastic teacher of English,
was related to Sir Charles Hawtrey, the famous English actor, and she
made Shakespeare very alive for me. She often taught us to act out the
dramas and I soon became adept at reciting the famous speeches of
Portia, Katherine and, of course, Juliet.
Our principal, Miss George, a lean tall woman with a twinkle in her
eye, was more human than her co-director, Miss Potts. But we were
always anxious whenever we were summoned to their office. There was
a really dreadful Irish matron, the complete antithesis of our dear Irish
governess in Chennai, Miss Jordan. A more cruel and sadistic woman
I have yet to meet. She loved giving us punishments; she would not allow
us to go to the doctor even when we were ill! She always tried to ensure
that we were starved as much as possible, sending us to bed with no
supper.
Pamela (Margetson) Blactie became one of my best friends and I was
soon part of a lively group. I was often the ringleader. The books of
Angela Brazil inspired me to hold midnight feasts and bunk classes
especially Latin in which I failed miserably. Today I like to say with pride
that Gandhiji, Winston Churchill and I all failed in Latin, though at
different times and places! I thoroughly enjoyed the Greek dance classes
and also worked on ballet. Nothing could stop me from dancing. There
was skiing in winter, skating, netball and lacrosse. I loved all outdoor
sports, and was on every team, winning prizes and medals. Skiing was
a favourite sport though trudging up the slopes to the high slopes of
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Caux often led to fainting fits. I won two stars out of three in skiing.
The last star was for jumping which we were not allowed to do. Years
later Jamshed Bhabha mentioned this to J.R.D. Tata who refused to
believe it till I produced my medal! Then, quite out of the blue, during
a routine medical examination one day a doctor decided that I had a
murmur in the heart and forbade me from sports for six months.
Fortunately my condition was later found to be congenital, and the
sentence was revoked!
Amongst the majestic mountains in Switzerland the traumatic childhood
memories of my past were partially soothed. I felt free for the first time
in my life. Breathing in that wonderful air, watching the snowflakes as they
fell, searching for icicles in deep blue grottoes, I felt re-energized! In the
early spring, the fragrant narcissus, the first crocuses, the hillside blue
with gentians never had I seen such beauty before. Even the quivering
blue wings of the kingfisher beside the lake stirred me deeply, almost
intoxicating me. I fell in love with Nature then and vowed to protect her
forever. Little did I know what a problem that was to become!

English literature fascinated me and my stories were published in our


school magazine! My love of writing was a new discovery! Books have
always been an obsession and at home in Chennai I was constantly reading,
often seated high up in the branches of a favourite mango tree where no
one could find me. When visitors came, my mother constantly complained
that she never knew where I was. Whatever I found in our library I
devoured. (There was a small room at the top of the house where once
my father had worked, and which became a favourite hiding place for me
The Count of Monte Christo,
whenever I did not want to be disturbed).
and
all Alexander Dumass books, most of the English classics, Jane Austen,
Life of Napoleon
Thomas Hardy, Scott et al even a dry volume of Abbets
.
Books have remained my most constant companions and best friends
and, through the years, my greatest luxury. It is in books that I find new
relationships. They begin by being only a piece of literature but then
there is suddenly a phrase that twists my heart and the ache that comes
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is almost physical. I stop and look and think, here is a friend who thinks
the way I do. And that is the simple way in which I make friends, for
after that, I search for every book that my friends have written and
sometimes they talk to me clearly, answering the questions envisaged in
my mind. Perhaps that is why most of my men friends are writers!
In Switzerland, my English teacher was pleasantly surprised that I
knew so much English literature much more than her British students!
There were hardly any books I had not read in the school library and
had even read Daniel Deronda
in nine volumes! Then, out of sheer
New
Psychology
and the Teacher
boredom, I read
and a small group of us
which was to have disastrous effects which I only
became interested in analysis
learnt from Pamela years later.

After two years in Switzerland, the last day at school finally dawned! I
had excelled myself, participating in star gym, jumping over the Pommel
horse, changing into my Greek tunic and dancing. It was the end of term
and we broke up after singing the school anthem. The words were: I
will not cease from mental strife, nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
till we have built Jerusalem on Englands green and pleasant land.
What a song for an Indian child! I preferred the words embroidered
on my flag Levavi Occulus I lift up my eyes.

It was a momentous moment in my life, being home again after two years
of exile! Back to my beloved home, Gilchrist Gardens, to my dear Ayah
and all the others. George, our driver, who took great care of us, Jesudasan
the wide eyed painter, Venkasheshiah the clerk who looked after our
accounts so diligently. On the ship I found myself travelling with several
charming Australian tennis players and cricketers, including Don Bradman.
They were very friendly and I was excited when I beat Bradman at table
tennis! Pathy heard of this later and immediately reprinted it as big
news! in Chennai. The headline read, The young Mrinalini beats Don
Bradman at Table Tennis!

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It was August and terribly hot and sultry in Chennai. While it was
wonderful to meet everyone, I felt miserable not knowing what to do
with myself. A tremendous restlessness seized me. At night, under the
mosquito net, I tossed and turned feeling alien and uprooted. The word
college came up. Mummy wanted me to go to Oxford. But for me, all
education had only one title and that was dance.
It was really very strange that I had wanted to dance ever since I
was a child. There was absolutely no tradition of dance or music in our
family. In the beginning, my mother did not know where to send me.
She heard that there was a lady called Louis Lightfoot who conducted
dance classes and I was sent to her. She was the partner of the talented
Kathakali dancer, Ananda Shivaram, and well-known in Western circles.
But that was not what I wanted and I found some local teachers of
Bharatanatyam on my own. Somehow I knew that the teacher was not
right for me. I had no one to guide me in my career. But I knew that
I was a dancer. My mother could not understand my fierce
determination and like the rest of the family, took it as a passing phase!
Restless and unhappy I even thought of going back to Europe, but
what would I do there? The dance I wished to learn was here. My
mother, not knowing what to do, arranged for me to go to the dance
academy Kalakshetra to study under Rukminidevi Arundale whom she
knew well. Rukminidevi was very kind and as she was directing a new
Light of Asia
play asked me to act in it. It was
based on the life of Buddha.
I was to be the queen Maya and also the disciple Sujata. I worked for
a while in Kalakshetra and became a great admirer of Rukminidevi. When
I saw her performances, the aesthetic values of her productions appealed
to me greatly. Dr Arundale too took an interest in me perhaps because
of the Englishness we shared. I was familiar with passages that he loved
to quote and we shared many jokes during rehearsals.
Once, in the scene where Buddha sees a dying bird (danced by
Rukminidevi) he remarked, I think Rukmini should stick to Bharatanatyam
and not do Pavlovas Dying Swan act.
But she is as beautiful as a swan, I replied.
He always spoke with good humour and I could see that he adored
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his lovely wife. I always had these unexpected wonderful friendships,


often with mature men who were protective towards me. Perhaps I was
seeking my father.
At Kalakshetra in 1937 I studied with Muthukumara Pillai of
Kathumannar Koil. Thata as he was called by us all, was the one who
initiated me into the real tradition of Bharatanatyam. He was extremely
strict. For the first time I began to feel I was on the right path. A
marvellous teacher, he soon taught me the basic qualities of his technique
and delighted in my capacity for hard work. Later on he came and stayed
with me in my home. We developed a deep attachment for each other,
the guru and the student.
He told me that he felt that I had a rare gift within me and that he
would teach me everything he knew. This was the beginning of my real
training. Only I knew, and kept it secret. But knowledge is surety and
I was sure that nothing else existed for me. The wild sea on the Chennai
beach danced for me, as did the coconut palms of my own garden,
rhythms beat in the sound of whispering casurinas, in the vine of the
old tree tied across the well, the drone of the malis as they climbed it
to draw water all this was my first music and before my body found
its trained accomplishment it was my soul that danced!

Some months later, I went to Ootacamund for the summer holidays


where I stayed with Mrs Cousins, Mummys friend from Adayar, a rare
and wonderful human being. It was in Ooty that I first met Vikram
Sarabhai. Vikram came to the tennis courts, where I was playing tennis,
with Balagopal, a star player who had taken me under his wing as I was
now taking tennis very seriously. I remember I was wearing shorts and
felt rather shy on being addressed by this elegantly dressed, goodlooking young man. It was the first time I had seen someone wearing
a kurta in the elegant chikkan work of Lucknow. To me, he looked like
a Rajput painting come to life. He asked me to go to a film with him,
but I was too shy to accept. I was surrounded by admirers of my tennis
and was busy with the tournaments. I was winning matches with my
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partner and was quite a heroine in social circles, becoming known as a


good tennis player. Vikram seemed very far away from my world.
A few days later, however, I received a formal invitation to dinner
from Mrs Sarladevi Sarabhai, his mother, who had brought a present for
my birthday from Mummy in Chennai. I was deeply impressed by the
family, especially the loving way they behaved with each other and also
the freedom that the young people seemed to enjoy.
Mrs Cousins, always busy with helping people, decided to have a
benefit concert for one of her numerous charities. She herself was a
talented pianist and asked me to dance a piece I had learnt in Switzerland,
a Greek dance. Much to my dismay, the entire Sarabhai clan, including
a formidable aunt, were seated n the front row! My Greek tunic was
extremely short and my long legs felt very bare. I danced for what
seemed an interminable time as I was the main attraction of the evening.
Even now I shudder every time I hear Chopins Waltz in A Flat Minor,
and can still see the solemn faces of Vikram and his family in front of me.
A friend of mine from the Y.W.C.A in Ooty, said, You were
marvellous the way you flitted around like an angel for hours. I was
silent. Its something I have never lived down!
I consoled myself thinking that I would never meet the Sarabhais,
who were going back to the north, again.

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Shantiniketan
M

R ABINDRANATH T AGORE S SCHOOL AT


Shantiniketan in Bengal from a friend. I was still very uncertain of myself,
and except for the Bharatanatyam classes felt very unhappy at home. The
wisest decision my mother ever made, I think, was to send me to
Shantiniketan in 1938. As she was curious to meet Rabindranath Tagore
herself and to see the famous school, she accompanied me. From Kolkata
the train was very slow, stopping at every station. Five hours later, we
arrived at the small station of Bolepur, where the red bus that I was to
know so well, took us along a dusty road through flat country, to
Shantiniketan. The quiet fields and the far-stretching plain were deserted
in the midday heat. The bus took us to the Tata Buildings where we
stayed. I remember that towards evening, the whole place was alive with
groups of laughing children and grown-ups wandering through the
pathways to various buildings.
Shantiniketan, stands on a bare plain, a hundred miles from Kolkata.
Very few people know the story behind this great institution. The poets
father, Maharshi Debendranath Tagore, was a spiritual leader. One day
in the midst of his wanderings, he came across this barren spot which
so attracted him that he came back again and again for prayer and
meditation. Later he bought the plot and built a guest-house and temple
which is still the heart of the ashram. Anyone could worship there and
he called it The Abode of Peace. The tree under which the Maharshi
used to sit still stands with the open plain stretching far out towards the
UMMY HAD HEARD ABOUT

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horizon. Under it is a marble slab inscribed with the words of the


Maharshi:
Here is the repose of my life,
the joy of my heart,
the peace of my spirit.
Two miles from Shantiniketan stands the village of Sriniketan. Here
a plan was unfolded to bring back life in all its completeness to the
villages. The villagers were taught to be self-reliant and to earn their own
living, at the same time upholding the traditions of their Indian heritage.
Students from Shantiniketan taught there in their spare time. The women
of the villages learnt along with the men how to be self-supporting, how
to bring up their children and to be healthy. They began to value their
own artistic skills. Their handicrafts were sent to Kolkata and to other
towns in India to be sold. Thus the villagers helped themselves and their
neighbours through mutual endeavour. Gurudev, with Shantiniketan as
a model, realized and renewed the vitality of Indias cultural heritage.
For me, it was the ideal atmosphere, steeped in ancient customs and
traditions of learning. The very first evening, we met Gurudev Tagores
granddaughter, Nandita, lovingly called Buridi and her charming husband,
Krishna Kripalani, editor of the Vishwa Bharati journal. They welcomed
me warmly. Buridi, vivacious and outspoken, Krishna gentle and scholarly,
became my dearest friends.
I had come reluctantly to Shantiniketan, leaving my training in
Bharatanatyam, but I felt immediately that I belonged. Encounters in life
that are meaningful bring a sense of happiness or sadness with them. Here
it was pure joy, not perceptible, but a feeling of repose within, an opening
of an unknown door, a revelation. To me Shantiniketan was all this.

Every morning at 5.00 a.m., while the dew was still fresh on the grass,
my new companions from our hostel, Sree Bhavan, and I would walk
around the ashram, singing the songs to greet the dawn, and to wake
the people of Vishwa Bharati. The dawn in India has always been a time
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for meditation, for the new day, a celebration of Gods gifts to us. It was
this emphasis on tradition in its finest aspects that drew people to
Shantiniketan, not only from India but from all over the world.
Rabindranath Tagore was in himself a living legend, a great poet, an
imaginative painter and fine connoisseur of music but, above all, a humanist
caring profoundly for the universe. It was natural therefore that to
Shantiniketan came those who sought eternal values in thought, beauty
and everyday living. I stayed in the girls hostel, Shree Bhavan, watched
over by a charming French matron, whom we called Didi. As I spoke
French, we got on very well. I was content.
In just two days, I was asked to prove my worth. Gurudev wanted
to see me dance! I had no music, no costumes, and I was very nervous.
Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore was a name to be held in awe. I went to
meet him with Nandita and stood before him this great man of whom
I had heard so much, whose poetry had stirred my inner being as no
other had done. I was fortunate to meet him through Nandita, for
between them was much love and devotion and I too became a part of
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that wholeness. It was on an evening at sunset time when the sky was
coloured an extraordinary green and pink, and the plains reached out
towards a never-ending horizon, that I went to meet the poet. The wind
rustled gently, a soft soothing music in the trees. Standing in his simple
mud hut, I touched his feet in respect.
I hear you are a dancer, Gurudev said to me. Tomorrow I want to
see you dance. And so without any musical accompaniment, I danced
all that I had learnt from Muthukumara Pillai. I performed in the beautiful
house Uttaran which Gurudevs daughter-in-law, Protimadevi, had
decorated with exquisite taste. She lived there with her husband,
Rathindranath, Gurudevs son. From that moment, I was truly blessed,
for Gurudev accepted me as one of his own. He gave me a leading role
in his dramaChandalika
and asked me to choreograph my own part. It
was the first time that Bharatanatyam was introduced in Gurudevs dance
dramas and he appreciated the style very much.
Here was a great artist asking me to choreograph dances! It was as
though something deep within me was liberated and given the authority
to be a real self! It was a moment of such intense joy that the radiance,
not of his words, but of his acceptance of my individuality, still remains
within my heart.
In Shantiniketan I studied with all the gurus who taught other forms
of dance. Kelu Nair enchanted me with the powerful technique of
Kathakali. Guru Amubi Singha, taught me the Manipuri form. He was
a fine teacher. As I was more interested in the vigorous dancing of
Manipuri he taught me the masculine aspects of it with its wonderful
leaps and whirling movements. At one of the annual festivals I danced
the role of Krishna and spoke in Manipuri in front of Gurudev. The
speech to me was far more difficult than the dance and according to my
friend, Anil Saha, quite incomprehensible! Gurudev would patiently
explain the Bengali words of his dance dramas and often read out his
poems to me. Bent with age as he was, at rehearsal time, his eyes would
light up as he hummed a new melody and Santidev Ghosh, the music
director, would pick it up at once and teach it to us. Santida had a lovely
voice which made the dance dramas come alive. Protimadi, was very
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Rajeshwari, Mrinalini, Amina, Soma and Kamala.

much in charge of the productions. She designed our costumes while


Nandlal Bose (Master Mashay) used to paint our faces for each
performance to make them look different. Now, so many years later,
looking back, I wonder about the magic of this Abode of Peace. Was
it the Maharshi who, through his meditation, blessed that piece of land?
Or was it Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore who wove a spell with his
spiritual poems and his humanistic ideology? Or the men and women
who gathered there to teach the highest ideals of truth? There was a
synthesis of dedication that contributed to the harmony of the place and
we students were swept up into its glorious landscape. It was a joy to
participate in the dance dramas. For me, the enchantment came alive
each time Gurudev said, Here is the music. This is the story. Dance it
as you wish. I felt so elated, so free to express myself. Finding new forms
from traditional techniques was my need and it was Gurudev who first
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understood and encouraged this creative urge. Once he threw off his
shawl and with it, his years, and stood up, a young man of vigour, to
show someone an expressive gesture. We saw him, in those magic
moments, as he must have been when he acted on the stage in his own
plays. Many were the hours I spent at his feet in his small mud hut
Shyamali of which he said: I have built it on that dust which buries
in it all sufferings and cleanses all stains.
From Gurudev, I learnt the beauty of Bengali. One evening a few
of us sat together outside his little mud house, under a Champaka tree,
us students on the warm earth strewn with white petals, he on an old
chair worn into comfortable angles. The fragrance of the temple flower
champaka was strong and the silence around Gurudev was ponderous
with unspoken thoughts. These are the moments one wishes could go
on for ever, when the mind is alert and yet calm. I think it was my friend
Amina who said, Gurudev, you promised to read us some poems. The
poet smiled, his eyes, twinkling, as he looked at us. What shall it be?
he asked, and I, stumbling in my eagerness, said FromThe Gardener
,
The Gardener
please. Then he laughed, Yes you are young,
is for you.
I brought him the book. As the years have passed, his voice and the lines
from one of the poems have never left my mind. In moments of turbulence,
in sorrow, in joy, I hear Gurudev reading:
This love between you and me is as simple as a song; no mystery
beyond the present, no striving for the impossible, no shadow
behind the charm; no groping in the depth of the dark; this love
between you and me is as simple as a song.
Surely the love between life and ourselves is as simple as a song, and
how soon we become forgetful. It is the heartrending purity of the simple
things that makes life meaningful. A few drops of rain on the parched
crust of earth and the fragrance in the heart of a jasmine. A miracle of
colours across the sky in a rainbow, a childs laughter, a distant flute, and
the beat of drums at night.
I wish we could feel the beauty of the colours and shades of life,
and not always emphasize its destructive side. Darkness and light, so
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wrongly associated with good and evil, distort the beauty of colours. In
our century, what a terrible indictment of a so-called civilized world that
to protect a great race, the slogan Black is beautiful had to be coined.
How tragic that white portrays colonial cruelty. Yet the colours of nature
are the greatest inspiration. Was it a deep subconscious desire to be with
my father that I cherished the colour green so much? He wrote in green
ink and I still prefer to do so. Green, I said, as a child, is my favourite
colour, because God loved it the most, and through all these years it
has remained so.
Gurdial Mallik, with whom I spent many hours, became my spiritual
guru and the deep search within me was something I could articulate
in his presence. Listening to his songs, so passionate with his love for
God, I felt a tremendous surge of longing. Many years later when my
son, Kartikeya, said to me, Mallikji, is the only really religious man I have
met, I knew what he meant. Once I presented Mallikji a copy ofThe

Hound of Heaven
by Francis Thompson. He was surprised and asked, Do
you think I am like that? No Mallikji, I said, but as a deeply spiritual
person, I thought you would enjoy it.

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The Hound
Many years later he called his book of devotional poems
of the Heart
. He sent me the book and wrote : To the MIRA in you, child.
When my son Kartikeya was five years old I wrote to him reminding
him that he had promised to teach my children when I had them.
Mallikji instead sent me a teacher from Gandhijis Ashram, Pratapbhai
Upadhyaya, a singer, a story-teller, and a fine human being. Kartikeya and
he were to have a lifelong friendship and he soon became part of the family
continuing to teach my daughter, Mallika and became a dear friend of mine.
At Shantiniketan picnics into the countryside armed with sketch
books and musical instruments were a frequent event. Nandlal Bose,
whose silent presence and exquisite drawings made us all wish to be
painters, took us on these outings. I could not draw, but had a sense of
colour and he showed infinite patience with my attempts. Walking with
him, we learnt to distinguish the hues of every flower and tree, and were
made to observe the shape of each stone to understand and appreciate
the unlimited designs of nature.
Then there was Suren Kar, an architect and painter, to whom we went
with all our problems. He called us Dusht Mandali for our group was
a boisterous one and we were often in trouble, but it was innocent fun
and we harmed no one. We were charged with energy, for the atmosphere
was one of creativity and freedom of thought. Our beloved Gurudev
watched over all of us, unfolding and guiding new vistas of awareness,
in our young minds.
In 1939, the Shantiniketan dance group, went on a dance tour all
over Bengal. In Kolkata we stayed at Joroshanko, the family house of the
Tagores. Nandita told me about its ancient history. What a magnificent
past and wealth of culture within those walls! Some of its magic lingered
on. Abanindranath Tagore (Aban babu) the great painter, entertained us
with anecdotes as he whittled on pieces of wood, creating fantastic
Shyama
shapes. Once dancing Utiyo in
(I often took the heros roles as
I was tall and slim) at the Kolkata theatre I changed the ending. When
a sword flashed, I staggered and fell realistically instead of keeping to
the set posture. Gurudev was pleased and asked who the young boy
was who danced so well! My mother, who had come to Kolkata specially
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for the performance, was seated just behind him said, Gurudev, thats
Mrinalini, and he smiled and nodded his head.
In Kolkata, we met Sri Vallathol, the celebrated Kerala poet. He told
me how proud he was that a young Malayali girl was making a name for
herself in dance. The next week he came with the Kalamandalam Kathakali
group to visit Shantiniketan. I was asked to interpret from Malayalam
to English and was naturally very honoured to sit between two great
poets.
The story was Rukmangada-Mohini, superbly enacted by the dancers.
It was the first time I learnt of Vallathols academy the Kerala
Kalamandalam and of the great renaissance started by the Mahakavi to
revive the art of Kathakali.
Chandalika
On another evening at Jorasanko,
was staged for Mahatma
Gandhi. Kelu Nair, Nandita and I essayed the three main roles. When
the dance drama ended, Gandhiji asked us: Can you teach me to dance?
It was Gurudev who laughingly answered, You are too old to learn now!
Gurudev often changed the songs or even the story during rehearsals.
In one dance drama, I think it wasMayerkhela
, four or five boys were
needed and I brought all my friends to audition but none of them were
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acceptable. So finally, Gurudev wrote a note to Krishna Kripalani, Let


Mrinalini do all the boys roles!
myname? because
I once asked Gurudev, How do you remember
he frequently forgot names. He just smiled. I learnt later that Mrinalini
was his wifes name. To my surprise when I began to read the philosophy
of Sri Aurobindo I was lated to discover that Mrinalini was his wifes
name too. Years later I used to tell my husband that both the wives died
before their husbands and perhaps I too would go before him.
In Shantiniketan, I was in love with love itself, and perhaps this
exuberance went out to people. You must not smile so sweetly at the
boys, Mallikji often told me. They all come here and I have to listen
to their longings. But I feel like smiling, I would answer wistfully. Well,
then, I suppose I will have to continue to listen to the broken hearts,
my child, he replied laughing.
There was a strange analytical streak in me that always prevented my
being able to fully abandon myself to any person. It was as though one
part of me watched over the other and said: Dont be foolish, Mrinalini.
It will never work. This was to happen again to me with Ward in the
USA.
At one stage I felt I was in love with one of them but I knew inside
me, that it was more the thought of romance that I was enamoured of.
If I were a great artist, you would give up everything for me, Anil said
to me sadly, but I am not, nor will I ever be! Amazingly, once quite
out of the blue,Gurudev said to me, Never repent! If a difficult situation
arises face it. If you desire something take the plunge and dont look
back.

Shantiniketan was the heart and soul of Indias tradition and progress.
For me, at that time, it was the place, where I found my own real self,
and true friends.
There was Kamala Kapur, Rajeshwari Vasudev, a singer with a lovely
voice, Preeti, a tall handsome young woman, Amina, Zohra Sehgals
younger sister, Jaya Appaswamy (a painter, later an art critic), Soma Joshi,
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delicate and lovely and many others. Many have already left this world,
some died young Durga the sculptor and Harivadan, the painter. Yet
for me, the Shantiniketan of my life still lives. Kamla, my friend, was
practical and down to earth. Once we both went to hear C.F.Andrews,
Gandhijis English friend called the Christ of the Indian road, give a
lecture on Prophets and my diary records, Kamla and I have been
disputing and discussing God. She believes that man made God and I
vice versa. It is no use my quoting so many instances of the presence
of God to her. She just listens and smiles cynically. We can neither of
us convince each other however hard we try. How can I say I feel God
in everything I see when she replies Pooh! that is only blind faith in
nothing. You are frightened of life and so must have something imaginary
to hold on to.
I see Gurudev, in his mud hut, Shyamali, and Master Mashay bent
double over a painting. There is Mallikji laughing with all of us, and
Surendas eyes twinkling as we tell him of our visit to Sirul, the rural
village complex. The music vibrates in the air, and Santidas voice resounds
gently in Uttarayan.
Kelu Nair dances the Kathakali with graceful strength and Protimadi
rearranges our costumes. Kshitimohandas resonant Sanskrit verses and
his long talks with me on Mira, Kinkardas huge inspiring sculptures,
Marjorie Sykes talking at devoted length about village work. And
interwoven in the fabric of our lives was Nandita, the fiery wonderful
personality to whom I went whenever I was depressed or lonely and
whose friendship I cherished dearly and her husband Krishna whose
practical advice soothed me and whose understanding of human nature
taught me a great deal. This was the reassurance I had been seeking all
my young life.

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Study in the USA


M

Y MOTHER WROTE TO SAY THAT SHE WAS LEAVING FOR A LECTURE TOUR

of the USA. and had decided that I was to accompany her. She was
disappointed that I did not want to study at Oxford or Cambridge, and
in a strange way, she still did not take my passion for dance very seriously.
The word hobby was always used for anything out of the ordinary
routine of studies and everyone was expected to have a hobby which
was looked upon with amused tolerance.
It seemed a good idea to go to the U.S. where I thought I could
resolve my own fears about myself and my future. Perhaps, being far away
from home, some clarity about my own future would reveal itself. And
so I said yes.
The first few days in Batavia and Bandoung fascinated us with the
beauty of the landscape, so like our own country and yet so different.
The batik lungis worn by the people were very superior to the Indian
ones, but the designs were similar. Always fascinated by textiles, in
Shantiniketan I had learnt how to weave fabric. I was surprised to find
in the museum an old framed relic of a cloth exactly like the mushroo
blouse I was wearing. So many of the old fabrics were Indian in character
and weave. Questioning everyone about dance, we learnt that at
Soerakarta, where we were going, we could see some fine dancing. As
we had letters of introduction from Gurudev Tagore, we were royal
guests of the Mangkoenegoro the VIIth and were invited to dine with
other visitors at the palace the day we arrived. His Highness, his wife

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and his lovely daughter, whose name was Koesumoevardhini, welcomed


us warmly.
Later I saw the Serimpi dance for the first time. I could see a
resemblance to our own Bharatanatyam, though the movements were
extremely slow and their faces were immobile. Where can I see the most
classical form? I asked the Princess later. As a dancer, I want to study
it. Then you must go to Yogyakarta, she replied. That is the most
traditional school.
Fortunately, Yogyakarta was where my mother wanted to spend most
of her time, in a famous educational institution called Taman Siswa, which
was affiliated to Shantiniketan, and which Gurudev Tagore had specially
mentioned. In Yogya I learnt that only the princesses studied dance and
the guru was none other than the Sultans brother, Pangeran (Prince)
Tedjoekoesoemo. Prince Tedjoekoesoemo was very tall and dressed regally
in an ornate but artistic lungi and a short jacket with a turban on his head.
I was intimidated by him untill he smiled and I saw the kindness in his
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privilege, coming from Tagores Academy, I was allowed to learn the


classical dance.
The steps were not difficult but remembering the sequences and
restricting myself to the slow tempo of each movement while keeping
my face inscrutable was tough. Prince Tedjoekoesoemo began to take
a personal interest in me, for he immediately sensed my devotion to
dance and was very pleased at my quick progress. He was extremely
particular about the technique and I enjoyed that. Soon I became part
of palace life and was astounded at some of the customs that still prevailed.
No one was allowed to stand in front of royalty, and servants brought
huge trays of food, shuffling on their knees! An incredible amount of
protocol prevailed and yet no one seemed perturbed by it.
One night, the prince invited me to see the Wayang Kulit. This, the
leather puppet performance, impressed me greatly, especially as the
stories were all from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. When I saw
the leather puppets I felt sure that they had been introduced long ago
from India and I determined to find out more about our own leather
puppets someday. It took me fifteen years, but I did discover the Andhra
shadow puppets and revived the art of puppetry at my own academy,
Darpana. Another strange coincidence was when, during one of my
shopping sprees, I found a patola sari from Gujarat which I immediately
bought, much to my mothers amusement, as I loved old textiles! She
always told me I only liked antiques and materials that were torn! At that
time both patola and Gujarat were unknown to me. Was it destiny that
the major part of my life was to be spent in Gujarat and I was not only
to help the patola weavers, but bring back the trade in patolas to
Indonesia from India many many years later?
One morning, Pangeran Tedjoekoesoemo, who wanted to show off
my progress in the dance form, arranged a performance for me. I was
to dance in the Kraton of the Sultan, the only foreigner ever to be invited
to do so! Not only was I to present Indian dancing but also that which
I had studied with him. It was an exciting evening. The Sultan and his
grand entourage sat in state with all the Pangerans and their wives to
watch me perform, first alone and then with three other dancers, including
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Sriningdyah and two of the princesses of the royal family, dancing the
Serimpi. There was tremendous praise at the end of the recital and I was
overwhelmed with compliments. The Sultan sent a personal message
requesting me to stay for sometime longer and continue my work. Pangeran
Tedjoekoesoemo was elated with my success and that pleased me most
of all. Fifteen years later I came with my own group to Yogya and honoured
him as my guru, as he sat in the front of the audience. He had only one
criticism of Bharatanatyam that the dancers smiled too much!

It was a sad farewell to all the many friends I had made, especially Sri
who had adopted me as a younger sister, but we were on a long journey
and it was time to move on. It is impossible to describe the magic of
Bali, enchanting, mysterious, and truly magnificent. The temple of Devi
Sri at Bila, the sacred forest of Sangeh, the banyan tree of Bongkasa were
all fascinating. We watched Ida Bagoes Bode dance the Topeng Padjegan
a masked dance, which is a series of imitations of characters, the Barong
where the Rangda falls into a trance, so similar to the trance dancers of
Kerala. The graceful Legong, danced by young girls, was very beautiful.
Among the people I met was Mario, a magnificent dancer. He showed
me one of his dances, the Kebyar, in which he remained seated with his
arms and head darting side to side like the movements of a snake. In
his hands he held sticks, then a fan and wore a costume of pink and
gold with a long train. The dance, to the accompaniment of the gamelan,
with its varied sounds and rhythms, made the movements exciting. We
talked of the close relationship of our forms. I studied some of the
dances with him and unconsciously wove them into my own
choreographic pieces years later. We saw every possible performance
in Bali. The one that impressed me the most was the Ketjak. It is
performed in a circle by a hundred and fifty men, and is the story of
Hanuman and the monkeys from the Ramayana. The melodious harmony
Chk Chkof monkey noises,
of sound, the shivering, quivering group, the
the fluttering of hands, the mass movement of the sweating bodies,
made it an amazing experience.
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The dance Mario in Bali

All through Bali there was a strange feeling of mysticism, of unseen


forces, of continuous rhythms and sounds, that were reminiscent of Kerala.
Aeons ago, these two lands may have been one, so close was the affinity.
We were feted everywhere and painters, sculptors, dancers gathered around
us sharing our cultural one-ness. We left Bali and reluctantly went on to
Surabaya to board the ship that was to take us to Hong Kong.
From Hong Kong, we travelled on a Danish freighter to Shanghai.
There were only two cabins on the vessel but they were spacious and
comfortable. The captain, a tough, red-faced man, was straight out of
a Joseph Conrad sea-story. He ate with his knife, stretched his hand
across the table to spear the meat, and embarrassed the rather stylish
Dutch lady who later confessed to my mother that she was leaving her
husband for a young lover in Chungking. Mummy was shocked, while
I thought it terribly romantic!

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From Java, through Bali and Japan to New York, was like travelling
through centuries of history each one a chapter of experience and
education for me. Every night on the ship there was ballroom dancing
and once a gentleman called Dale Carnegie asked me for a dance. I told
him about my wanting to study drama and he said New York was the
right place. Years later, his books helped me through many a mental
crisis! In Los Angeles, we stayed at the home of Dr Jagan and Mrs
Sharma. Dr Jagan had fled India at the age of fourteen after the
Jalianwallahbagh massacre and had married an Englishwoman in the U.S.
New York was awe-inspiring, like being in a deep valley with mountains
of skyscrapers on either side. For a while it was a shock: the brusque
manner, the familiarity, the mad bustle and the noise! But soon I was
caught up in the boisterous zest for living, so much a part of American
culture! I stayed at the hospitable International Centre, where one made
friends in no time at all. My mother went on to the Merill Palmer
Institute of Education, Detroit for her six month course. I decided to
try and enroll at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, next to
th Street, one of the oldest drama institutions in the
Carnegie Hall, on 57
country, which had been recommended to me, and learn all I could while
I was in the USA.
I do not have much courage now, but at that time I had a real sense
of what might be called innocent super confidence. I went boldly,
though my knees did shake a bit, dressed in my best, up the stairs to
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see the principal, Mr Diestel. He was very kind, which helped a good
deal, and asked me to come for the interview. I read, I recited, I spoke,
and was accepted! I was in!
The first day my confidence got quite a blow. The other students
were so elegant, so mature, the girls exquisite, the men very handsome.
And the dresses! They looked as if they had stepped straight out of
fashion magazines. Compared to me, all the other students were
sophisticated, supremely sure of their attractiveness, and not shy at all.
What astonished me the first week was how familiar the boys and girls
were with each other. No doubt, due to my upbringing, I was somewhat
priggish and didnt quite approve of the way the girls sat on the boys
laps and kissed each other constantly. To my Indian mind, these things
only happened in American movies and never in real life! For the first
week, I made myself almost invisible though I was no doubt very
noticeable.
Everyone said Hi to me and tried to be friendly, but I was shy and
awkward. Slowly, however, during the classes, I became a participant. I
enjoyed every minute of it especially when we were asked to do something
like walk across a room or sit in a chair or speak ordinary everyday actions
but different in drama. Fortunately, I spoke English with ease though with
a British accent. I think I first felt like a person in my own right when
one day the professor shouted at someone else, Why cant you sit like
Miss Swaminadhan does? Watch her stillness and quiet. She never squirms
in her chair like you do. After that, I picked up courage and started
to talk.
I made friends with one of the most glamorous girls and went with
her to that famous institution, Bloomingdales, where I treated myself
to several dresses. The day I cut my hair I created quite a sensation in
the locker room. I began to try and be as pretty as the rest of the girls
and gained confidence after every class. Soon they teased me and said
that I was the best dressed girl at the Academy!
My social life was also becoming exciting and romantic, for I had
found a marvellous friend who was also very special to me. Ward was
blond and blue eyed and American to the core. He was, so he said later,
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attracted to me the very first time we met, introduced by one of my


dearest friends in Chennai, Mrs Marie Buck.
Beginning with the Empire State Building, Ward took it upon himself
to show me the sights and soon we met everyday. He was an executive
in his fathers textile business and theirs was a well-to-do family. After
about a fortnight he asked me whether I would go dancing with him.
I expect you dont know much about ballroom dancing, he said, but
you are so graceful, Id love to teach it to you and I am crazy about it.
That evening, I wore a sari (a change from the dresses) and Ward
came to fetch me looking very handsome in his tuxedo! We went to the
Rainbow Room and stepped onto the floor. Ward got a real shock and
I had a good laugh! Dancing, any kind, was my life, but he did not know
that. Incredulous, he tried all the steps he knew and I followed effortlessly.
It was a wonderful night and soon we became regulars at the Rainbow
Room. Francis, the headwaiter, always had a special table for us and often
people stopped to watch our dancing, especially when we danced the
Tango. The other thing we had in common was that Ward neither drank
nor smoked which was unusual in the U.S. After dinner, we would exist
on endless cups of tea. Ward and I not only went dancing, but also to
see shows. I enjoyed opera for the first time when we heard Lily Pows
in Lakm with its Indian setting.
How we talked! Going for long drives, even skiing and ice-skating,
I would tell him of Gandhi and his belief in non-violence, of the Vedas
and the Bhagawad Gita. He had never heard of many of these things
and we argued fiercely, especially about India winning freedom through
non-violence. He found the very idea ridiculous. Ward was so fascinated
by a country he didnt know except as a tourist for a short while. He
had never heard of the philosophy or the real essence of India and
listening to me fascinated him.
It was a marvellous relationship, and Ward soon told me that he was
falling in love with me to which I replied, Please dont. We are having
such a good time together being friends. He took me to his home to
meet his parents and for the first time I learnt of what racism was. His
father was appalled to find his son dating an Indian girl and tried his
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best to show his disapproval though not to me, but to his eldest son.
But Ward was now deeply in love and told his father, She will not hear
of marrying me and unlike my other girlfriends does not approve of
affairs! Wards younger brother became a friend and it was a terrible
blow to the family when he was killed in the war.
Ward came to the Academy to fetch me in his sleek car almost every
day and I was teased endlessly by my friends. I was thoroughly enjoying
the attention, the hard work after the classes, the nights of dining and
dancing! I felt exhilarated, for I was young and carefree and the intoxication
of love made me feel vibrant and alive.
Earlier I had noticed a co-student, whose name happened to be Kirk
Douglas. He was in the senior class and I first saw him in a play his class
put up. He seemed older than the rest and very intense.
I often went to the home of one of the students to practice lines
for a new play and to memorize, memorize, memorize. Never ever had
I to remember so many lines in so short a time as I had to at the Academy.
Always eager to learn, with an insatiable curiosity for life, this seemed
the best way loving everything to do with the stage, enjoying the
studies there which involved voice training, fencing, and mostly
experimenting with plays. I was something of a curiosity, and everyone
called me Nalini. The mri is always difficult for foreigners!
Ignorance about other countries is phenomenal in America. First,
being Indian was Red Indian, then from India, meant tigers and
Maharajas. I soon became a princess for they thought all girls from India
were princesses! I spent the day reading and studying the plays available
in the library, and on the evenings I wasnt out with Ward I would go
with friends to see old and new theatre productions! In International
House, we were a big group from many countries and spent our time
discussing politics, and freedom and new thoughts everyone with
serious, individual points of view! Days often ended at 3 a.m. I was in
love with life itself, and New York was the right place to be in. Many
were the plays at the Academy I acted in and time just whizzed by.
As a student I was allowed to earn and worked hard doing anything
that came my way to make a living: serving at canteens, giving lectures
on India, posing for portraits. I even ran the lift for a week and of course
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gave a few recitals of classical Indian Dance at International House and


once on television. Many letters appreciating the dance arrived. One
which I still treasure reads: Your lovely and superb dance, the concentrated
river equilibrium was vivid. One needs a tremendously aliveness in ones
spinal column to get the electric intensity in the wrist and palm. And
you had all this. I can think of few better ways of fighting Nazism than
exhibiting through your dance what it means to be integral, self reliant,
truly centred!
Soon, almost too soon, it was the end of the first term and we were,
each one of us, to do several plays one of our own choice and two
Death Takes
that were very different from our characters. I chose the play
a Holiday
for the heroine (Grazia) seemed to be me always dreaming,
half in this world and half in another. I could identify with her completely.
I do not remember now whether I plucked up the courage to ask Kirk,
or whether someone else did it for me, but I was very sure that I wanted
him to play the hero, Death. What I do remember is that Kirk helped
me with rehearsals and that we talked about the roles. He lived in
Greenwich village and a few times we walked there to his place to
rehearse. I realized then that he was from a very poor family and was
determined to make good. We all loved the stage and in our youthful
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exuberance looked down upon the world of movies. To the students of


the Academy, Broadway was the be-all and end-all of existence! In fact,
when one of the girls got an offer for a small movie part she turned it
down with disdain! For me, too, the stage was magic! The Academy and
New York was an interlude but an interlude of decision and I knew more
than ever that I was a dancer, and dance was my life.
The day of the performance approached. I had invited my mother
and a few friends to the play, at the Carnegie Hall which was used by
the students of the Academy for the great event. I had bought myself
a lovely long dress and done my hair in a simple pageboy style. There
was tremendous excitement behind the scenes. Scouts from Hollywood,
theatre agents, directors: they all came to find new talent at Carnegie
Hall. It was whispered that Helen Hayes was in the audience. An Indian
friend of mine who constantly gave me fatherly advice, J.J. Singh, had
brought his glamorous American girlfriend who, at that very moment,
was playing the lead in a popular Broadway play. I went through all the
tremors of stage-fright and my hand shook as I applied my make-up. But
once on the stage I was the heroine Grazia.
In the last scene, Death kisses Grazia and takes her away. When Kirk
kissed me gently and put his arms around me I was not conscious of
anyone. For one magical moment, I was deeply, enchantingly in love!
There was a chorus of congratulation!

Six months passed swiftly and it was time to return. I felt sad that I was
leaving so many friends. But I was more than ever determined and eager
to get back to dance. Perhaps some of us would become famous, some
fade away, some just lead ordinary lives, but at that moment each one
of us was poised on the mountaintop of expectancy! My mother was
strangely silent that evening as we went home. She never said a word
about the performance except to express her shock at the kiss! After
I left for India, I wrote and thanked the Director, Mr Diestel. He replied,
Because you have the heart of Understanding, youll know how deeply
gratifying it was to me to get your lovely letter. There are few that I have
received in the many many years I have been here that have pleased me
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more. And may I say, too, that there has been no one in the school in
all these years who was more highly esteemed by us all than Miss
Swaminadhan.
Ward was by now very serious about marriage. He wanted me to
decide before leaving for India, but I told him that if he had been Indian
I would have married him without a second thought for there was no
one I had yet met with whom I shared so rich a friendship. But I wanted
to live in India and to dance. I could never be away from my roots, nor
would I ever think of taking him from his. It was a sad parting, but we
were young and the future unpredictable. Ward refused to take no for
an answer. My mother had already left for Los Angeles and had sent a
terse telegram: Leaving for India. Join me at once. Evidently, she was
worried that I might not go back to India with her. I left New York by
plane for Los Angeles, an eleven hour journey. The day before we sailed,
Ward flew to Los Angeles to ask me once more. I promised to think
about it.

It was a harrowing time. The whole world was in turmoil. Europe were
being devastated by the Nazis. We had to return home via Japan though
we had planned to go back through Europe. In Singapore we spent a
few days with my sister Lakshmi who worked there as a doctor. At the
time we had no idea that the East would also be engulfed in war, and
that Lakshmi herself would be in command of a womens battalion of
the Indian National Army under the leadership of Netaji Subhash Chandra
Bose.
I was going back where I really belonged, to my beloved India, back
to the world of dance and my thoughts went to Shantiniketan. He wrote
that Gurudeva is looking very well indeed. The other day when he
conducted the Divine service in the temple and spoke with the fulsome
fever of heart, one felt he is one of those beings whom death cannot
conquer. I longed to go home to Shantiniketan.
We returned from the United States, and I went straight back to
Shantiniketan before starting my work in Chennai. I had heard that
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Gurudev had suddenly been taken seriously ill. We all felt there was not
much time left for him. I sat up nights with Nandita for she was nursing
him. Once or twice he would recite a poem and one day I remember,
he said, What is the word that I want, Mrinalini? I dont remember the
poem. I think, it was about some oranges somebody had sent him.
Suddenly the word came to my mind and I told him. He said, Oh, yes,
that is the right word. I was so thrilled that he should take even a word
from me into his poetry, it was as though I really belonged to him.
Another night he suddenly asked: What happened to the boy you were
in love with here? I remained silent and he smiled.
Gurudev died a few months later, on Augustth ,71941, in Kolkata.
It was the full moon day of Sravana. I heard the news in Chennai and
though we had known the end was near it was a deep shock. He was
my guru in every sense of the word and his dance dramas have been the
inspiration for much of my work. He was a prophet and when he speaks
through Gora in his novel, how relevant his words are, even today:
Today I am really an Indian! In me there is no longer any opposition
between Hindu, Mussalman and Christian. Today every caste in India
is my caste, the food of all is my food! a valuable mantra indeed!

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Bangalore
I

T WAS WHILE I WAS IN SHANTINIKETAN , THAT MY FRIEND N INA T HIMAYYA


wrote to me saying that Ramgopal, a famous dancer, had heard about
me and asked if I would dance with him. He had been specially to
Chennai to meet my mother, and with the reassurance that he would
look after me, had requested her to send me to Bangalore where he had
a small institute. I was quite thrilled and thought that it was a good start
to a dance career. So, I went to Bangalore and found to my delight that
my old guru, Muthukumara Pillai, was teaching at Ramgopals school.
Ramgopal was one of Indias most celebrated dancers. He had made a
name for himself in Japan and the USA and had now returned to Bangalore.
Half Burmese and half Indian, he had a fine presence on and off the stage
as he dressed like a young Maharaja. I was very excited when he wrote
and asked me to dance with him as his partner. I continued my studies
with Guru Muthukumara Pillai and danced with Ramgopal. My desire to
create new pieces in Bharatanatyam with several dancers, instead of a
solo recital, took further shape here. I suggested to Ramgopal that
apart from us dancing regular items together, I would choreograph a
piece using Bharatanatyam but which had the elements of a dramatic
Malavikaand Agnimitra
story. At that time I was reading Kalidasas plays
in which the Queens name is Dharini. So I called the pieceDharini
.
The dance drama was about a girl who, in her sleep, dreams that she
is a devadasi in the temple thousands of years ago. She has committed
a sin by falling in love with the priest. She wakes up and realizes that
she has been reborn in a different century and the priest is now her

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lover. The dance drama brought in all aspects of Bharatanatyam and


the audience enjoyed the technique set in a different context. I believe
Ramgopal performed the same dance drama many years later and I
think he called it Ramas dream but the original was one of my first
attempts to present a new approach to tradition. My desire to
choreograph had been ignited by my roles in Chandalika
, and all of
Gurudevs dance dramas. Another composition called, Essence of the
Dusk, a highly romantic piece inspired by the novel of F.W. Bain, was
also well received. In Kolkata (to me an important place as many of
my friends from Shantiniketan were here), a critic wrote, It gave the

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onlooker a spirit of exaltation and when Ramgopal and Mrinalini were


seen co-starred the atmosphere was electrified with a subtle sense of
the sublime.

Dr Homi Bhabha, the famous physicist, was a professor at the Indian


Institute of Science in Bangalore with Sir C.V. Raman. He was part of
an intellectual group that used to meet regularly. One day, one of the
students of the Institute came to Ramgopals studio because he planned
to build a theatre for the workers. This young man was very interested
in dramatic activities and wanted to do something for the workers. He
had designed an open air theatre, and he wanted Ram and his dancers
to collect money for it by staging a show. The young man was Vikram
Sarabhai. He had come on behalf of the President, Homi Bhabha. Vikram
was the Secretary, and was studying under Sir C.V. Raman at the Indian
Institute of Science. He was about to go to Cambridge, England, when
the war in Europe had broken out and the family did not want him to
go abroad at that time. The only equivalent laboratory was headed by
Professor Sir C.V. Raman at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore.
So Vikram went there. He did not live in the hostel, but rented a little
house called Premalaya high up on a hill in Malleshwaram.

Vikrams intellectual ability interested me deeply and he seemed far more


mature than his age. He was someone I could talk to and communicate
with. His vision and knowledge astounded me. We began meeting each
other regularly. He was very handsome and had excellent taste and I was
deeply appreciative of these qualities. But it was his thinking that really
fascinated me.
I was staying with a Parsi family at the time and we used to go to the
club quite often to dance and play Bingo and other games. I had learnt
to mast my shyness by being very outgoing and had a wide circle of friends.
I enjoyed all kinds of dancing even though I was a serious student of
Bharatanatyam. Vikram later told me that he had been rather wary of that
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side of me. But when he saw me in a performance of Bharatanatyam he


realized the depth of my commitment and my complete dedication.
Our friendship grew. We used to go for long drives taking a picnic
basket with us. Sitting under the trees, I would read Tagores poems to
him and he would recite Sanskrit verses especially fromMeghadootam
the
Vikram
Urvashiyam
and
texts which he had studied in college in Gujarat.
Even now, I remember the delicious corn on the cob which we roasted
and ate in between our poetry sessions. We became good friends, sharing
many ideas, both determined to be career people. Vikram himself had
told me in the beginning, Dont let us fall in love, I do not want to get
married. I was being courted by many young men in Bangalore, and I
replied, Oh Im so glad! I got proposals of marriage almost every week
and I was getting tired of them. Whenever anyone proposed, my stock
reply was: I am sorry, I want to be a career girl. That notion itself used
to upset people. Vikram was so different. He understood my commitment
to dance. It was some deep yearning within me that found a perfect
answer in him. He loved the arts and knew instinctively what was right.
We had so many things in common: our love for beauty, for honesty, for
tradition, and for the country, and, at the same time, our excitement
about new developments in civilization.

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Science is so similar to Art, both disciplines are a search for unknown


galaxies in the universe, both spiritually aware of the indivisible wholeness
of the cosmos. A scientist looks for new horizons in knowledge, a dancer
for inner horizons of understanding. A scientist speaks about the spaces
beyond our planet and its mysteries. A dancer searches spaces within
for meaning. Vikram as a scientist, and I as a dancer, shared a togetherness
that was hard to define.
Though I had met Vikram earlier in Ooty with his family, I had no
idea he was now in Bangalore. It was my brother, Subbaram, there on
a business trip, who told him to look after his kid sister who had some
mad idea of wanting to dance in Bangalore. After a few months, Vikram
showed me, not so much by words but by his manner, that he loved me.
I was very unsure of my own feelings.
Vikrams elder brother, Suhrid, and his wife, Manorama, were in
Bangalore for a holiday. Evidently they both went home and reported
that Vikram seemed serious about me. At the same time, a labour union
leader, Khandubhai Desai, who visited Bangalore, reported to Anasuyaben,
Vikrams aunt, who was president of the labour union in Ahmedabad,
that there was a sparkle in Vikrams eyes and he was sure that there was
someone special in his life now! It was only years later that I learnt all
this. Suhrid and Mani (as Manorama was called) were extremely warm
and invited me to dinner because Vikram wanted them to meet me. I
enjoyed talking to them both, specially Suhrid. I was drawn to what
seemed a cultural background that was both very Indian and very
sophisticated. It was this very Indianness that I had been seeking in my
own life which was lacking in my family. Here were young people,
educated abroad, but completely Indian in their thought, belonging to
a world which I sought, a mingling of the finest of both cultures.

Ramgopal, though he was extremely kind to me did not, or so I felt,


understand the intensity of my search for the innermost vision of
Bharatanatyam. He was conscious of the effect his dancing had on
people, but needed to be praised continuously. To me the art of dancing
was worship, bhakti. His attitude in many ways was contrary to this. I
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felt that I had trained enough with Muthukumara Pillai and I needed
more technical excellence. Thata himself used to say, You must go to
a new guru. You will be a great dancer: with your intelligence, devotion
and that something within you that compels you to take up this art.
Strangely, I felt almost frightened when he spoke like that.
Muthukumara Thata was a guru in the truest sense of the word.
When values were changing fast and many of our old ideologies were
being swept away, he was like an island of timelessness. There are no
gurus today of his stature, his knowledge and his discipline. And in his
simple life, he embodied the shastraic concept of the real teacher. Though
in the first few months in Adayar I was terrified by his stern discipline,
I soon began to appreciate his keen sense of humour, which showed itself
in the twinkle in his eyes and in the sudden laughter that bubbled up,
as innocent as a childs, at the end of a particularly hard lesson.
Lessons always began with exacting work. There were no preliminaries.
It was training of the severest kind. It did not matter whether my limbs
were delicate, or that I had been a sickly child. I had to go through the
dance pieces for three to four hours, the practice time increasing every
day. Nor was he ever content to sit down and teach, as so many nattuvanars
do today. He would work along with me, with such vigour and exactitude
that, even now while I dance and when I teach, his words and his
presence are constantly with me. It is that discipline that has always
served me well in the particularly exacting numbers of Bharatanatyam.
Sometimes, if I did something wrong, or was in any way heedless, he
would say, Ill stop the lesson. This was the biggest threat of all, for
dancing meant everything to me and it was the only discipline I loved.
And he knew well how to use that threat!
Ram was always very loving towards me, and when he was away in
Mumbai for a few days wrote enthusiastically, I have been dreaming
about you so often in dance and costumes and ballets. He often shared
his depression:
When are we to achieve the heights to which I know I am
destined. How much longer this suffering, hungering and pain
in a tragic country like ours. Do pray for our future in ART and
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always know that where other anaemic suckers amaze you with
their bluff and baloney in sweet nothings and love, I alone am,
and can make you SOMEBODY Divine remember this and
know I adore you darling!
But somehow I felt that he did not really understand what dance
meant to me.
An incident happened which perhaps helped me in my decision to
work on my own. The war was on and there were a lot of soldiers around,
mostly British Tommies. A number of them visited Ram at his home,
where I went regularly for practice. In the mornings we would have an
elaborate puja dedicated to the exquisite bronze images of Gauri and
Nataraja and to the Deepalakshmi. Once or twice, when I went in the
evening, I found the Tommies loitering around, using our beautiful images
as ashtrays with their booted feet perched on them. Perhaps I was
oversensitive, but it troubled me deeply. It was not only the spiritual
aspect but also my love and respect for the sacred sculptures. Another
thing that shocked me was Rams attitude on stage. While I was completely
absorbed when dancing, Ram often talked all through the performance
making uncharitable remarks about the audience, no doubt very amusing,
but I felt completely upset with these unkind asides.
Though there is a consciousness of the audience at the beginning
of a performance it soon vanishes and an invisible communication takes
its place. Rams flippant attitude was the real reason for my leaving him.
He never forgave me and many years passed before we met again. He
even wrote to my impresario, Leon Hepner of Peter Daubeny
Presentations in London, not to sponsor Darpana. His cruel attitude hurt
me, but I have had to face a lot of vindictiveness and jealousy of this
nature all my life. On the one hands, because I came from what was called
a respectable and well-known family, the Swaminadhans, people would
not take my work seriously. They thought that the minute I got married,
like other society girls, I would forget all about dance. There was a wellknown critic of art called G. Venkatachalam who had his own protg,
so he tried to discourage me at every stage. Perhaps he thought that if
I took to the art seriously, I would be a threat to his own favourite. He
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also made derogatory remarks about me in his writings. It was so unkind


and all the more hurtful because he pretended to be a great friend and
admirer of Mummys and used to visit our house fairly often and praise
me to the skies!
Many years later, when he was almost blind and living in Delhi, I
remember helping him across the road and he said, Mrinalini, you are
a great artist and have always been so kind to me. And I thought to
myself, But, you havent. I felt sorry for this old, nearly blind man. I
realized that I owed people like him a debt of gratitude for they perhaps
pushed me into being more and more determined to reach the heights
of excellence. I continued to face these same jealousies, even after I was
married. Being a Sarabhai was an even greater handicap. People could
never separate Living and Being and when I used to say that Being is
what my dancing is, they hardly understood.
I met Ram again many years later in 1994 and he was affectionate
as I greeted him warmly. He grew very fond of Mallika and praised her
dancing, calling her his beloved granddaughter. In 1996 he came to our
performance at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London looking very fragile
but as elegant as ever. Again in 1997 Mallika spent time with him at
Dhanalakshmi Fordyces house in Bangalore and told me he looked very
well and needed a supply of kajal which she gave him!

As a young girl, I had to search for my own gurus. This is where I think
Krishna propelled and led me. There was always a great invisible force
that directed me. Not that there were no friends to help. S.V.
Venugopalan who met me at Kalakshetra (he was the general secretary),
supported me constantly and helped me to find good musicians and
teachers for Darpana. An ardent devotee of dance, he was one of the
main organizers of the Indian Institute of Fine Arts in Chennai, at that
time the best of its kind, organising concerts and recitals and
Bharatanatyam classes under Pandanallur Chokalingam Pillai. It was
Venu who when he was working for Lever Brothers thought of signing
up Indian stars for the Lux soap advertisement. Years later Mallika was
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also one of them. He remained one of my stalwart supporters till his


death.
On my return to Chennai, I went to Chokalingam Pillai whom
Muthukumaran Thatha and Venugopal had recommended. I practiced
long hours with him but still I felt there was more to be discovered. So
later I went to the source in Tanjavur who was Meenakshi Sundaram
Pillai. Thata, the great guru of Bharatanatyam, immediately adopted me.
It did not seem strange to either of us when, on the second day, he said
in Tamil, You are the student I always wanted!
Thata was to teach me several old compositions all at the same time,
as though he were in a hurry to impart his knowledge. I had the courage
to tell him once that I hadnt liked some steps taught by him, as my body
revolted against such movements. He laughed (rather toothlessly) and
said that he had taken them from a film! He was very frank with me:
You are the only one who has questioned me. I have great faith in you.
When I went to Tanjavur, or Kumbakonam, in fact to wherever he was,
he would make me practice something like ten hours a day. I never
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complained though I could hardly walk afterwards. My training continued


even after the birth of my child. Thatha would just drop everything and
everyone else and be with me to teach me. He always accepted me as
one of his own. He said to me that if anyone could preserve Bharatanatyam,
I could, and I promised to do my very best always. He often said to the
vidwans who came to see me practice, Here is somebody with
intelligence and understanding along with dedication, who can really
take my kind of dancing everywhere. I have always preserved his style
at Darpana, my own institution, because I do believe it is the most
powerful technique of Bharatanatyam. What I enjoy most about the
Pandanallur style is its strength and clarity of line. If in the Vedas a
statement like Tat Tvam Asi I am that, I am! gives us an immediate
indication of Hindu Philosophy, in dance an adavu should do the same
immediately let the viewer recognize a clarity of form that is pristine
a line of truth, as it were!

In Tanjavur, at night, too exhausted to sleep, I often sat, limbs aching,


in the shadow of the Brihadiswara Temple inspired by its architectural
and spiritual beauty. Those were desolate moments, when I wondered
what I was doing far from home, from Vikram, from all comfort and
companionship. What drove me so fiercely to dance, what vision, what
need ? It was, I was sure, a driving force from some previous life, for
I felt so comforted when I went to a temple not praying, just sitting.
When, many years later, Mallika was filming in Chidambaram, my student
daughter, Shubha and I would wander in and around the sculptures.
When I saw the wondrous face of Parvati gentle and loving, I told Mallika
to pray to her and it was put into the film a lovely shot! Once when
Acharyalu master, our Kuchipudi Guru at Darpana, accompanied me to
Kumbakonam, we travelled to Darasuram, with its beautiful sculptures,
but some of them were sinking into the ground. I lay flat on the ground
to study the postures. We walked through thick thorns to
Kampahareshwara Temple where the image of Shiva looms large in the
form of a rakshasa. We prayed at the Sarangapani Kumbakonam Temple
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near the riverside, with beautiful sculptures of the Karanas danced by


Krishna. Beyond Kumbakonam, we visited Manargudi on the Haridra
river. This was the image of Sri Rajagopala and a favourite padam
(devotional song) that Thata taught me which I have danced many times.
The padam was dedicated to this temple.
Another popular padam Sariga Kongu was also dedicated to this
deity and was popular in all my recitals, even in far away Scotland! Once,
in the middle of practice, a man called me away to come to the temple.
Thata allowed me to go and when I arrived there, was asked to climb
a ladder to see the newly discovered sculptured panels of Shiva in the
Karana poses, as in Chidambaram, according to Bharatas text. There
were eighty-one images, all marvellously fashioned. One wonders why
the empty spaces where never filled.

During the time I was working with Chokalingam Pillai at my home in


Chennai, Vikram used to come to meet me every weekend, and, I think,
by this time, he was determined to marry me. He telephoned almost
every night and spoke to me about us being together, but I said, I dont
want to talk about marriage. Let us just enjoy life and meet whenever
we can. In the summer of 1942, his father, mother and sister, Geeta,
came to Chennai with him one weekend and we wentMahabalipuram
to
for a picnic. It has always been a favourite place of mine. The Siva temple
called the Shore Temple was built during the reign of the Pallava King
Narasimhavarman II (690-715) who bore the title of Rajasimha, a great
Saiva devotee and the builder of the temple at Kanchi.
As we sat watching the waves lash across the Shore Temple, Vikram
and I both fell silent. Many more temples, so legends say, are under the
sea. Vikram broke the silence: Let us get married soon. As always he
had chosen the most exquisite location, knowing I would be at my most
vulnerable, but I still hesitated. Why? he asked. Just because! was my
answer.
My indecision may have gone on but for Gandhijis Quit-India
movement of August, 1942. When it started, his parents wanted him
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back in Ahmedabad because they felt that the situation in the country
was going to be very serious. They phoned constantly telling him to
come back and leave Bangalore. Do your work here, they urged. They
were apprehensive of the uprising in the country, especially as the entire
family were closely connected to Gandhijis movement and the women
were preparing to face arrest.

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I

NDIA WAS IN TURMOIL AFTER THE Q UIT-I NDIA RESOLUTION OF A UGUST,


1942, the demand for Independence and Gandhijis mantra to the people
of India to Do or Die.One by one, all the leaders had been arrested.
In spite of Gandhijis insistence on non-violence, there were still some
violent incidents. Trains were disrupted and fear of reprisal shook the
land. Vikram was constantly barraged by his fathers telephone calls to
come home. His eldest sister, Mridula, an active member of the Congress
party, was one of those arrested. Suhrid, the oldest brother, was seriously
ill. Vikram knew that for his parents peace of mind he had no alternative
but to go back to Ahmedabad.
In Chennai I was also caught up in the movement as my mother was
deeply involved with it. There were constant meetings of Congress
workers at home and the scene was chaotic. Across the railway line, the
Pachappa College hostel students shouted slogans non-stop, day and
night.
Vikram telephoned constantly from Bangalore. You have to marry
me now, he said, because after I go home, I cannot say when we will
meet again. Mummy was persuasive too and so was Mummys dear
friend, Dhan Masi (Lady Rama Rao) who was staying with us. You will
never get another boy like Vikram, she said, and his family are so
cultured and artistic. Just the kind of family you should be part of. Dont
hesitate. Marry him!
Vikrams courting was typical of his puckishness. He sent me a live
stoat with his major domo, the driver Lala, in the tiny Bantam car he

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used in Bangalore. I took one look at its huge, protruding eyes and
promptly sent it back! Later he sent me a Tibetan ring, which I later
declared was my engagement ring!
My sister Lakshmi had instinctively known that Vikram was the right
man for me, though I only knew it much later. Strangely enough, when
Mummy and I were away in Indonesia, on our way to the USA., Lakshmi
was in Chennai, preparing to go to Singapore. Our home was to be
rented out for six months, so she had come to tidy up. Vikram, on his
way to Bangalore from Ahmedabad, had unexpectedly came to the
house. Lakshmi offered him a cup of tea, but there was none in the house,
whereupon Vikram produced a flask and they had tea together on the
veranda. While they talked, Lakshmi, who is the most practical of persons,
suddenly thought: This is just the boy for Mrinal. When we got married
she was in jail in Singapore, a prisoner of the British. We tried to send
a message through the Red Cross but she heard only my name. She told
me later, Somehow I knew it was Vikram you had married.
I loved Vikram, but marriage and going away to a strange place
frightened me. I was nervous and hesitant because of my dancing. If
Vikram had lived in Chennai I would not have hesitated at all. At last
I said yes. It was August, 1942. The wedding was fixed for the first week
of September. Telephone conversations which were common for the
Sarabhais (they were the first family I knew who telephoned their sons
in Cambridge every week, a rare luxury in those days) went back and
forth, especially between my father-in-law, Ambalal Sarabhai, and Vikram.
There were preparations to be made. I had envisaged a grand wedding
with music and classical dance to entertain the visitors who were coming
from Ahmedabad. At that time, I was truly an innocent. I had not heard
of Calico Mills, and Vikram told me with amusement that Calico, the
family concern, happened to be one of the oldest mills in the country,
a pioneer in the textile industry and the most famous. None of the names
Vikram mentioned to me were ones I recognized. I had only been to
Ahmedabad for a day as Vikram wanted me to meet everyone. It was
then that I discovered the palatial residence and the overwhelming family
connections. I became even more unsure of myself. But it was Vikram
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I was marrying and I quelled my nervousness. Finally, the events in the


country, the Viceroys determination to crush the freedom fighters, the
gagging of the press and the reaction of the people everywhere, helped
me to decide.

The wedding was held without anyone from Vikrams side of the family
in attendance because of the tumultuous upheaval worsening everywhere.
We were asked to hurry to Ahmedabad. My mother was completely
flummoxed with all the changes and the telephone calls. She thought
of postponing the wedding but Vikram did not want to go without me.
His father was almost heart-broken that his youngest son should get
married without the family. In fact a whole train bogey to Chennai had
been booked for the guests from Ahmedabad.
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It was a simple wedding. A Vedic ceremony in our drawing room


at Gilchrist Gardens, followed by a civil one signed by my Chitappa
(uncle) Ranganadha Iyer, who was the prime witness. After the wedding,
Visalakshi, a musician friend, played the veena. I was dressed in a white
khadi sari (sent by Vikrams mother) and my jewels were made of flowers.
My Tali was a lovely Lakshmi pendant Vikram had bought in Bangalore.
Vikrams only representative was his driver, Lala Inkayya, devoted to
Vikram, and later to me. Early that morning, Vikram had taken my sisterin-law, Sulochana, to find blue lotuses which he placed on a lovely brass
tray and sent to my room. No other expression of his love could have
moved me so deeply. That evening, as we were not having any celebration,
Vikram wanted me to dance.
It so happened that Kunju Kurup, the great maestro of Kathakali was
living at home with us, teaching me. So we both danced a scene from
the Ramayana, in Kathakali. It was a treasured performance. The old
guru, master of his art and I, his young student, and Vikram a deeply
appreciative audience. He loved classical music and dance, and in
Bangalore, at his home, Premalaya, many musicians performed for him.
They came to know him well, for he attended every Kutcheri (concert)
and his outstanding good looks, his simplicity of manner, his warmth,
endeared him to all of them. Amongst his musician friends were
Semmengudi Srinivasa Iyer, Violin Papa and M.S. Subhalakshmi. M.S.
and her husband, Sadasivan, became good friends and Vikram invited her
to sing for many of his important conferences. Music was a love, almost
an obsession and the only extravagance or luxury he indulged in was to
buy records and sound systems. He built many of the record players
himself, and bought components from New York every time he visited
the United States. Everywhere he filled his rooms with music, both
Western and Indian classical harmonies.

The morning after our wedding, we left for Ahmedabad. The situation
was deteriorating every day. Many of the people we knew were courting
arrest and being put into the already overcrowded jails. From Chennai
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Marriage 3rd September 1942 at Gilchrist Garden.

to Mumbai, the train went very slowly, for many railway tracks had been
blown up by irate mobs. After Pune, high on the Western Ghats, the
train ground to a halt. There had been a major dislocation.
It was a beautiful spot. The valley stretched out in bright colourful
patterns and we sat on the steps of our carriage enjoying the view! A
strange honeymoon indeed in a first class coup! We had complete
privacy, except for a man in the next compartment who knew Vikram
and came for a chat every time we wanted to be left alone!
In Ahmedabad, the atmosphere in the huge marble mansion was
solemn. For me, used to a fairly articulate family, with a great deal of
laughter and noise, the solemnity was traumatic. The first words my
mother-in-law, Saralaben, said to me were, I always thought Vikram
would be a brahmachari. (celibate!). These words were to set our
relationship. She did not want to share her family with anyone. Later,
I was to learn that we, the in-laws, were all truly outlaws (a name my
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sister-in-law Kamalini Gautam Sarabhais wife coined) in her mind,


and could never be fully accepted by her. My father-in-law was very
different. He welcomed me with a kindly yet abstracted air for he was
deeply troubled by Suhrids illness and Mridulas being in jail. The
Retreat , the family home, was like a palace made out of marble and built
India Today
and decorated with the most exquisite taste. About the family,
once wrote in one of its articles:
The Americans have the Rockefellers, the Indians have the
Sarabhais. Both are families with immense wealth and large
corporate empires and contributions to society that go well
beyond the world of business. Both have given generously to
charity, contributed to the arts, figured in the world of politics,
stood for taste and distinction. Although the Sarabhais have
operated on a much smaller financial scale than the Rockefellers,
in many senses they have been more versatile.

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Ambalal Sarabhai belonged to the Shwetamber Jain community, wellknown for the construction of artistic places of worship. He was brought
up by his uncle, Chimanlal Nagindas, as both his parents had died when
he was only five years old. An extremely liberated young man, he had
married a Hindu girl, daughter of the Gosalia family. Harilal Gosalia was
the Dewan of Rajkot, and Ambalal chose his younger daughter, Reva,
later known as Sarladevi, as his bride. The Ahmedabad Jains were very
unhappy but Ambalal found the caste system suffocating and broke away
from them as had my Brahmin father. His younger sister, Kanta, married
a non-Jain, and his cousin, Nirmala, broke her traditionally arranged
engagement to marry a close friend of his.
Ambalal encouraged his sister, Anasuya, to work with him in the
business, and she often travelled alone to their sugar mills in Bihar.
Ironically, later she had to lead the 1918 textile strike as a representative
of the workers against her own brother who was president of the mill
owners. Anasuyaben found and ran the Ahmedabad Textile Labour
Association at a time when her brother, Ambalal, headed the Mill Owners
Association. She was only twenty-two, a strong, dedicated woman and
one of Gandhijis earliest supporters. So Mahatma Gandhi came to
arbitrate and went on a hunger strike. Historically, it was interesting
because this was the first time Gandhiji used fasting as a weapon for
change. Though brother and sister were on opposite sides, their love
for each other remained undiminished. This unique event later became
Gandhis Truth.
the subject of Erik Eriksons Pulitzer-prize-winning book
He refers to the Sarabhai family as a grove of tall trees, tightly linked
in family resemblance yet all strong and striving individuals in their
strength and their inner conflicts, true products of the individualistic
upbringing they received from their father. The dispute was settled by
an arbitration by Mahatma Gandhi and has stayed as such till this day.
Shankarlal Banker, a representative of the workers, became Anasuyas
dear friend and companion. He was perhaps influential in her dedication
to the trade union movement. Shankarlal was Gandhijis fellow prisoner
in the famous Ahmedabad trial in 1922. Both Anasuyaben and
Shankarlalbhai became very dear to me and often came to Bangalore in
the summer months. They loved South India: the people, the customs
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and the food. They even adopted their driver Narasimhans children and
treated them as their own.
Anasuyaben had a picture of Tolstoy gifted to her by the Mahatma
on the wall in her home, inscribed to Gandhi by Tolstoy and willed to
Motaben (as we all called her). Next to it, hung a photo of the Mahatma
himself, relaxing in the corner of a train bench, deep in thought. Often
my evenings were spent with her, watching with amusement the way she
treated labour union leaders as lovable young boys, amongst them
Khandubhai Desai, Gulzarilal Nanda (later our Prime Minister), Arvind
Buch and others, who came to see her frequently chiding them all as
only a loving mother could.
Ambalal and Sarlabens two older children were both girls. In those
days men often married a second time to have sons, which my fatherin-law refused to do. He was a devoted husband and father and had eight
children, five daughters, Mridula, Bharati, Leena, Geeta, Gira, and three
sons, Suhrid, Gautam and Vikram. Suhrid and Leena were the only ones
married when I came into the family. Leenas husband, Madanmohan
Mangaldas, was a young textile magnate. A daughter is not a thing to
be given away, said Ambalal and so both the marriages had been registered
as civil marriages. He insisted on equal rights for his daughters as well
as his daughters-in-law.
Ambalal Sarabhai and Saralaben were deeply caring parents who
looked after their children with devotion and care. Each child was
highly talented, trained by outstanding professors. Mridula joined
Gandhiji early in life and became a Congress worker, close to Pandit
Nehru. She was one of the kindest women I have known and it was
tragic that when she took up her fight for Kashmir and supported
Sheikh Abdullah in all possible ways, she became an enemy of the
state and was imprisoned by Pandit Nehrus government. Her solitary
confinement was a terrible punishment for a patriot of her stature and
hundreds of letters of sympathy were sent to her in jail from people
all over the world. After her release, she, single-handedly, continued
her fight for Abdullah and for all prisoners of conscience almost singlehandedly. It was no wonder that General Thimayya called her the
bravest soldier in the Indian Army.
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Bharati, educated at Oxford, was a writer and interested in literature,


marrying late in life, the English writer Dennis Stoll. Her only play in
EnglishThe Well of the People
was enthusiastically received and reviewed
on the BBC by E.M. Forster. T.S. Eliot called it strikingly original. Later,
Dennis went back to the UK and we lost touch but I heard he had
become a seer and conducted sessions on something called the Eye
of Light. When Dennis Stoll stares steadfastly into the eyes of another,
the state and nature of the soul can be revealed said an advertisement
in a spiritual magazine. When I last made enquiries about him, I was told
that he was on his third or fourth honeymoon!
Leena Mangaldas was active in education and created an excellent
school Shreyas to which I sent my children, Kartikeya and Mallika. The
teaching imparted more than just knowledge and I think that Leena had
been influenced by two great educationists and visionaries: Madam
Montessori, who had visited The Retreat where my mother-in-law had
invited her and J. Krishnamurthi, who also stayed with the Sarabhais.
Leenas school had some of the Rishi Valley atmosphere which I had felt
in Madnapalli where Krishnaj had established his first school. The Melas,
too, held every year, became marvellous re-creations of different cultures
not only Indian, but from South East Asian countries. Today, viewing the
dreadfully inadequate schools, I am thankful to the founder of Shreyas
for her great dedication to good education.
Like the rest of the family Gautam was good-looking , and when he
chose Kamalini Khatau to live with there was a great deal of gossip and
talk of contract marriages. He libed collecting antiques and built a
beautiful small Haveli by the river where we often had family parties.
Whenever Vikram was abroad and I had important guests, I would invite
Gautam to help out which he always did. Kamalini was a lovely and
affectionate person and many years later, when I needed her most, she
came to my aid.
Geeta was the musician of the family and devoted her time to
studying vocal music and the pakhawaj. After Suhrid, she was the first
to write and welcome me into the family.
Gira was always rather aloof, highly talented and an excellent designer.
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She and Gautam worked closely together and the National Institute of
Design in Ahmedabad was their joint effort. When I came to settle down
in Ahmedabad, Vikram and I chose an apartment on the third floor of
the original house, and Gira made a beautiful mosaic of a nayika on the
veranda, which I thought most exquisite and thoughtful.

No children ever had such a wonderful upbringing. Surrounded by


beauty and enfolded in love, they were nurtured in an atmosphere that
I felt exhilarating. The visitors who came, were all extraordinary people
all great personalities. It was Rabindranath Tagore, who like a phrenologist,
seeing the two-year-old child Vikrams broad forehead had remarked,
He will become a celebrity.
My father-in-law knew Gandhiji much before he became known as the
Mahatma. In fact, when Gandhiji had, at one stage, thought of abandoning
the idea of his ashram, due to financial constraints, he was helped out by
Papa with a large donation on condition that he would remain anonymous.
This fact was made public only after Papas death. Other visitors included
Sir C.V. Raman, Sarojini Naidu, Abbas Tayabji, J. Krishnamurti, Pandit
Motilal Nehru, Jawaharlal Nehru, C.F. Andrews and the Yogi Paul Richards,
husband of the Mother of Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry. The children
were never left out of conversations or discussions.
Gandhiji, chatting with them, the baby Geeta seated on his lap;
Krishnaji singing songs and playing cricket with the children, discussing
religion. They had the best teachers for each subject the Sarabhai
children lacked nothing. A special school was set up for them in the
compound of The Retreat with teachers for every subject. Mr Standing,
one of the tutors from England, wrote long, descriptive letters to his
family back home which give an idea of the atmosphere of the home
where he worked. He talks of Saralaben: She is a truly wonderful
mother; her whole life is wrapped up in her family. The children come
first; and form the main interest in her life.... There is a permanent staff
of seven masters and only five pupils. Mrs Sarabhai is the real directress
of the school...
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AND THE

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The Retreat was recreated by Suren Kar of Shantiniketan and the


open courtyards designed by the superb artist Masiji, (also of
Shantiniketan) in ceramics of exquisite colours and delicate patterns.
The gardens were planned by Papa and filled with varied trees and plants.
The aviary of parrots and love birds was unique in India. Every morning
Papa would walk around the spacious garden; he knew every tree, plant
and shrub. While none of his children seemed particularly interested in
the garden, they participated fully in the familys social life.
Married into such an overpowering family, 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 were extremely
self-contained, and seemingly so confident, that I felt inadequate. To live
up to the high ideals of the family never put into words but made very
obvious to me from my mother-in-laws 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 realize 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. Although I was
not particularly fond of eating, everything in my new home seemed
unappetizing! I thought again of my mother, always angry when I made
a fuss about eating! Here I felt starved but was too shy to ask for things
that I liked. The family were all so preoccupied with their own work that
they could not be bothered with a new person. It was as though I did
not exist except when we met at lunch or dinner time. It was all so
overwhelming. Small happenings, but they left deep scars!
Sarlaben was a very strict Gandhian and as she was running the
household, we ate very Sattwic food without any spices. Vegetables like
dudhi, which when boiled are not the most appetizing of foods, were
the favourite! Later my father-in-law took over the household and then
I was always consulted even though by that time Vikram thoughtfully
got me an excellent Udupi cook.
A few days after our arrival in Ahmedabad in September, 1942, the
women of the family took part in a procession in which many of them
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were arrested. The freedom movement was at its height. Shouting slogans
against British rule, the group went through the streets of Ahmedabad.
Vikram and I were at the edge of the crowd. The police were breaking
it up with tear gas. Then disaster struck. It all happened in a second.
A shell shot from a gun by the police burst in my face, like a ball of fire.
All I remember is a scorching flame burning my face and blood spurting
down. Everything blurred and I fainted. Quickly, strong arms lifted me into
an ambulance and took me to The Retreat. A doctor was called and while
I was still half dazed, he decided that one eye had to be stitched up
immediately, as there was a deep gash. There was no time to lose, because
it was a gaping wound. The doctor stitched the eyelid, which had been
split open, without an anaesthetic. To examine the eye was impossible, as
my entire face was battered and swollen. Papa called a doctor from Mumbai.
He insisted that the eye be removed because infection had set in. But Papa
stood firm and protested, for which I am eternally grateful. She is a
dancer, he said, we must try and save her eye at any cost.
Then began my long ordeal to recovery. For many days I lay dazed,
not knowing if I would ever see or dance again. I was not allowed to
cry any more. I felt terrified in the complete darkness. I would have given
up but for my belief in God, prayer and Vikram. I have been born to
dance, I consoled myself. this is a passing phase, a deep suffering in
order to test me. As I lay there, it seemed as though I had travelled
inwards into the deep recesses of my soul, almost as if I was reborn. I
retreated into myself. No longer could I identify with my family, or even
with Vikram who never left my side. Though I was surrounded by every
comfort and care, I suddenly felt that I was the loneliest person on earth.
We come into this world alone, we go out alone, I kept thinking.
Existence itself was so precarious. I had become aware of this when my
father died. Now the fear reasserted itself. But though all these thoughts
disturbed me, scattered memories of childhood, of the holidays in
Kodaikanal, the strong fragrance of eucalyptus, the walks into the depths
of the Bear Shola, an awareness of happy moments helped to ease the
pain, as though I was an observer watching the scene.
The nights were difficult, the feeling of isolation more profound even
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though I tried to pray. There was no way that the mind with its fears
could be silenced. Every minute became more precious, every loved one
more dear. Life becomes valuable only after such harrowing experiences.
It is a process of growing up inwardly. We are immortal, says the Gita,
the spirit never dies. Yes, I do believe these words. Yet my spirit can
never reconcile itself with the idea of rebirth. Those whom I loved will
be clad in other bodies, and the faces I knew will no longer exist. That
I must part from everyone sooner or later and go into the depth of the
unknown fills me with dread. Someday, I may believe like Spinoza that
Everything that is, exists in God. But today, I am not yet that wise.
Sometimes life is like the time before sunset, a time when there is silence
over the Earth, and the World hovers between Light and Darkness. It
is strange and inexplicable like a Picasso painting that uncovers something
unknown and terrifying, deep in its intensity.
At last, Sir Jamshedji Duggar, the Sarabhai family eye-doctor, who
had not been available earlier, arrived much to the familys relief. He took
me to Mumbai. Every time the train shook he would hover over me to
see if it had disturbed me. I continued the long and extremely painful
treatment in Mumbai under his care. For almost six months I had to stay
in bed. Fortunately, only my left eye had to be bandaged and the swelling
slowly came down. I tried not to think of myself but the treatment was
nerve-wracking. My cousin Susheela came to be with me and I stayed
at Dhan Masis house. The only things that kept me going were the wellwishes of all those around me and the letters of encouragement and care
received from my friends.
Another even more terrible event was to overcome our family. Suhrid,
who was also in Mumbai undergoing treatment, used to come and see
me almost every evening. I always had a packet of extra-strong peppermints
which he and I shared. He said that it made him feel better. I could not
accept the fact that his illness was terminal. Only once did he break down
and say, There is so much to do. I wish I did not have to go so soon.
He was, as I knew him, a gentle and kind young man and it tore me apart
to think that death was upon him. Very soon he was bedridden, and
nothing could save him. Papa and Sarlaben were heartbroken. Indeed the

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whole family was grief-stricken. Though he had been seriously ill, no one
thought he would die, at least not so soon. Mridula was in jail at that
time as were her sisters. She alone refused parole on principle and never
saw her dying brother. One can only imagine the anguish she went
through that night in jail.

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Returning to Bangalore
I

T TOOK ME NEARLY A YEAR TO RECOVER AFTER MY ACCIDENT , TO MAKE

my limbs work normally. After the initial shock wore off, the terrible
pain began. I was sure I would never dance again, having been told that
part of my sight would never come back. Facing the truth was a dreadful
experience. While the treatment had been going on I was very brave,
but a year later it suddenly hit me and I became depressed, and
overcome by a sense of isolation from the world. For many years this
dreadful feeling was part of my life and even now has never really left
me. So many nights I would sit on the floor of our bathroom (so as
not to disturb Vikram) and cry and cry for no reason. Even when I
started to dance again I would be overwhelmed with dread and would
almost have to be pushed on to the stage. Once I was under the arch
lights I would forget my fears, but for hours afterwards my mind and
body would tremble. Only Vikram and a few close friends saw me like
this, cowering like a frightened animal. It took years of hard discipline
and treatment and Vikrams wonderful understanding and assurances
before I could face an audience with confidence. Even before the
accident I had suffered from stage fright. Analysing the feeling now,
I realize that it was a desire to live up to ones own idea of perfection.
I am always accused of being a perfectionist, as though it is a crime
against society! Within myself I question whether I am able to truly
communicate my inner joy. When I wrote my first novel,This Alone is
Truethe dancer heroine Parvati says to her friend, I want them to see
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God in me when I dance. Today I would say, I want them to share


the profound experience.

Vikram decided to go back to Bangalore and continue his work with Sir
C.V. Raman. Almost a year had gone by. Gradually he helped me to begin
dancing again. He suggested getting a teacher to Bangalore to be with
me rather than my going to the village. Till that time I had studied the
Pandanallur technique of Bharatanatyam. Now I wished to focus on a
more lyrical style where music was important. I had heard Vidwan Ellappa
singing at some of the recitals and admired his emotional rendering of
the padams, and the softness and the graceful quality of the abhinaya.
I invited him to Bangalore and started working with him alongside my
performances.

Disaster struck that day on April 14, 1944. It was a show in aid of the
Malabar Famine Relief. I had selected the ancient storySilapadikarm
.
Nandita Kripalani was dancing with me as the heroine, Kannagi, and I
took the role of Madhavi, the courtesan. The group dances were performed
by Medha Yodh, a fine artist with her own company of dancers. That
morning I was at our family apartment in Kashmir House on Napean Sea
Road when a terrific blast shook the house and all the door handles fell
off. We realized something terrible had happened and soon found out
that the Fort Strike, a ship containing dynamite, had blown up in the
harbour killing over three hundred people, maiming in numerable others
and shattering buildings in the city. The roof of the theatre had also been
destroyed so the show was postponed till the building was repaired. It was
a week later that we were able to finally perform, with a makeshift roof.

In Bangalore, Vikram was working very hard, experimenting in cosmic


rays. He was in the laboratory at the Indian Institute of Science till two
in the morning, everyday. I remembered what Lady Raman (Sir
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RETURNING

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C.V. Ramans wife) had told me before Vikram and I got married. Shed
warned me about marrying a scientist. Much as I love Vikram, shed
said, scientists dont make good husbands. They are too engrossed in
their laboratories.
I did not take Lady Ramans advice and it was only years later that
I learned of her own traumatic family life. Her son Paapa (Dr
Radhakrishnan) was a dear friend of mine and we often went on picnics
to his fathers farm. He was very young and we enjoyed getting away
from the serious scientific discussions. Later he fell out with his father
and was away from the country for many years. He became a distinguished
scientist in his own right. In the meanwhile Sri C.V. Raman had set up
an Institute for which Vikram had collected a major part of the funds,
travelling all over the country with his dearly respected Professor Raman.
Dr Radhakrishnan came back to look after his fathers Institute only after
the latters death. When he returned, he visited us with his French wife,
Dominique, in Ahmedabad. I welcomed them with the traditional kumkum and sweets. He was very touched and said, This is the first time
that somebody has welcomed us so warmly.

WhenI felt very alone in our home Premalaya in Bangalore, I said to


Vikram, I am coming with you to the lab. I slept on a camp cot while
he worked. Every morning at 4.30 a.m. he would shake me awake, saying
Now go home. The Professor will arrive suddenly and he must not find
you here. So I would scoot off at five in the morning in our little
Bantam car.
A top floor was added to Premalaya by Vikram, especially for my
dance practice. In the meanwhile the musician friend of my mothers
from Chennai, Visalakshi (who had played the veena at my wedding)
came to Bangalore and I asked her to join my ensemble, and put her in
charge of musical accompaniment. I had known her since childhood and
was glad to have her with me. Her life changed dramatically after a few
years in Bangalore when a young student from the Indian Institute of
Science fell in love with her. She had regular bhajan sessions at her home
and this young man used to be a frequent visitor and soon proposed
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marriage. Many years later they were to run J. Krishnamurtis Rishi Valley
School, in Madanapalli.
My training with Vidwan Ellappa, was extremely valuable and we
both enjoyed working together. On one occasion I remember Ellappa
was singing Krishna ni begane baro a favourite song of mine, and I went
into a state of trance, or so I was told later. He often related this incident
to his students adding that he had never seen anyone express the padam
so well! I could feel Krishnas presence, he said. It was Ellappa who
taught me the abhinaya of music, and the emotional depth of padams.
His was more of the Lasya (graceful) style as opposed to the Tandava
technique of Pandanallur. Years later the great veena maestro,
Balasubramaniam, played the same song at the end of his concert when
I was in the audience, as a special tribute to me, a gift I acknowledged
with tears.

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Cambridge, England
V

IKRAM HAD TO GO BACK FOR HIS P H .D. TO C AMBRIDGE, JUST AFTER


the war ended in 1945. While still in Bangalore he had developed an
interest in the study of the time variation of cosmic rays. In 1941 he
had reported on the muon intensity measurements that he had made near
the geomagnetic equator in Bangalore and in 1943 he had an expedition
to Kashmir to measure muon intensity at altitudes up to 13,900 feet.
He wanted me to go with him. We were still newly married and did
not want to be away from each other. Waiting a nail-biting week in
Karachi we finally got on to a Dakota. The journey was hellish. There
were bucket seats near the bathroom and there we sat, about ten of us,
facing each other across the tiny passage in an already overcrowded
plane, that jumped and dived constantly! I was terrified all the way and
at Cairo I was so ill that I could not go on without a few days rest. So
we got off in Egypt and spent three days there. It was difficult to proceed
on to England because again there was some hassle about flights. Vikram
was getting very worried and restless as he had to reach on time for his
Ph.D. programme. Finally, after constant forays to the airport, we managed
to get to England and Cambridge.
Cambridge is one of the most beautiful university campuses in the
world. But this was just after the war. As vegetarians we had nothing to
eat other than potatoes. It was the beginning of the winter, when darkness
fell at three in the afternoon. Vikram was working twenty out of twentyfour hours at the Cavendish Laboratory. His thesis on Cosmic Rays went
on at a hectic pace, and sometimes Vikram asked me to read and correct

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the language. It was all Greek to me and sometimes at the end of a


sentence I would ask, Are you sure this is English?

In Cambridge, Vikram knew a lot of people in the world of science, but


for me it was lonely as everyone was immersed in their work. I did not
know what to do. So I slipped into some of the classes and lectures
without permission! I met Bertrand Russell at one of them and we went
to tea with him as we had a letter of introduction from the poet-singer,
Dilip Kumar Roy. Extremely slender, with sharp features and a shock of
white hair, his sense of humour, and the lovely smile in his eyes quite
enchanted me. In one of his lectures which I attended Russell said that
philosophy was a necessity in life and mental life was composed of
knowledge and desire. A philosopher sought a new way of life and tried
to find out how much desire and fact can be harmonized. He also said
that today man had increasing control over natural resources but that
science must be supplemented by wisdom and that could only be done
by the study of philosophy, of learning how to think, or else man would
utterly destroy himself. People accused philosophy of making no progress
but it was because as soon as progress was made, the subject was taken
over by science!
Needing to work, I began my first novel at that time, and read a great
deal. Unfortunately there was nowhere I could practice dancing and my
health was still not very good. Delighted to find a Tagore Society I
helped organize some Tagore lectures and that brought me more friends.
The Cambridge Dramatic Society was doing a play by Brecht. I took a
small part and Vikram enjoyed helping backstage with the lighting, in
spite of his gruelling schedule!
We bought two cycles and our expeditions through the countryside
on Sundays were most pleasant. Boating and tea at Granchester, (I knew
my Rupert Brooke!), having a proper dinner at the restaurant Copper
Kettle on Sundays for which we saved money all week and having a feast
when someone from the country brought us eggs and cheese. Special
treats were when Ranidi (wife of Prof. Mahalanobis) came down from
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CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND

On the way to Cambridge.

London and cooked for us! But I was constantly worried about Vikram
because he was working at such a pace. And sure enough, one day he
fell very ill, with a high temperature. I immediately took him to hospital.
It was a trying experience. Nobody knew what the illness was though
I suspected malaria. Finally I got through to a doctor, who had been to
India. He agreed with my diagnosis and I heaved a sigh of relief. There
were huge mosquitoes in Cambridge and it was Fenn country, where
ague was rampant at one time. I was sure ague was malaria!
Arnold Haskell, the great ballet critic and writer came to lecture
in Cambridge. He had written a book, Balletomania,
which I had read
and enjoyed. His most important contribution was making ballet popular
in England. We attended his lecture but I felt shy to go up and talk
to him. Fortunately, a friend introduced me, saying, She is an Indian
dancer. Haskell had known Uday Shankar and Ramgopal, and at once
said, Why dont you give a lecture demonstration in London and meet
the students at our Ballet School? Of course I was delighted. But I
had no accompanasts with me. We were put in touch with Dr Narayana
Menon, a friend of Mummys who lived with his wife Rekha in London.
Narayana Menon, a scholar musician was a very senior officer in the
BBC and Rekha too worked there. We invited them out to dinner and
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I asked Dr Menons help with the lecture demonstration. If you tell


me what to play on the veena (which was his instrument), we could
perhaps find a mridangist, he replied. Finally, I gave two private
performances, the first to the pupils of Sadlers Wells, and the second
to the Royal Academy of Dancing Production Club. Both went very
well. Arnold Haskell loved the dancing and the abhinaya and later
wrote in an article:
They were memorable occasions for she was able to convince
an audience consisting exclusively of dancers with her grace,
strength and personality. She is essentially a conscious artist
who, though grounded in classicism, realizes that the future of
Indian dancing lies in the selection and use of the material. Her
taste is remarkable.

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In London we met Lord Pethick Lawrence, a great sympathizer of


Indias freedom struggle, who invited us to lunch. He was seventy-three
years old, full of energy and vitality. We talked on nearly every subject
except India as we did not want a political discussion. He told us that
he was one of the two men who had defeated Churchill in an election.
Churchill is no good at elections, he said, but hes fine in Parliament,
for whatever he says, theres a smile playing around his mouth and a
twinkle in his eye, and you know he is half joking. But over the radio,
when you dont see him, he sounds very serious. He spoke of the new
House of Commons that was going to be built and reminisced warmly
about Ahmedabad and Motaben [Anasuya Sarabhai] whom he had known
at the London School of Economics, and of friendship. I have more
friends, I think, than anybody in the world, he said. We finished lunch
and I was amazed to see him standing in a queue to pay the bill, and
I thought how disciplined the British were in their own country. Later
as we talked, he turned to me and said, You speak English beautifully.
You have a wonderful command over the language. I was flattered, and
more so when he asked who my favourite poet was and I said Shelley.
Out darted his hand as he said Shake! We started quoting Shelley at
each other and then I asked him if he knew any Donne. All this much
to Vikrams discomfort for, as he laughingly said, I gave him an inferiority
complex!

Amongst many of the friends we met were Mr Brailsford, the eminent


writer, and his wife. Mr Brailsford always looked bored, when in fact he
was listening intently, and was one of those persons, who when asked
a question, really concentrated on the reply.
The two main subjects Vikram and he discussed were the atomic
bomb, on which he had been asked to write a book giving the political
repercussions, and the Indian situation. Vikram explained as well as he
could, his views on the atomic bomb and the Indian attitude. Brailsford
said that Juilliot had told Blum that a shipload of uranium could run
Europes electric supply for a hundred years. They discussed all aspects
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of it, how to control it (by a vast international police force, Vikram


suggested), how to prevent its being used recklessly, which would be
disastrous for the world. Vikram explained the Indian position very well
I thought. The newspapers in England made much out the Indian Congresss
stubborn rejection of Wavells new offer. Vikram explained that this was
not so. He felt that because of Amery (Amery was the Secretary of State
when India was promised only Dominion Status which was refused and
then the talks broke down) there was so much bitterness in India that when
the Cripps offer came, people grew even more wary. Then came Wavell,
a straightforward man, who thrashed out every detail with the Congress.
He flew back to consult the Labour Party government only to return with
a lukewarm proposition. If the British had been sincere, they would have
said that elections would decide the issue of Pakistan, not that after the
elections, a group of men would decide an issue that had no solution.
Could Churchill-Atlee agree on nationalization of industry? Vikram queried.
If theyd made this clear, Congress and the League would have worked
for the election, a plebiscite could have been formed, and that would have
been the end. But the vague offer ended in a stalemate.
Brailsford was greatly interested with Vikrams comments and was
going to write about it in the New Statesman and! Nation
The real feelings
of India and the Indians are kept from these few men, who try to
understand! Reading the papers in England, one sees how prejudice
arises. Every paper is biased, is what I noted in my diary.

At last, after thirteen months, the thesis was finished and handed in. At
that time as there was not much cosmic ray work going on in the
Cavendish Laboratory, the University asked Professor P.M.S. Blackett to
act as one of Vikrams oral examiners and allowed him to conduct the
examination in Manchester instead of Cambridge. Prof. Blackett, who
became a dear friend, later in a letter to me wrote, I remember very
vividly your splendid red sari contrasting so strongly with the grey gloom
so characteristic of the old Manchester labs. When he was visiting
Ahmedabad many years later, we were on the lawns at Chidambaram
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waiting for Vikram when he suddenly took me in his arms and kissed
me and said, I have been wanting to do this since Manchester. It was
a lovely moment. (After working with Prof. Blackett, the eminent physicist,
Vikram was very excited and wanted to set up continuous monitoring
instruments to measure vertical muon. Upon our return to India, he set
up Geiger-Miller counter telescopes for continuous monitoring at a site
on Mount Kodaikanal in South India, and another one at Ahmedabad,
beginning in a shed in The Retreat.)
We felt greatly relieved when the thesis was finally over and Vikram
and I could return home.However we decided to stop over in Europe.
In Paris, we went to see many of the new theatres as Vikram wanted to
build a good one in India. Vikram took me to many of the well-known
cafes and restaurants. At the Cafe de Flore we mingled with many writers
and discussed at length the theatre project with Pierre Aime Touchard,
a famous drama critic. Dr Kuo who was the chief consul for education
at UNESCO introduced us to Monsieur Tcherepnin. As a young man
he had composed the music for PavlovasAjanta Frescoes
. The theatre
architect, Monsieur Sorrel, showed us his plans for a theatre he was
designing in Rio and some fascinating designs for the Old Vic.
In Amsterdam we met Mario Montessori, an old friend. His mother
(this fact was not known till after her death) Madame Montessori had
come to India at the invitation of my mother-in-law. From The Retreat
had come the first teachers of the Montessori method, which is still
popular in India. Mario travelled with her everywhere, and was to become
the godfather of my son Kartikeya in 1947.
In her book,Secrets of Childhood,
Madame Montessori wrote of Saraladevi
as the ideal Montessori mother, who has dedicated herself to the cause
of the child in India.
Wherever we went, Vikram went to meet the physicists, and I the
artists. We were both interested in visiting the Leiden University and
meeting Dr Vogel who was a well-known Sanskrit scholar. The fine
museum was stacked with treasures but we could only spend about two
hours; most of it taken up by looking at the splendid bronze image of
Nataraja which fascinated me.

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Darpana Academy
B

ACK IN BANGALORE, I CONTINUED WITH SOLO BHARATANATYAM RECITALS


regularly. But I felt the need to express my own thoughts in dance
dramas, not only for a freedom of form but also to make the performances
more varied and creative. I felt that dance had a social role to play and
could speak powerfully through traditional techniques. Apart from
pure aestheticism or a single emotion beautifully depicted by sanchari
bhavas, it seemed essential to have more dancers to blend music,
movement and mood to suit the needs demanded by the theme. For
me, total centring in a subject is a compulsion. The intensity of emotion,
the inward turbulence of formulating an idea in movement makes for
the visualization and harmony of a piece. Dance is an inward journey,
a deep personal equation which unfolds before the audience. It is the
self, speaking. It is the epitome of Bhakti. Putting some known vocabulary
together is not creativity. There must be something vibrant that is a
tangible quality of ones own truth. Every expression of mine has been
a search, an unfolding, an inner vision. As far as classical dance is
concerned, one can take liberties in interpretation but only to a certain
extent. In the matter of technique, I am a purist, and I believe that a
firm grounding in form is absolutely essential and that is why as a
performer and teacher I am extremely strict. The classical technique
cannot be changed at will or to suit ones convenience. I also feel that
audience participation is of prime importance and it cannot be taken
for granted. To put these thoughts into practice, there was a need to
form a group.

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To my home Vadakath in Kerala we invited many accomplished


dancers and I selected the members of my troupe from amongst them.
One of the people I selected, Chathunni Panicker from Kavingal, was
to be my partner for many years, and two of his brothers were taken
on as accompanists for Kathakali. As usual Venugopal helped to find
musicians and dancers whenever I asked him. Beginning with programmes
that consisted of both Bharatanatyam and Kathakali, immersed deeply
in the techniques, I started to dream of new ideas and new forms. To
my mind, creativity reaches fulfilment the moment an idea or pattern
is established in the mind.
Indian dance is highly symbolic. In new compositions symbols change
and become creative and are woven into a fresh awareness. What does
it mean? audiences sometimes queried. Like mantras which reveal
themselves as understanding grows, often an abstract composition
expresses some feeling deep within the heart.
Darpanas first group consisted entirely of professional dancers. I
wanted to create new motifs and modes bordering on the abstract, and
needed to work with a trained group. The roots of my modern concepts
are in the ancient Indian tradition but we exist in a different century. We

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should analyse movement in relation to what we human beings are today.


For instance, the traditional representation of raudra, the mood of anger,
is the same as that of Bharatas world; but yesterdays anger was against
evil elements of society depicted through stories from the Ramayana and
Mahabharata, whereas today it is against destructive values in the entire
world. Artists have to face challenges with integrity, using every vestige
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of knowledge and of technique to translate what they perceive into a


meaningful entity, opening up new vistas of reality. Tradition becomes
the bedrock, cherished and creatively exploited. A modern approach and
outlook serves as a vehicle for looking at age-old problems in contemporary
dimensions, without destroying their basic quality. Tradition, combined
with contemporary thoughts and movements to explore todays problems,
is often the basis of new works of mine. Each bodily expression is a fresh
dimension of form, an inner reflection, envisaged and expressed as
movement. Movement itself can become a thought form, for to me, each
cell of the body is an expression and my limbs guide the way I create
images. As a poet forms a mental picture with words, the body speaks,
creating meaningful emotions that are not of the intellect.
My gruelling schedule of practice never flagged. When my son
Kartikeya was born in Mumbai in November 1947 I was working with
Guru Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai (Thata) and I took him along on my
trips whenever I could. We once stayed in a very old house in Kumbakonam
which was filled with bats, and was quite horrific at night. The food that
came from a hotel was to make me ill for many years. But it was fun having
Kartikeya with me. He crawled
everywhere and especially
enjoyed Thatas Tatakazhi
(stick). Thata also loved having
him around and let him interrupt
whenever he wanted! These
months of work continued till
the end of Shri Meenakshi
Sundarams life. I was in Italy in
1954 when I received a telegram
about his death. Before my
performance, I spoke of him and
the audience stood up for a
minutes silence in respect. It was
a long way from Tanjavur but my thoughts were with him.
In 1948, Vikram and I moved back to Ahmedabad from Bangalore,
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and settled in at The Retreat. The group came too. Continuing my


Bharatanatyam with Muthukumara Thata, who came with me, I also
practised Kathakali with Chathunni Panicker. Papa had graciously given
me a house in the garden for the gurus and dancers.
Many Gujarati men joined the classes of Kathakali enthusiastically
but soon the hard work was too much for them. One by one they
dropped out and we never had much success with teaching this technique
though I used it a great deal in my creative pieces.
What astonished me, however, was when, at a felicitation meeting,
one of the students remarked that they were charged too high a fee. The
fee was five rupees a month! This attitude towards money is typical of
the people of Ahmedabad and often the subject of jokes like those
about Scotsmen. There is a great reluctance to pay for anything cultural.
I must have given hundreds of performances for free with not even a
cupof tea thrown in! Yet, at the same time, if calamity strikes anywhere,
it is the Gujaratis who are always in the forefront, rushing to help open
up camps for the stricken people and feeding thousands of the afflicted.
They are also open to new influences. There were many Gujarati students
in Shantiniketan, and at Sri Aurobindos ashram in Pondicherry. Once
they accept a stranger in their midst, they are most warm and loving
as they were to me!
Free passes are the bane of all artists everywhere. Why do people
think that dancers need never be paid? Many artists have voiced the
opinion that it is extremely wrong of government organizations in Delhi
to arrange recitals with free passes to all and sundry! When the same
artists subsequently perform for their own institutions and try to sell
tickets, no one wants to buy them! As I was trying to create an entirely
new atmosphere in Ahmedabad, and had Vikrams support, I fortunately
did not have to worry about finances in the beginning. But I wanted
someday to have a dance institution that would be self sufficient. It was
disappointing that I could find no students interested in dance and finally
coaxed a few of my friends to join, just to have some company. Shakuntala
Desai of the Chinubhai Baronet family and her cousins were the first to
enlist and she became a lifelong friend.
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Before my marriage, my father-in-law, Papa, had qualms about my


dance career. Deeply caring as always, this letter shows his concern. He
wrote to Vikram in great detail voicing his apprehension:
1. Is Mrinalinis giving stage shows and touring likely to come in
the way of married life?
2. If you marry, you both will try to avoid having children for some
years.
3. Mrinalini will not alter her standards or adopt measures which
may assist her in becoming famous.
4. You have told her that with her ambition, if she had less of
idealism and conscience, her path to success is likely to be easy.
5. If she is a really good dancer and can take the public with her
to appreciate what is best in classical dancing, she will find
complete fulfillment in her life.
6. The letter is long, but the last paragraph in her article -The art
of dancing in the Indian Review of June 1942, she calls dancing
spiritual. I see no connection between a spiritual thing which
strives for public applause. One is subjective and the other
objective; there is conflict between the two. She is young,
inexperienced, ambitious. Do decide as you think proper.
After writing this long letter, he ended,
I trust my writing freely will not hurt you. I do not wish you to
accept it. These are points for your consideration.
But once we were married, Papa always supported me. He would sit
in the front row at my performances in Ahmedabad and comment on
the dances. He did not enjoy going out in the evening and only came
to show his approval which I sorely needed! Often he held a small
umbrella to prevent pigeon-droppings falling on his head! He even
marked out some passages from the Kena Upanishad and asked me to
depict them in dance, which I choreographed and danced for Swami
Chinmayananda in his ashram.
Gujarat had no background of classical dance, steeped as it was in
folk art and culture, mostly in the villages. On festival days like Navaratri,

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everybody participated in the Garba and the Ras in the streets of


Ahmedabad. The BBC showed a great interest in the work I was doing
and decided to make a film on my work in Ahmedabad. In an interview
with them Vikram talked of the stigma against dance in Gujarat in the
early stages:
My family was very unconventional. My father did many things,
for which he was thrown out of the caste and, the influence of
Gandhi on my family was very strong indeed, so that, all through
childhood at least I was brought up on, doing what one felt right
rather than what necessarily society thought was appropriate. I
myself, had no major problem in pursuing this course and I think,
it was perhaps, luck on the part of both of us that, Mrinal too
was, involved in a profession which, from the standards which
we are talking about was unconventional. I think the South
Indian, music and dancing has, to people like me, a purity which
is quite remarkable. It is also pursued with a seriousness which
is very appealing.

Visitors came frequently. Jean Erdmann, the celebrated American dancer


and her scholar husband, Joseph Campbell, whose books had always
fascinated me. He was very disappointed with India and the way most
people imitated the west instead of seeking the marvellous heritage of
their own culture.
John Cage and Merce Cunnigham came as guests to The Retreat
through a mutual friend the artist, Isamo Noguchi. I arranged for them
to perform performance at the Town Hall and rang up friends, warning
them that it would be different. It certainly was. John Cage started with
a big broom, cleaning the ceiling. He had wanted a piano and we had
scouped the city, finally finding one at a Parsi gentlemans house. With
great difficulty, we carted it to the Town Hall. David, the orchestra
leader, began playing his music with a brush and some assorted gadgets.
A friend rushed up to me and asked if he could help with the mike as
something seemed to have gone wrong. Dont do anything, I said that
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isthe music! Finally, John came on to the stage and drank a glass of water,
gargling loudly. The piano we had found with so much trouble and carted
all the way to the Town Hall was only used to set down the glass!
When Merce began dancing with his group, I relaxed. However, to
me the music jarred with his movements and I preferred the classical
pieces. His partner fully agreed with me later and said, Do tell Merce,
which I did, though Im sure with no effect.
It was Gautam, in 1952, as Chairman of Calico Mills, who invited
Ken Rice from the Tavistock Institute to organize a project of research
in the interaction of social and technological change in a textile mill
employing over eight thousand workers, to help with adjustments
between the management and workers with new technologies. Ken came
to India in 1953 and later he stayed with us at Chidambaram. With my
background I have always felt very close to the English, and perhaps
expected every Englishman to know Chaucer and Tennyson. I could
quote endlessly from Shakespeare and Shelley and that became the basis
of my love for England. Ken and I became friends instantly.
We often had long conversations and I shared with him my own
problems of adjustment within the Sarabhai family. He once laughingly
told me that, because British men were susceptible to exotic Indian
women who were much more beautiful than their rather drab wives
he believed that it was the Englishwomen who first started clubs for
whites only. Because of their inferiority complex! He wrote two excellent
books on his work, and then a novel (well-disguised) on our family. He
graciously showed it to Sarlaben, but she felt everyone would recognize
the characters in it and requested him not to publish it. This was a great
pity as the book was very well written and I felt the decision unfair to
Ken.
Once I told him, I feel very uneducated at the Holding Board when
they use all those obscure words. He promptly brought me a dictionary
of psychology and said, Learn some of these words and keep dropping
them now and then, which I did.

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Experimenting with classical


techniques
P

A HMEDABAD TOOK A LONG TIME TO UNDERSTAND THE


tremendous physical work required to be a dancer. Many remarked that
being married to a Sarabhai I should not dance. Someone wrote to Papa
commiserating with him that his son had married a dancing girl! Many
thought that being a Sarabhai made it easy for me. The long hours of
hard work that I put in, the efforts to keep up with my career and to
run a home were of course, completely ignored. Because the Sarabhais
were so distinguished and independent in their own lives, there was also
a great deal of criticism and jealousy. There was a feeling that as a family
they were very aloof and as a result I often had to bear the brunt of it.
It made me very angry when someone remarked after a show: Well, she
can dance, after all she is a Sarabhai! What they did not comprehend
was how each Sarabhai had a career of their own and the great value they
attached to their professions.
Vikram was immersed in the business, often away from home; his
letters described his life:
EOPLE IN

Phew darling! What a lot of work mounting up on all sides and


no one to keep me happy! The train journey to Mumbai was very
dusty. Going I had a coupe to myself and missed you terribly.
I thought of our honeymoon journey from Chennai and the train
accident on the ghats. And it made my heart ache. Mumbai was
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terribly busy. Swastik (a Sarabhai company) from nine to one,


lunch, and an important meeting for Vanaspati from 3 to 9.
Poor Viki! This hectic schedule lasted all his life.
Giving frequent Bharatanatyam and Kathakali dance recitals was the way
I sought to popularize these art forms in Gujarat. Slowly, people began
to appreciate and understand the work I was doing. While busy with
traditional performances the need to create grew stronger and stronger!
Initially, in my dance compositions I experimented with the classical
idiom, to express contemporary ideas. When my son Kartikeya was born,
I watched his hands stretch out to explore the world, to touch the light,
to feel new objects. I became aware of the magic of the human body
and mind and its constant unfolding. Marvelling at the way he played
and reacted to himself and the world around him, the idea came to me
Manushya
to give it expression and I created
the different stages man
goes through in life and the cycle of Life and Death. I began to ponder
the inner meaning of existence, but as an artist I realized that Life and
Art do not have the same vocabulary. From here on it became a deep
need to present human experiences in the language of movement. I
decided to use the body vocabulary of Kathakali, because it was a
powerful medium for dance dramas. My Kathakali training helped me a
Manushya
great deal in creating
, presenting the technique while discarding
the traditional costumes and heavy make-up.

After seeing one of my performances, an impresario from Europe invited


me to a festival in Paris just for one evening. It was a long way to go
but Vikram and I felt that it should be accepted if I wanted my work
to be recognized internationally.
Before leaving for Paris, we decided to present the programme in
Delhi, especially to invite Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru who had always shown
interest in my work. Panditji was a family friend and treated Vikram like
a son. He had known the Sarabhai family intimately and often stayed
at their home. Though I had met him as a child, it was after I was married
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that I got to know him well. He was always very affectionate. Once, long
before my marriage, when he visited Chennai, we rode in our car down
the Marina and on all sides the crowds surged and waved back. I have only
a hazy recollection of that day but it was a tumultuous welcome to Panditji
who stood up to greet the crowds while my mother and I sat beside him.
Then again, in Shantiniketan, when he came to open the new Hindi
Bhavan Hall with his daughter, Indira, he made a few of us sit down in
the frame of an artistic window and took a photograph of Buridi (Nandita
Kripalani), Indiraji and myself. His laughter and gaiety at that moment
was of a young man and it still echoes in my heart. I hero-worshipped
him and thought that he was one of the finest persons I had met.
Whenever in Delhi, I telephoned Panditji as I had promised him to
do. However busy he was, he would invite me for breakfast. The first
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time Vikram and I went to a party at his home soon after our marriage
he made me sit beside him on his chair, put his arm around me and asked
me what I did. Dancing, I said and, writing when I have the time. I
wish I could do that, he remarked, almost wistfully, perhaps not dancing
but reading and writing certainly. Whenever I danced in Delhi in the
later years, I kept two corner seats vacant for him. He used to slip into
the hall, watch the performance and slip out before anyone except the
Manushya
organizers noticed. When I went to invite him for the premier
of
in Delhi he said, Please dont do Kathakali, it is so vulgar. He had just
seen one of Kathakalis finest dancers as Pootana, the rakshasi who tries
to kill Krishna as a child by feeding him at her breast. Seen out of context
and danced by a man dressed as a woman in the exaggerated costume,
it was probably neither pleasant nor aesthetic. I said, Panditji, I will show
you Kathakali in its basic form and I promise you, its wonderful.
Manushya
came as a great shock to everybody. I had choreographed
it using all the wealth of Kathakali movements with music by Subramaniam
Bharati and costuming it in simple saris for the women, and dhotis for
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the men. Most people didnt understand the stark simplicity. But Panditji
and a few friends liked it very much, and changed their views about the
dance form.
Charles Fabri, a well-known critic who lived in India and wrote for
The Statesman
did a long review:
I cannot think in the whole repertoire of all the Indian dancing
troupes of any modern ballet comparable in perfection and beauty
to Manushya
. Based on Kathakali, it contains innovations so
carefully introduced, with such exquisite taste that these
modernities fit into the general design to perfection. The mime,
of which there is a great deal, makes every scene intelligible to
the untrained audience, and the effect of this beautifully told
story of Man, from birth through childhood to Death and return
to limbo, is both dramatic and moving.

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Paris and Onwards


I

N M ARCH, 1949, VIKRAM, ( WHO KNEW HOW NERVOUS I WAS) K ARTIKEYA


and I flew to Paris with the dance group.
Everything seemed to be go wrong from the moment we arrived.
It was snowing in Paris and it was extremely cold. Kartikeya was running
a high fever and I was up all night nursing him. We were exhausted after
the journey but had to go to the theatre immediately. The impresario,
a tough businessman, gave me one look and said, You are so slender,
so frail, so tiny! How will you fill the stage? Will you be able to hold
the audience? How many are there in the company? I was already
unnerved but tried not to show it. Eight, I said and he turned away.
The theatre was the Palais de Chaillot, an enormous building capable
of holding an audience of about a thousand. The actual stage was five
floors below ground level and big enough for a circus. My heart sank
when I looked at the vast auditorium. My whole career abroad depended
on this one programme. I was in Paris, the Mecca of the Arts, and the
critics were knowledgeable and powerful, the best in the world. They
had watched so many artists and had the power to make or break a career
in the west.
Only a week earlier, a Peruvian ballet group had been asked to, go
back to Peru. That evening, I prayed hard as I put on my make-up.
Vikram kept saying, Go out and slay them, there is nothing to worry
about. Those who knew him could probably understand what courage
his words and smile gave me. I was very frightened but Vikram was a
pillar of strength. I was to share the evening with a well-known troupe

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of a hundred dancers. I tried to quell my fears as I made my entrance.


Once on stage, I forget everything. When I dance, there is no feeling
of my or self! It is as though a whole dimension of spiritual energy
takes over my being. I am no longer aware of the living world. In those
moments I feel that some strange power within me is released: creating
a oneness with the Supreme, a wholeness and unity with the cosmos,
like an enlightenment of my self! I remember telling Swami
Chinmayananda sadly, I cannot seem to meditate though I sit in prayer
every morning. You are fortunate, you dance your meditation, hed
replied, we can only sit.
That night, starting with a prayer, I followed with a Varnam and the
Tillana of Bharatanatyam. The vast stage suddenly became a space upon
which the physical being drew designs. The moving body realizing
freedom within the framework of technique yet beyond it, is perhaps
the greatest expression of movement. It was as though the dance
consciousness of my inner being spread itself over the entire area. The
patterns of my body, with all the intensity of my involvement and

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passion, communicated itself to that huge foreign audience. What is so


meaningful in Indian classical dance is the complete austerity of the stage
setting. There are no props, no decor, nothing infringes upon the stark
beauty of the dancer who creates a universe through her movement:
expression of life, of death, of love and hate, of the struggle between
good and evil, developing the excitement of a theme with her limbs, her
face, her fingers and the profundity of her eyes. The dancer draws the
audience into new insights, into a spiritual, thought-provoking, dimension.
There can be abstract expression, or it may be a physicality of body
movement, or a hand gesture that is beautiful in its own right like a
Chola bronze or a Picchvai painting. Conscious awareness and then
unconscious understanding envelops me when I dance.
The last item was Vasanta Vijayam, a new dance drama in Gujarati,
composed from a poem. Vikram had worked all afternoon with the
lighting. Here we purposely made use of a decor of just three trees from
classical paintings by the artist, Jayant Desai. When the curtain went up
and the trees were lit, there was a burst of applause. We ended the
programme with Manushya
. After the show, the sophisticated French
audience, rose as one to their feet and clapped and clapped. Even while
dancing I had felt a wonderful rapport. The impresario greeted me after
the show, but all he said was, The critics, they are formidable here. We
must wait and see. A friend took us to a fashionable restaurant for supper
but I could hardly eat or enjoy the food. I was so tired!
Neither Vikram nor I could sleep that night so we walked out onto
the road to wait for the newspapers. My success in Europe depended
a great deal on the reviews that would be out in the morning! Maybe
not all of them mattered but certain newspaper critics words were law!
It was an icy night. At last the newspapers arrived at 3 am. We nervously
scanned them. We did not know that often the critics took several days
to write. But we found one that said Mrinalini Sarabhai has conquered
Paris a great dancer, a great art! That was enough! I had made it!
From that moment on our reviews were ecstatic, contracts poured
in, and I became a celebrity in the Western world, a professional in the
toughest profession show business! I have never forgotten that first
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night with the full moon over the Champs Elysees and Vikram and I
shivering in the darkness before dawn.
Though I had received an invitation to dance only in Paris when I
left India, after my performance there, I was besieged by invitations. I
got a wonderful and warm reception everywhere I went. When I came
to Paris, I was rather worried about how classical South Indian dancing
would be received by the audiences. Yet inside me was the great desire
to show to the West what to me was a most perfect technique. The
manner in which it was appreciated everywhere reaffirmed my belief that
Art is always able to transcend all barriers of national differences, whether
in music, painting or dance, and communicates without words or familiar
backgrounds. My belief became a reality on this tour and gave me the
courage to work towards a greater artistic understanding between the
Western and Eastern worlds.

While still in Paris we were invited by an impresario for a season in


London at the St. Martins theatre. Pu-Pu (Kartikeya, as he was called
then) received more press coverage than I did! One of the reporters of
the Daily Mailsaid, The thought struck me that few European ballerinas
would find it convenient to bear a child and take him on tour. I was
considered out of the ordinary for not only having a child, but also being
proud to show the world I was a mother. We in India take such things
in our stride, I said when the reporters questioned me about it. A
husband and a baby on tour would be unthinkable for a ballerina!
During the performance in London at St. Martins Theatre, glass
beads from the Kathakali costumes fell off and as I danced I cut my foot
on a splintered bead. I went through the whole performance, not realizing
that I was hurt so badly. That night my foot was completely swollen and
I was in great pain. For all my subsequent performances I had to have
penicillin injections during the interval! The press were very sympathetic
and I think they admired this determination, which for me was very
natural. Dancer With Cut Foot, Dancer Hurt, Mrinalini Dances on
with a Septic Foot were the headlines the next day!
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Roland Petit (France), 1949

V.K. Krishna Menon was the High Commissioner for India in London
in those days and for the opening night at the St. Martins Theatre he
had invited ministers and ambassadors, to see that remarkable Indian
dancer who is the first woman to bring a company of Indian dancers and
musicians to Europe, as a newspaper reported. Krishna Menon was a
friend of my mothers and I had known him in my childhood. He was
an extremely thoughtful and kind human being, yet his caustic tongue
had made him many enemies. His thoughtfulness made itself apparent
when he came to see us at Claridges, where we were staying. He went
himself to see that the dance group had enough to eat and were
comfortable, something no Indian High Commissioner ever did! Almost
every night he would sit chatting with Vikram over a cup of tea, first
making sure that I was alright. Once, at India House, as I was curled up
in an easy-chair, he looked at me and said, You are such a little girl and
yet what a big name you have made in England!
Years later, when he was minister for defence in Delhi, Id go and
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see him late at night to chat and share the inevitable cup of tea. He was
a very lonely person and, I think, very misunderstood in our country.
Minoo Masani, the well-known writer and politician, told me and later
wrote in his book about how hed introduced Krishna Menon to Jawaharlal
Nehru and had regretted it ever since.
But to me Krishna Menon remained a lovable uncle!

From London we went back to Paris where we were booked for another
season at the Sarah Bernhardt Theatre. Paris fashions are famous and I
was amused by my unconscious contribution. I had created a semi-folk
dance dramaVasavadatta
which brought in some extravagant costumes
and jewellery. After the performance, I rushed to the green room to
change but had time only to put on one heavy earring. Next day this
was mentioned as a fashion trend! Now when my daughter Mallika does
the same, I tease her saying, I began the fashion before you were born!
I designed all the costumes for my new creative work myself, collecting
old saris and silver jewellery, roaming the streets in Ahmedabad, in
Chennai, inMadurai
. I searched for antique fabrics and cut them up for
costumes. These were always noticed and a critic in London, wrote in
The Dancing Times,
Never have we had performers more beautifully dressed,
nor colours displayed on stage in such perfect harmony!
Another love of mine was to design coats. As foreign coats never
weat well with our saris, I cut up shawls and made them into capes and
coats. Once when a journalist in Paris, asked me why I didnt wear fur
in this freezing weather, I quickly replied, Oh we are vegetarian and
dont like wearing dead animals! This was long before the save the
animals movement. This remark also made headlines!
The French Archives, Nationales de la Danse, founded in 1932 to
record the history and development of dancing, awarded me a medal and
diploma at a gathering of Parisian artistic and literary celebrities. I was
the first Indian to be honoured thus and receive this rarely awarded
medal. M. Pierre Tugal, curator of the library, said at the ceremony, Not
only has Mme. Sarabhai made Indian art better known and appreciated,

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but she has contributed to drawing closer the ties of friendship between
France and India.
The reception I got varied with the national character of the place.
In London and in Scotland for instance, the audiences never missed the
slightest touch of humour, however subtle. But in Sweden, they were
more moved by the emotional impact of the dance. So it was in each
country the different responses that always fascinated me.
In Copenhagen, after the performance, the audience clapped in a
slow rhythmic way, to the beat of one-two-three-four! We didnt know
what this meant and rushed to our Danish impresario for an explanation.
He was extremely pleased and told us that it only expressed the deep
appreciation of the audience, whereupon we breathed a sigh of relief.
Of course, the story of how perplexed we were appeared in the papers
and the following evening after the performance, we had similar clapping
but this time it was interspersed with plenty of laughter!

It was a specially happy experience for me to be in Switzerland, because


I had studied in Montreux. The whole staff of Ecole St. Georges came
to see us and cheered lustily. The weather was glorious, which I was told
was not really good for the theatre business, but we had excellent
audiences. Ten performances in eleven days in seven different places
meant a great deal of bustle! All the costumes and the scenery had to
be packed immediately after the performance. We would then have our
dinner at about one a.m., go to bed to wake up at seven to start travelling
again to our next destination. A small group like ours did not have a stage
manager or anyone to look after costumes or lighting. Everything had
to be done by us. After a full performance, when we were on stage
practically all the time, the packing was very hard to do. In the smaller
cities, we were doing only one show, so there was never any time to relax.
My days were filled with press interviews, radio talks and photo sessions.
Yet the discipline never flagged. We divided the work so that all of us
took turns to manage every aspect whether it was directing the lighting,
or ironing the clothes.

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The make-up for Kathakali, the technique with which we began our
programme, had to be specially ground everyday and this was undertaken
mostly in hotel bathrooms! It was no easy task especially leaving no
traces on the floor! The Max Factor people came to interview me in Paris
and I asked them if they could give me some green make-up that
resembled the Paccha (green) of Kathakali. They tried their best but
did not succeed. The manola of Kathakali has a special sheen which
could not be replicated! The rare afternoons we were free, we spent in
sightseeing and wandering around the lovely shops. At Annecy, I met
the Queen of Greece who was very interested in Indian Philosophy and
we were to continue our friendship over many years. In 1997 Princess
Irene of Greece was in India. She was a dedicated worker, promoting
peace and harmony, and we both were members of the Sarvodaya Trust
for promoting non-violence.

The whole trip was a landmark in a way, because we were probably the
first group to present Bharatanatyam in its purest Pandanallur style and
Kathakali in its traditional form to Europe on a professional tour. The
only difference I made in Kathakali was that instead of a performance
lasting the whole night, as is usually done in Kerala, we shortened it for
the professional stage.
Manushya
changed a great many peoples attitude towards Kathakali.
When they saw the beautiful movements without the costumes, the
vigour of the body, the superb abhinaya, they were deeply touched. I
believe that the whole body has to be the abhinaya. Angika Abhinaya
is very important to communicate to the rows of audience seated far
behind in huge theatres. The temple audience has now been replaced
by the theatre audiences and the ambience is very different. My need
for expression continued and exploring forms in Kerala like Kalari Payattu,
Bhadda Nrittam and others I have tried to icorporate them all in my
compositions.

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Egypt, S. America
I

1950 I WAS THRILLED WHEN THE G OVERNMENT OF I NDIA REQUESTED


us to go to Egypt to present classical Indian dances in Cairo and Alexandria.
We went by steamer. Dr Narayana Menon came as my director of music
and played the veena for my performances and his wife, Rekha, was the
manager of the group. She was an excellent administrator and we became
very good friends. In Cairo, we danced at the Opera for a week and
received a tumultuous reception. During the day we were tourists
exploring the bazaars and visiting all the famous sights.
Vikram arrived late one evening from India, and came straight to my
room, at Sheppards Hotel. In the morning, the waiter got a dreadful
shock to see a white man in my bed. We reassured him that the white
man was purely Indian and my husband. But he continually wondered
about Vikrams green eyes which he kept repeating were verree beautiful.
When our week at the Opera was over, we were invited to the palace
to dance for King Farouk. We had, of course, heard many stories about
him, not very complimentary, but naturally it was exciting to dance in
the palace. The Indian Ambassador, Mr Fyzee, and his wife were present.
While I was in Cairo, I heard that Jawaharlalji was passing through
on his way to a conference in London. I wanted so much to greet him
at the airport but my programme was scheduled at the same time. I
requested a friend in the embassy, Shri Avatar Singh, to buy the most
beautiful rose in Cairo and give it to him at the airport. Panditji was very
touched by the gesture. There was a poetic allusion in the Egyptian
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newspapers to the white rose in his hand when he entered the room for
the press conference. I like to think it disarmed everyone.
After Cairo we danced in Beirut and the utter beauty of the sea
and the hills was breathtaking. Vikram missed the performance and
drove up to see the famous Cedars and was I jealous! Today viewing
the terrible devastation in that region on television, I wonder how man
can be so unfeeling and cruel in the midst of all that beauty. What did
they lack?

Back in Ahmedabad, I was literally bombarded with cables from an impresario


in South America requesting us to come for a dance tour in 1951. He
represented a group called Sociade Musical Daniel. Finally, after many
messages to and fro, we started on the long journey to South America
and into what was to us still unknown territory. The troupe was now a
strong one and I was fortunate to have Leela Ramanathan from Bangalore
who had joined before the Egypt tour and who later came to study along
with me when I went on one of my regular visits to Meenakshi Sundaram
Pillai. Another student who had seen me dance in Colombo also joined
up. Dhanalakshmi was a lovely and beautiful human being. At last I had
companions whom I could talk to and who enjoyed the same things I did.

Our first halt on our way to South America was Lisbon and only when
we got off at Vigo and walked around the city did I realize that I had
friends there. So I hastily sent them a telegram and in the morning, as
I got off the boat, we were greeted by the smiling face of the Minister
for India, Mr Achutha Menon and his wife, Padmini. It was so delightful
to see them and we drove straight to their beautiful home, artistically
furnished with superb Portuguese furniture.

My first glimpse of Recife was through the porthole of our ship and I
remember how I cried out in surprise. I thought I was looking at the

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coastline of Kerala: the same trees, the red-roofed shacks and the coconut
palms. It made me feel a little less frightened of the adventure ahead
this wandering into another hemisphere which was so different from our
own. We were met by a Russian gentleman, Mr Fidler who spoke no
English and by the president of the society who was to sponsor us
in Rio who spoke only French! Luckily, my French stood me in good
stead here. Otherwise, we would have been completely lost, though we
were to find a few Malayali words in Portuguese. In Rio, our performance
was a tremendous success. The first night people stood on their chairs
to cheer, and roses were strewn over us from all sides! Hats flew into
the air and we had more curtain calls than we could count! The next
day the eulogies in the press were overwhelming. Poets wrote about me
in lovely verse.
Thy beauty is like the sandalwoods scent
that Thou hast kindled for us:
vanished in the shade and the spell, and prayer
creature from Heaven and mysterious portals,
open onto the other shore.
Thy hands,
bewildering,
infinitely afresh
infinitely eloquent
burned by Krishnas divine breath
how can I sing them!
The shows in Rio were extended. Doris Barry, the sister of Englands
Prima Ballerina, Alicia Markova, joined as the manager of our group. She
tried to contact our impresario, Mr Cuesada, but he remained inaccessible
and was to remain so throughout the tour. Only some ineffective deputies
of his ever appeared. From Rio, we went on to Bahia where the famous
dance the Samba was created; so of course we went late at night and
were thrilled with the sounds of the drums, the wild primitive movement
of the bodies, the vigour of the dance and the costumes. I joined in and
felt as though Id been born again in some ancient civilization, where
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the world was still new and humanity was joyous at discovering the
wonder of music and rhythm!
Everywhere we went Nandita Kripalani (who had joined me), Leela,
Dhanalakshmi and I tried to fit in as many museums and art galleries as
we could and avidly read the guide-books for sights we did not want
to miss. Nandita had responded to my invitation to come with us as she
was well acquainted with Argentina when her husband Krishna Kripalani
had been cultural attache at the Indian embassy. Besides, it gave Nandita
and me time to be together, after so long.
The Sodre Theatre in Umguay was the first theatre in South America
and was wonderful to dance in. And the audiences too seemed not only
full of warmth, but deeply excited by our performances. After the curtain
fell, there was call after call for us to come out again. Men and women
waited outside the theatre, greeting us with deep reverence when we
came out, often kissing my hands and sometimes even kneeling before
me, much to my embarrassment, yet making me feel both humble and
fiercely proud of my culture. It was as though I was possessed by the
goddess Devi. In many cities we had made the people of India for the
first time and at one of the embassies, someone said to me, You have
done in two hours what no embassy is able to do in two years made
India alive and beautiful to these people.
At the last performance in Montevideo, which otherwise was such
a happy occasion, one of the musicians had a heart attack. Before we
could decide what to do, an ambulance and a doctor had arrived and he
was whisked off to a hospital. I was told that his condition was very
serious. We could do nothing till the heart specialist arrived in the
morning. Fortunately, his condition improved and he begged me not to
leave him behind. We left for Buenos Aires by boat.
Everyone who entered Buenos Aires had to undergo a strict medical
examination. A week before, we were told of an American with a
permanent limp, being removed to the isolation hospital for examination
as the authorities refused to believe that his limp was due to a childhood
injury. At six in the morning, after a nights trip in freezing weather, no
one looks well. The first man the medical officer examined was the sick
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musician. Fortunately, he found nothing wrong and we landed, thankful


to find a warm welcome awaiting us from the Indian embassy, and a South
Indian gentlemen to greet us!
In Beunos Aires my first visit was to the theatre. I found that it was
not the best in Buenos Aires. There was no dressing room and the squalid
atmosphere was depressing. Besides that, the manager refused to remove
the flimsy curtains that had been fixed to the centre of the stage. I fought
in my best French for nearly an hour and finally managed to have them
taken off, but it was exhausting work and I went back to the hotel in
no mood for dancing. When we returned in the afternoon to get ready,
a radio car suddenly arrived and without anyones permission, started
putting up microphones all over the place. The manager said nothing.
It was Madame Evita Perons private radio station and as she had to be
away from Buenos Aires, she wanted all the music recorded. Senora
Peron was no doubt the most powerful person in Argentina at that time
and the secret of her success was her influence on the president and her
magnetic hold on the masses.
One day, while talking to some of the local people, I discovered that
they hated the Persons, not just for themselves but for what they were
doing to the country. Argentina is like an over-ripe apple, one of them
told me, just shake the tree and it will fall, rotten to the core.

From Buenos Aires we flew to Santiago, the capital of Chile. Fortunately


it was a clear morning and as we flew over the Andes, we had our first
view of the majestic range of mountains in the western hemisphere. We
were met at the airport by a group of people who called themselves the
Friends of India who had formed their group after the visit of Sir
Ramaswami Mudaliar, a well-known educationist, to Santiago.
One evening, The Friends of India arranged that we hear some
Chilean folk music and see their dancing. The music played on the guitar
was plaintive and yet imbued with a great deal of humour. I remember
one song in particular which was a group of women gossiping and the
sound of the voice and the guitar was like chatter in any language. As
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the boy and the girl danced the Cueca to the strumming of the guitar,
they used their underachieves flirtatiously, waving them almost as a
challenge to each other. The rhythm was catchy and soon Chathunnis
fingers started drumming the beat on his knee. One of the girls saw this
and dragged him into the centre to dance with her. Shivashankar, another
dancer, soon followed and they swung with ease to the steps, the only
difference this time being that the young men were the shy ones!
Guayaguil was probably one of the most depressing towns in South
America. The city was filled with parks and statues (there was a famous
one of Bolivars meeting with San Martin) and as we walked along the
water front, the whole view of odd bamboo houses, corrugated iron
sheets, and rows of slums did not make us feel very enthusiastic. Here,
of all places, we found a young Bengali with an Ecuadorian wife. He took
us sightseeing but his general air of sadness and loneliness made us feel
very sorry for him. The only redeeming factor about Guayaquil was the
Hotel Metropolitana where we stayed. It was run by an Englishman who
had a reputation for turning out people he did not like from the hotel,
and refusing admission to many. In each room were a set of rules for the
guests and the rooms were furnished in great detail, even a supply of
needles and coloured cotton being provided. When we met the manager,
he proved to be very kind and considerate and when later I asked him
about the rules, he said, Well, you know, there are some types I dont like
and so I have to make it very clear. Thank goodness you like us, I smiled.
Some places we saw only at night because, after Brazil, the tour grew
more and more strenuous. Often, we went straight to the theatre from
the airport and from the theatre after the performance, back to the
airport. Normally, dance groups are given at least three days to get
acclimatized to the city and the stage, but our impresario, who had been
taking advantage of us all the time and who never showed himself, had
arranged performances one day after another. In the middle of one
performance I began vomiting blood and got very scared. Half an hour
later Chathunni was in the same condition. Somehow we managed to
finish the performance and called a doctor. He explained to us that it
was because we were at a height and the exertion was too much for us.
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It was too late to do anything so we took some medicine and continued


with the shows. There was no alternative even though we were completely
exhausted. All along, from Rio onwards, the impresario had been exploiting
us without any thought to our welfare. Alicia Markova in England had
warned me about this (she too had had a similar experience!) but somehow
I had not taken the warning seriously. Now there was nothing we could
do, and the tour continued. The wonderful audiences were our only
consolation.
The entire tour was a gruelling experience and my letters home were
written usually at 4 a.m. before flights that often stretched to eight
harrowing hours. With my dread of flying, the journeys in South America
were not easy. Being the leader I had to keep everyone calm, which
was no easy task. There were many quarrels within the group and the
anger was almost always directed at me. Once, for about three weeks,
no one spoke to Chathunni or me because they had to give a performance
outdoors without us (we were both ill with exhaustion) and thought it
below their dignity! Going to Sao Paulo, we were told that we could not
take any currency so we gave all our savings to the secretary of the
impresario to keep for us. We never saw him or our money again!.
The man was obviously a thief, and later we heard that he was jailed
in a year. So all that we had saved,all our earnings, everything was gone!
I was so angry and ashamed. I had always prided myself on the fact that
every tour was so self-sufficient that I had never taken any money from
the family. When I got back to India, Vikram had to pay some of our
outstanding bills. I learnt the hard way that being trusting was not such
a good thing.

In Panama there was a large contingent of Indians to welcome us and


of course take us to see the Panama Canal! Each one of them had a story
to tell about how they came to be there and most seemed very homesick!
We were thankful to arrive in Mexico City after the terrible and arduous
tour of South America. Vikram, who was attending a Science Congress,
was to meet me in Mexico with Kartikeya, whom I was missing terribly.
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Our plane took one hour to land and it was pitch dark outside. When
we landed and went to the hotel and as I sat down completely exhausted,
a message was brought to me: Please be ready to leave at 4 a.m. for a
tour of Mexico. It was already midnight. I just sat and wept, with
Nandita trying to console me till it was time to leave. Everyone in the
group was furious with me, as though I had ordered the extra tour. We
had been through a more than strenuous tour, had never had enough
to eat, and were utterly worn out. On a professional tour, the meals and
stay (I cannot call it hospitality) are usually taken care of by the impresario.
In South America, there was no concept of vegetarianism. So after
a hard nights work cold boiled vegetables were laid out on the table
for us! After a day or two the very sight of boiled vegetables made us
sick. I tried my best to get food and finally ended up with bread, butter
and bottles of Tabasco sauce! But that did not create a happy situation
especially with the male dancers!
The tiny plane in which we took off from Mexico City was filled
with smoke from two fat cigar-smoking men behind us. I requested the
steward to tell them that the non-smoking sign was on. He shrugged
and said, They own the aircraft. I gave up! We danced in Torrean,
Chiahuahua, Juarez, San Luis Potosi, Guadalajara, and at last arrived back
in Mexico City, more exhausted and depressed.
Fortunately we arrived in time for me to meet Vikram at the airport.
He lifted our little boy over the rails who hugged and hugged me. All
my tiredness vanished. Is there any greater joy than a childs arms around
his mothers neck? With Vikram who thankfully took charge of me and
the group, we moved into a Spanish hacienda which a friend Miguel
Covarubias recommended to us. The whole group were shifted to a
comfortable hotel and at last we all relaxed. The food in Mexico was also
palatable with tortillas and beans!
At the opening of my show in Mexico City, Smt. Vijayalakshmi Pandit
who was Indias representative in the USA, came to the performance. I
felt proud to introduce her to the audience. She wrote afterwards, My
dear Mrinal, I am writing to tell you how much I enjoyed your ballet the
other evening. The work you are doing to interpret Indias cultural life to
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the world deserves the highest praise. I feel very proud of you and my
blessings and good wishes follow you wherever you may be.
Dr Homi Bhabha was also attending the science conference in Mexico
with Vikram. I teased him and asked, What lovely lady are you bringing
tonight, and nearly collapsed when he arrived with one of my favourite
film-stars, Dolores Del Rio!
Island of Bali
Years ago, I had read Miguel Covarubiass superb book
and was very excited to meet him and his wife, Rosa. Through them we
met many of the dancers who were trying to revive the dances of
Mexico. Rosa took us to the old Sun Temples and there we found a
remarkable similarity between Indian culture and the Mayan and Aztec
civilization. Miguel and Rosa were so knowledgeable about the history
and culture of Mexico, that we learned an enormous amount from them.
I was especially interested in the handicrafts and went to visit the
weaving and pottery centres. Through them we met many artists, one
a beautiful painter Alice Rahon, who gifted me two of her creations
which give me pleasure even today.

On our way back from South America, the famous American impresario,
Sol Hurok, wanted to meet me to organize a tour in the USA. He had
arranged to have a private recital in New York. Here, we came up against
customs who would not allow our luggage of costumes and instruments
to be taken out at New York. We were already in trouble because even
though Nandita Kripalani, who was leaving and going to London, had
a diplomatic passport and was only passing through New York to Europe,
had to spend a night at a separate hotel with two American guards at
the door! It seemed so ridiculous to us but the Government was adamant
even though we pleaded that her ship was scheduled for the next day.
I rang up a good friend of ours and asked him what I should do about
the concert. He said, Leave it to me, and in a few hours we had our
instruments. How did you manage it? I asked curiously. Oh, he smiled,
It was only a matter of passing over a few dollars. This shocked me a
good deal. I had not yet met with this kind of corruption!
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We danced for Sol Hurok in a small rented hall. When Vikram joined
me from Mexico, we met him again and discussed terms for a tour. Mr
Hurok said, You know you should wear a crown when you dance and
have plenty of incense. Im sorry, I said but in Bharatanatyam we do
not wear crowns. Oh! he replied the audience will expect it. That is
their idea of India. Not mine! I replied. He asked me to return in a
few months, and I was surprised to hear, Vikram say, Not for another
year, as we are planning a baby. I dont know whose face registered the
greater shock, Huroks or mine! I hardly ever questioned Vikrams
decisions! But it was only after another tour in Europe that Mallika was
born and I never danced for Sol Hurok!

In 1951 a friend from Andhra had written to me of a teacher of the


Andhra style of Bhagavata Mela Natakam, known today as Kuchipudi
after the village where it originated. He requested me to let him join
Darpana as he was mad about his art and could find no one really
interested. Always needing to explore new forms, I readily accepted.
C.R. Acharyalu, or Master as we called him gave us a preview of his
character the moment he left his village Eluru. Every two days telegrams
would arrive: Very tired -long journey -am wanting to rest. The distance
by train was a matter of forty-eight hours but it was ten days before he
arrived! He was taken to the house in the garden of The Retreat where
the other dancers stayed and then came to our drawing room upstairs.
After a while I went to greet him. I had just bathed, my hair was down
and I wore a white cotton sari as usual. Greeting him, we talked about
the terrible long distance the tiredness and the need to rest on the
way. After a while he looked at me saying, But when will I meet Mrinalini
Sarabhai? Thats me, I said rather surprised. What? You, sir? (he
always addressed me as sir) such a simple girl, such ordinary sari. I
thought someone will come with grand dress and costly ornaments. All
of you are my jewels, I replied laughing. I soon found that he was one
of the most knowledgeable people on dance traditions: a nonstop talker,
good-hearted, deeply religious with a longing to dance himself, for which
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sadly he did not have the form. But there was hardly a question on Indian
mythology or the traditions of dance that he could not answer. He knew
by heart all the dance dramas he had read, thousands of songs, and even
the science he had studied in his matriculation class at school! More than
any other quality, was his constant enthusiasm for the new experiments
I made, a rare thing in a classical guru. His greatest compliment to me
was,You are also mad like me about Nataraja. As a story-teller he was
enchanting! Kartikeya and Mallika owe much of their knowledge of Indias
myths to him for whenever I was away he told them innumerable stories.

It was always very difficult to leave the children when I went on tour.
Tours had now begun to follow in quick succession , especially in Europe.
In Paris we began to have regular seasons at the Theatre de Champs
Elysees and were soon well-known by the dance lovers of Europe. In
1954, we went to East Germany from Switzerland and it was as though
we travelled from light to darkness. In East Berlin we were required to
stay in a hotel fenced in by barbed wire, and were not allowed to go
out except to the theatre. At the gate were young armed Russians and
once, when we had forgotten our passports in our rooms, we were
threatened with guns. We hardly met any people. The only person I
remember from the trip was a policeman who acted as our escort and
became very friendly though we spoke no common language. In Dresden
we saw the terrible damage American planes and bombs had done in the
city, destroying all the old concert halls. When we bought postcards of
historical monuments to write home on , they were all stamped, Destroyed
by American bombs!
Dancing in East Berlin was an experience. On the first evening of
our performance, when I came on stage, the auditorium was in complete
darkness and plunged in absolute silence. I felt like I was dancing to an
empty space, a black cavern, a void. It was only after the performance
was over that the lights came on and we found we did in fact have an
appreciative audience, they just didnt clap between items.
After East Germany our next stop was Munich. We got out of the
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train with sighs of relief and as there was a two-hour stop we went out
of the station, revelling in the brightly-lit streets, feeling really free.
Suddenly we heard people running after us and were suddenly surrounded
by a group of men. For a moment my heart stopped. But then I realized
that they were asking us whether we had come from India. Yes, we said
Have you been there? Came the astonishing reply, We worked for a
year in a place called Ahmedabad!
When Bulganin and Khruschev came to India in 1959, Darpana was
invited to perform a dance drama, to entertain the honoured guests. The
woman in charge in Delhi, a so-called patron of the arts, wrote asking
us to please not include Bharatanatyam. This was typical of the jealousy
in artistic circles I was always faced with. She had a particular protg
but had been obviously forced into asking us to dance as we were wellknown. But Bharatanatyam was my strongest technique and I was not
going to let it be thrust aside. As the authorities had requested a dance
Gowri
drama, I created a new piece and called
it. The story was of a dancer
in the palace, an expert in her own dance style, who thinks there is
nothing to rival it. One day a Prince (Chattunni) passing by, sees her
and immediately falls in love with her. He speaks to her of his country
and its fabulous dance. She insists that her style is the greatest! So there
is a display of both the forms, each one depicting the superb qualities
of their art. Finally, they realize that there are many forms, all exquisite
and wonderful. It was a romantic story and brought in all the strength
of Bharatanatyam and Kathakali.
When we arrived in Delhi we found no arrangements for a dressing
room they had already been allotted, even though we were the major
group. I said nothing and rigged up some curtains in the corridor managing
somehow to do our make-up with our small compacts. Of course this
was a deliberate insult by the woman in charge but we took it in our
stride and decided to make our performance the best. And it was!
Khruschev and Bulganin both came onto the stage. Khruschev
whispered to me, You are the most beautiful dancer I have seen.
Sarojini Naidu who was in the audience, said to me that it had been a
superb piece, especially as the story element was strong and it was so
romantic and unusual.
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E

C AMBRIDGE IN 1947, VIKRAM HAD BEEN


very keen to establish his laboratory in Ahmedabad. He was closely
connected with the Gujarat University, and felt that we needed to live
closer to the campus and, if possible, on the other side of the river from
Shahibaugh. The Sabarmati river divides the city. We both wanted more
space for our work. We looked at many sites but didnt like any. One
evening we came to a small village, Usmanpura, where someone had
mentioned a site by the river. It was a dirty plot filled high with garbage
but we both loved the place the moment we set foot in it. It reminded
us of Premalaya in Malleshwaram. We can make something of it, we
thought.
So we built our home near Gandhijis Sabarmati ashram, on a hillock
that overlooked the river. Chidambaram was designed by Vikrams sister,
Gira, in 1952. Gira was a student of the celebrated architect, Frank Lloyd
Wright. All the rooms opened on to the garden. Down below, where the
river flowed, were huge brick walls from ancient times which Vikram
converted into a small amphitheatre for me. It was a remarkably lovely site
and years later, after Merac Cunningham and his group, including the
lovely Carolyn Brown performed there, she wrote: I shall never forget dancing
in your theatre by the river in the moonlight, with the beautiful sounds
hovering in the night, nor will I forget your evening of dance for us.
VER SINCE OUR RETURN FROM

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Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru always trusted and loved Vikram.


Amongst Vikrams friends and colleagues were Dr Homi Bhabha, Sir Shanti
Swaroop Bhatnagar, Sir K.S. Krishnan, Sir C.V. Raman and Dr K.R.
Ramanathan who encouraged Vikram to set up his own scientific research
institution, the Physical Research Laboratory. Both Sir Shanti Swaroop
Bhatnagar and Sir K.S. Krishnan were members of the Council of
Management. On holiday in Kashmir, Vikram told me that the entire
concept of the P.R.L. had come to his mind when travelling alone in a
train. The P.R.L. was Vikrams dream a dream which he had dreamt
even before he had completed his studies at Cambridge. Scientific
research was his highest priority and this intense passion continued till
the last moment of his life. In fact P.R.L. became the cradle of Indias
space programme. Vikram was very keen to have Prof. Chandrasekhar,
the celebrated physicist, become the director of his Physical Research
Laboratory. When the Chandrasekhars visited us Prof. Chandrasekhar
gave a popular lecture of which I understood not a word. Walking back
to the in the car he explained how everything in the universe could be
measured. Prof. Chandra, I said, do you like me? Of course, Mrinal,
he replied. Then could you please measure your affection and put it in
a box so I can have it when you go away, I said mischievously. He turned
to Vikram laughing, These artists are cleverer than us, he said.
All Vikrams eminent friends became mine too, though on an
unscientific plane. Homi Bhabha was extremely westernized and
sophisticated and we talked mainly about art and music. When we were
living in Bangalore, he drew two lovely pencil sketches of me. With Dr
Krishnan, I discussed the Ramayana and Vikram complained that he was
very prompt in replying to my letters of queries on the Ramayana while
his replies to him were always delayed!
Dr Ramanathan, who became the first director of the Physical Research
Laboratory, came from Kalpathy, very near my fathers village, so there
was already a bond and soon he became dear to me as did his lovely
daughter-in-law, Suguna, a scholar of English literature and a writer, and
her husband, Krishnan. Sugunas father came from the same village as
my father!

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Alongside the P.R.L. was the Ahmedabad Textile Industrys Research


Association (ATIRA). This too was Vikrams brainchild, for which he
had to fight the prejudice of some of the diehard textile mill-owners,
who felt that research was a waste of time. Kasturbhai Lalbhai, to whom
Vikram was more than a son, helped to collect the money, for the
association and was a strong believer in Vikrams ideas and stood by him
wholeheartedly. In 1954, the day Pandit Nehru inaugurated both the
ATIRA and PRL complexes, a lunch was arranged at ATIRA and I was
in charge. Enlisting the help of my sister-in-law, Manorama, I had ordered
a Gujarati meal and delicious mango pulp, keri no ras a Gujarati speciality,
as it was summer. Everything was ready in the kitchen, and I was peeping
out of the door when Panditji entered the dining room. At that very
moment, the cook had an epileptic seizure and fell flat on the ground
amongst the dishes. My guardian angel must have been watchful, for not
a single dish was displaced or touched. Panditji especially enjoyed the
Gujarati food and complimented me on the kadi (a buttermilk stew)
and the mango pulp which he thoroughly enjoyed. Between courses I
dabbed water on the cook, and he sat up only an hour after everyone
had left, very upset that he had let us down!
In an inaugural speech of ATIRAs management conference in
1955, Shri T.T. Krishnamachari, the then Finance Minister said that
Nehru always talked of ATIRA as a model institution in independent
India.
A great visionary and builder of some of the finest institutions in
India, Vikram was interested in professional management and wanted to
create an environment in Ahmedabad, similar to the Harvard Business
School. As the Director of ATIRA he started annual management
conferences and invited distinguished speakers, one of whom was Prince
Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, in January 1959.
Kasturbhai Lalbhai, who was the chairman, called me over to discuss
the lunch (for by now I was considered an expert on luncheons for
dignitaries!), and told me he was arranging the food with caterers from
Mumbai. I was horrified and said so, with the result that I was asked to
arrange everything. The low tables were the only concession to the west.
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The gleaming silver thalis and delicious Gujarati food (with fewer spices),
the waiters dressed in white acchkans and traditonal headgear, the
beautifully tended lawns of Kasturbhais home, and the surrounding huge
trees, were all appreciated by Prince Philip who had not, he said, been
to a real Indian home before, nor eaten good Indian food.
In 1956 Vikram found a Director for ATIRA Dr Wakeham from
the USA. He handed over the directorship to him and busied himself
starting a new professional forum of businessmen called the Ahmedabad
Management Association. As the founder of the AMA, he served as the
President till he became involved in another institution.
It was in 1962 that the Indian Institute of Management took shape.
Vikram had to work very hard to bring the IIM from its earlier location
in Mumbai to Ahmedabad. IIMA (Ahmedabad) was a combination of the
efforts of Dr Jivraj Mehta, the Chief Minister of Gujarat, Shri Kasturbhai
Lalbhai and Vikram. Vikram worked very hard to collaborate with the
central government, the Ford Foundation and the Harvard Business School.
He served as Honorary Director of IIMA for three years till he found a
full-time young director, Professor Ravi J. Mathai, strangely enough the
son of my mothers great friends, Dr John and Achamma Matthai.
Vikram invited Louis Kahn, the celebrated architect, from the USA,
to design the IIMA. Many were the late nights at Chidambaram when
Kahn and Vikram, seated on the carpet, planned and re-planned the
building while I served endless cups of herbal tea. Kahn once said to me,
This is the epoch of the White light. Amongst our young people
wonder does not exist. They rely more on pay than prowess. Now
students keep questioning the competence of a teacher, instead of listening
to him. Why white light I asked. What is the reflection of white light?
Black shadow of course, he answered.
He was one of the architects I admired greatly as I felt that his work
merged aesthetically with the surroundings. I still think the I.I.M. is a
marvellous construction and reminds me of Mohenjo Daro! Vikram
wished to have Louis Kahn work with young Indian architects, to design
the capital of Gujarat Gandhinagar and had thought of a nation-wide
competition. In one of my letters to him, I wrote The latest news is that
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Morarji has turned down the proposal of inviting architects for the new
capital. Of course this is completely political, and I wonder what will
happen now. I hope it does not become just another P.W.D. town.
Chinubhai Chimanbhai of the Lalbhai family the then Mayor of
Ahmedabad, wanted to make Ahmedabad a modern city and invited the
famous French architect, Le Corbusier to design several buildings. These
included the museum called Sanskar Kendra, the Mill Owners Association
and two homes, one for himself and one for his sister, my sister-in-law,
Manorama Sarabhai. As I was the only one in the family who spoke
French, Le Corbusier gave his opinions to me, while I tried desperately
to make sense of his rather brusque conversation. I have to admit that
I was not enamoured of his work as it did not seem to fit in with the
character of our city. Only Manis home, which she made comfortable
and attractive by her personality and good taste, seemed worthwhile to
me! Corbusiers home for Chinubhai and his wife Prabha was not so
successful. The huge edifice, the kitchens far away, the massive structure
was not conducive to the ambience of an Indian home. It was Prabha
who bravely decided against it and with some trepidation told her
husband and later his uncle, Kasturbhai Lalbhai, that she could not live
in such a house!
Le Corbusier had really no idea I felt, of the Indian climate and the
Indian psyche. But his coming to India opened up a whole new vista of
architecture of which the leading figure was Balakrishna Doshi, who has
since done incredible work. Doshis architecture became part of the
landscape of Ahmedabad and his philosophy took deep roots.
Doshi and his wife, Kamu, Vikram and I dreamt many dreams for
Ahmedabad. The Hussian-Doshi Gufa is the latest addition to the
architecture of Ahmedabad. Not all of our dreams have been fulfilled,
but we still have aspirations for this ancient-new city.
Wherever Vikram went, he looked around for interesting business.
Swastik was a losing concern he took charge of and it soon flourished
with agencies like Max factor, Maya soap and Det. Swastik Hair Oil
became one of the most popular brands of its kind.
While at M.I.T one year, he wanted to lose weight (this was always
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a problem!) and began to take Metracal, a slimming powder Sure


enough he introduced it in the Indian market and called it Limical!
(Limited Calories). His obsession for staying slim and trim has been
inherited by Mallika!

In the meanwhile, I continued with my Bharatanatyam classes and


performances. With my constant performances I was gradually attracting
an audience in Ahmedabad and at the same time attracting students. The
few children who came were taught in Chidambaram, as I was determined
not to have a new school building till the demand for classes was
overwhelming.
We started as a small company, performing as well as teaching.
Vikram was fully involved as he was always very interested in building
educational and research institutions. Slowly, the younger generation
began to see the beauty of classical dance. Some were perhaps attracted
to the glamour of the stage. Dance for me is a deep, spiritual affirmation
of life, an emotionally-charged sacred energy. The children who came
to me were like unopened buds. My desire was to make them blossom
gently into flowers that mirrored their artistic and ancient heritage.
Darpana means Mirror and the universe I feel is reflected within each
one of us.
The school formally opened in 1962 (designed by the architect
Kanvinde with ideas from Vikram) without much fanfare. It was a difficult
beginning. When Darpana was founded, it was regarded as a cultural
oddity and curiosity in the industrial city of Ahmedabad where artistic
activity had hardly any place. But Vikram kept telling me that someday
Darpana would have a strong influence in Gujarat.

When Mallika was born, she brought great joy into our lives. Children
are to me the greatest fulfilment of married life. And it has always
astounded me how there are women in the world who actually dislike
and debase their children. Here, I am not speaking of those who have
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problems of poverty or illness but of parents who are comfortably welloff. Vikram and I both loved our children and treated them with respect.
Love does not mean spoiling it means cherishing. We just made our
children feel that we were always there for them and that they were very
important to us. There is a difference between freedom and licence. We
always told them what we felt was right and we would discuss with them
what they thought. They shared our life and interacted with all the
distinguished people who were our guests, without any self-consciousness.
Many years later Mallika wrote in an article:
I recall hanging around with the musicians, all dolled up in my
pavade (skirt) feeling desperately proud of my mother dancing
on stage, sitting in her lap during speeches and being terribly
miserable when she went on tours. I used to howl every time
Amma went away. Papa was not very busy touring till he became
the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. Amma often

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had to go on tours, but between them they had an understanding,


a commitment to parenting atleast one of them would be with
us at home in Ahmedabad at any given time, till we were twelve
years old. This meant that Papa was with us alone frequently, and
for lengthy periods of time, adjusting his work schedules to suit
Ammas dance ones. Ammas trips usually lasted for not more
than six weeks but to me it seemed like eternity. Papa used to
tell me that I was ruining things for Amma by crying every time
she went on her dance tours. So I promised him I wouldnt cry.
Before Amma went on tour there would be numerous little
preparations. She would write as many letters as the days she
would be away so we would receive a letter every morning. She
would also chalk out a menu for all our meals for that period so
that Papa wouldnt be harassed with mundane household
problems. We grew up in total ignorance of the fact that society
had a bias against women.
Our parents hopes and expectations of both Kartikeya and I
were the same. Achievements were something to be shared, at
Chidambaram, our home. Ammas award was ours. Papas growing
fame too was ours. And fame and achievements were important
only if they could be shared. At the same time our parents
achievements were never something with which we were
threatened. It was never a case of we are getting famous so youd
better catch up. Instead what transmitted was look what fun it
is to work hard, to care about what you want to do. And there
are so many things to do, so many tasks ahead for our country,
our people. This, I think, laid the seeds in our minds and the
fact that today Kartikeya and I are both involved deeply in a
variety of apparently unrelated areas of activity, many of which
are an attempt to help better the quality of the life of people,
is due to this. For me Amma has been the embodiment of
everything positive-strength, love, kindness, humour. As a mother,
if I can be the same kind of mother to my children, then that
would be enough.

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For both Vikram and me, in spite of our busy careers, the children were
first priority. One day, Chathunni came to me in great distress as he had
received a telegram that his guru, who was more like a father to him,
had died. I tried to comfort him the entire day. Kartikeya, aged three,
was with me and that evening he asked me what death was. I tried to
explain that as some people go on long journeys, this too was a journey
to God. The sad part was that we would never meet again. But I said,
we would be reborn perhaps into some other family. The next day,
Kartikeya came to me and asked, Amma, do you know God? I replied
No Pu-pu, not in the way I know you but I do talk to Him everyday.
Will you talk to Him today and ask Him something? Yes, of course,
I said. Will you tell Him that when I die, could He put me back into
your tummy and nowhere else? he asked. This remark shook me. How
wonderfully perceptive children are and no amount of love that we give
them is ever too much! It is no wonder that my cousin Susheela often
teased me saying, You always glow as though you are the only person
to have produced a child.
Another time, when Mallika was just two, I left on tour. She promised
to learn a song for me from Papa so when I returned I asked her to sing
it for me. She immediately lisped: Oh sinner, why dont you answer?
Someone is knocking at the door. That was the song her Papa had taught
her! Vikram was always as mischievous as a child.

After Dr Homi Bhabhas tragic death on 24th January, 1966, Vikram


became involved with the Department of Atomic Energy. He was already
overworked with the Space Programme. I often had to curtail my tours
but it never made me resentful. No matter what my professional schedule
was, I tried to be always there when Vikram or my children needed me.
I did my best to combine the mother-dancer and wife role. I remember
an occasion in Vadodra, early in my career, when I was invited to perform
for Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru for a conference at 9 a.m. My son was going
on a school trip and his train was leaving at half past eight. For some
reason he insisted that I see him off at the station. I refused the invitation

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to dance and took him to the train. He has never forgotten it. For years
he told everyone: Amma cancelled her performance for Panditji for my
sake!
Kartikeya and Mallika were growing up and between Vikram and me,
we brought them up with as much love and guidance as possible. Kartikeya
was always self contained, with a real sense of humour (I called it South
Indian brahmin genes) and was very close to both of us. Vikram considered
him a friend and they would have lengthy discussions together. While
I was away, he wrote me letters fully illustrated with cartoons and I felt
he could really be an excellent cartoonist, especially as his cartoons were
of political figures. This argument still goes on!
At home in Chidambaram the four of us used to have long discussions
at dinner. Kartikeya as a child was a great one for explaining and
questioning, and I called him the Why boy. He enjoyed dance and
music and painted the sets for our first Gujarati play, written by Pannalal
Patel. He and Mallika would sit on one side while the group rehearsed
and keep prompting everyone much to their annoyance!
As much as Kartikeya was an inward child Mallika was outward
one. She was boisterous, plump, lovely and affectionate, always full of
fun. But she had a marvellous capacity, even at an early age, to listen to
other peoples troubles and try to sort them out though when she
would come and weep over someones love affair it would make me
angry. Older people confided in her even when she was just twelve!
Noshir Kapadia ran a record shop in the city and Mallika spent many
hours there as she loved music. He was one of the young men who talked
to her about his problems and she often asked him to come home and
meet me, but he was too shy. It was during the Pakistan war when he
heard that I was having difficulties getting daily supplies that he arrived
and stayed on for dinner and has been a dear friend to all the family ever
since. In fact he is now part of it and jokingly calls himself our Hanuman.
His friendship is very valuable to me.
Whenever I was away Vikram wrote detailed letters about the children,
which showed a fathers loving care.

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7.11.59
I am really a much better father to them when you are away but
keep counting the days to when you will return.
29.9.59
Malli acts somewhat temperamental and has to be wooed every
now and then. Your hints to me about how this is to be done
are most useful and the technique works very well. Kartik is most
helpful and understanding but we are all going through a process
of readjustment. For two nights a three bedded arrangement
with the children jumping on me from both sides worked well
as far as they were concerned but I could hardly get a stretch
of sleep. Last night we could quite successfully put some gaps
between the beds. I go on wishing so much, almost praying in
my way, that this tour should be really satisfying to you, we are
really missing you but in a nice away but not pining way so please
try and be relaxed and peaceful and a prima donna.
29.11.59
Kartik is Amma-sick, so am I. We celebrated Kartiks birthday,
we got presents. Vikram Sarabhai went shopping with the children
at 4.00 p.m. in the afternoon on a working day!
11.1.60
A group has brought Kumara Sambhavan and a show was
arranged. I went but could not stand it for more than 15 minutes.
Dancing, like other things can be magic but it can be a frightful
bore if the spark is missing. Too many people are now doing it
in a manipulative way like exercise. This could be fine if there
was precision and discipline and no attempt to tell a story or a
mood!
31.3.60
The children have been most reasonable and made no protest
at my leaving them, (for Mumbai) though Malli is careful to avoid
farewells at airports. When I came home yesterday I was horrified

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to get a complaint from Malli that K had slapped her. After that
I felt more concerned and sad though by then the two of them
were acting as if nothing had happened. Of course Malli had
been teasing him but I have told K that there is an absolute
ban on physical retaliation.
2.10.63
My dearest Amrapalli,
It is wonderful to get your letters almost every day. We were
trying to telephone you for four days before we finally got
through. Kartik has really got his mind made up for the terminal
exams. His problem is that he had not read his Physics and
Chem. textbooks earlier. Then there are the problems to be
solved-plus the fact that he feels he should bring his marks upto
60% atleast!!
6-10-63
Almost four days have gone by since I wrote the above. Malli
had a severe bout of tonsilitis with fever for 4 days, but she
has been very good and listened to me about medicines. I spent
quite a bit of time with Malli and Master (Acharyalu) told her
half the Mahabharata and we did spellings and algebra. She is
now full of beans and has just gone out swimming with Mana
(Gautams daughter) and Kartik. One of her minor problems is
some trouble with her friends at school.
Kartik has done well at his exams. The only shock was when
he prepared for Chemistry and discovered that on that day there
was a Physics paper. Pratapbhai Upadhyaya (who was teaching
him) says there was a divine hand in the mistake.
The house runs smoothly. Malli takes over the menu sometimes
it is then asparagus and mayonnaise. The lawn is just sprouting
with a light shade of green like Kartiks beard before he shaved.
Lots of love and xxxxxxx Viki.

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1.4.70
Dearest Mrinalini,
Malli is amazing, the way she takes her exams in her stride. No
panic, enjoying life with her musketeers. She has done very well
if I understand her vocabulary except the very last paper in
Economics where she had consciously avoided reading parts of
the course in the expectation that she could dodge the question
in the exam. But this only makes a marginal difference and it
is a good lesson to have learnt.

When Vikram established ATIRA in 1948 he looked for people to run


it. My friend from Shantiniketan, Kamla Kapur, was now in Lahore. Her
marriage to Chowdhury, a magristrate, had ended in tragic circumstances.
It happened that at that time I was in Lahore for my brother Subrams
wedding in September, 1941. Our friendship was renewed but then she
went to Ann Arbor to study social psychology. I introduced her to
Vikram after our marriage and later Vikram asked her to join ATIRA in
1949. Eminently capable as a psychologist and a management consultant,
she was an asset to the new institution. Later another woman, Sundri
Vaswani, also joined and was very successful in introducing statistical
quality control in the mills of Ahmedabad. Vikram always thought highly
of women in managerial positions as he told me they were always more
dedicated and hardworking than men.
Kamala stayed with us till the ATIRA houses were built. She had
many interesting friends coming in from Delhi. One of them was Prakash
Tandon, who later became involved with the Indian Institute of
Management.
As the years went by the relationship between Kamla and Vikram
became extremely personal and I found the situation difficult, not because
I objected to it on moral grounds, but because it encroached upon our
family. There were constant demands that certain days of the week
belonged to her and even though she shared almost all festivities with
us, she did not let me be part of her own life. Perhaps it was I who was
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restrained. Working and travelling constantly with Vikram, she took on


a certain authority that many of the officers resented and spoke to me
about. They said that from Vikram they would take anything but not
from her. It was a situation that caused me a great deal of pain even
though Vikram constantly assured me of his love. He wanted me to make
her feel a part of our family, which somehow I was perhaps not generous
enough to do, though God knows I tried hard enough. Once she
mentioned that she felt grateful to Prakash for giving her much warmth
but that she loved only Vikram.
I realized Kamala too had problems. Vikram had helped her regain
her self confidence after the death of her husband. Once she wrote or
told Vikram that keeping up with him was like walking on a tread wheel
one goes on but gets nowhere. Why does she need to almost possess
you? I asked.
Vikram in a letter from the USA replied:
You wrote to me quite early about us and I have kept silent so
as to try and get a perspective. It is easy enough to analyse
I am in deep trouble. It all came back as I was leaving Ahmedabad
when Kamala was also there at The Retreat. Who am I to blame
but myself? Then you wrote about love. How does one unlive
what one has lived through? This applies to all relationships.
You, Kartik, Malli, Kamala. It is impossible to consciously trample
on anyone but this is what I am doing all the time, with those
who I love. So much so that no one is really convinced or is
confident of my love. When the world outside and all our
relationships get tangled up like this, what else can one do but
to withdraw into oneself not stop loving but pay the price.
You have given me a beautiful picture of yours a ravishing one
do you really believe that I do not love you wish to look after
you and what is even more important wish to be loved by you
as I am with all my faults? And in the New Year I want to ask
you a favour to me. If we cannot prevent hatred in our love as
at present, let us take out of it that which sours it. I need so much
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your tenderness as you need my shoulder to rest your head


on. Do you remember, for almost a year after we were married,
we could not sleep except in each others arms? Please, Mrinalini
dont doubt me. I love you dearly not only as the mother, but
as a woman. And I shall never stop feeling this way for anyone
elses sake.
This letter will reach you about New Year. And I have hesitated
writing from my heart. If it conveys what I feel it will reassure
you, perhaps make you love me and feel loved. Lots of love to
Urvashi.(one of Vikrams numerous names for me).

I too had wonderful men friends but mine were mostly cerebral
attachments. What has always drawn me is good conversation, shared
thoughts on literature and drama. But none of them ever infringed upon
my family life. In fact many of them were introduced to me by Vikram,
who knew how lonely I was, as he was away so much.
It was perhaps when Mallika grew older (she was about twelve) that
she showed her resentment of the relationship, and, deeply upset,
distanced herself from Vikram. Mallika doesnt love me, Vikram would
say constantly. She loves you too much, I would reply, but she resents
someone being forced upon us, our family. Mallika, fiercely protective
of me, would also speak to him frankly. She was never one to mince words
or be untruthful and while that is a great strength it has brought her much
criticism. Yet, I dont know anyone who is more loyal to her friends, and
will fight for their rights so commitedly as she. After all, her two aunts,
Mridula Sarabhai and Lakshmi Sehgal were great fighters and there have
always been strong women on both sides of the family!

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T

ODAY, WHEN SO MUCH

EMPHASIS IS LAID ON POLITICAL CONTACTS,

people may be surprised to realize that the deepest ties between countries
are cultural. That is what we found when we went on a Government
delegation to South East Asia in 1956. We began by being called a
delegation; but everywhere we became known as the Indian Cultural
Mission. We were, as Prithviraj Kapoor (the leader) put it, in his first
speech in Rangoon, pilgrims who had come from India with offerings
of dance and music.
We arrived in Rangoon on an auspicious day, the last day of the
Thingyan or Water Festival.
The streets were filled with laughing people throwing buckets of
water on passers-by, and overloaded jeeps made sure that no one escaped.
It was a happy day and towards evening gaily decorated lorries became
moving stages for dancing and music. Some of us, who were brave
enough, went out to be officially ducked. We sped through the streets
into a city where spaces are open and the foliage is much like that of
Southern India. In this mood we entered the Kabawaza palace where we
stayed as guests of the government. The carved Chinese looking gates,
and the decorated tower was reminiscent of some ancient century. But
inside all was planned as in a modern hotel, strangely reminding me of
Egypts Sheppards Hotel.
Overlooking Rangoon, stands the lovely Shwedagon Pagoda. History
tells us that this Pagoda has for centuries been a place of pilgrimage.
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Kings and monks have come here to propitiate the Gods and worship
before the Buddha.
The morning we visited the Pagoda was a memorable one. We gave
our offering to the Buddha, placing the flowers and incense in huge jars
kept for the purpose. I was struck with wonder at the power of the
individual. Here, in a country far away from his home was a young Hindu
prince being worshipped by men and women who devoutly pinned their
entire faith and dedicated their ideas to Him.

Our performances took place in the open and were watched by more
than five thousand people. To the scheduled two programmes, we added
a third an action which was to happen everywhere. The stage too was
crowded with people, and our dressing rooms were hastily put up with
matting. Children peered through the holes which made dressing a problem.
The weather was sticky and suffocating but the riotous reception we
received made up for any inconveniences. Prithviraj Kapoor, began by
reciting verses from his plays and later from Shakespeare but they were
not much appreciated because of the language, so he had to soon stop.
Once, while he was giving away prizes to girls in the big open air
theatre it was amusing to see him put in a sticky situation. One by one
the little girls came up to him and he gave them loud smacking kisses.
The embarrassment began when the girls kept getting older. The crowd
roared with laughter. Prithviraj with his inimitable charm overcame the
situation by clasping their hands instead. He was a very fine gentleman
with one of the most resonant voices that I have ever heard. At first,
he was a little wary of me being a Sarabhai but soon he left all the
decisions of the programmes to me. One night, at about 12 oclock, he
made an unexpected visit to the theatre and found me folding and
ironing our clothes. He put his hand on my head and said, Mrinalini,
you are a real trooper.
It was at a lunch given to us at the Burmese Translation Society that
we saw a lovely fragment of the Ramayana performed. Rama, Lakshmana
and Ravana wore masks reminiscent of Kathakali make-up, while Sitas
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The delegation to S.E. Asia with Pritviraj Kapoor.

face was made up naturally. Compared to our dancing, everything moved


at a very slow tempo, but the basic pattern seemed similar: the bent
knees, the square position of the hands the use of mudras. In fact, we
discovered small missing links that had puzzled us in our own dance
dramas, which gave us a great thrill.
Thailand was familiar to us as the only Asian country never dominated
by a western power. All these places had been so long a mystery, so
similar in many ways and yet hardly known. The morning sunlight catching
the coloured tiles of the Bangkok Wats or Temples with their four
curved corners tilted upwards into the sky in aspiration; inside images
of the Buddha mingling with splendid friezes of the Ramayana, and
Hanuman who was one of the most popular figures in the dance dramas.
The Khon or masked dance drama is taken from the Ramayana. Similar
to the Burmese style, Rama was in a deep green mask, Lakshmana in gold,
Hanuman in white. The recitation of the story was called Khampak and
relates to the old chandas style of Sanskrit verse.
Another variety of the dance called Lakon, was performed for us.
It was a contemporary version called the Lakon Nak, the drama of the
public, which was introduced as characterized by rapid action, broad
farce and not necessarily subject to dramatic convention. We saw an
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episode from a drama called Inao written by King Rama II of Thailand.


A popular production, its ancient costumes, conventional pieces and
broad farce made it a little complicated for the spectator, but we enjoyed
it all the same. Contrary to Indian dancing, there was a complete lack
of facial expression and yet the mood was conveyed.
Sightseeing in Bangkok was fascinating, but we had only moments
to snatch between performances and receptions. One afternoon a few
of us walked into the Wat Poh, one of the loveliest temples in Bangkok.
As I came out of the temple, a tall, and I mean really tall, monk (he
was 6ft 7 high!) holding an umbrella greeted me. He was a foreigner and
hailed me in Sanskrit, calling me Parvati! You are the incarnation of the
Goddess, he said, and your dance is sublime. Rather overwhelmed, I
asked him where he was from, and learned that he was a Viennese and
had studied Sanskrit and Hindi and was called Swami Agehananda Bharati.
We talked a great deal and I found him a fascinating, highly articulate
philosopher. What was a surprise was the fact that he had served with
the German Armys Free India Legion. So I told him I was Lakshmis
sister. Our friendship continued through the years. He became professor
of anthropology at the Syracruse University. In reply to a letter of mine
asking for his blessing, he wrote from Seattle in 1959
It is not a question of praying for you, Mrinalini the infinite
need not pray for the infinite, and what should it anyway pray
for? You are the image of Parashakti in your existence, and your
dance is Parashaktis dance itself: it yields ineffable bliss to those
who know and to those who have achieved ecstasies, oneness
with what you seek, and realize, in your dance: as you go through
your repertoire, it is to me a spectacle, a paradigm of the supreme
achievement it is the gradual progress of the kundalini Shakti
from her inconspicuous base hidden deep in the unconscious
to the embrace of Shiva in the thousand-petalled lotus. You
yourself create this universe in nrta and nrtya, in the most perfect
analogy based on the dictum Siva-Sakti-samayogad-jayatesrstikalpana. So what is there to pray for?

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While the temples and the bazaars retained the old world charm of an
ancient culture, Bangkok was in many ways a modern city. The wide
roads, the new buildings, the air-conditioned theatre where we danced,
were all indications of western influence. What seemed to me a great
pity was that the national dress of the people had been discarded almost
completely. Only Prince Dhani Nivat, one of the most fascinating people
in Bangkok, who was deeply interested in the culture of the country and
who helped me understand much of the dance and music, wore the
national dress a patola dhoti and a short ikat jacket! He took me into
a special room in the palace, filled with treasures and showed me pictures
of his grandmother who was a famous dancer. When I remarked that he
was the first person whom I had seen in Thai dress, he replied with
twinkling eyes, Oh, you think its wonderful, but most people think its
uncivilized! We had to wear crinolines to show we were not barbaric!
The King and
I met Yul Brynner, and even sent him
Years later I saw
and
a Banarasi sari as part of his costume as he told me his had worn out!
Yul wanted to visit us as he said he was a gypsy and needed to come
home to India to find his roots.
When we left Bangkok, our flights were messed up again; we sat at
the airport all day and finally at 6.30 pm the Vietnamese Government
sent two Dakotas for us. We bumped our way rather precariously to
Saigon, in terrible, turbulent weather. The lightning and thunder lashed
our planes. I was terrified, but as assistant leader had to get up and
comfort everyone. The girls from Manipur screamed and clung to our
Kathakali dancers who were as scared as they were.
Saigon was a city much like any other except that the cafes on the
sidewalks reminded one of Paris. The costumes of the women, the loose
trousers and long flowing silk dresses, were beautiful.
We danced in the garden of President Diem and later had supper
with him in the spacious grounds where not so long before, the French
lived in great style. I was sitting next to him and tried to make conversation,
but he seemed very depressed and distraught. There was such an aura
of despair around him that I felt very strongly a sense of doom, and spoke
about it later to my friends. His sister-in-law was very vivacious and

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charming, and seeing me admire her dress, sent me a whole outfit the
next morning. My feeling of tragedy around Diem was to prove true for
The
a week later he was killed. It was much later
in Economist
Nov 2, 1985,
that I read about Kennedys hand in the making of the mess in Vietnam.
In Vietnam, the C.I.A. egged on the perverse President Diems top
generals to mutiny and murder him.
We flew to Phnom-Penh in Cambodia which was the next stop.
Prince Norodom Sihanouk, whom we talked to after the performance,
was very thrilled with the dancing. It is so alive and intense, he said. This
was the response nearly everywhere. The Prince was outwardly quiet and
unassuming and when I told him that we had heard a great deal of his work,
he seemed surprised. The Prime Minister of Cambodia smiled and said,
Why dont you come back and help us revive our dancing, and I did not
hesitate in replying, Yes, I will come back to learn it first.
Their dance was similar in many ways to what we saw in Bangkok,
but here there was even more resemblance to the lasya of Kathakali.
India could learn much from the orchestras of all these countries, instead
of always turning to the west for inspiration.
We were put up by the organizers in a small dirty Chinese hotel,
and sat up the whole night as the room was bug-infested and built over
an open stinking drain. Such is the glamorous and exciting life of a
dancer! The next morning the Prime Minister invited me to breakfast.
He was furious when he heard where I was staying and shifted us to a
government guest house whose interior was covered with dust sheets.
We were all so sleepy that when I went to call on the Minister. of
Education I fell asleep while he was talking to me! This had never
happened to me before so you can imagine how exhausted I was. He
was concerned and, when I told him what our schedule had been, he
was very shocked. He immediately saw to it that we were made
comfortable and had proper food.

In Hanoi our first call was on the President, Ho Chih Minh. We entered
the lovely residence and hardly waited a few moments when he entered
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with the Prime Minister Pham Van Dong, both in simple rather faded
khaki suits. Ho Chih Minh came into the room very informally and the
first thing that struck me about him was his charm and warmth. He
immediately made us feel at home, dispensed with all formality, and the
sheer simplicity of his personality made a deep impression on every one
of us. We were to see him several times and it was always the same. I
felt that I was in the presence of a truly great man. There is no doubt
that he was a hero both in the North and also in the South. When we
returned to Saigon, even little boys asked us for photographs of Uncle
Ho and were eager to know all about him. He was almost worshipped
everywhere.
The Hanoi open air theatre seated about 15,000 people, who sat
patiently in the rain, waiting for our performance. Miraculously, as we
began, the skies cleared and the audience greeted each number with
tremendous cheering.
At a reception the Prime Minister Pham Van Dong specially came
up to me with a plate of food. We spoke in French. Later the interpreter
said he had vowed never to speak that language again, but there was no
other way he could talk to me. Under his stern exterior, I found him
very human. After our performance he spoke about our great art. Then
he came to me, held my hand saying, You are so exhausted and hot,
but your eyes are like stars brilliant and shining. I was very moved by
him, a feeling I know he reciprocated. He was later to become the first
Prime Minister of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam after its complete
liberation in 1975. Moments like that when two people connect can
never be forgotten.
We were welcomed with lovely jasmine garlands at Manila. It was
a modern and very American city. Somehow to me they seemed to have
lost their cultural moorings. There were a few dedicated people trying
to revive the handicraft industry and I found a shirt made of pineapple
fibre for Vikram, which he never wore as it was too ornate! The shows
somehow did not seem to have much of an impact as I think it was a
little too classical for the audience.
From Manila, we flew to Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, where we
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happily found the ancient culture still alive. For me, it had special
significance, as I could pay homage to my guru Pangeran Tedjoekoesoemo
and meet my dear friend Sri Ningdyah, now his daughter-in-law. Outside
his house was a huge mandapam, and late at night a rehearsal was taking
place. The grand sound of the Javanese gamelan or orchestra had always
fascinated me. I stayed on to watch. Since I had been there last, the entire
world had changed, old customs discarded. Space in the palace where
I had danced for the previous Sultan was now cordoned off as it was
considered sacred ground.
The young Sultan met us informally and talked enthusiastically of
many of the new projects he had in mind. Yet, the old-world quality of
Jokya had not been entirely discarded, and the best traditions were still
retained. With Sui, I walked up and around the wonderful stupa of
Borobudur where terrace upon terrace is carved with sculptures depicting
the life of Buddha and many stories from Hindu mythology. Perhaps no
other monument exists today that is in any way similar to this unique
structure. We sat on the steps and I spoke to her of my problems and
the difficulty of managing a group, and this time being part of a delegation.
Soon we were to fly to Singapore and Malaya, the last lap of our
journey.

We had been dancing constantly, meeting people, absorbing different


atmospheres all over Asia. For me, the breath of hard won freedom, the
conscious pride of the Asian behind whom stands the experience of
centuries, the eternal desire of humanity for peace, and the near
relationship of our civilizations, were unforgettable impressions.
Modern civilization has become more and more limited. As long ago,
from Asia sprang all the faiths of the world, so again today it is from
Asia I feel that the new faith can arise, a faith in the spirit of a non-violent
humankind, with a dedication to peace. Yet, since then, the world has
again been torn asunder by wars. I think of the devastated countries in
the East and the West and the fate of many of our friends of whom we
have no more news.
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Dancing in Hiroshima in 1957 after going around the museum and


listening to the terrible bitterness of the people was difficult and we tried
to bring some moments of joy through our art. A childs watch stuck
in the bark of a tree brought alive the horror of the terrible deed. How
can any country live down the ghastly massacre of innocent people? Was
it any different from the terrible holocaust?
In Tokyo the famous sculptor and designer, Isamo Noguchi, showed
us around. He introduced me to the well-known writer, Yukio Mishima,
who explained all the intricacies of the dance dramaNoh. He was a
fascinating personality and we met several times, and with him and Isamo
I had my first taste of Saki. When I was leaving, Mishima gave me his
book of modernNohplays and hoped that I would produce them in India
which I did, in our first drawing room theatre at Chidambaram, Darpanas
drama group led by Kailash Pandya and Damini Mehta. It was with a great
sense of sadness that I learned of the tragedy of Mishimas death, when
he chose to be beheaded by his friend in public, re-enacting an ancient
Samurai custom. I just could not imagine the jeans-clad Americanised
young man becoming a Samurai and forming an army; a man with whom
I had conversed and learned so much from and then the terrible finale
of his life.

Though I have spoken of my foreign tours, it was in India that my roots


were, and I was constantly working not only to present rare Bharatanatyam
items, but also to present Kathakali with some pruning and showmanship.
In 1958 I was invited to a Kathakali festival in Kozhikode and thought
this an excellent opportunity to show the audiences what I constantly
spoke about.
The dance drama Lavanasuravadham
was chosen and I wanted to
present it as perfectly as possible. Traditional costumes were made with
care and artistic excellence, the music was rehearsed and the whole piece
of one hour polished and fashioned like a jewel! Chathunni was Hanuman
(a favourite role) and I was Seeta, Govindan Namboodiri and
Ramakrishnan, Lava and Kusa. The main singer was a woman and there
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were all the usual accompaniments. After the classical piece, I decided
to show the audienceManushya
.
At a press conference before our performance in Thiruvananthapuram,
there was a young man who kept asking me awkward and rather rude
questions. I was intrigued and answered him back as audaciously! He was
taken aback but his interest grew and so did mine. He was K. Balakrishnan
and edited a paper called theKaumudi Daily
. That night we sat on the
veranda of the hotel talking till two in the morning. He became a friend
and our friendship flourished mainly through letters and telephones. But
his was a sad life and he died in tragic circumstances.
Of the performance in Kozhikode he wrote to me:
Mrinalini Dear, I reached Kozhikode at about 3 p.m. The tragedy
was that my car went out of order. My only purpose in going
to Kozhikode was to see you. You can more or less imagine my
disappointment. It appears that you have taken Kozhikode by
storm. Even the leading Daily Mathrubhoomi commented on
your performance. Editorially. I remember nothing like that from
Mathrubhoomi all these years. It was a pleasure to hear people
speak so much in praise of you.
Critics in India early on were usually staff reporters and knew very
little about dance. When I met Sunil Kothari in 1957, he was just
beginning his writing career. We discussed the subject of constructive
criticism and I told him that a critic should study deeply and be a bridge
of understanding between the artist and the spectator. Also, that
everything should be signed by the writer so that he or she can be open
to questioning if the artist disagreed. Since then Dr Sunil Kothari has
become one of Indias eminent critics, a writer of many well researched
dance books and a dear friend.
Mohan Khokar, another well-known writer on dance who studied at
Kalakshetra was head of the Department of Dance in the University of
Vadodra. The two of us often used to discuss his writing, and in 1959
he wrote me a touching letter.

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You have been one of the pioneers and indeed one of our very
prominent artists today, to think that such a one as you thinks
well of my work certainly makes me feel a very privileged person.....
It is these words of encouragement that have given a purpose
to my life and a reason for me to strive. I thank you for reposing
so much confidence in me.
He wrote frequently and often very amorously. When I received the
Padma Bhushan, his letter addressed to me went Apple / Avacado of my
eyes Mrin and continued
You were always a padma, sure, but now a gilded one. I mean
this of course in the positive sense. Fine, congrats, kisses. But
Bhushani, what are you doing about your life story for the
benefit/detriment of posterity? A book it has to be. Or at least
a major chapter in a book. Whoever is doing it now is just not
qualified for this. I have told you again and again to let me jump
into this but you have not been impressed. Regret, regret. If you
care, ask me what I have been upto in 1991. Ill tell. Itll floor
thee. But yes, I still desire you, you woman. Oh boy/girl, what
fun to be in bed with a Padma Vibhushani! Game???? Your?
Mohan!
Today we have many distinguished critics and I feel there is much
more understanding and knowledge of the arts.
It was in 1958 that I first met Kailash Pandya at the Geeta Govinda
Dance Seminar in Delhi. He was leaving the Asia Theatre Institute, Delhi
and I asked him to meet me in Ahmedabad. Vikram and I had decided
to form a theatre group in Darpana for Gujarati theatre so as to contribute
to Gujarat something of its own heritage. Kailash Pandya was requested
to be head of our drama department.
He was part of the group of Natamandal artists who first welcomed
me to Gujarat. They worked with that extremely distinguished scholar
Rasiklal Parikh. Rasikbhai was very knowledgeable on Sanskrit and Gujarati
theatre (a celebrated writer himself) and had gathered round him talented

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young people like Dina Gandhi, Kailash Pandya, Jashwant Thaker and
actors of the calibre of Pransukhlal Nayak and the celebrated, veteran
actor Jaishankar Sundari whose female roles many years before, had been
so realistic that people even came from Mumbai to watch him, and
women copied his fashion in clothes! He was very supportive of my
work, appreciated my respect for the arts. Once at home, when my foot
touched a tanpura, instinctively I made a gesture of apology. He often
related this incident to his students. That, he would say, is respect for
the art. Years later, as vice chairperson of the Gujarat Sangeet Natak
Academy, I fought and succeeded for his name to be given to the new
theatre, when the powers that be tried to name it after a minister whom
today no one even remembers!
Darpanas drama department began with plays in Chidambaram,
and then full length dramas in regular theatre. While there were
outstanding playwrights like Jayanti Dalal, Chandravadan Mehta, and
others, Kailash and I felt that no new writers were as forceful. We began
by requesting a fine novelist, Pannalal Patel, to write a play for us. To
get the right atmosphere for the setting which was in a rural area, we
spent a few days in his village. Vikram, with Kartikeyas help, created
the sets and we produced a play on witchcraft. Its cast consisted of many
of those who made Darpanas drama department a success. Sumitra
a veteran actress, Vadilal Shah, Damini Mehta (who joined Darpana as
the leading actress), Satish Mahendra and many others. The veteran
actor Pransukhlal Nayak also took part, in many of our plays.
An appreciation group called Shatak was subsequently formed to
discuss various plays. Jayantibhai Dalal, a socialist and one of the pioneers
of the freedom movement in Gujarat was a leading figure in the city. His
wife Ranjanben became very fond of me and I frequently lunched at their
home in the heart of the city. She finally decided to adopt me formally
and we actually went through a ceremony at the Mahadev Temple in
Ahmedabad. Motiben as I called her has really been a mother in every
sense of the term, looking after all of us with love and care and her son
Jayant and daughter Pratibha call me Didi as does her daughter-in-law
Devi. For many years she ran one of the most successful schools in the
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heart of the city and none of the students and now their children have
ever forgotten her warmth and kindness. She has given me so much love
all through the years and asked nothing in return, a rare human being,
and a true mother. Destiny again?
The drama department through Kailash put me in contact with the
intellectuals of Gujarat. C.C. Mehta frequently visited and enchanted us
with his caustic wit. Umashankar Joshi, the great poet, was already a dear
friend of Vikrams and mine. At one of our arangetram ceremonies he
said, Princes of Gujarat always married princesses from other states.
Minaldevi came from the South and created huge tanks and reservoirs for
the people. This prince (Vikram) has married Mrinalinidevi who has brought
us the classical arts of the country. A lovely compliment from a great poet.
Niranjan Bhagat, a writer, who inspired a new creative form in Gujarati
poetry, became a close friend. I requested him to translate Tagores
Chitrangada
for Darpana, keeping as close to the Bengali poetry as possible.
It was a splendid translation which I thought Gurudev himself would
have approved of. At last I had found a friend in Gujarat whose knowledge
and love of English literature was akin to mine.
Vikram was happy that I had found someone to feed my hunger for
literature. Kartikeya and Mallika too were very fond of him and he
nurtured their love for English literature. His friendship brought me
many hours of happiness, but after a while his busy schedule as a professor
and later as an avid traveller and my constant tours made it impossible
to meet frequently. But friendships are often like exquisite patterns in
the tapestry of life, woven together forever.
Amongst the many young writers Madhu Ryes work appealed to me.
He was very outgoing and full of new ideas. We worked together on his
first play,Tell Me the Name of Any Flower
and it was a fine experience. He
was quick-witted, enthusiastic and contemporary in his thoughts.
We enjoyed his presence at Darpana and I felt sorry when he settled
in the USA, even though we still kept in touch.
We did many plays over the years, some original, a number of
translations and many socially oriented. Bhavai, the folkdrama, was also
a form which Kailash and Damini studied under the great artist,
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Leela
Chimanbhai Nayak. A delightful satire
with Kailash as the hero, a
humorous reflection of present day politics, played to appreciative
audiences. Surprisingly, we presented shows throughout the Emergency
and no one objected! As the years passed, serious Gujarati theatre
suffered a setback and the golden era came to an abrupt end with the
invasion of television.
Kailash Pandya continued to build up the Bhavai tradition and
persuaded the government to build a school for young artists in Mehsana
(Jai Shankar Sundaris hometown) providing them with scholarships.
This has proved an excellent idea for, in this way, the art will continue
its tradition.
Through or because of the drama department many outstanding
teachers and scholars came to us in Ahmedabad. Charles Elson, who
taught drama in New York, came and stayed with us and gave us many
new tips on theatre. He became a great friend over the years and when
I went to New York he came to meet me. Loving Indian handicrafts, he
had got a carriage decorated with old designs in brass made in Delhi and
taken it to his home in Salem, USA. In 1961 when he came to meet Minal
and me he drove us around in the carriage down Fifth Avenue creating
quite a stir! Everyone will think I have two beautiful Indian wives, he
said!
A C Scott was another good friend in the theatre and introduced
me to Anna Nassif who studied with us, creating beautiful western dance
pieces with the rhythms of India. Later she arranged for me to perform
in the University of Wincosin where she was head of the department
of dance.
Kailash has been my biggest mainstay at Darpana and we share our
ideas constantly, and now with Mallika our togetherness in creative vision
continues.
There is a music department Darpana also. South Indian music has
never been appreciated in Gujarat and so not many students come to
study but it is necessary for Bharatnatyam. Here too there was research
in old instruments and the Gottuvadyam is now a regular feature in our
programmes as is the veena. Purushottaman, who has been in Darpana
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for almost thirty years is another dedicated musician who is always ready
to respond to my new creative work though not always approving of my
compositions.
Through the years as the Academy grew, many gurus came to teach.
There was Kitappa, Andalamma, who came specially for Kuravanji as she
had danced the main role in the temple, Kalyanikueey Amma for Mohini
Attam and later many others for the martial and folk arts.

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O

NE SUMMER HOLIDAY, IN

1959, THE FOUR OF US, V IKRAM, K ARTIKEYA,


Mallika and I, motored to Nainital and the Kumaon hills on our way to
Shimla. Crossing the dry plains filled with sand, the path was narrow.
Coming towards us was a bullock cart, so Vikram, feeling sorry for the
animals, steered the car into the sand, and there we stayed stuck for five
hours in the burning heat, struggling to dig the car out. My diary records
A temple, a river, a house. All existence surely in these three symbols.
The girls with heavy loads in green and black, their hips swinging
vigorously the view of the Himalayas the Trisula from Binsar. Gandhijis
room at Kausani where he wrote part of his commentary on the Gita.
Meeting with Dr Keskar and Mr Tandon for breakfast at Binsar. While
Vikram chatted with Dr Keskar, I talked to P.D. Tandon and a lifelong
friendship was cemented, an incident which he describes in his book,
Echoes from the: Past
We saw each other for the first time in 1960 at Government
House, Nainital, I had gone there to stay with Governor V.V. Giri
for a few days. One afternoon you had come to lunch with him.
You befriended me almost all at once, I felt happy and honoured.
A few days after, we met at Kausani (U.P.) where Gandhiji wrote
his commentary on the Gita Anashaktiyog. Dr Vikram Sarabhai
and Dr B.V. Keskar talked vigorously about politics and science
and you and I wandered in the soothing sunshine, among the

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Artists clasp hands in friendship.

tall, lovely pine trees. We talked and talked about so many things
as if we were very old friends, and had met after ages. It was you
who had tenderly raised our conversation to the level of an art
and I was taken in. After three years or so I watched you dance
and read reports in foreign papers about your performances. The
then Information Minister, Dr B.V.Keskar had shown me some
clippings which he had received from France, commenting on
your performances there and he had forwarded them to the
Prime Minister, Nehru. A famous critic had observed in a
newspaper, A miracle has come from India. This sentence, I
still remember. Then I realized what a pearl of friendship, I had
got, just by chance.
Our friendship still continues and is one of the joys of my life. P.D.
has been a marvellous friend and written many articles about my work.
Only then is he poetic! Otherwise his comments on the politicians and
politics are highly critical, frank and bold. Once when he called me
darling I must have teased him. In his reply he said,

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Darlingest, how great to be called darling by you, you wrote.


But who is a real darling? Not the one with wealth only, not the
one with high position only. The real darling is he or she who
has beautiful thoughts, acts beautifully, and is ever tenderly
concerned about others. You have not only a classically
proportionate body, sweet sonorous voice, but your heart is full
of compassion, love and goodwill. You are a fine speaker, an
excellent writer and a remarkable artist with unusual qualities.
And so you are not only a darling, but darlingest for those who
have some regards for human values

In 1959, as almost every other year, we were invited to dance again in


Europe for the winter season. Our impresario began the tour, as usual, in
Paris. The sky was a deep blue when we flew in and the whole city lit up
slowly with dazzling beauty. Is there any other city as lovely? I thought.
The next morning I woke feeling an exhilaration at the very thought
of dancing in Paris at my favourite Theatre des Champs Elysees.
Rehearsing in a studio way up above the stage, we felt very much at
home. Paris audiences and Paris critics are amongst the most severe in
the world. They are thoroughly spoilt for, from all over, come the best
of artists and there is constantly a variety of exhibitions, dances, dramas,
in fact every kind of entertainment to choose from. Two Indian groups
had just flopped rather badly and the Paris Press was indignant that such
poor material had been sent by the Government of India. Fortunately, we
were on a professional tour through an impresario and so stood completely
on our own. But yet impressions die hard and there was at the moment
a deep prejudice against Indian dancers. Yet, the changed atmosphere was
stimulating: a challenge to our art and our own sincerity! We have always
tried to present the finest of our countrys art to the very best of our ability
making no concession to any taste but our own. So this was a real test.
On the first night I was sick with stage fright, my temperature was
high though my hands and feet were icy cold. A stream of visitors
Chinese, Indian, French called and sent cards to wish us well. We all
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waited impatiently for the curtain to go up. On the first night, it is


invariably delayed by about fifteen minutes, for in Paris the elite of the
theatre world come to see every new show and their dresses have to
be seen first!
The curtain rose. The incense from the lamp mounted high into the
air, taking with it a prayer that we may show truly the deep spirit and
tradition of our beloved country. The drums slowly rolled into a frenzy.
The show was on! I watched nervously from the wings as the Kathakali
Rasa Kreeda began in full costume. To my horror, Rupas headgear was
caught in Chathunnis bangle and came off. No one stopped and
Chathunni deftly picked up the veil and wound it around her wrist! Then
I entered with a varnam from Bharatanatyam. All fears were forgotten
for once on stage my fears vanish mysteriously. There was no time to
think till the last curtain fell. Suddenly it was all over and the clapping
awoke me as though from a trance. Flowers piled up on stage and we
came forward again and again to take the curtain calls. Which artist does
not dream of this moment? I felt an indescribable exaltation for I knew
all had gone well. The audience had understood and appreciated what
we gave them. Suddenly there was a tremendous rush on to the stage.
Compliments poured forth in the true French fashion and everyone
looked as though in a dream world.
Thank God, you have not let us down, said an Indian woman. Each
one of us was surrounded by friends and well-wishers. We were exuberant
but, as always, a deep thankfulness came into my heart. To have a dream,
to walk close to it is part of lifes yearning. To see it come true, not once,
but many times, that is fulfillment indeed. I felt as I always do on the
stage, a justification for my existence on earth.
A connoisseur of Indian art, Suzanne Juillerat, wrote Le
in Monde
:
After the severe deception caused last summer at the Theatre
des Nations by one Indian troupe not worthy of representing
India and the other one very nice but rather naive, it is not
without misgiving that I went to the Theatre des Champs Elysees
where Mrinalini Sarabhai presented her spectacle of Indian Ballet.
What a relief to be at last able to say to the Parisians to rush
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to see an authentic Indian Ballet which will not deceive us.


Mrinalini Sarabhai possesses the rare faculty to know exactly
how to shake the yoke of tradition which so often ties down and
binds, and to make it understandable to other civilizations.
Next morning the papers were full of praise for the dancing, the
production, and most of all, for the inner concentration, the dedication
to art, the spirituality of the whole performance, the festival of beauty,
the loveliest sight it has been our lot to see total continuous perfection.
We were deeply content. But the pittance our impresario gave us
kept us hungry. At that time we were allowed to take out a only a very
limited amount ogf cash from India for personal use. Usually that was
kept for shopping. Here only breakfast was provided by the hotel and
for the rest we had one pound a day: the amount allotted to us by the
impresario. So we usually ordered a meagre dinner.
Once when we went to the hotel after the show there was no food.
Everyone was ravenous. We had only asked for bread and butter, boiled
eggs and some fruit and milk which they had forgotten. Furious, Gopala
Panicker, our chenda player, went to their kitchen. There he saw a basket
full of eggs which were for the next days breakfast for the hotel guests.
He took butter from the fridge and started making omelettes for the
whole group finishing all the eggs. We had a feast! Imagine the plight
of the management when they could not serve eggs the next morning.
But they had no excuse!
The days flew fast in Paris for we were busy at the theatre every
night, which meant only half the day was free for looking around and
meeting friends. Our last two days were hectic. The Musee Guimet,
where lectures from visiting artists were always arranged, wanted a lecture
demonstration. Madame Juillerant, who invited me, was genuinely
interested in Indian art and culture and had studied a great deal on the
subject. Hardly any Indian artist or scholar passed through Paris without
her arranging an evening at the Musee Guimet. It could be a lecture,
a dance, a music recital but the artist or scholar had to have her approval!
There was a small lecture hall with a stage, and here I talked half
English half French while the members of the company gave
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demonstrations of Bharatanatyam and Kathakali. It was difficult to get


away from the audience as they were so enthused by what I had to say
and afterwards we literally had to run away, with many of them following
us to the theatre to try and get tickets! On Sunday we had a matinee
as well and early on Monday morning we left for Sweden.

In Sweden I fell ill and was in excruciating pain. Vikrams friends, the
scientists, Hannes and Alfven, called in a doctor who said that I should
be hospitalized immediately. He refused to give me any medicine saying
that without proper tests he was not allowed to prescribe anything. I
could not go into the hospital because of the performances and so I sent
a cable to Vikram in India explaining my predicament and asking him
to fly out some medicine. I could barely stand. After each item, Minal
Mahadevia and Rupande Shah, my two best students, used to dress and
undress me as I collapsed onto the theatre-basket that held our costumes,
crying in agony. Minal gave me some home-made remedies that she had
with her and she and Rupa sat up all night, literally ironing my body
to relieve the pain. This is where I think that some divine power helps
in our great time of need. By the time the medicines came (which took
three days), I was better and able to continue the gruelling schedule.
In between, Ward flew in from the USA. to see me. Our relationship
was as warm as ever. By this time he was married though not very happily,
and he poured out his heart to me. It could have been his overwhelming
sadness that also contributed to my illness. Though I know I have no
power over destiny, to see the suffering and pain of anyone dear tears
me apart. Knowing that Ward was still deeply in love with me and had
never really got over me made me feel very guilty.
Our Swedish impresario, Bengt Hager, and his Indian wife, Leela,
were very concerned about my illness but full of admiration for my
determination to go on. We danced every night in a different suburb of
Stockholm and all the theatres were excellent. Kewal Singh, the
Ambassador from India in Sweden attended every performance and
became a mascot for our group.
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Most of our tours lasted six to eight weeks and we prepared


accordingly. After we had ended our tour in Stockholm, we received an
S.O.S. from the Government of India to proceed on a goodwill tour
of Eastern Europe. This was rather a blow as we were all very homesick.
I called a meeting and we decided to go on with the tour, though the
men were reluctant, as they always were, for any new adventure.

From Stockholm, we took the train to Lublyana cutting right across


Europe. Now we were no longer mere artists but ambassadors. We were
the first company selected by the Government of India to present Indian
dance to the countries of Eastern Europe, beginning with Yugoslavia.
The first thing we noticed as we got off the train was the platformless
station. In the pouring rain we descended into the slush. A train accident
delayed all our baggage in Munich and the weather dampened our spirits
further. Our experience in East Germany in 1954 had been rather
frightening. Would this trip be the same and how could we manage three
months of it? But the sense of adventure, the enthusiasm and ceaseless
planning by our embassy in Moscow made us determined to do our best
and also to learn as much as we could from these countries we had heard
so much about but which were still rather a mystery.
Theatre people know that accidents often happen. Susheela, who
had rejoined us, kept busy contacting our group manager, and telephoned
Munich asking the stationmaster to find out about the luggage and send
it on. Everyone was helpful except the representative of our Embassy
who was extremely sore. You should have looked after it better, he
grumbled. Susheela patiently explained that the theatre luggage was
booked straight through and that we had changed trains and baggage
five times, carrying all of it ourselves as in Europe, porters are few and
far between. Minal ran to tell me that he blamed us, was very annoyed
and was coming to meet me. Quick, I told Minal take out all our photos
and put them up. Hastily from our bags we scattered photos of us with
Panditji, Krishna Menon, the Queen of Belgium, and sundry dignitaries
we knew, all over the room. I assumed a pose of despair and as he entered
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greeted him saying, Im so glad you are here. You are the only one to
help us! Have you telephoned to Munich, what can be done? and I kept
on till he was bewildered himself and with a glance at the photographs
left, feeling personally responsible for the luggage! Sometimes there is
more acting off stage than on!
That night the show had to be cancelled. Such a thing had never
happened before in my career.
At noon, we heard that the luggage had finally arrived and the
customs officials took only five minutes clearing it as they were told it
was necessary for a show that night. Our spirits rose and we went out
for a stroll through the well-designed and pleasant streets of Zagreb. But
if we thought we would stroll along quietly, we were mistaken. In a few
moments we had become part of a procession surrounded by eager and
curious faces talking and laughing a universal sign language. Soon it
became too much and we beat a hasty retreat to the hotel. That night
our performance was much applauded. The representative of the Embassy
now had a smile on his face and hastened to telephone to the Ambassador
in Belgrade, that all was well!

Taking the train in the morning we were at a place called Tesna at 5.30.
p.m. It was already dark and we got down onto what seemed just a field.
In the distance stood the small bus which was to take us to Tuzla, a
mining town. Between us and the bus was a huge empty crevass through
which, with the help of two young boys, we managed to carry our
luggage. By this time all of us had become expert porters and constantly
joked almost the number of bags we could fit in under our arms, hang
from our shoulder blades and grasp in our hands. Susheela Minal, Rupande
and Darshini won easily for they carried an incredible amount which
increased in every city, especially where the shops carried tempting
wares.
We were deeply impressed with the spirit of the new Yugoslavia
which had broken away from Soviet influence. This was the country
where Tito had preserved independence and tried to live in the best of
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both worlds. Everywhere we went, we saw evidence of this new resolve


to make the country self-sufficient.
In Belgrade the Ambassador Nawab Ali Yavar Jung and his beautiful
wife Zehra came to greet us at the station. They were extremely hospitable
and it was a pleasure for me to be with them in their home where
everything spoke of refinement and good taste. The first thing Nawab
Saheb noticed after his welcome was the old and precious Kashmiri coat
I was wearing. Often when our people go abroad, the clothes they wear
are in extremely poor taste, bad copies of western clothes! From
childhood, I delighted in finding old treasures and designing my own
clothes. It was always pleased me when someone noticed. Even for the
troupe I supervised and selected all the clothes: Indian clothes for the
men, and saris for the women, which showed off the variety of our varied
heritage. At home, before going on tour we would all eat together so
that I could show them the intricacy of forks, knives and spoons. Perhaps
these seem trivial pursuits but good manners are almost an obsession
with me. Usually, for formal functions, the men were dressed in chudidar
and achkan the national dress, or sometimes they wore mundus (dhoti)
with angavastram to match their silk kurtas. On this tour I did not have
to worry about the girls attire as they all dressed well. One of the
remarks by our Ambassador in Paris which has been repeated many times
since, was, I have never seen such a highly disciplined and well-dressed
group, not to speak of the marvellous dancing. You make us proud of
being Indian.
A real problem on our travels was being vegetarian, and on the first
tour in 1949 we had existed mainly on bread and butter. As I grew older
and wiser and better known, I sent telegrams to all the centres requesting
regular meals of tomato soup, rice and boiled vegetables, yoghurt and
fruit salad. The Gujarati girls often received huge food packets from their
families which they generously shared. This arrangement proved a great
success as we always added home-made pickles to make the food more
appetising.
Begum Zehra was a most thoughtful person. Apart from feeding all
of us with delicious food, she prepared a huge dekchi of rice and vegetables
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for the train journey from Belgrade to Sarajevo. She even packed whatever
fruit was available, including a few oranges. When we were lunching on
the train we invited the attendant to come and eat with us. I noticed
that he kept looking at the oranges and asked him if he would like them.
His face lit up and he said I wish to take one to my grand-daughter for
she has never seen an orange.

With the intense cold everywhere, Chathunni developed bronchitis and


found difficulty in breathing. A doctor was called in but I overheard the
representative of the impresario telling him that he should insist that he
was well enough to dance that evening. On the contrary when the doctor
examined him, he refused to let him move and prescribed heavy
medication. We went on with the show and Shivashankar took his part.
In such a small company as ours there are no understudies so the entire
dance drama had to be rearranged, in a short time. But our dancers had
performed enough to cope.
In many cities where Indians had never been seen we would be
followed by huge crowds. While they loved our brown complexions,
they would sometimes try to see if it would come off! This curiosity
became so embarrassing that we were finally given a police escort.

Bucharest in Romania was going through a very severe winter when we


arrived. The floor of the stage were so chipped that all of us hurt our
feet. The organizers had no idea that we danced with bare feet. Even
after requesting them for a carpet or linoleum to cover the stage they
had not done anything about it. Finally we decided to revolt. Chathunni
and I had bleeding injured feet and the others also had bad blisters. One
evening we were all made-up and ready. I decided to stage a nonviolent
strike, refusing to go on stage till a carpet was found. We waited for 4
hours. So did the huge audience. Finally the carpet arrived and we had
the performance. Next morning I was called by the Minister and felt very
scared, as it was a communist country and we had heard terrible stories.
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Perhaps, I thought, they were angry at our behaviour and were cancelling
the rest of the tour. Instead the Minister was most charming and with
a twinkle in his eyes said I hear you have been having some difficulties
with the organisation. I am very sorry for the inconvenience. I explained
to him, that our bare feet had been badly bruised with the nails on the
stage and the rough surfaces, and showed him my own feet which were
almost covered by band-aids. Very shocked he gave a talking-to to his
subordinates on the phone. He asked me whether he could send us some
presents and I suggested books and records about the country.
You are going to the USSR. It will be very cold there, he said. I
should like to present the men with some warm caps if you would accept
them. We received a parcel of the books and records and handsome fur
caps. But what was most welcome and unexpected were warm
combinations for all of us placed discreetly at the bottom of the box!
All through the tour as it grew colder and colder, (upto -38. C) we
thanked him from the bottom of our hearts.
In Bucharest I made friends with many of the artists and every night
we would meet together and have lively discussions. There was great
interest in India and some of the Professors were Sanskrit scholars.
Whenever we had time we visited schools of folk and classical dancing,
trying to see performances of puppetry and drama and of course visit
museums and art galleries. I was fascinated by the old handicrafts and
bought what I could afford which was not very much! While the men
were not very interested in sightseeing, the girls and I would pour over
travel books so as not to miss anything.

It was Christmas time (Dec. 1959) and very, very cold. We were all
dreadfully homesick. Susheela and I missed our children terribly. To liven
up the spirits of the group, we decided to cook an Indian meal for
Christmas dinner. Minal and Rupa went to the kitchen and got chunks
of butter saying we needed it for medicine! The girls had just received
their food packets which contained khakra (dried chapattis) and masalas.
We bought rice and some vegetables from the market and Chathunni,
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acting as master chef, started cooking in the hotel room. Though it was
very cold we opened up all the windows to let out the aroma from our
cooking. A mouth-watering meal of pilav with vegetables and fried
roasted papadams was prepared and we took it to the dining room. When
the Minister who was dining with us that night saw what we had prepared
he smiled, So this is your medicine, he said. Yes, I said, please share
it with us.

Every night a special admirer would bring me orchids which Minal who
loves flowers collected and nurtured. The adviser told me that he knew
he was an Indian in his previous birth and perhaps my lover! Many people
in Eastern Europe had strange fantasies about India, perhaps gleaned
from the early books on our country, much of which was romantic rather
than factual! We were more and more curious to visit Russia whose
influence on this vast domain differed from country to country.

Our excitement mounted as the train drew into Moscow. It was bitterly
cold (22. below zero, we learnt later) and we all but skated across to
the bus, our eyes watering and our feet frozen. The huge and impressive
Hotel Peking where we stayed, with its draughty foyer, greeted us not
with the usual warmth of Russian hospitality, but with a determined
doctor and nurse who threatened to vaccinate us before we went to our
rooms! We saw people grimacing with pain as they were being injected
with the vaccine! Some were bandaged as they were bleeding! In
desperation we showed our WHO (World Health Organization)
certificates from India. They were not valid, we dont recognize WHO,
we were told. Finally, after several tiring hours of argument, the Indian
Embassy came to our rescue and we were allowed to contaminate the
dining room! It was our first experience of the one-track obedience of
these workers who had been told to vaccinate everyone. They would
listen to no other argument. It was also amising to see how, once the
word came from on high that we were alright and our certificates
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correct, there were no more questions asked. But at night a doctor came
to each bedroom to check our stomachs!
Many incidents, some amusing, some frightening, happened during
our stay, which brought home how strict the regime was. In Estonia
(Vilnius) two young men came to my greenroom at the theatre every
night. One was a handsome blond giant who looked like the Nordic
heroes of old, and the other, his friend, who came as an artist and
interpreter. While he was sketching me, the other would look on in
absolute adoration. After a few days the interpreter who spoke some
English said, He has fallen desperately in love with you and wants me
to tell you that we will come to meet you everyday just to talk if you
allow it. The day we left, they stood on the platform a little distance
away and the blond handsome giant showed the mudra (hand gesture)
of sorrow which he had learnt. He ran alongside the train and threw
me a bunch of flowers. I thought it was terribly romantic, especially so,
when I thought about the rigid regime.
On stage in Moscow the cold was devastating. There was only a coal
brazier to keep us warm. We were dancing in the enormous Tschaikovsky
theatre. While doing mudras on stage, my fingers would freeze in that
position as did my smile, so that I would have to turn my back on the
audience and loosen my fingers and manipulate my mouth. Even while
getting to the centre of the stage all our steps had to be doubled. The
men who are clad only in dhotis with bare bodies for normal performances,
had to wear kurtas under which they had pulled on thick woollen vests!
Sometimes, when I was really tired, for the burden of talks and
interviews was exhausting, I would send the dancers for a demonstration
which once resulted in a hilarious episode. To save our clothes (we had
been three months on tour), we would often wear our cardigans over
our underwear dispensing with the cholis (blouses). One day the three
girls Minal, Rupa and Darshini went for a television interview. As it
started, they were requested to remove their western cardigans in order
to show the Indian dress. They were very embarrassed but fortunately
managed to cover themselves delicately and were thankful that they wore
saris with nice long pallavs! When they came back and described the
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same, I laughed and laughed while congratulating them on their presence


of mind.
Any rest on a tour was impossible. After a performance at 1 a.m. I
received a phone call saying that a director would be grateful if he could
come and discuss the Indian play Nala-Damayanti with me. The only
time I was free was at 7.00 a.m. on a Sunday morning, so I requested
him to come to the hotel room as I did not have the energy to go out.
He assured me that hed come alone with his assistant to take notes.
When I heard a knock on the door, I put on my dressing gown and went
to open it and was in for a rude shock! A whole television crew waited
outside and began filming me as as soon as they entered. There was no
use protesting. Fortunately it was a pretty dressing gown!
After our first performance at the Tschaikovsky theatre, we were
invited by numerous people, eager to know all about our art and our
country. Often, we came across students who were studying Hindi,
Sanskrit and even Tamil. Out of all these meetings we formed many
impressions, the main one being the tremendous respect the Russian
people had for our country and their admiration for Jawaharlal Nehru.
They were proud of their own country and showed us the museum where
the development of the famous Sputnik was displayed. It was most
impressive and awe-inspiring.
At a long discussion with the Director Leonid Lavrovsky, and the
star ballerina, Maya Plisetskaya, about producing an Indian dance drama
with the Bolshoi Ballet, I realized how genuinely interested these artists
were in our culture and heritage. It was strange that the show window or
the star attraction of communist culture was the ballet, a completely
bourgeois institution. We were fortunate enough toSwan
see Lake
, one of
repetoire
the loveliest of their
, at the Bolshoi theatre. A completely traditional
theatre with its red velvet and gold magnificence, its painted ceiling and
huge decorative chandelier, it was a magnificent monument to the days
of ancient Russia. The only incongruous element was the curtain with its
motif of the hammer and sickle so out of place in this atmosphere.

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We had been away from home for nearly five months. Often we had to
travel by train at night. In order to liven our spirits we started playing
card games. Sipping iced tea (always available on trains) the three girls,
Chathunni and I would play till 1 to 2 a.m. Once on a train our drummer
,Gopal Panikker, thought that the girls were keeping me awake by
laughing and making too much noise.
He opened the compartment door to scold them, but when he saw
me his mouth fell open. I asked him to join in but he refused! Usually
we were too exhausted even to sleep and with my claustrophobia, I often
sat in the corridor.
Thankfully, we were nearing the end of our tour. We had originally
planned to be away for only six weeks but after nearly five months of
dancing practically every night, our costumes started giving way,
especially the beautiful delicate Banarasi saris. It became a permanent
feature to see Minal darning the torn costumes in the green room
before the programme. At the end of the tour some of the costumes
had become museum pieces as the original material had disappeared
and only the darning was showed. Minal, who became one of my
dearest friends and travels with me all over the world even today, is
still teased about her patchwork! But she is still a wizard at everything
she does!
During our shows we had many pleasant surprises especially from
students. In Paris at the request of the impresario, who felt that the
programme should be ten minutes shorter because they always started
late, I cut out one of my padams in the Geeta Govindam. The next day
I had a letter from some young students who asked me why that lovely
item had been omitted! In Moscow, the students of Sanskrit, hearing that
we were going to dance the Geeta Govindam; studied the poem and
after the show came and recited it to us.
When I dance there is a spiritual energy that emanates from the inner
depths of my being. Time and again critics have written and people have
spoken about this quality. In London, my impresario told me that the
reviews in the papers were too good and may keep away ordinary
people. He said that the tremendous spiritual quality they wrote about
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may make people think that the performance was too highbrow. I thought
of my father-in-laws letter so long ago!
In Leningrad we went to visit one of the finest ballet schools. We
saw their production of Fountain of Bakshisarai
and Romeo and Juliet
. It was
then that we realized the exacting discipline that made the dancers of
the USSR. technically the best in the world.
A very touching incident happened in Tashkent, which still remains
fresh in my memory. A man was standing at the stagedoor when I came
out after one of my shows. Clad in rough trousers a thick coat and high
boots he was a figure from the Tales of Turkestan! In his hand he held
a bunch of flowers, which he held out to me. His words came in broken
English, For you, most beautiful dancer woman. You come with me
now. I take you to see land of ancestors of Samarkhand to Kabul to where
your Babur was small boy we walk together by river of history. See
I have brought truck for you. And indeed there was a truck piled with
cushions, as elegant as he could make it. I was sorely tempted! Sometimes
one longs to forget everything and just follow an impulse, an unknown
star, a man. But after that, what? I smiled and shook my head. What
a wonderful idea! But I leave for India tomorrow morning. Thank you
for coming to see us, I said. The disappointment of something sacred
shared for a moment: a romance, a meeting, was in our eyes as we said
goodbye. I watched him as he turned, a majestic figure, his boots crumbling
the snow and walked away in to the foggy night.
I wanted to kneel and kiss the earth.

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At home and abroad


I

N J ANUARY, 1961 ELIZABETH Q UEEN OF E NGLAND AND P RINCE P HILIP


visited Ahmedabad, and the Governor of Gujarat, Nawab Mehdi Nawaz
Jung, invited me over to discuss the arrangements. The Raj Bhavan in
Shahibaugh used to be an old Muslim palace an old Muslim palace
constructed by Shah Jahan in the seventeeth century where the Collector
stayed. It was here that Rabindranath Tagore wrote his famous story
Hungry Stones and began to compose music for his poems when his
brother Satyendranath stayed there. It was a historic building, though
not very conducive for comfort.
Begum Nawaz Jung changed all the furniture into the Gujarat
Sankheda style. I was leaving for Varanasi for a dance recital and so
was requested to bring back some brocade for the cushions. The
entertainment for the evening was left entirely to me, with the added
request that I too participate. A few of us decided to stage a Gujarati
marriage ceremony replete with the elaborate ceremonies, the music
and colourful costumes. The programme was printed on parchment and
bound in patola silk, the double ikat weave famous in Gujarat, with the
words in English and Gujarati written elegantly by the poet Niranjan
Bhagat, who helped me select the songs. In the gardens of the Raj
Bhavan we created a stage of mud in real village tradition. As many of
my friends wanted to see the Queen, we decided on a wedding
procession and I asked them all to wear the spectacular Ahmedabadi
brocade saris (known as Asavalli) the tie and dye bandhinis and patolas.

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Mallike and Kartikeya with the Queen Elizabeth 1961, with House Mehta and
Mehdi nawaz Jung.

Bejewelled, they looked magnificent and so did the men in their stylish
angharkas and turbans.
The Queen was dressed in silver lame and looked more elegant than
when she rode on the back of the car in the morning. All along the way
people came close to the car (the hood was down) to throw flowers on
her lap, and she had a lovely smile for everyone. It was all extremely
informal, and later I heard that she had enjoyed it very much. Mallika
and Kartikeya presented the programme to the Queen and Prince Philip.
I dancedThe Fish Princess
and Prince Philip came to chat.The Fish Princess
was originally the story of Ulupi and Arjuna, I explained to Prince Philip
whereupon he remarked, He was quite a lad, wasnt he?
The whole visit was a delight and we could not have had finer hosts
than Nawab and Begum Mehdi Nawaz Jung with their impeccable
Hyderabadi culture. While the whole building was spruced up, the room
in which Gurudev Tagore had stayed was also restored and I was honoured
to help. Many years later, when the Government House was shifted to
Gandhinagar, the new capital, I requested the government to let me

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create a Gujarat Handicraft Museum in the building. I was then chairperson


of Gujarat Handicrafts Corporation. They refused and made it into a
Vallabhbhai Patel museum, which I thought rather ironic in that lovely
Muslim architecture.

The same year, Vikram was invited to M.I.T. (Massachusettes Institute


of Technology) as Senior Visiting Professor and during the holidays
wanted me to join him with the children in Boston, So we went to
Mumbai on our way to the UK where we were spending a week on our
way to the USA.
Going in for the visas at the American Consulate, I was requested
to go into another room. As we had just had the consul for dinner at
The Retreat I thought it was perhaps that he wanted to say hello. But
a severe looking black woman sat at a desk and rather brusquely asked
me to sit down.
Mrs Sarabhai, she asked me are you a communist? No, I replied,
very surprised. But you have been one? No, never Perhaps at college?
Sorry, (I was getting annoyed) but Ive never been to college. Well,
she said there is some question about your visa. We cannot grant you
the American visa just now. I was stunned! And upset! Fortunately Papa
was in Mumbai. He suggested that we go to the UK and wait for the
visas there. Telephoning Vikram, we explained the situation.
After a few days in London, I went to the American Consulate, and
the official there greeted me with, Where have you been, maam? The
whole of Washington is looking for you. Vikram of course had alerted
everyone who was anyone about me!
As I left with the visas he smiled and said, Now youre really lily
white! Lily brown you mean! I replied laughing.

Vikram met us in New York and we spent a weekend with Blanchette


and John Rockfeller III at their lovely home in the country. They had
come earlier to stay with us in Ahmedabad as our guests. I had been very
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nervous about having them stay at Chidambaram in our small guest-room


and had suggested to Vikram that maybe they should stay at The Retreat.
Vikram at once said, Mrinal, they are coming to see us and will accept
us as we are. It was a simple statement but taught me a great deal that
there should be no pretension in any relationship.
We went to meet them in Vadodra and the greeting was formal. On
the way back the car had a punctured tyre and we got out. Suddenly
the tyre started rolling down the hill and John, Vikram and I went chasing
madly after it and it was I think, John who got there first! After that,
there could be no formality and it was the beginning of a very lasting
friendship. When they were leaving it was easy to find a present for
Blanchette but I didnt know what to give John. I noticed that he loved
the feel of the patola saris and so I said, John I am giving you a patola
sari which perhaps you can make into a nice dressing gown. After John
died, Blanchette continued her deep interest in the arts, and we met
whenever I was in New York.

Many of Vikrams scientist friends in Boston wanted to see me dance. I


had asked Minal to accompany us. We had taken taped music as I knew
there would be some requests for lectures. We decided to give a concert.
It was arranged for me at the Kresge Auditorium, with a very distinguished
scientific audience. Many well-known artists also attended the performance.
Kartikeya danced with us in the wings, imitating all our movements
while Mallika sat quietly on stage. I have always told my son that he could
have been a superb dancer but his Gujarati prejudice prevented it! Since
them we have many young Gujaratis boys studying Bharatanatyam, and
doing exceptionally well.
Vikram was working hard at M.I.T., go we decided to hire a van to
travel around. Minal had to have a driving test there as Boston did not
recognize the international driving licence. The man who took the test
told her that he wished American women drove half as well as she. After
the children went to bed she and I would watch the late night shows
on television which were usually old films while we waited for Vikram.
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He as usual worked till the early hours and would ask Minal to drop him
at the University saying, I can go half an hour late and enjoy my
breakfast if you will drive me to my work, which she did happily.
Often we entertained, as Vikram loved having people in and so did
I. Minal and I devised a menu that repeated itself almost every other day.
We had very little cutlery, mostly borrowed, and Kartikeya and Mallika
became very efficient at snatching the cocktail cups from the rather
surprised guests and filling them with soup and putting them back in the
guests hand, before they knew what was happening!
Once Minal and I were giving an illustrated lecture on dance on live
television in Boston. Kartikeya and Mallika who sat facing us in the
technicians box were as usual trying to make us laugh. When we thought
we had finished, the producer frantically signalled that there were three
minutes left. I blurted out, Now Minal will say goodnight in Sanskrit.
Poor Minal hastily sang several slokas greeting the dawn and afterwards
we doubled up in laughter. Since then, any sticky situation that we
quickly try to bluff our way through is termed a goodnight in Sanskrit.
Another time Vikram insisted that we all attend an interesting science
lecture on computers. When I walked in with the two children everybody
looked astounded. I had threatened them both with dire consequence
if they dared to laugh. So they both (aged six and eleven) sat solemnly,
listening to how a computer functioned. We were then taken around and
Kartikeya was specially interested in a huge computer. The technician
showing it to us and asked Katrtikeya if he wanted to play noughts and
crosses saying that the computer always won. Kartikeya played for a
while and to the surprise of the technician, he won!
Leaving Vikram at M.I.T. we travelled to Philadelphia and Los Angeles
and gave recitals at some of the dance-studios there. Ray Eaemes whose
husband Charles had helped set up the National Institute of Design in
Ahmedabad, introduced us to the audiences. In New York I danced at
the Asia Society and also at a gathering of dancers amongst whom was
one of the greatest American dancers of all times, Ruth St. Dennis. She
came and embraced me after the show and gave me a snapshot of herself,
on the back of which she had written, Your whole being is the fulfillment
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Theatre Art
of all I have spoken of, all my life. Later in an article in the
magazine she wrote, In one stunning gesture, Mrinalini lifts the use of
the dance from the ordinary to the sublime. As a Cultural Ambassador,
she is worth fifty statesmen.

In 1961, the centenary year of Rabindranath Tagore was celebrated in


Delhi. All the major dancers were invited to stage their productions. I
selected two of Gurudevs dance dramas, one purely lyrical for the
Bharatanatyam technique and the other through which I could speak of
my own ideas. They wereBhanusinher Padavali
and Tasher Desh
. Tasher Desh
or the Kingdom of Cards, written as a play and later turned into a dance
drama at Shantiniketan, spoke out against the rigidity of the caste system.
I developed it into a protest against all isms and also a powerful cry
of freedom for humanity. Strangely, it appealed to all sections of society.
Many among the distinguished audience, like Jawaharlal Nehru, Minoo
Masani and others, felt it was a clear vindication of their own ideals. A
communist friend of mine, on the other hand, said it was obviously
against the ruling party. When years later, in 1978 we danced it in China,
it was not appreciated nor mentioned in the newspapers though we were
showered with praise for all our other dance dramas!
At the festival in Delhi the government of India selected our
programme as the best, and we were sent to Sri Lanka for the Republic
Day Celebrations, with the well-known Rabindra Sangeet singer Suchitra
Mitra singing the lyrics as our musicians had real south Indian accents
which were not considered appropriate! On the way back to Ahmedabad,
we were invited to dance in Chennai. Rukmini Devi came specially and
told me that she had come as she wanted to see the two Tagore dancers,
which had been praised so much in Delhi on that occasion. Shri K.M.
Panikkar presided and spoke eloquently of my work.

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Life and Work


W

HEN IN 1957 THE SOVIET U NION HAD SUCCESSFULLYLAUNCHED ITS


first Sputnik into the orbit Vikram was very excited about it and said
that India would also have its rocket launched very soon. From Japan
came a consultant on space, Mr Hideo Itokawa, whom Vikram liked very
much. Once, lunching together at Chidambaram, they wondered what
to name the rocket. The USA. had called theirs Apollo (after the Greek
God). I suggested (rather timidly) our celestial apsaras: Menaka, Rohini
and others and Vikram thought it a wonderful idea. It was in 1961 that
Vikram made a proposal to the Government of India to start space
related activity. In 1962, the Government of India, through the
Department of Atomic Energy, set up a committee called Indian National
Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR). Vikram was appointed its
chairman and the Physical Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad, its
headquarters. Very soon, Vikram searching for a site in a helicopter
selected a village called Thumba on the west coast, 16 km north of
Thiruvananthapuram, for the rocket launching facility, as its location was
close to the geo-magnetic equator.
Vikram was awarded the Shanti Swaroop Bhatnagar Award for physics
in the same year, and he used the prize amount to start a trust which
later became the Nehru Foundation for Development. Space research
involved frequent visits to Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala. When Vikram
started Indias space programme, he always spoke of using space for
national development. He was keen to use satellite TV for education and
instructional activities, and his dream was that satellite TV would help

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Erik Erikson with Vikram at Ekistic Centre Athens.

agriculture, health, family planning, animal husbandry and adult education.


Deeply passionate and concerned as he was about improving the quality
of education he started an organization at the Physical Research
Laboratory called The Group for the Improvement of Science Education
which consisted of people from universities, schools and colleges
comprising students, scientists, teachers and well-known educationists.
Vikram was again at M.I.T. in Cambridge, USA. in 1963. He often
went as a honorary professor, where he had become a familiar figure on
campus and had many outstanding scientist and intellectual friends whom
he enjoyed being amongst. Wed met Joan and Eric Erikson in Ahmedabad
and I wrote to Joan to tell her that Vikram was in Cambridge. Vikram
in a letter to me said, It was very fortunate that you wrote to Joan
Erikson that I am here. Erik spent last evening with Kamala (she was in
the U.S.) and me. He was visiting Cambridge for a day. He is very very

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keen to write on Gandhiji to spend a year doing it. It is a very exciting


project. Eric did come to India, to Ahmedabad and his bookGandhis
Truthwon the Pulitzer Prize.
When the children and I were in Cambridge visiting Vikram in April
1963, we were invited to dinner by the well-known architect Mr Sert.
The Galbraiths had been invited too and he had just been appointed the
American ambassador to India. Mrs Galbraith questioned me a great deal
about India. She asked me if they could keep dogs,
I suggested cats may be easier and not so difficult to look after.
Mallika at that time had more than twenty Siamese kittens (shed started
with a pair), and Mrs Galbraith when she came to Ahmedabad later took
two from us and in honour of her visit named them Mallika and
Ahmedabad. Later, an article appeared in Timemagazine about the
architecture of the new residence of the American ambassador. One
sentence said (and this I write from memory)
Guests however may not like the cat, Ahmed strolling through the
lattice work into their beds or something to that effect. I read it with
a smile and told Mallika, Look we arent mentioned inTime
the but your
cat is! never dreaming of the furore that innocent passage would create.
There was a huge protest from Pakistan about the name of the cat. An
apology was demanded and I think, given!
Vikram wrote from MIT saying, Our cats have created an international
incident! Clemy ( the cat) should be proud of her litter! His letters were
always filled with varied news and comments. Another letter from
Cambridge read I was proud as a peacock to hear Mallis and Kartiks
marks. This time I am writing separate letters to each child, confidential,
all their own. My papers are coming on well but I am running out of
time. I have still to visit Bolivia, Chicago, Washington and Canada in the
next three weeks. I will meet Indira (Gandhi) tonight at a reception in
New York. But taking everything into account the visit is most fruitful.
It has also been important for the Management Institute because I spend
some hours each week for that work. In the same breath he writes, It
was good to find only one spelling mistake in Ks (Kartikeyas) letter.

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In 1961 John Mitchell the ebullient director of IASTA (Institute for


Advanced Studies in the Theatre Arts) had seen my dance demonstration
at the Asia Society in New York. He wrote and asked me whether I would
direct a Sanskrit play with Broadway actors at his Institute. Vikram was
enthusiastic about the project and in one of his letters wrote, I am still
worried about the production of the play. What about the costumes and
decor? Though this is none of my business can I make a preposterous
suggestion? The actors to be in Western clothes perhaps formal evening
dress. Music to be Indian instrumental and Sanskrit slokas chanted.
Decor modern Indian Hussain perhaps. Will they pay Hussain to do
it? Shut up Vikram. So there! he ended. But I wanted it in classical style
and brought the loveliest old saris and accessories to take, and prepared
to create the play in the ancient traditions of our theatre.
Working in New York in 1963 with actors from Broadway was a
challenge. I had selected the oldest known play BhasasSvapna
Vasavadattam
. It was also contemporary in its theme. The first day, when
I faced the actor-audience, they asked me, Will you select the cast from
those who look Indian? and I replied Yes, but from the inside.
A room was set apart for me, where ancient India came to life.
Starting with Sanskrit prayers, learning hand gestures of the dance,
reading the play together, I found a strange type of resistance Can
we have a smoke? Can I go out for coffee? You can go anywhere you
like. There is no need to ask. Just slip out of the room quietly, I replied.
In a few days, no one went out. Be Indian even at home, on the streets
wherever you are, I told them. Not todays Indian, but the Indian
belonging to the world of Bhasa. Gentle, polite, and unassuming. And
use your hands when you talk.
At first they found it difficult to gesticulate with their hands like
Indians do! But we worked hard and they were excellent students. For
me it was difficult to select the cast after only a week of rehearsal. I had
to rely on my instinct. In between there were hilarious incidents, when
they practised in the buses and used mudras (hand gestures). Husbands
and wives met me and said, Life is so wonderful with the serenity and
care at home. I made the training extend into all spheres. I need to
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possess you for these nine weeks, I told them and they agreed happily.
Often lunch was forgotten, and at five in the afternoon we would be still
working unaware of the time, till John came to tell us, to break up.
When the choice of the cast was made both hero and heroine were
blond. Reid, whom I selected as the King Udayan said, I came because
I loved studying with you, never dreaming that I would get a role. Except
for one or two minor characters my instincts were right. When we played
in Washington, Mrs B.K. Nehru, the wife of the Indian Ambassador
asked Reid, How long have you been in India? And another visitor
commented, They are all Indians, arent they? Except for the costumes,
the make-up was normal. From your inner selves become Indian, I had
said to them, and they had. It was an amazing transformation.
During my stay in New York, many artists asked for lecture
th , 4
demonstrations. The only time available was midnight and on Oct
1963, I danced and spoke to a packed house of Broadway artists at the
Booth Theatre. After the one hour show, questions and answers continued,
and at two a.m., feeling really groggy I namaskared and said thank you
and then fainted in the wings! There was absolute consternation and John
Mitchell and the others were really worried. Next day, the then Consul
General sent a car to take me to a charming doctor who told me never
to eat salads in the United States which might have been treated with
pesticides as our delicate Indian stomachs were used to cooked food.
The play was to open in the I.A.S.T.A. Theatre in New York to
an invited audience on November nd
22
. Mrs Kennedy was due to come,
but her secretary wrote, Mrs Kennedy will be unable to attend the
performances due to the fact that she is going to Texas with the
President.

The 21st of Nov. was a memorable day for India. Vikram and his team
launched the first rocket from India into space, the beginning of Indias
space programme. He had written to me earlier (10.11.1963) Life is
st at
getting busier than ever with our rocket firing on the 21
Thiruvananthapuram, our conference at Jaipur with the influx of about
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Cosmic Rays Conference Jaipur 1963 Vikram with Prof. Blackett, Dr Powell and
Dr. Homi Bhabha.

100 guests, five scientific papers to prepare and Valentina (the astronant)
th and the Pugwash (conference) to prepare
coming for dinner on the 12
for!! So come back soon to hold my hand.
It was from Thumba in Kerala, that the first rocket was launched.
And India entered the Space Age. Geewhiz wonderful rocket shot came
Vikrams telegram. I rang him but could hardly speak. We were both so
thrilled.
The play The Vision of Vasavadatta
was opening in New York the next
day. But in the USA. a terrible tragedy struck the nation.
On Friday, the 22nd of November, 1963, someone burst into our
room in New York. The President has been shot, she shouted. What
should have been a joyous occasion turned into one of the saddest of
days. All night Rupa and I sat by the television, in a friends house, feeling
as though the tragedy was our own.
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The next day the play opened with the moment of silence and was
an immediate success. Beautifully dressed, the cast moved with grace on
the polished black floor under a heavily embroidered canopy. John
Mitchell, was very pleased and so was I. We received good reviews. For
IASTA, one of them said, this is an unprecedented occasion; the first
time American actors have been able to learn the classicial style of
Sanskrit drama from a master director of India.
All of us had become deeply attached to each other in the few weeks
and it was a tearful parting. Later I was to receive letters about individual
productions saying, Youll be surprised at how Indian they are! On my
return the artists wrote to me:
The American cast of The Vision of Vasavadatta wishes to
express their deep gratitude for your guidance in presenting this
ancient dramatic work to audiences in Washington, D.C. and
New York. Your patience with our awkward efforts has made all
of us wonder, your spiritual insight and dedication to the theatre
has inspired us, your artistry as a dancer has provided us with
memories we shall not soon forget, your warm humanity as a
teacher and a gracious Lady, has given us great pleasure and a
fund of remembrances which we shall treasure. For all of this
and more we extend to you our thanks. Truly your spirit will
remain with each of us. We would like to say, too, that you are
with us at a time of profound national sorrow, when we question
our direction as a nation, and wonder at the violence and hate
which has exploded in our midst with the death of our President.
And so, as you depart, you leave with us in our hearts and
minds this play of another culture, another world, thousands
of miles from our own. We hope that we can show to American
audiences the sorrow, joy, love, the beauty of a less complicated
society than our own; we hope to indicate again that those
fundamental values imbedded in every great work of art are
values which cross every boundary line, and touch the heart. In
attempting to transmit this spiritual insight into another time and
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place we believe that we have made one small step towards


bringing our two great cultures closer together.

In 1965, came an invitation to dance in Sikkim for the coronation of His


Highness, Palden Thondup Namgyal, the Chogyal of Sikkim. We were
entertained royally and looked after by our dear friends the Avtar Singhs.
The Chogyal who invited me to tea, was a charming person, very cultured
and knowledgeable and wanted to know more about our heritage. I found
time to visit the Tibetan Museum which was the most fascinating place
in Gangtok, with its marvellous paintings and old scrolls. In between our
performances at the huge reception in the evening, Avtar Singh, who
was now Consul of India, in Sikkim, and I, led the ballroom dancing. A
friend of mine, Ray Mills, saw the telecast on the BBC in England and
wrote, I expected to see Bharatanatyam. Instead there you were leading
the ball!
Indira Gandhi who was then Minister for Information and Broadcasting
was standing all by herself and I went up to her and drew her into our
circle. Having known each other for many years I felt deeply her loneliness
after Panditjis death. I thought perhaps her future politically, was rather
bleak. How wrong we can be! For her wedding to Feroze Gandhi I had
sent her a sari specially woven, a separate present from my mothers gift
for I wanted to give her something of my own. Through the years she
sometimes wrote for some saris, from Gujarat through her devoted
companion Usha Bhagat. A sari which Usha sent me for reproducing a
few months before she was assassinated remained undone. Once, while
in Kodaikanal with Vikram for a science meeting, she wrote a note to
him and passed it silently across. Vikram smiled and put it in his pocket.
Everyone was anxious as to what this secret message was about. Later
I received the note. It said, Cant Mrinalini do something about these
dreadful curtains? She was very fond of my mother, the Cheriamma
of the south and visited her to have a bowl of the best dahi ever
whenever she was in Chennai. When my mother died she wrote a
touching letter to me, never forget how proud she was of you. This
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personal concern in the midst of her more than busy life reflected an
amazing sensitivity.
When I was given the Chair of the Gujarat State Handicrafts and
Handloom Development Corporation Ltd. in 1975, she told me, Now
you can articulate your own vision into the creative work of our rural
people give them confidence Mrinalini, that is what they need. She
was a good friend through the years though I was critical of the Emergency
and told her so. I also disagreed with the foreign cultural festivals which
I felt did no good, especially to our artisans, with many foreigners
deciding what shape our crafts should take! I wrote to her whenever I
felt our art was being descerated or destroyed and her response was
always positive.

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Kartikeya and Rajshree


K

ARTIKEYA LEFT FOR C AMBRIDGE IN E NGLAND IN 1965 AND JOINED ST .


Johns, his fathers college. He was very unhappy at first. I am feeling
so miserable and homesick, he wrote I was dreaming about all my years
(at home) and got up several times to thank God. They just couldnt
have been better. He was only eighteen and I hated to part with him.
But soon he made friends and was studying very hard, and getting
to love the place beginning to talk and think of politics, religion,
vegetarianism and culture.
I still have an early proposal of his for an institution which would
enable private people to contribute towards the building of New India
and towards economic freedom without entering politics. His proposal
condudes, this organisations main strength must lie in the vitality,
ingenuity and determination of its members. It does not wish to be an
organisation consisting of people who have nothing better to do or of
people who want to relieve their conscience by doing social work.
When Kartikeya left for Cambridge, he was already deeply in love.
Rajshree Parekh was the niece of Madanmohan Mangaldas, Vikrams
brother-in-law, married to his sister Leena. A lovely girl, she was a
student of mine at Darpana. They had met each other through Kartikeyas
cousin Mana who was a close friend of Rajus. Vikram had decided to
give a surprise to all of us and had kept it a secret that Kartikeya was
coming home that first Christmas in 1965. He went alone to the airport
to fetch Kartikeya and driving back to Chidambaram they were both
anticipating reactions as no one was expecting him back. As it happened,

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the Airport Manager Mr Joseph in his enthusiasm had phoned me to


say that Kartikeyas plane was on time! I immediately sent word to Raju,
but not wanting to spoil the surprise, said that I wanted to see her
regarding her dance classes at Darpana! When Vikky honked the horn
as he drove in, he had hardly expected a big reception. Raju blushed,
not having quite expected to being tricked like this by her guru. It
turned out a wonderful surprise with Vikram a bit amazed as to how I
had turned the surprise back on them.
It was one night in the summer of 1967, when Kartikeya was back
for his holidays, that Mallika and I decided to talk women to man with
him. Sitting on the little ledge that ran between Mallikas room and mine
we demanded to know how serious he was about Raju. They were seeing
so much of each other that it wouldnt be fair if he was not. We told
him that a decision was necessary. Kartikeya was clear. On Rakshabandhan
day he proposed to Raju and soon afterwards they announced their
engagement. Raju had just graduated that year. Vikram wanted her to
study more and in his typical style made enquiries about some of the
new Universities in England. He knew people at the University of East
Anglia at Norwich and helped her find admission there. Raju and Kartikeya
were delighted. They could meet on weekends and it was great for them
to be able to spend time together away from Ahmedabad. They decided
to get married in 1968, soon after Kartikeya finished at Cambridge. In
his meticulous way, Kartikeya started planning the wedding. We would
like to have the party at Chidambaram, he wrote from Cambridge. If
Dadima (Saralaben) wants something at The Retreat we can have
something there as well, but the main event I would like to be at home.
We would like a concert, Vilayat Khan had come here last Friday and
Raju and I went backstage afterwards. We said we were getting married
in July and he said he must come and play for us. (Vilayat Khan used
to know Rajus father and gave a beautiful concert at their wedding.) It
seems, he wrote later.
Kartikeya finally decided on studying at M.I.T. and Raju got admission
to Boston University. They now looked forward to coming home and

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getting married. In 1968 their wedding was celebrated in the spacious


Mangalbagh residence and later the reception was held at Chidambaram.
It was a joyous occasion with a real family gathering with Mummy and
Lakshmi and other members of clan the Swaminadhan and Menon the
Sarabhais and Mangaldases.
In 1968 they left for the US. Vikram had many friends in Boston,
and they all helped Kartikeya and Raju settle down. They also got to
spend time with Vikram who had to go back and forth for his work. He
would try and visit them in Boston over a weekend or ask them to come
to New York where he had meetings.
Kartikeya wrote of the tremendous amount of work, I am enjoying
my work this time more than ever, he said, and all the courses are
interesting they all have a sort of informal atmosphere. Soon I will have
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to start thinking about a topic for my Ph.D. thesis and I am going to


see (Prof Myron) Weiner about it. He finally decided to do his thesis
research in India, on South Indian migrants in Mumbai city. His work
would be focused on the community that lived in the slums of Dharavi
and comparing them with the middle class South Indian largely Brahmin
group that stayed at Matunga.
Raju was studying child psychology for a masters degree. She found
herself to be the only young student in the child psychology course,
the rest having come in after work experience. She kept very busy with
her lectures but also helped Kartikeya, typing his papers on an electronic
typewriter she had bought from her first earnings doing a part time job
at the University. She did a few dance performances at the university
and wrote about a project that involved her teaching dance to emotionally
disturbed children. Is it possible to teach them? Amma, please tell me
what should I do? she asked in a letter. In 1970 Kartikeya and Raju
returned to India. Kartikeya was to do his field work in Mumbai. They
stayed with Vikram initially at Kashmir house and later at the Atomic
Energy apartment at Little Gibbs road. It gave them a chance to spend
a lot of time together.
Raju and Kartikeyas son was born at St. Elizabeths nursing home
in Mumbai on October 5th , 1970. The baby was expected around mid
October and Raju hoped her baby would be born on her birthday and
that there would be rain. And thats just what happened! Mohal and she
share the same birthday, and Kartikeya, knowing of her wish, teased her
later that he had buckets and hoses of water ready to spray outside her
windows just in case the heavens didnt oblige!
When the little one was born and we brought him home to Kashmir
House, Vikram said, This is the happiest day of my life. We all felt the
same. That summer, in May 1971, Vikram took us all to Manali for a
holiday. We stayed in a small house in the valley, rather cramped, as both
Kartikeya and Mallika had brought friends, but we enjoyed ourselves
thoroughly going for long drives, playing golf on the lawn, wandering
into town and eating noodles at small wayside restaurants, and Vikram
relaxed, spending hours playing with the baby. We still had no name for
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him though we tossed around many. One day, while on a drive I spotted
the name of a village. It was spelt Mohal. What a lovely name, I said,
One who is desired and Vikram agreed. Actually it was not pronounced
like that at all but we felt it was just perfect, and decided to have a naming
ceremony.
Up and up we climbed into the snow-clad mountains of the Rohtang
Pass. Raju placed Mohal in the arms of his aunt Mallika in accordance
with tradition, while Vikram recited Sanskrit verses. We named Mohal
in the lap of the Himalayas. It was such a happy, carefree moment, all
of us together on a holiday after many years.

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Mexico and Japan


W

HILE I WAS AWAY ON TOUR IN EUROPE IN 1967, ACHARYALU ( MASTER)


and Mallika began working on shadow puppets for a performance of the
Ramayana. Unlike the Javanese ones, puppets from Andhra are huge and
throw spectacular coloured shadows. And thus started Darpanas puppet
section. Meher Contractor, whose lifelong interest in puppetry I knew
about, became the head of the department, ably demonstrating her
expertise in handling many varieties of puppets and inviting scholars
from all over the world to perform in Ahmedabad.
Her puppet group travelled extensively and on a trip to Iran, she
recreated the story of Sohrab and Rustom in shadow figures. Her book
on puppetry in collaboration with Dr Marjorie Me Pharlin of the USA
dealt with educative and creative drama. She trained more than 5000
teachers apart from social workers and many of her students are now
working on increasing social awareness through puppetry. Well-known
all over the world, especially after she became President of UNIMA, her
sudden death in 1992 came as a great shock. She had been looking very
well and I had teased her just the night before about getting younger
everyday. She was not only a great puppeteer but a good friend, her
husband, Rustom Contractor, who had died a few years earlier, had also
been a staunch supporter of Darpanas activities.
Working so hard, dancing and teaching, entertaining, looking after
the children it was more than a full life. Quite often, I have seen that
it is when life is at its peak that something totally unforeseen happens.
One morning, doing the Nattuvangam, I found my wrist hurting. In a

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few days the whole of my right arm was swollen and horribly painful.
I went from doctor to doctor and was finally that told it could be a frozen
shoulder, for which there was no proper treatment but would disappear
a a dreadful predicament for a dancer.
One year passed in absolute agony. The helplessness of not being
able to do anything anymore wore me down. I went home to my Taravad,
Anakkara Vadakath for ayurvedic treatment. My aunt Ammayi (Susheela
and Vinodinis mother) had prepared all sorts of special dishes but tears
came to her eyes when I tried to eat the tasteless Kanji without salt. The
moosad tried his best to massage my arm with various oils but it still
remained painful and I went back to Ahmedabad without any significant
improvement.
Later in the summer Vikram took Mallika and me for a holiday to
Kerala. Out of the blue came a telegram inviting me to go to Mexico
City as a guest choreographer for the Ballets Folklorico Mexico. The
Olympics were to be held there that year and choreographers from five
continents had been invited for what was called the Cultural Olympics.
I was extremely reluctant because of my arm but Vikram who never
believed in passing up an opportunity insisted.
As it was holiday time no musicians were available. Darpana was
Tasher Desh
closed. I decided we would take the original music of
(The
Kingdom of Cards, by Rabindranath Tagore) and do the whole dance
drama in Gujarati folk style. Minal, as always, came to my rescue. She
worked with a group of musicians who specialized in the songs of Tagore,
and in a short while made a recording on tape. Meanwhile, I went to
the villages of Gujarat and bought costumes and ornaments for the men
and women. It was a hectic ten days. Minal and I had to take all sorts
of injections including the small-pox vaccination and to our horror, she
broke out in spots. We were afraid that the immigration authorities would
not allow us in so she wore a long sleeved blouse and covered herself
with her sari as best as she could. Fortunately, the reaction disappeared
in a week with homeopathic medicine and by that time we were safely
in Mexico City.

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We were told that an embassy official would take us to the school of


Amalia Hernandez, with whose dancers we were supposed to work. She
was the Director of Ballets Artistes and a leading cultural figure in
Mexico. But there was nobody to receive us and when, after waiting for
a long time, we called the embassy we were asked to proceed on our
own. Due to lack of Mexican money and also because we were in an
unknown city, we called the first secretary at the embassy, Mr Parashar,
who on listening to our plight sent his son Ravi who spoke fluent spanish,
to our rescue.
Ravi spoke Spanish fluently. He took us to the academy where we
were met by Amalia and her group of professional dancers. We started
off by watching them dance to get an idea of their abilities. Then we
played them the music I had brought along and I explained the idea of
Tasher Desh
. Next day we started in earnest. We worked really hard, often
from morning to evening, without a break. But the dancers tired easily
and sometimes would just lie down and refuse to get up, especially the
men! Mexico is situated at a height and probably that was the reason. One
day one of the more talented male dancers, who used to take a break too
often, asked us, Are all Indian women so strong and energetic? Minal,
who is usually very restrained, lost her patience and let fly at the men telling
them in no uncertain terms that they were very lazy and shouldnt be
dancers. In spite of all their tantrums, we became good friends.
While we did not suffer from any loss of energy, Minal and I had
bouts of awful nightmares and hallucinations. It was Nathan who reassured
us that this was due to the high altitude. I had the same problem in
Kashmir and had never truly enjoyed my visits there. Once, at the height
of 17,000 ft. above Gangabal, where Vikram was doing a cosmic ray
experiment, I sat up all night surrounded by unseen frightening forces
and was very upset in the morning with Vikram for bringing me there.
Below us, as I grumbled, we saw the men and women of the valley around
the Gangabal river. It was a scene from Biblical times and I have never
forgotten it. The beauty, more than made up for the horror of the night!
But whenever I had a problem Vikram would say, Oh the dames of
Gangabal!
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The morning of the performance, Minal and I went to the church


of the Lady of Guadalupe, to light a candle and pray. The priests and
the congregation were so surprised to see two sari clad women that they
stopped the service and came to help us choose and light the candles.
When we prayed, they joined in. In simple togetherness, one transcends
the false barriers we create in life. I have always wondered why we disown
our true oneness. Why can humanity never realize this in our short lives
on earth?
At the dress rehearsal, in the excellent theatre, I played with the
lighting and wished that there were theatres as well equipped in India.
At the last moment, I thought the play should begin with a sutradhara
(commentator) and wrote a couplet on the spot in Gujarati style which
Minal, who sings so well, taught to the actor. Our charming assistant,
Rosa, who was the most attuned to our work and fascinated by the dance,
music and costumes, directed the play after we left. She visited us in New
York at the Brooklyn theatre when we were dancing there a couple of
years later. She had forgotten the tune of the sutradhara and so Minal
and I sat with her after the show and practised it with her, much to the
amusement of the fans waiting for autographs!
Tasher Desh
was a tremendous hit and the Ratnams were very proud
of us. The Mexican group looked absolutely stunning in their Gujarati
costumes and danced without a single mistake. The audience came to
us and said that they had never seen anything so exquisite and we were
awarded a gold medal for the best choreography, by the Mexican
government. Kamala Ratnam arranged for us to have a performance of
our own for all the ambassadors and diplomats as many of them wanted
to see us perform. We were never kissed by as many ambassadors as at
this one time! It was a special triumph to win an Olympic gold for India
to make up for our hockey team which had failed miserably. Amalia
Hernandez was thrilled that her dancers had been able to imbibe
something of our culture and the dance drama became part of their
repertoire for many years.
During the production, my arm slowly began to improve and I almost
forgot about the pain! It was only when I was watching the performance
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that I noticed the four girls who were the princesses. They held their
fingers in a mudra called mushti but without clasping their thumbs. Only
then did I look at my own hand and realized that I still could not bend
my fingers properly and had taught them to do it that way!

In 1969 came an invitation from Japans TV network N.H.K. to dance


for the Meiji Centenniel Folk Arts festival of South East Asian countries.
The performances were held in the superbly equipped Museum theatre.
Everytime I go to Japan my admiration for their artistic sensibilities, their
meticulous precision in everything they do and their high-powered
efficiency grows. Most of the participants in the festival were young men
and so Mallika soon acquired an ardent following and basked in her first
tour abroad! For several months afterwards, letters of proposals from all
South East Asian countries arrived, which amused me greatly. Mallika
Serabhoji Kuravanji
danced as the Kurati in the dance drama
. Once as she
entered the stage, all the pleats of her costume fell out, but she showed
herself from that moment a true professional. Turning in a graceful
movement she tucked them back again without a flutter!
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In our spare time we were taken to see the garden of the temple
Ryoanaji which is done in sand and stone, exquisite in its stark simplicity.
While I was walking, I heard a sound that was between a bell and a drum.
For a while I listened and then asked what it was. That is a sacred drum,
the guide told me.
Can I go in and see it? No one is allowed in there or even to touch
them, was the reply. Only the priests go in. So I stood still for a while
and listened.
That night after our performance, we were all astonished to see two
monks carrying brocade cushions on which were placed two exquisite
drums one of wood and the other of painted lacquer. They are for you,
they said. No one in all these years has ever remarked on the sound.
Please use them as you will. They are as sacred as your dance!

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Communicating Social issues


through dance
P

ERHAPS BECAUSEI CAME FROM A POLITICALLY AWARE FAMILY, SAW MY


mother go to jail in the cause of freedom, saw my husbands close family
ties with Gandhiji, and was exposed to the freedom struggle from
childhood, I unconsciously imbibed a social responsibility and awareness.
But, it was only when I came to Ahmedabad that I became aware
of the problems of women. In our family, we never even thought of the
freedom of women as it was always women who dominated our household
in Chennai and Kerala.
I was studying Gujarati and had begun to read the newspapers every
morning. There were constant reports of young women who died of
burns. Usually, it was reported as an accident while cooking but after
much probing, I learned about dowry deaths and greedy in-laws. Slowly,
Memory
the horror of these incidents obsessed me and
, a dance drama
about these hapless brides, was created.
It was the first time that Bharatanatyam spoke of a social problem.
I did not change the technique but used it very differently. There were
only three women characters and the music from south Indian ragas
attuned to the development of the girl as she grew, going through her
marriage, her victimization and finally the forced suicide. The dance
drama, perhaps the first choreographic experiment in classical technique,
had tremendous repercussions everywhere. Nobody had ever used
Bharatanatyam in this way nor in this mood. It was appreciated more than

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Memory A Ragged fragment of Eternity.

condemned. Editorials were written by leading newspapers on how for


the first time dance spoke of contemporary problems. My creative urge
had at last begun to find fulfillment and direction. From then on there
was no looking back.
Manushya
had been the first breakaway from the Kathakalai repertoire,
but that had not posed any problems it had merely shown the powerful
technique and beauty of this dance form.Memory
In , the only indication
of the background for the topic was the costumes I used, the simple skirt
and odhni of Saurashtra. In theIndian Express
, Amrita Rangaswami, now
director of the Centre for the Study of Administration of Relief analysed
the performance and wrote:
Death is not jerking off the veil of life. It is the slow erosion
of the human spirit. Mrinalini Sarabhai offers this statement in
her new ballet, Memory is a fragment of eternity For the first

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time Mrinalini turns away from the Sringara Rasa the stock
emotion of classical dance tradition. and she replaces the comistress, in eternal dalliance with her divine lover, with the
woman of our time who seeks love but turns to death for
comfort. The shoddy, daily reports obscure the fact of the
destruction by the community. These women have made a mad
bid for freedom. But others, who die a natural death, have also
been destroyed. The dance, presented in aid of Vikas Griha,
the Ahmedabad home for destitute women is not the dance of
the court or the old temple. It is a dance for village streets. The
ballet has four short segments it presents the four seasons in
a womans life : the young girl in her animal energy, the shy
maiden longing for her lover, the woman cowering before the
harshness of the alien community she has come into. And then,
visibly, she shrinks. Somehow she has been cut off from the
source of life.
The community makes, awkward gestures of atonement but
they come too late. For a woman, Mrinalini says, death is not
the absence of life it is the absence of love. The method she
uses is lucid. It is a language without words. There is the flute,
the mridangam, the idakka and the bhol. The practised cruelty
emerges in the syllables of the bhol and in the variations of the
rhythm that now becomes harsh, now recedes and falls.
Alternating, they explain the interaction of the cruelty of the
community and the emotion of the woman. The veil is used to
denote the different seasons. The gunghat of the bride is changed
for the coarse grey of the fading woman. To a rural audience,
it will be an explicit gesture conveying both the status of the
dancer and her emotional condition.
All my dance dramas seemed to take up a universality of thought
and it was not strange that in many parts of Europe and America women
Memory
came to me and said that
reflected their own problems. I remember
especially in Sweden how a woman wept in my arms after the show. It
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was as though I had touched chords in the hearts of women everywhere.


Many years later when Mallika was doing the role, it was Ellen Stewart
at La Mama (New York) who shouted in a loud voice, This is real dance!
One by one, problems that obssessed me took shape in dance. As
I have often said, I cry out my emotions in dance. I began each
performance with a small talk on the reason why I felt compelled to take
up that particular issue. Once, while sitting in my office, gazing lazily
on the huge peepal tree and seeing the movements of its leaves, I
thought of Calder who had stayed with our family for many weeks and
the mobiles he had created. While I was looking and thinking deeply,
I was unconsciously listening to the sound of one of our musicians
Haridas singing below. He was reciting Sanskrit verses for a new dance
drama. The fan was stirring above me, as I was communicating with
nature. Around me were my books and the open pad on which I had
been working. Suddenly an idea filled my mind How, unconsciously,
while we are sitting, working in one place, we are influenced by the
sounds around, both near and far! Even in the silence the distant screams
of the bird, the rustle of the leaves, all these formed the backdrop of
Rig-veda
my thoughts. That was how the dance
was born. The result was
a dance in silence and in the distance someone reciting the Rig-veda,
which became the totality of sound and movement. When Arnold Haskell
saw the show in London, he wrote:
Ever since I sawManushya
many years ago, I realized that a
choreography based on Indian dance techniques had a tremendous
future and that Mrinalini was the person to bring this to fruition.
After a lifetime devoted to a study of the dance, I have come
to the conclusion that the Bharata Natyam, the oldest dance
form to exist intact, is at the same time the most modern, the
most subtle and the most expressive. It is rooted in a philosophy,
it transcends the purely physical, and this philosophy is not some
connection hastily assumed for the purpose as in all the modern
dance I have seen in the west, but a way of life. The Indian dancer
is a true disciple.

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The Song of Creation


attempts something beyond the resources of
any other medium, an experiment in form, silence and sound
on listening to the Rig Veda, and succeeds beyond the shadow
of a doubt. From formlessness, we have creation, the love the
first seed of soul.. that bond of union between being and non
being.
A work that is complete in itself cannot be expounded by the
critic, the verses from theRig Veda
are its programme. For once,
a mystic poem has been translated into movement.
I find this a deeply moving work. Its impact is immediate but
like all owrks of art it requires repeated viewing to reveal its
subtleties and even then the mystery remains hidden. Mrinalini
is too wise to attempt a cosy theatrical answer to this great
question mark. Who knows the truth? Who can tell us where
and how arose this universe?
Many of these new works have been written about in my book
Creations
.Through the years Darpana both, in its dance and drama has
focused attention on human problems. Sometimes special incidents
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devastate me. I react and express my anguish through the language of


theatre. I remember once, when the well-known Marathi actor Amol
Palekar and his group came to do a workshop with me on Movement
in Drama, I created for them an episode which had happened that week
in Gujarat. The Patels of a village had massacred five Harijan boys for
daring to build houses on their own land. Later, it became a dance piece
called Ranmalpur
and was a powerful indictment of mans inhumanity
towards his fellow-beings.
Each creative dance statement usually began as a reaction to some
situation in the depths of my mind and soul. For days and sometimes
months, it would lie within me as a thought. Gradually these thoughts
became moving figures across a blank space as vast as the sky. Then, I,
dancing alone, shaped the awareness and the truth of movement. From
this introspection grew the group dynamics.
Once, while listening to the drums, the mridangam, chendai, eddaka
and ghatam, my mind began making pictures and with Chathunni I
Percussion
created a rhythmic intricate duet called
which was exacting, yet
exhilarating. The audiences loved it and Charles Fabum wrote, Mrinalini,
you wonderful creature, you have done it! Congratulations, admiration,
love. There is not another one in India like you.
Again and again I realize that each cell has a life of its own, and the
body in dance responds to this awareness, helping thought to take form.
Visualizing the movements evoked by the symbolism of my thoughts,
I try them out myself with my senior students. Only a few of them are
able to grasp the dynamics of the shapes. I reorganize the figures very
much like a sculptor who reshapes his clay. The only difference here being
that sometimes a dancer gives me a feedback on what I have created.
Gradually, I began to go beyond the techniques and patterned new
dimensions in space. Mallika, who has found her own vision, has given me
tremendous joy, for even as a student she understood my language.
Creativity is very difficult to describe, because though it springs
from inspiration it cannot be achieved without the hard training that
leads to technical articulation. It is an inner knowledge of which
movement is exactly right in a certain situation. So far, in India, there
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have been no rules of choreography in the western sense. In classical


dance it was an individuals effort and imagination that made new designs,
and new patterns in the classical repertoire. Even if the steps were the
same for me, the interpretation was always new. For instance, in the
Meghadoota
of Kalidasa, I brought in all the ambience of Kerala. Not only
Kathakali, Mohini-Attam and the folk forms but also how the women
dressed their hair, how they worshipped, and how they lived memories
from childhood. It was only in the abstract dance pieces that I formed
new designs, creating a wholeness of theme rather than talking with the
abhinaya of the classical form. Sometimes a piece of music would stir
me and new idea would grow from that.
Often requests would come for a specific theme and I would begin
thinking and working on those lines. For instance,Currents
in
which was
for a conference on alternative forms of energy, I read a fair amount of
physics in order to be aware of the physical universe. But all ideas have
to take deep root within oneself before they begin to divulge their
secrets! This awareness sometimes works in strange ways, for often,
when I am asked to do a project, I pray for guidance. I am led to a certain
book or I meet someone at that moment who indirectly helps me
understand what I have to do. Vikram often remarked and talked of the
marvellous universe beyond the Milky Way, and both of us, lying on our
cots on the veranda of our bedroom, gazed at the stars differently, yet
united in a shared experience of wonder.
Many years later, Tom Gehrels, our astronomer friend from Tucson,
took us all up to the terrace of Chidambaram where, flat on our backs,
we watched Haileys comet and listened to his fascinating philosophical
explanation. Understanding the moment of a new discovery, a new form
is a miracle indeed. Art and science both explore our invisible world.
Once Vikram wrote, The important aspect is to be able to make
abstractions in art, in dancing, in astronomy or in physics and mathematics.
We observe a little but from there onwards we take wings in a way and
project ourselves onto a new plane it satisfies a need to soar.

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On a dance tour to Leipzig in 1959, listening to Bachs music, I had


thought that some day I would like to dance to Bach in a cathedral. In
1970 came a letter from Italy. Bepe Menegatti, Italys brilliant theatre
director, excited about combing East and West in a classical form of the
dance, wrote: We are celebrating the Beethoven Centenary with a new
ballet. We want you to dance with us. The music was Beethovens
Creatures of Prometheus
. And I was to dance with Italys prima ballerina, Carla
Fracci. Not Bach, but Beethoven.
Prometheus was a Greek God who first brought to mortals the secret
of fire. The writer, Berdyaeu explained, There is a Promethean principle
in spirit, a rebellion against the natural gods, against determinism of
human destiny, an aspiration to a higher freer world.
The Creatures of Prometheus
were the spirits of freedom; Please find the
time and come came a cable from Menegatti. So I, went to Milan. There
was a challenge to this and I was always one for artistic challenges!
Menegattis idea for the choreography was a unique juxtaposition
of the political with the idealistic. It tried to convey the rebellion of
the individual against a mass world order of obscene massacre and
violence; to perceive the ugliness of the era with the background of the
profound beauty of Beethovens music visualized through the classical
arts of East and West.
What could I, an Indian dancer, do with Beethovens music? As an
artist, I too was passionately involved with the search for peace. But
should I speak of the peace of the East coming from a country torn by
communal strife? Yet here was a chance to share my individual
consciousness and concern. Stepping from the plane into the slush and
snow of Milano, into a civilization so different from ours, I was enflamed
by the fire of the India I loved and which still exists. The rest did not
seem to matter. I had come to represent what I truly believed. Bepe
Menegatti and I talked and later he wrote: She was no stranger to me,
for I felt I had known her all my life! With some people, rare people,
facades break and, as Bepe talked of his ideas, they became my own, as
though both of us were drawn together into a magical, dynamic, universal
philosophy.
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Rehearsals were at the La Scala and everyday I trudged up five stories


(there was an unreliable elevator) and practiced for several hours. Bepe,
on the very first day, explained his ideas to me and they fitted in with
all the new thoughts and techniques I had been experimenting with in
Indian dance, in Rig-Veda
. I was almost instinctively prepared for his
unspoken thoughts, so similar to mine. He too was obsessed with the
anxieties of our time, he too believed in pure classicism, yet in the
expression of our own epoch, he had a deep sense of commitment that
went far beyond performance, technique, or language. He was preoccupied
with the artists need for truth, as I was, and the telling of it through
theatre. The music of Beethoven is as real today as is Bharatanatyam,
as enduring, as sustaining, as meaningful. Love, violence, revolution,
peace: these have been woven into the fabric of our existence from the
beginning of human consciousness. The only difference being that we,
as artists, re-express ourselves in the context of our own times and each
new attempt is a happening against the backdrop of eternity.
The ballet grew as we worked together, though many of the Western
dance sequences had already been arranged by Milorad Miskovitch, the
French dancer-choreographer. But the ideas had to be fitted into Bepes
vision, which was (or so it seemed to me) still unsure. Bepe, Milorad and
I worked together. This particular piece of music was difficult (so Milorad
said) even for them, for it was not dance music. And yet it filled one with
such sorrow and yearning that, as dancers, we were able to visualize and
identify movement patterns and that is what we brought into focus.
And, thus, slowly unfolded the awakening and the tumbling of one
idea into another, the sudden light of wholeness in form, the slow
merging of dance thoughts into order. It was enthralling and exhilarating.
Once, after a particularly lovely movement that I created, inspired by
the music, Bepe knelt and kissed my foot. I was both touched and
embarrassed by so spontaneous a gesture. Since then I have always
sprayed my feet with the choicest perfumes. Just in case!
Only an artist understands the joy when movements suddenly become
alive and dramatic, when symbolic designs are meaningful. The exploration
is an obsession, the climax the fulfillment, the final ecstasy. All the rest
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is anxiety and physical exhaustion. The theme, as Bepe explained it to


me, and as it unfolded, was the dancers preoccupation with violence.
The decor was in stark white, the set a studio fitted with bars for ballet
rehearsals.
When the curtain opens, the western dancers are rehearsing and are
oblivious of the world outside the studio. An actor reads some words
from Aesechylus, but it leaves them unaffected. The director puts on
a film of the balletLa Sylphide
as danced by the New York ballet dancers,
Carla Fracci and Erik Bruhne as the main participants. Carla and her
partner, rehearse to the film on the stage. Everything is normal and the
cast watch the film and the duet. But somewhere a mistake has been
made in the editing of the film. Suddenly across the screen flash terrible
scenes, a young child of Viet Nam, burnt by napalm bombs; the Dachau
concentration camps, Jews being massacred, scenes from the real world.
The dancers are forced against their will to watch the atrocities of man
against man. They look at the film in horror. It is turned off abruptly
but the mood of utter revelation continues. An actor strolls through the
set, reading aloud from Beethoven, words of insight and wisdom. This
time the dancers listen carefully. They erupt, as though in a frenzy, pull
down a huge board and wildly write Peace Peace upon it. Some go
into a frenzy of exercises. They are bewildered and helpless. What
should they do? There is a deep silence, and then the footfalls of
someone approaching. They turn startled, from India comes the dancer.
There is an unconscious feeling of peace as she walks gently, greeting
each dancer as though dealing with their pain in some subtle and strange
way. The ballet dancers look on, bewildered.
Slowly one of the dancers dances with tremendous serenity; something
unknown to them. At the end of the dance she looks around for someone
with whom she can communicate and she begins to dance as though
conversing with the prima ballerina, a meaningful dialogue beginning
with just one dancer. Slowly everyone joins in, one by one and the actor
too, moved by the harmony, reads out from the words of Gandhi, words
of peace and non-violence.
The cast communicates by demonstrating their ancient styles,
questioning the relevance of their role in a violent world. Who are the
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creatures of Prometheus, that God who gave liberty and dignity to man?
One by one pictures appear; familiar pictures. There is Martin Luther
King, his wife, Coretta King. There is Ho Chi Minh and Krushchev.
Jonas Salk
There is Pope John and the discoverer of penicillin
. And, of
course, Mahatma Gandhi. There are many creatures of Prometheus,
trying to save mankind, to spell out freedom in their own way. But there
are those who still suffer. The terrible awe-inspiring picture of the
Vietnamese mother with her dead child in her arms flashes across the
screen. The Indian dancer cannot but respond. She dances the dance
of the suffering of women, her youth, her aspirations, her child, growing
up only to be snatched away and killed in a senseless war.
Let us destroy these people, the other dancers say to her. We will
avenge you. But she shakes her head. Violence can never be met with
violence. If we cannot love, let us be non-violent. That is the only way
to peace in the world. We have to learn to respect and tolerate each
other. Love may come later, but now it is imperative that all women
accept humanity as their child. Violence can never solve anything except
to beget hate.
But the prima ballerina protests and with a drawing of the hand of
Lenin behind her, she dances in protest, for nothing she says can be
solved except by protest. So both the creeds meet and decide that
dancers cannot exist only within the framework of their studios. There
is no solution, no quick answer, no easy Platitudes just the fact that
no one can live in isolation any more. The problem of existence is theirs,
and somewhere an answer must be found, if humanity is not to be wiped
off the face of the earth. Each one feels the horror of the crimes
perpetuated in the name of justice and can no longer blame it upon the
inexorable decree of the gods.
Representing two cultures, East and West, in angular circles, the
dancers moved, devastated, searching for an answer. The spaces between
the cultures slowly diminished and in the last scene, the dancers came
together, all sense of strangeness banished, both committed to find an
answer. An answer that would involve all of us in a liberation of the divine
in human beings. What was the message of the ballet then? The
togetherness of the East and West. For us to be Creatures of Prometheus,
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to realize the problems that are destroying the world and above all, not
be silent. To become human beings made in the image of God. To bring
peace upon the earth so that we may live in freedom. Prometheus has
been bound upon the rock too long. Let us free him forever.

The whole experience would have been aesthetically satisfying except


for the fact that I felt that Carla resented my being in the ballet, and
the attention that I was being given. This was shown in several subtle
ways, and my silence irritated her all the more. Fortunately, she did not
work very much with us, and with Meneggatis constant praise of my
work I could ignore it.
Milorad noticed it too and one day spoke vehemently to her in Italian.
After that the rehearsals were less strained. It was my first experience of
professional rivalry in ballet of which I heard a great deal later.
Vikram and Mallika came to see the performance at La Feniche the
lovely old theatre in Venice and were given seats in the royal box much
to Mallikas delight. Carla and I received huge bouquets from Vikram
on the opening night. The director of the orchestra told me later that
he had never enjoyed ballet but the classical Indian dance which I
performed opened up a whole sea of enchantment for him.
We were invited to the palace. King Birendra and his elegant wife
Aishwarya received us very warmly and we sat with them talking of our
cultural ties and how much we had in common.
It was a terrible shock to learn of their tragic death many years later.

In 1970, we had been invited to the India Independence Day celebrations


at Kathmandu. Invited abroad again in 1971, we went to London and
Germany on a professional Tour and then to Piraes in Greece at the
request of the Government of India for a few performances on our way
back. A lady met us and took us to her home. She turned out to be a
scholar, Dr Eliki Zana Laskardia, deeply interested in India.
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We were told that the mayor wished to meet me, so I made a


courtesy call, and received a shock! The mayor, a strange looking, crosseyed individual treated us with suspicion and asked some very strange
questions. I was puzzled at his attitude, as we were guests of the
government. He enquired repeatedly about our performance and the
mystery grew. This went on for a week, and his deputy met us everyday
with rather stupid questions about the dance. In the meanwhile, we
visited the ancient sites, saw some folk-dancing, attended a play and
enjoyed ourselves. But time was short and after a week, I told the mayor
that we were not bothered about the performances and were booking
our seats to India the next week.
A theatre was immediately arranged but to my utter surprise, the
mayor said he would be the only one along with his deputy in the
audience. Some friends told me of the political situation and the harassment
of artists so I did not want to aggravate the situation, and consented.
Dancing to an audience of two in a huge theatre was comical! What a
relief when it was over. The mayor came to kiss my hand, and said, We
want you to dance all over Greece. It was wonderful. I replied as coldly
as I could, I m sorry, we are here for three performances. So now we
have two left. Please arrange them as we are leaving for India in three
days. At the airport, after two jampacked shows, we were still nervous
and hurried into the Air India office and only breathed a sign of relief
when the plane took off!
Years later, I read that the reason for the Mayors suspicion was that
dancers from Africa had worn costumes which were rather scanty and
he had received a great deal of flak.

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A

GREECE, I WENT TO MUMBAI TO BE WITH Vikram


and Mallika, who was now busy making a career in films. Vikram looked
tired and I wanted to be with him. Even though he did not confide his
work problems to me, I knew instinctively that he was under a great deal
of stress. The constant travelling in India, to the USA, to Europe, and
the war with Pakistan, were all telling on his health. He always teased
me when I said he looked tired and would quickly have a bath and come
out looking fresh and very young. Do I look tired now? he would then
ask. It was that wonderful childlike quality that endeared him to everyone.
He treated all human beings with respect and understanding, whether
it was the prime minister in Delhi or a mali in the garden.
On one of his trips to Thumba Vikram went for a dip in the sea.
He enjoyed swimming every morning when he was there. Running down
the pathway (Vikram always ran fast) he saw a huge snake, hood raised,
in his path. Unable to stop he jumped over the snake. Later he told me,
I think the problems I have are now over. I also took it as a symbol
that evil had been averted, for all of us, particularly his mother and I,
worried about the amount of work he was doing. Dr Pisharoty, his close
friend and colleague often said that when Vikram slept his eyes were
closed but his mind stayed active.
Vikram went back and forth from Mumbai to Delhi and to Ahmedabad.
I protested as did Mallika. On the 26th of December he came from
Ahmedabad looking very tired. Dont worry, he assured me, Ive just
FTER A SHORT TRIP TO

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had a check-up and am really fit. As we were chatting before dinner he


received another call from Delhi, requesting him to go back for an urgent
meeting the next morning. I protested vehemently and at that moment
felt furious that bureaucrats seemed to have no respect or care for
people. Surely its not necessary, I pleaded. Talk to the P.M. on the
phone. But Vikram said it was important and back he went, returning
exhausted the same evening.
Some months earlier, one night on the 2nd floor of the Atomic
Energy apartment, in Mumbai, Vikram suddenly got up and went to the
window talking incoherently about his work. I woke at once, rushed to
him, talking gently, patting and soothing him like a child. I brought him
back to bed, but stayed awake, with my hands gently patting him as I
did Kartikeya and Mallika when they were little. Such a thing had never
happened before, for Vikram generally slept soundly even though only
for a few hours. The next day, extremely anxious, I asked our bearer to
keep the door slightly open when Vikram was alone in the apartment
and to always sleep by the door. As Vikram disliked being pampered,
I asked that he should not be told of this. I also spoke to his secretary
Warrier about always sleeping near the door, wherever he was as I was
alarmed that his heavy schedule burning the candle at both ends and
in the middle was taking its toll.
The next day he was to leave for Thiruvananthapuram. Mallika begged
him not to go. Amma is specially in Mumbai to be with you, she said.
Surely you can postpone Thiruvananthapuram. And you promised wed
spend New Year eve together in Ahmedabad. Amma doesnt like to
celebrate New Years Eve, Vikram answered, because you know her father
died on that day. So Amma and I will come by train on New Years Eve
and have a party on the first. I have to go to Thiruvananthapuram as the
railway minister Hanumanthiah is laying the foundation stone of the Thumba
railway station. If I dont they will think Im being snobbish. But well have
a long holiday after that, I promise! So Mallika and I settled reluctantly
for a weeks holiday. That night I had ordered a special dinner (actually
it was always special when Vikram was at home), and he teased Mallika
about her film work, and all the publicity she was getting.
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We spent a wonderful night together. He knew I was very worried


about his overworking and his health and seemed specially tender and
loving trying perhaps to reassure me. When he left for the airport around
5 am, Mallika was up and ready for her filming and again reminded him
to take it easy. Remember what the doctor said about high blood

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pressure. He grinned and replied, Dont hassle me. Ive just got a clean
chit on my blood pressure. Bye, Papa, she said as she kissed him!
See you.
When Vikram left for Thumba on theth28
I was happy that he would
come home with me and spend sometime at Chidambaram over the New
Year and we could go for a holiday. I spoke to him on the phone later
and he told me that he had changed and rushed to the function with
Hanumanthiah a few minutes before the Minister arrived. The next day,
the 29th was taken up with project meetings and ended at one in the
morning. when he said, Lets go ahead, with his usual enthusiasm and
smile.
th I woke early and was reading his speech
On the morning of the 30
in the newspapers when the phone rang. It was Mr Murthy from Thumba.
I dont remember what he said but I shouted, Cant you try breathing,
resuscitation. No!, he said, He died last night in his sleep. Was there
anyone nearby? I asked. Did he ask for help? No, he said, no one
was there. He never liked anyone sleeping in the outer room.
Oh God! Oh God! I thought how can this be true. Suddenly the
flat filled with people, mostly his colleagues. They had already informed
the family and booked a call to Kartikeya and Raju in Cambridge. I rang
Saralaben and Kamala. The whole day passed in a daze. My friend Pratima
Parekh came, then Rekha Menon and Minal, and many many others. It
was a nightmare.
Mallika was at the studio. I rang Prabhat Mukherji, her director. He
stopped the film shooting immediately and told Mallika he was taking
her home as Amma was not feeling too well. Dreadfully worried, she
begged him to tell her what had happened but all he said was, I dont
know. When they entered she rushed to me and said, Oh thank God,
Amma you are all right. I held her and said, Its Papa, darling. Hes
gone. She was speechless. Weeping, we clung to each other. It just did
not seem possible.
Even now as I write this, so many years later, the tears pour down.
Vikram was brought to Mumbai that evening by plane with many of his
colleagues accompanying him and taken to an open place at the airport
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where people came to pay their respects in shocked silence. Everyone


seemed stunned. Annamarie, a close associate whispered, His chappals
are with me, those Kolhapuri chappals I always bought for him, which
everyone noticed. Saralaben and Gautam came by plane and we left for
Ahmedabad a few hours later.
It was to his birthplace The Retreat, that we took him and there people
came in an endless stream, all through the cold night from far away places.
Saralaben sat reading the Gita. She was so much braver than I was.
Motiben, held me in her arms. Next morning, at Manoramas farmhouse,
he was cremated on the banks of the river. People lined the streets as we
took him by car. A young man broke through crying, Let me see my
beloved guru. We stopped the car. He namaskared sobbing bitterly and
then disappeared into the crowd. It was Mallika who bravely lit the funeral
pyre breaking the norms of tradition. No one demurred. I do not remember
much of the days that followed. Swami Ishwarananda Giri came from
Mount Abu and was a pillar of strength, comforting Anasuyaben and all
of us. My sister Lakshmi arrived from Kanpur and later my mother.
Two days later Raju and Kartikeya came with Mohal from the USA.
Kartikeya had got a telephonic message in Boston. It said, Seshan here.
(Seshan was then the Director at the Department of Atomic Energy.)
Please talk to Mrs Sarabhai. Raju was standing beside him and they both
instinctively knew something was terribly wrong. When I spoke on the
phone Kartikeya replied and Raju hearing the news dropped Mohals
bottle which she had in her hand and stood stunned. Both of them were
shattered by the news, and being so far away made it worse.
They managed to get a T.W.A. flight to Tel Aviv and India. But they
were offloaded at Rome as Indians were not allowed in Tel Aviv. Put up
in a wretched hotel, Kartikeya had to go into the kitchen to forage for
some milk for a feverish Mohal. The next day they took the Air India
flight. The entire crew were kind and sympathetic.
Through all this, sadness, the people and the crowd all around, I kept
thinking, I must tell Vikram. That thought has unconsciously persisted
till this day. As I told Swami Ishwaranandaji, He is not at the end of
a telephone any more, but I know he hears me.
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On his death Indira Gandhi wrote, Dr Vikram Sarabhai was a young


person with great wisdom. There is a French saying that if age could
do and youth had wisdom, it would be a wonderful combination. Vikram
Sarabhai had that combination. He was a fine blend of the thinker and
doer. No one can lead a meaningful life today without combining the
two. A few days later she flew to Ahmedabad to see the family, whom
she had been close to for so many years.

After Vikrams death, tragedy after tragedy stalked the family. My dearest
Motaben (Anasuya Sarabhai) died in 1972. It was Ganesh Chaturthi and
I had sent Kartikeya in the morning to her, to pay his respects. In the
afternoon, a message came that she was dying and I rushed there but
she had already gone. Saralaben sat by her side and I joined her. My heart
went out to Saralaben who had the terrible experience of seeing her
children die. Mridulaben, who had become very close to me in recent
years (I stayed with her in Delhi) suffered deeply for her mother for she
felt that the family were not looking after her, with the care that she
needed. Please Mrinal do something, Gautam and Gira do not bother
with her, she told me. I felt helpless for she had never opened to me,
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but I sent Kartikeya to meet her often, as she was very fond of him and
he too felt a deep affection for her.
Mridula too was very ill off and on and in 1974 we knew she was
dying. We all went to Delhi to be by her side as she lay in a coma,
sometimes opening her eyes when we called her name. I telephoned
Indiraji through Usha Bhagat, as I knew she would like to be with the
family and she came to the hospital. Mridula opened her eyes and Indira
said, You are such a brave soldier and Im sure you will conquer this!
Sheikh Abdullah also came and I like to think that Mridula was aware
of his presence.
After she died, her body was laid out in the compound of her home.
It was so ironical that on either side of her stood Indira Gandhi and Sheikh
Abdullah, the two antagonists. She had given her life for Sheikh Abdullah.
And because of Indiras family she had been jailed. In death she had
brought them together. Leaving the house Indira wrote me a note, Would
the family like me to arrange someone to sing bhajans at the crematorium?
After Mridulabens death, Sarlaben become a shadow of her former
self. Ambalal Sarabhai had passed away in 1967. He had been the pivot
around which I felt the family stood united and was one of the most
remarkable men I have ever met distinguished, gentle, widely read,
always courteous and kind. His charities were many, but he never allowed
his name to be publicised. He treated all the children alike but I had
always felt that Vikram was special to him. This was apparent after his
stroke in 1959. He could hardly recognize people but when Vikram came
and in his usual boyish manner called Papa from faraway, his face would
light up and he would say Vikram. Sarlaben never left his side and
nursed him with utmost devotion. After his death, the family felt apart.
It was tragic and something I could not understand. These children had
been loved greatly by their parents and were also highly educated, taking
the best from both the worlds. However bizzare and unconventional,
their viewpoints and actions were never criticised but always understood.
A few months after Mridulas death, Sarleben slipped out of life, in
January. It was truly the end of an era.

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Moving on
A

LL MY LIFE I HAVE CRAVED COMPANIONSHIP BUT HAVE GOT SO MUCH

loneliness. It is not because of the lack of good friends but the feeling
of not having someone around everyday. Vikram led such a busy life that
he naturally could not often come out with me. Mallika, after she grew
up, has been my closest and dearest companion. We seem to share one
soul and we both know that we need each other for wholeness. I had
many men friends, close and dear to me, but they had their own lives
to live. Even though many of them wished to marry me, I could not see
myself as a wife to anyone save Vikram. Even after Vikram died, I was
perhaps too independent to share my life with any one person. I was
deeply devoted to my own family, to my children and my grandchildren.
Yet, I had to be careful not to be possessive but only supportive. It was
difficult but I hope I succeeded at least in a small way. Only Krishna
was permanent in my life and I clung to him.
Perhaps because I lost my father early in life I turned to God as my
only companion: father, lover, guide. It was Krishna whose name was
constantly on my lips and it has been Krishna who has guided me
through the years. I am a believer in prayer and that there is always a
guidance open to us when we pray. It has always been Krishna to whom
I appealed when things around me became too turbulent. Sometimes I
was angry too and showed him that anger because we all want things
our way. But the real answer is complete surrender, the most difficult
action.
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Swamy Ishwaranandaji, a pillar of strength, wrote to me: After


coming to Abu a week ago, I have been asking these hills and
these breeze why a person like you should find difficulty in
seeing the hand of God behind each pulse of life. None can
make another see this. Ones inward eye must open, the eye
of an intimacy, an intense yearning charged with faith, in short
the eye of love. For you, love of God should come as naturally
as divining in the void for a dove. Perhaps, the void is yet to
come; or you have been constantly trying to fill the void with
things, happenings, forms, feelings and trying to dive the same!
Slowly wisdom will come in seeing the illogicality of it, this
process of filling God with happenings will cease then you will
no more seek a proof of God other than the mere fact of your
simple being. Unless I myself can say with absolute surety, yes,
God is, I know only then will my inner self be at peace But
why cant you say, why cant you be! Do you need to say I am
to be assured of it? If so, then for Gods sake say it, a hundred
times; the possibility of that saying is the only truth that ever
existed. But the mind is getting it all mixed up with happenings.
The concrete proof of Gods being is your seeking it. Meditate
deeply on this, this is no preaching this is the story of the soul,
my soul, your soul, the only soil that utters, hears, sniffs, touches
and tastes dances and signs. Why should you expect some
series of events to happen in a particular way in order to reveal
God, to convince you of God? God is not particularised in any
way He is revealed in vibration and then silence. Someone
a beloved, a wicked, some body dies there is commotion,
an emotion, pang of joy, pain, slight wonder, interest and then
silence. That is Existence, that is Truth. Dont confuse it with
that mangled body, that cremation ground, that empty chair, that
throb in your heart.
The japa I gave you is only to bring the needed intensity in the
psyche. I have great faith that it will come. That you cannot
betray Him, that you are trying to eradicate the resentment
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against Him, is itself the proof. Dear Mrinal, His assurance


comes to us daily; we have only to whet our understanding thro
love, yearning, prayer. Dont expect the reserve of it. Pray
intensely that the real nature of God be opened to the light of
your being; before you pray, make sure that you need it, hanker
for it. Give up all (in the real sense, in the core of yourself) for
Him. dont you see that life is trying to bring about this giving
up on your part without your being aware of it? If you are aware
of it God has gained your cooperation. Divine love will blossom
forth..
I accepted his world but the feeling of dejection is too difficult to
describe. Yet, there is a soothing and healing in times of deep sorrow.
In dance, the presence is constantly there and I am one with the universe,
never aware of my audience or surroundings.

Shirdi Sai Baba came to me unexpectedly. I was in a tram on my way


to Mumbai with a dear friend, Shakuntala Desai. In the next compartment
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sat a friend of hers, the Judge Mia Bouy. Seeing me with her, he asked,
How is she? for it was a few months after Vikrams death, and everyone
in Ahmedabad shared my sorrow. He came and sat by me and said, I
want you to come with me to Ahmedabad to see Baba. He is a vehicle
for Shirdi Baba (who died in 1918) to talk to us. He will bring you much
comfort. A year passed before I was destined to meet him. It was in
Maninagar, a suburb of Ahmedabad, in a small temple to Shirdi Sai Baba
and outside sat this simple Gujarati man. Every Thursday he would be
possessed by Baba. Suddenly his face, his demeanour would change.
He would even smoke bidis as Baba had done.
All questions would be answered. I just sat there and felt comforted.
After that I went to him regularly and he told me to visit Shirdi, where
Sai Baba had lived. So I went. Much has been written of Baba, the strange
man who was both Hindu and Muslim and accepted by both communities
as a messenger of God at Shirdi. I touched the tree under which he had
sat, gathered the embers from the fire he had lit and prayed to his statue
in marble that had eyes that seemed to look into mine. One part of me
felt that all this was play acting. Yet I dismissed the rational mind and tried

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to merge into that faith and trust that I saw around me a great and
wonderful simplicity of utter bhakti, the surrender to the cosmic force.
But many happenings were strange and could not be answered logically.
Tragedy seemed to follow tragedy with Vikrams death in 1971. In 1973,
a great flood took place in Ahmedabad when the Sabarmati river burst
its banks. Our home, Chidambaram,was on the banks of the river and
below the garden were the thick walls of an old fort made of brick, where
Vikram had created for me a small open-air theatre using the walls as
they originally stood. We had many of our performances in this strikingly
aesthetic atmosphere. That fatal day, August 31, 1973, we went out in
the morning to help the slum-dwellers on the banks and when we
returned, found that we too were swamped. The river rose slowly but
steadily. Then brick wall smashed and fell into the swollen river. Soon,
the entire theatre was engulfed and swept away. We could not save even
a single brick. Above the theatre, on higher land, Vikram had built a small
work room for himself which we loved. It was a two-room building, fully
equipped with a music system (for he would never do without music),
a desk and a small library of his books. We took out as many objects
as possible which were movable. Mallikas friends from the IIM came to
help. We also had to empty our own sitting room which was near the
edge of the river. We sat at night on the bank and at 1 a.m., the entire
land, where Vikrams studio was, was cut like a cake and disappeared into
the furious waters. Mallika burst into tears and I could hardly restrain
myself.
Simultaneously, a very strange incident happened some miles away
at my sister-in-law, Manoramas farm. Vikram had been cremated there
and the river claimed that land at the same time. I wondered if this was
a message to me to stop mourning. Strangely enough, I met a woman
some months later who was psychic, and who knew nothing about me.
She said, Your halo is dark with sorrow you have lost a dear one but
you must stop trying to bring him back. Every year is a binding force
it is time you let him go.
Soon after, Swamy Dayananda came into my life. At that time, I was
president of the Chinmayananda Mission in Ahmedabad and had helped
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build a centre for Vedantic studies along with my friend Shakuntala Desai.
I requested her to look after him as I could not face anybody at that time.
But he insisted firmly that I take him personally to the talk and accompany
him everywhere. I can never forget the tremendous strength and comfort
that he gave me, never asking about my sorrow. Only once or twice, he
would say gently, Its bad today, isnt it? Just remember, it will pass. Slowly
I became calmer and could face the world once more.
Later, listening to him in Mumbai explaining the Brahma Sutras
with such a clarity and authority, I fell deeply in love with his insight
and perception and with him as the preceptor. Since then he has guided
me and spent time with all of us at Chidambaram.

A unique holding Board had been instituted by the Sarabhais in which


all the family members participated and business matter were discussed
Many times it often become a contest of opinions with Papa and Vikram
agreeing and Gautam disagreeing. Once in a letter to me dated 14, 1963
Vikram wrote:
The family conclave is meeting 10 am to 8 pm every day these last
two days and continues. Even Boss (Mridula) is here. It is mainly to
thrash out the structure which we discussed about 11 months ago.
Gautam wishes to take no interest in any group or family affairs he
will work only with Calico.
In 1966, when Vikram joined the Atomic Energy Commission, the
family Holding Board appointed Gautam as the Chairman of the Sarabhai
Chemicals and the group of companies Vikram looked after. I remember
those meetings. Though Vikram had worked so hard for professional
management, Gautam insisted he would take over only if he was completely
no charge and no one interfered, no one! It was like a gun pointed at
our heads. There seemed no alternative, so the board agreed. When
Vikram came back from the USA he was very upset at the decision. This
will lead to trouble, he told me. And it did. Absolute disaster. Gautam
could not do much harm till Vikram died. Then he slowly began to show
a great vindictiveness towards the families of his brothers who were both
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no more. The younger son of Suhrid who had been working many years
in the textile mill Calico was eased out in a most reprehensible way. Our
son Kartikeya had begun working part-time (as he was still studying at
M.I.T.) in the Operational Research Group in Vadodra. The Calico Mills,
which was my father-in-laws creation and in which both Gautam and
Gira worked had become one of the most famous textile mill in India.
Sarabhai Chemicals was entirely built by Vikram and had already acquired
a fine reputation for excellence. He had affiliations with Squibb in USA.
Merck in Darmstadt, Germany, and Geigy in Switzerland. Many of their
executives had often dined with us and become good friends. They were
very fond of Vikram and would sing his praises to me.
For some strange reason, Gautam almost stopped all financial benefits
from the family business. In what seemed like a scorched earth policy
be began to destroy the very foundation of the businesses. Perhaps it
was because his children were not interested in the business or perhaps
a it was because of a deep-rooted jealousy of a younger brother who had
excelled him in every sphere. Even our residence in Mumbai Kashmir
House which belonged to the family was locked up by him and we were
not allowed to stay in it. It was no use protesting that the sixth floor
had been built for Vikram by my mother-in-law and was actually partowned by us. Vikram had needed an apartment when he became the head
of Atomic Energy, and Sarlaben did not want him to live separately
though later he moved into another apartment because of Gautams
constant bickering and resentment. Kashmir House, was for us, a home
away from home. Gautam kept it locked and sealed for thirteen years
and eventually sold it.
Gautambhai had been a good friend, not very close, but if I ever
needed him, I always felt he would be there for me. That is perhaps why
his complete betrayal of the family came as a terrible shock and I have
never been able, to this day, understand his attitude, and fully reconcile
to this betrayal.
In 1993 Suhrid wrote us a confidential note:
In 1966, when Vikrambhai joined the Atomic Energy Commission
and the Space Research Organisation, instead of entrusting the
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management of the privately held Sarabhai companies to professionals,


the Members of the Holding Group requested Gautambhai to become
the Chairman. At that time the Sarabhai Group was amongst the ten
largest industrial houses in India.
About fifteen years ago, I had circulated a note to the Members of
the Holding Group containing my comments on the first ten years of
Gautambhais Chairmanship of the Sarabhai Group. The note was entitled
Sarabhai Group 1966-76 a decade of progress?. In the note, I had
drawn the attention of the Members to the fact that the first ten years
of Gautambhais chairmanship were characterized by some of the ablest
professionals leaving the Sarabhai Group and deteriorating relationship
with our many foreign collaborators which would deny the group products
and processes based on their future R&D. I had further expressed my
view that if these trends were to continue, the future would be bleak
for the Sarabhai Group.
Power corrupts. Power, without appropriate checks and balances,
can go berserk and has a self-destructive quality about it.
The enclosed note traces the period 1976 till today. My worst
nightmares pale in comparison to what has happened under Gautambhais
Chairmanship during this period. The privately held Sarabhai companies
were made public and ASE was created. The Calico Museum of Textiles
was transferred to Sarabhai Foundation. Today Calico is on the verge of
becoming a BIFR company and ASE is being merged with GSFC. The
Sarabhai business and cultural heritage, built up painstakingly over a 100
years and consolidated by Shri Ambalal Sarabhai, has been single handedly
destroyed by Gautambhai in the short span of 25 years.
The Sarabhai Group will soon cease to exist and vanish from the
Indian Industrial landscape. What can one say except, how tragic?
It was to Kartikeya that the burden of sorting out our immediate
family affairs fell after Vikrams death. Gautam literally throwing us out
made thing much more difficult. Kartikeya was a tremendous pillar of
strength and not once did either of the children say to me if only Papa
were alive. He and Mallika have made things easier for me all along and
I was so grateful that at least financially, through my fathers grace, I
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could help. Destiny again! Vikram and I had always led an unostentatious
life. Both of us while living comfortably never had luxurious habits. All
the money we earned went to our institutions. One had always felt that
the larger family was there in the background in case of need, but now
things had changed.
Now it was desperate. It was fortunate, though sad, that my family
in Chennai decided that the property should be divided. Gilchrist Gardens
was financially impossible to maintain and so it was pulled down as also
my mothers smaller house beside it. The entire land was distributed as
was my fathers wish to the four children and I received a share which
literally saved us. We needed this money badly for immediate financial
requirement and to try and start a small business now that we were not
involved in the larger Sarabhai business. What I did feel bad about was
that even a small plot of land Vikram had gifted to Kartikeya had to be
sold. This was the only land we had outside our family home,
Chidambaram. A piece of land which Vikram had got for the Nehru
Foundation for Development was developed by Kartikeya after his return
from M.I.T. It was a completely barren patch and today it is a heavily
forested area. It was here that Kartikeya established VIKSAT in 1976 for
promoting more participation of people in development and the Centre
for Environment Education in 1984. VIKSAT today works in promoting
peoples participation in natural resource management and the Centre for
Environment Education that works in many parts of India and S.E. Asia.

Both Kartikeya and Mallika have inherited Vikrams gift of creating new
institutions of awareness. CHETNA a Centre for Health, Education,
Training and Nutrition Awareness for women, was also initiated by
Kartikeya and has now expanded under the excellent management of
strong, capable and dedicated women headed by Indu Kapur. Raju who
has become a fine designer with a clientele mostly in Europe, the USA.
and Japan, has been a great support not only to him but to all of us. Both
of them have kept good relations with the younger group of the family
and when Gautam died in August, 1995, Kartikeya was requested to take
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over the management of the Sarabhai Enterprises, a very difficult task


in the condition they were in under my brother in law. For me it is a
great satisfaction and joy that Mohal has joined Kartikeya in the business
and works at ASE. Samvit too returning in 2000 from the USA is also
taking a keen interest in the business and works at ORG (Operation
Research Group) where Kartikeya first started.
Another plot, on which Vikram hoped to create a new institution,
has been converted into a childrens park, called Sundervan, by Raju and
Kartikeya, where awareness about animals and trees and plants is
inculcated. Rajus interest in animals and snakes gave it this focus. I
remember with amusement when a crate of snakes from Rom Whittaker
in Chennai (my niece Revati was working with him then) was lost! When
it arrived at the Ahmedabad station the Octori man wanted to open it,
but after learning that they were snakes he looked suspicious but refrained.
Raju and I took the crate and I watched in admiration as Raju casually
released each snake in to the special place in Sundervan.
A great desire of mine was to have a place where Vikrams
achievements and papers could be preserved for young people to see.
A friend, Padmanabh Joshi, who had written a book on Vikram calling
him an institute builder and who was devoted to his memory established
a temporary place at Kartikeyas Centre for Environment. It was only
in the year 2000 at the celebration of the 25 years of the Space Project
in India, that my dream came true. A museum housed in the I.S.R.O.
complex was opened in August by Dr Kasturirangan who gave his full
support for the project. Padmanabh was made the curator and the first
week called Space Week drew large crowds, mostly youngsters which
I was very happy about.

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I

NVITATIONS FOR TOURS CONTINUED TO POUR IN . I N

1972, I WAS VISITED


by the impresario Ninon Karlweiss, who spoke to me about an American
tour. I was still very depressed but she spoke so sympathetically, telling
me of her own tragedy, that I was finally persuaded to dance in the USA.
We flew 23 hours to New York, had a short tea-break, flew on to
Chicago, gave two performances, went straight to the airport and flew
to Seattle, for a lecture-demonstration the next morning.
People perhaps never realize the stress of a professional tour. There
is no time for rest or the luxury of overcoming jetlag. It requires discipline,
dedication and committment. Our schedule was the usual one! Someone
told me later you got a standing ovation in Chicago, arent you happy
about that? and, I said, I remember nothing about that performance.
When an impresario books a tour, it is completely hectic and
professional. Regular performances are arranged ahead of time in the best
theatres and unless you are top class, they are not interested. To them,
a dancer or any artist has to be of the highest calibre, a crowd-puller,
and a dedicated professional. On no account would a performance be
cancelled, even if the main performer (which in this case was me) was
ill. Not that I ever wanted to break a commitment. For instance, once
when I was finishing the tillana and coming out with very fast steps, I
hit the heavy iron supports that were meant to keep the curtain down.
My entire foot twisted around and I was in agony. Chattunni who was
standing in the wings immediately caught hold of my foot and turned
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it back into position which probably saved not only my foot but the show
as well, and the audience was none the wiser!

Being sponsored by the government and being a celebrity in your own


country does not automatically make you an international artist. While
I was in Paris in 1954, dancing professionally, a famous filmstar was also
there, sent by the government of India. Her reviews were excruciatingly
bad. Paris critics are perhaps some of the best in the world, for they are
constantly viewing the greatest artists from all corners of the globe!
Critics too, have built up their reputations and created a following
of their own. Everything hinges upon what Arnold Haskell, Richard
Buckle, Mary Clarke, P.W. Manchester write in London or Dinah Maggie,
Suzanne Juillerat, Jean Silvant, Francois Guillot de Rode say in Paris.
Audiences would always judge the standard of a performance by the
name and worth of the critic and what he or she wrote, and Parisians
usually followed their advice.

The American CBS Television were very keen to have my creative piece
on the Rig-Veda
televized, but there was a strike in the USA. So from
Seattle we drove to Vancouver in Canada, and Faubion Bowers, the
writer, interviewed me. There is a postscript to this story. In 1982 Mallika
and I had lunch with the then C.E.O. of N.B.C. I told him about my
programme saying I was sorry I never saw it nor received a copy. Let
me see if I can find it in our archives, he said and sure enough in a few
days I had a copy!
Again in 1973 we danced at the Brooklyn Academy in New York.
In the audience was a young composer called Joel Thome. He was filled
with admiration for our work and had become spiritually immersed in Sri.
Savitri, Flame of theand
Forest
Aurobindos philosophy. He was writing
wanted
me to compose the dance piece. Years later in 1982, he came to India and
worked with our musicians in a very interesting fusion of Indian and
Western music, perhaps one of the first experiments of the kind.
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At the end of our performance at the Brooklyn theatre, John Mitchell


introduced me to an attractive woman, Dr Mary John, who was connected
to the Northwood Institute in Dallas. She invited me for a lecture tour
on Indian dance and the cultural heritage. I came back to New York
with Minal in 1974. It was a tour where I really had time to meet people
and discuss problems which were shared by both our countries. At
Houston, many of Vikrams friends came to the lecture and met me, most
of them from NASA. Vikram had made such an indelible impression even
on those who met him briefly. His utter lack of ego, his childlike smile,
his interest in everything around him endeared him to old and young
alike. When I went to Vienna in 1968, one of the members of the
committee of IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) spoke to me
about him. We were devastated when Dr Homi Bhabha died because we
respected him so much. We were antagonistic towards his successor and
almost determined not to like him. When Vikram Sarabhai walked into the
room everything changed. We respected Homi but we loved Vikram.
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Even now, so many years later, there is not a single day that I do
not hear Vikrams name from someone who had been moved by his
demeanour and simplicity. Many older men felt towards him as a father
to a beloved son. Bucky Fuller, father of the geodesic dome, Eric Erikson,
who profoundly reshaped views of human development, Kasturbhai
Lalbhai and many others loved him dearly. Women too fell for him and
he often helped them in their work and always had time to solve their
problems, I wish to relate here an incident: Vikram was at a high
powered dinner in Washington and surrounded by many lovely women.
It was Estelle Ramey (her husband was head of Atomic Research and
she herself a distinguished doctor) who related the story to me: He was
so handsome and talked so well that all the women surrounded him. They
talked of fashion and suddenly he said you should see the beautiful saris
my wife wears. No American man (Estelles words) would have brought
in his wife at that particular moment she said. I determined then to meet
this marvellous paramour!
Vikram brought many distinguished men and women home. Once
he said Mrs Jonas Salk was coming to spend the day. I was thrilled as
Jonas whom I met later, was a hero of mine! She and I spent the whole
day together and when she left she gave me her exquisite book of poems.
It was only the next day that Vikram casually said, She was married to
Pablo Picasso before! What I said. You mean shes Francoise Gilot, why
didnt you tell me! Francoise was very amused when I told her this in
New York later.
Vikrams encouragement and advice to young men and women
inspired them to work in new fields. There were many who wrote to him
for advice. Once he wrote saying, Why do such nice women marry the
wrong men! I didnt! I shout back! He was always renewed when he
came home (it became only weekends as more responsibilities piled up),
and I laughingly said one day, Viki its always Deepawali when you are
home. He replied (how well I remember) Chidambaram is the place
I love most and the next is Thumba.

After an unhappy relationship and a broken engagement, Mallika found


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herself in dance, and decided that it was in the performing arts that she
could find her own freedom. While she had studied with me, and had
taken part in all the academy perormances, the decision only came at
the tragic moment of her young life. She had faced her Indian Institute
of Management entrance exam bravely after Vikrams death, and was
doing exceptionally well in spite of snide remarks from jealous people
who said she had got in only because she was his daughter. She worked
desperately hard to prove herself. She went on to be chosen the best
student and got the prestigious Industrial Scholarship (the I-Schol)
which is given to students who make it to the first ten places, and has
since then applied her skills of management to the Darpana Academy,
a great blessing for me!
In 1977, she was invited to participate in a festival in Paris. She had
danced in Delhi for the Youth Festival and the well-known critic Subbudu
had written, The whole evening should have gone to Mallika. This was

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a great compliment as she was not thinking of a dance career at that time
though she practised for several hours along with all of us. The next day,
there was a lunch at the Sangeet Natak Academy and I told Mallika to
please wear a sari and some jewellery. her reply was, Why should I? Thats
not being true to myself. She came wearing a very short leather skirt with
high Gucci boots, which I had bought for her with Nathan Clarke advising
me when I was in Italy. Everyone looked a little shocked, but all the young
pressmen flocked around her and were enchanted! This non-conventional
honest attitude all through her career has caused her a great deal of pain
but she has always insisted on being truthful to her inner self. It has often
led to mild clashes in the family, but there is too much love between all
of us for these clashes to be more than honest arguments!
She danced in Paris at theth15International Dance Festival, and to
our great joy an announcement on All India Radio told us that she had
won the Golden Star award from amongst 400 dancers of twenty-two
companies from all over the world as the best soloist. She was the first
Asian and the youngest dancer to have ever received the award. I was
at home reading, with radio tuned on. When I heard that she had
received the award I literally jumped with joy. She had made it on her
own. It was later that I learnt that the receipient before her had been
Nureyev, the great Russian ballet dancer. My American dancer friend
Jean Erdman wrote to me later youd have been truly proud of Mallika.
She was spectacular, and one could see you through her. Strangely
enough, though Mallika looks more like Vikram in real life, on stage, she
is strikingly like me.
When she went on her first professional tour in 1979, she was very
nervous because she danced in all the same places as I had from 1949
onwards. She got rave reviews everywhere. An Italian critic wrote, We
have seen Mrinalini dance and we have loved her. And now here comes
the daughter. You can see she is not only a dancer but a student. But
whereas when you see Mrinalini dance you see Shiva inward, esoteric,
very serious, ascetic. when you see Mallika, you think of Krishna very
playful, very joyous, exuberant. That was surely one of the most perceptive
of reviews.
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Once, at a party in Paris, Mallika was introduced as a well-known


Indian dancer. One of the guests (a doctor) came upto her and asked
Do you know the celebrated dancer called Mrinalini? I saw her when
I was a young student in Rio and have never forgotten the impact of
her dancing! Yes said Mallika, she is my mother.!
From that moment Mallika became a professional in her own right,
and I realized that I had unconsciously begun a parampara of dance. Her
personality is in a way so different from mine and yet as a friend pointed
out, You both seem to have the same soul. Mallika gave me the impetus
to create dance dramas in which both of us danced together. While I
had many students who were technically competent, and danced with
me and also on their own, very few had outstanding stage personalities.
To be a stage animal as I call it, is a quality, perhaps, only an artist can
understand. It has nothing to do with good looks nor even with training
(though that is essential), but a charisma that projects like a radiant glow
across the stage. That is why there are thousands of students but very few
truly outstanding performers. Perhaps this can be understood by a story
I heard in Hollywood when someone compared the exotically lovely Hedy
Lamarr with Greta Garbo. The one, so beautiful but completely deadpan.
The latter awkward and big built, and still a screen legend.
Mallika has such a vibrant personality on stage. And between us we
seemed to communicate to the audience. More and more people invited
us to dance together even without the group. It was also simpler to dance
to taped music as we did when invited to the Mingei Museum in La Jolla,
USA. and to various other centres.

To our great joy, Samvit was born in 1976. This time Raju and Kartikeya
(who were still abroad) felt that he could be born in the United States
because they were confident about the hospital and the doctor. As in
Mohals case, Raju hoped that the sun would shine on the day her baby
was born. Although it was April, the Boston air was still cold and she
thought that this time her wish would not be fulfilled. But when the
doctors came in to see her they greeted her in short-sleeved shirts. She
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was thrilled to hear that in eighty years it was the first April with a bright,
sunny morning! This time too, her baby Samvit came into the world as
she had wished!
Three months later I welcomed them in Ahmedabad and I cannot
forget the smile that Samvit gave me when he woke up in my arms. They
came back in July, and I was delighted that he looked so much like my
family the Menon clan! Mohal grew more and more like Vikram and
looking at the two lovely children, I feel sad that Vikram has not been
able to share this happiness.

Then came another blow of a totally different nature. As I said Gautam


deprived us of all finances and the share prices had fallen to an all time
low, so I could not even sell them. It was at this time that Mallika
started having constant problems with her weight and suffered from
bad headaches. So I took her to a neurosurgeon. He told me that there
was trouble with her pituitary gland and he feared a tumour. He
suggested I consult someone else for a second opinion. Jamshed Bhaba,
to whom I had become close after Homis and Vikrams deaths advised
me to go to the UK to meet Dr Victor Wynn who was a leading
neurologist and gave me a letter of introduction. I barely had the fare
to go to England but managed to scrape together some money. My
women friends had in the past often tried to persuade me to buy
expensive jewellery but I would boast, My diamonds and emeralds are
my dancers in Darpana. I wished now that I had some diamonds to
sell! Mallika was acting in several Gujarati films at the time and saved
the money for her treatment. Baba (The Maninapar seer) kept telling
me not to worry but, on the other hand, there were the opinions of
not one but three Indian doctors.
Mallika and I went to London in April, 1976 and met Dr Wynn. It
was a harrowing time for me. We stayed with a very close friend, Ruth
Keshishian, who had a small two-room apartment but was generous
enough to let us share it. I shall never forget her loving kindness. In the
morning Mallika and I went to St. Marys Hospital by bus where we
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spent the entire day. Her blood was tested every hour. I stayed with her
throughout, dreading the doctors verdict.
Finally, I met with the doctors after several tests. They too came to
the conclusion that it was a brain tumour. I was devastated. I went to meet
Dr Wynn for the final result. He told me that it was a pitutary tumour
and an operation was imperative. I asked him whether we could go home
for a few months to decide, and consenting very reluctantly he told
Mallika, whom he had grown very fond of, that the minute she felt anything
wrong with her vision she should come back. He taught her how to
monitor it. We went home and I wondered how to get the money for the
operation, praying all the while that it would not come to that. Borrowing
from anyone, even friends, was something I just could not do.
Some months passed. Mallika felt she was not any better and back
we went to the U.K. This time we stayed with the B.K. Nehrus. Kartikeya
prepared to come at a moments notice, and Jina who hated travelling
kept his passport ready. I steeled myself for the worst. Again Mallika
went through the painful, tiring tests and the doctor decided on a brain
scan. Dr Wynn told me that the operation was a must. Unfortunately
Fori masi (Mrs Nehru) had gone out of town and I was alone in the
house. There was no one to talk to. The entire night I spent praying
Krishna! Help me out of this crisis, I wept quietly for I did not want
Mallika to know yet about the operation.
A year earlier when I had been at my cousin Vinodinis house in
Vadodra, she casually showed me a letter from a mutual friend who had
written about a healer in the UK. While we were waiting for Dr Wynns
final diagonsis I thought of going to the healer whose address I had
brought with me and who lived just outside London.
Mallika and I went by train to visit him. It was an astonishing
experience. He was a coalminer who spoke with the accent of his class.
With him lived a woman in whose house the healings took place. They
both welcomed us warmly and the healing session began. The whole
procedure was intriguing. The miner first shut his eyes and almost
immediately went into a trance. The woman who was a medium then
guided him to Mallika who lay like on a hospital bed. He ran his fingers
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A loving daughter.

over the psychic body. That itself was so amazing because his fingers
moved over the body very close, not even a centimetre away yet never
actually touched the physical form. When Mallika was being examined,
there was a strange fragrance of Muslim agarbatti in the air. When the
miner spoke in his trance-state his language was polished and accentless.
He told us later that it was a Muslim doctor with a team of specialists
who had come to diagnose Mallikas case. After several sittings he also
performed a small operation on her back. It is difficult to describe the
scene for he went through all the motions of an operation, like asking
for the instruments one by one from the woman assistant and his hands
were those of a skilled surgeon. After he stitched up the wound, all on
the psychic body, he told Mallika, I may have to turn you over at night.
So do not be frightened if you feel that movement. There is nothing
to worry about now. You may see a slight redness at the back! No
payment was taken for any of the treatment. All I could do was sometimes
bring food and drink and leave it in the pantry.
We waited anxiously for the final result of Mallikas tests and scans
and the date of the operation. After a week Dr Wynn called me urgently
to his office. I went with Mallika, my heart in my mouth. He sat there
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looking very serious with another famous consultant who had done her
head scan.
He asked us to come in and sit down. The dreaded moment for me
had come. A most extraordinary thing has happened, he said. Mallika
has no pituitary tumour. Hers is a case of one in a million. We sat up
all night looking through our books and realized its whats called an
empty-cellar phenomenon. The pituitary thinks it is a tumour and acts
that way! Nothing need be done!
Perhaps only a mother can understand my feelings. We flew home
and I went straight to Shirdi. Many years later, Mallika and I took courses
in Pranic Healing and use it constantly with success. To me the belief
in spiritual healing increases more and more.

In 1977 Marvyn Straub the director of Bloomingdales, the popular chain


of stores from where I had bought my dresses so long ago, came to
Ahemedabad. He wanted Mallika and me to open a great Indian Exhibition
in 1978 which was to feature Indian arts and crafts. There were to be
two formal openings in New York and in Washington, after which he
wanted us to give lecture demonstrations at their many shops.
In Washington the mechanical gadgets were so difficult to handle,
and our music tapes so mangled by experts, that we finally danced to
practice cassettes. The audience was too high to notice and the Indian
ambassador, who was to introduce us, was nowhere to be seen. My only
insistence in New York and Washington had been that when we danced,
no drinks or refreshments should be served around us. But there were
many floors beneath us where the champagne flowed. However, the
sanctity of our dance space was honoured by our kind hosts, Marvyn
and Lee Straub, who had made it a grand occasion with artists and crafts
people showing their work in the shops. Darpana was represented by
Meher Contractor with the puppet shows, and the entire exhibition was
done with great taste and a reverence for the arts.
To deliver lectures at all the Bloomingdale shops we were driven
everywhere in a limousine. On the first day we found the driver, Jim
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Sherwood, playing classical music softly on his tape recorder. Mallika


asked him to turn it up so that we could share the music. He was
surprised and said, Most of my customers want loud rock music which
I abhor! We became great friends as we motored to our lectures everyday
and found that he had studied at the Sorbonne in France and was a
writer. He had taken up this job because he needed the money and found
time to read while waiting for customers. He soon began to double as
our manager, and saw to it that the audience were properly seated and
the tape arranged.Once, when I had not done a particular item that
talked about of dance and philosophy he came up and whispered, Please
dance the one you do about the meaning of friendship.

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Tuang Chang
I

T WAS IN 1978 THAT THE THEN P RIME M INISTER OF I NDIA , M ORARJI


Desai, requested me to lead a cultural delegation to China. It was the
first time a rapprochement was being made after twenty-four years of
silence between the two countries. I felt honoured at being selected.
Morarjibhai had always taken an interest in my work. When he was the
Chancellor of the Gujarat Vidyapeeth, Gandhijis University, he had
Chandalika
asked to see a performance of
. Though I was a little in awe
of him, he always spared time for me and once took a whole hour in
his busy public life to explain his concept of God to Mallika. While his
public image as a politician may not be flattering, as a person I found
him extremely affectionate and kind.
For the tour we selected groups representing the main classical
styles. Kathakali was from the Kerala Kalamandalam with Shri
Namboodiripad as the manager, and included famous dancers Krishna
Nair, Gopi and others. The Kathak group Kadamb was from Ahmedabad
under Smt. Kumudini Lakhia.
When we landed, we were warmly welcomed by the Indian
ambassador, K.R. Narayanan and his Burmese wife, and were introduced
to and greeted by the Vice Minister Yao Chung Ming.
That night there was a formal banquet and I was seated at a small
table with the VIPs. There were more speeches of welcome and I took
my cues from Vinod Khanna, who guided me in the protocol. What I
did on my own was to go around to each table and toast everyone and
that I think was appreciated. Everything was extremely formal till I

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unconsciously I broke the ice when I took the potent rice drink MaoTai in my hand to toast my companions at the table. Mr Yao Chung Ming
said It is not very strong, perhaps to reassure me, and I replied
spontaneously, Then whats the use of it? at which they all burst into
laughter. From then on we became good friends!
The entire trip was very interesting. Mallika kept a detailed diary
which is of great interest now, for then China was still very much under
the influence of Chairman Mao. At every meal I was requested to speak
and was constantly teased by the group never to repeat an idea or
sentence! The constant toasting with the words Kam-Tei (dry your
glass) reminded me of K.P.S. Menon, our ambassador in Russia. He once
told me that in the USSR. there was always a great deal of toasting,
and when suddenly he was asked what they said in India he replied with
the first words that came out of his mouth: Ek dum so that became
our toast too!!
I had choreographed a new dance drama for ChinaAhimsa
called
which
was the story of Sangamitra, taking Gautama Buddhas message of peace
Ahimsa
to foreign lands. We opened the show with
and from the applause,
felt it was appreciated. The costumes were based on Ajanta frescoes.
The next day, the ambassador, K.R. Narayanan, requested us to
delete the piece as it might be misconstrued as preaching. Such is
diplomacy!Tasher Desh
Tagores dance drama was also not appreciated by
the Chinese press. Mallikas photo made the front pages almost everyday
and she became the rose from India! One of them Madam Zhang Joen
is the Art Director of the oriental song and Dance Ensemble, Beijing
where she teaches Bharatanatyam to several hundred students.

My mother died the same year while I was away in the UK. On my last
visit to her she had been unwell. I was just leaving for London. As I kissed
her we both had tears in our eyes and I cried all the way to the airport,
partly for my own unhappy childhood and partly for a lost feeling, a
appreciation of her which I was only now able to realize. My mother
was a distinguished member of Parliament and was close to Pandit Nehru
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TUANG C HANG

and the whole family. An excellent hostess in Delhi at 25 Ferozeshah


Road where she lived, we became closer as I grew older. Once she said
in an interview, My children were always very understanding. Perhaps
this was what gave me the necessary stamina.
About her years in the struggle for freedom she was often nostalgic:
Those were wonderful years, years filled with hope and despair. The
sense of dedication making most of us oblivious to the tragedies that
faced us every day.
She made a great impression everywhere she went and was one of
the first to start a film appreciation group in Chennai. Her visits to
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Ethopia on a goodwill mission as a representative to the United Nations


Economic and Social Order in Geneva, to China on a parliamentary
delegation, to Singapore and Malaya to study the conditions of the
Indian labour and many other assignments kept her busy.
In fact, she took an active interest in most of the organizations of
education and social welfare, and even today, I hear a great deal of her
charm and generosity from those who had known her. She made friends
everywhere she went and on my tour it was mostly her friends in
embassies all over the world whom I met.
When she became the first woman President of the Bharat Scouts
and Guides her travels were even more hectic. Vikrams death was a
terrible shock for her because she adored him and he often stayed with
her in Chennai. It was in 1975 on the inauguration of International
Womens Year, that she received the award of Mother of the Year from
Indira Gandhi in Chennai. Her contributions were praised and special
mention was made of her as a mother of outstanding sons and daughters.
With her death, another era was irrevocably over.

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Love and Dance


E

VERY YEAR, INVITATIONS FOR PERFORMANCES CAME FROM IMPRESARIOS


abroad. I was glad when we were invited to Sadlers Wells, the famous
theatre for dance in London in 1980, which was usually reserved only
for western dance. By now Mallika was performing the main roles and
we thoroughly enjoyed dancing together in Mira, Chandalika, and the
Bharatanatyam repertoire.
In the UK there was a strike of some sort on the BBC and the dance
critic of the Observer
wrote,
In a busy week in which the BBCs efforts are driven into obscurity
by a group of six Indian girls at Sadlers Wells led by the ravishing
Mrinalini Sarabhai and her promising daughter Mallika showed that
ancient traditions survive splendidly.
At one of the matinee shows I was delighted to know that Arnold
Haskell was in the theatre. He had been unwell and though we had
specially sent a message I did not expect to see him. In the interval, I
asked the audience to acknowledge his presence as one of the great
critics and writers, someone who had always had faith in me. The applause
for him was thunderous. Something, his wife Vijenne said, she will
never forget. It was his last visit to the theatre.

Though a believer in destiny, I am often unprepared when the unexpected


happens. Sri AurobindosSavitriwas a strange experience. I received
many letters from people dedicated to Sri Aurobindos philosophy to
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choreographSavitri
. Once when Dilip Kumar Roy, a friend of Ambalal
Sarabhai gave a concert in Ahmedabad, he asked me to do a dancepiece as (in his own words) more people will come if they know you
are dancing! It was he who later gave Vikram and me a letter of
introduction to Bertrand Russell. It was at that performance with him
that I first received a telegram of blessings from the Mother, which I
have cherished ever since.
Years later in Chennai at Mummys home, Seyril, a devotee of the
Mother came to meet me bringing books onSavitri
. I read and reread
the text and found it very difficult to create a dance piece, but she
persisted and met me many times. Finally I gave up but it haunted me
and the guilt that it was something undone bothered me. I finally used
Sunil Bhattacharyas inspirational music and the inspirational words of
Savitriand danced the piece but it was not really successful, as it had
not taken possession of my soul.

In 1982, I was invited with Mallika to talk and dance onShivain the
Philadelphia library by Stella Kramrisch for the exhibition Manifestations
Inside Outside
of Shiva. Mallika was then publishing a magazine called
,

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Lakshmi, Mrinalini, Govind, Sulochana, Vinodini


Sublashimi, Mallika and Bipin.

owned by a friend, Ashok Advani, in Mumbai and looking for someone


to distribute it in the USA. An architect friend, Kirtee Shah, had briefly
introduced her to a young publisher, Bipin Shah, who lived in New York
and worked with Pfeffer & Simons in the States. She rang up and he
invited her to lunch.
That night or rather at 4 a.m. the next morning she woke me up. Amma,
she said, I think Ive met the man Im going to marry. Later Bipin asked
me to lunch and I was charmed. He seemed mature and like our family, both
Indian and Western. I noticed he dressed very well, with excellent taste. He
plied me with so much wine that I dont remember if he formally asked for
Mallikas hand in marriage though he insists he did!
Kartikeya and Raju were also in New York and met him at Macys. When
I told them about Mallikas decision, they naturally did not believe me.

Bipin and Mallika were married on Julyth15


, 1982 in Ahmedabad. It was
a grand occasion, a real Gujarati wedding. Three days of all the rituals
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and festivities. My adopted mother, Motiben, helped me to get things


right. Kartikeya and Raju decorated the lawn very tastefully and had a
certain kind of lippen done outside the drawing room. The night before
the wedding the heavens opened suddenly and the rain poured down
and thunder and lightning rent the air. Everyone was out mopping at
three in the morning. Kartikeya climbed on the roof to test the water
pipes and there was complete chaos. One of my daughters, Tanvir
Koreishi said Amma! Pray! Stop it! So I opened my arms out wide and
prayed! and sure enough the deluge stopped! Since then I have been
Tanvirs weather-woman!
The day after the wedding, Bipin and Mallika left with the folk group
for an international folk festival in France, and soon Mallika became the
Internationale de Organizations
President of the new Indian Section ofCentre
the
des Festivals Folklorique
, a UNESCO organization for folk culture in which
she remains very active even today.
Bipins family is from Bhavnagar, and strangely, his elder brother,
Sudhakarbhai, had known Mallika from before, when shed consulted
him as a financial advisor. His father, Girdharlal, and mother, Kamlaben,
were well-known in Bhavnagar and the sons, Sudhakar and Dilip, lived
in Mumbai. They were a wonderfully well educated and liberated family
and encouraged all their children three girls and three boys to be
independent thinkers and professionals.

Revanta, my third grandchild was born in 1984. Mallika had been very
very sick with jaundice for many months. Suddenly out of the blue she
received a call from Delhi that the famous theatre director Peter Brook
wanted to meet her and was coming to Ahmedabad. She was still ill,
waiting for the baby to be born, when he arrived. She met Peter and
after he left, came rather dazed to my room saying, He wants me to
consider doing Draupadi in his production of the Mahabharata. And look
at me, yellow and ugly and waiting for my baby!
She left for Paris when Revanta was a month old, and for five years
lived and breathed the Mahabharata, first in French, then later in English.

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It was a difficult time, especially with the baby, but she struggled through
it with real courage and determination. She lived through all the crises
and made an international name for herself. When I met him in Paris,
Peter told me, She is an amazing worker and has not missed a single
rehearsal.
Bipin, Kartikeya and Raju went to Avignon in France to see the
opening of the Mahabharata there. Bipin wrote, It was a marvellous
performance especially the character of Draupadi. The atmosphere is
absolutely fantastic and the production superb. I had watched rehearsals
of the show and felt the same way as Bipin did. Kartikeya was so moved
by the performance that he wrote a poem on Draupadi which later
Mallika used as a dance piece.
Out of this experience with Peter Brook grew Mallikas own creative
work, a fact she always acknowledges. It has given me great pride to see
her experiment in dance and drama. She has also helped me a great deal
in expanding my horizons.

Anahita, Mallikas daughter, was born on May th26


, 1990. Mallika was
performing all along and used to tell me that the baby would make itself
small inside when she was dancing. She had asked me to look for names
for both boys and girls as I had a long list which I kept for the family
and friends. Suddenly, one night (before the childs birth) she had a
strange dream. The goddess came to her and said, Name your child
Anahita. She asked me next morning, Amma, have you heard the name
Anahita? I said, No, but Ill look up my Sanskrit dictionary. I could
not find it there. That afternoon the scholar Jasleen Dhamija who has
a deep knowledge of Indian textiles and has spent time in Iran, came
to lunch, and she told us that Anahita was the Goddess of Spring who
brings water to the earth and was much revered in Persia, Central Asia
and Armenia. The next afternoon Mallika went for a sonography and was
told that it was a girl!
Sadly, it was at this time, that Bipin told Mallika that he felt that the
fragrance had gone out of the marriage. It was a devastating blow and

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Dalal, my adopted mother with the family.

she tried desperately for two years to make the marriage work. Bipins
entire family supported Mallika, and his sisters, all professional women
themselves, empathized with her. Bipins parents were heartbroken. As
a mother, I too suffered a great deal as we were all very fond of Bipin
and he was very much part of our family. Fortunately for all of us Bipin
and Mallika have remained good friends and work together at Mapin,
their publishing house. Both adore the children and, like Vikram and me,
take turns being with them, when either one is away on tour. To me Bipin
will always be a son of the family.
Mallika said in an article that as a child she fell over dancers at
Darpana; so did Revanta. He soon began to dance, and though not
particularly happy about practising, would blossom in any performance,
especially in the folk forms. Slowly he learnt Bharatanatyam and when in
November, 1995 three generations danced at the Bloomsbury theatre in
London, I felt very elated! In the childrens production of Krishna-Gopala
in 1996 Anahita also joined in, and they will, I hope, carry on our tradition.

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The East-West theatre conference held in Kolkata in 1983 was interesting


because of the interaction of ideas between many distinguished people.
There was Ellen Stewart the dynamic director of Le Mama in New York,
John Martin, director of Pan Project, London, Eugeneo Barba,the Danish
theatre director, Richard Schekner, the German ethnomusicologist
Michael Jenne, from Berlin and the Indonesian mask expert John Emery,
all fascinating personalities!
Mallika danced in my version of the Geeta Govinda
and during the
lectures I showed the audienceMemory
and how Bharatanatyam was
interpreted for a contemporary theme. Ellen was very interested and
said, Sharaboy you must dance at Le Mama, which we did at the end
of the same year. Le Mama in New York is a small theatre but extremely
popular amongst artists. The audiences were real art lovers and many new
experiments were featured there first. Ellen of course was the dynamic
figure behind it. Our performance was fully attended and amongst the
audience was the great puppeteer, Bil Baird, who had spent time with
us in Ahmedabad.
He wrote me a note after the show:
Dear, dear, Mrinal how you have moved me! Truly I have seen
dancing for the first time, sure, Ive watched ballet and Broadway
but never, till the nine of you took hold of all my senses and held
me to your beat, and the happiness that poured out of you have
I been so totally captured. And of course, is main spring, its
generator is Mrinalini was evident as I think of all the building
up to this burst of energy I was fortunate enough to become
wrapped up in. If I were to put it in colloquial Americans Id say
Goddamit, Ive been had but wonderful and Im so pleased
with what youve made of Mallika a seductive bombshell.
Kathputli Wallah
Bil
Ellen had convened the Third World Theatre Institute for Theatre Arts
Study Conference in New York where, amongst others, we met and got
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to know Nadine Gordimer, the 1995 Nobel Prize winner for literature.
We went on to La Jolla to dance at the Mingei International Museum
and then to Tuscon, Arizona where a close friend Prof. Tom Gehrels,
an atronomer at the University of Arizona, had arranged performances.
After our professional tour, there was a special request from the
Indian Embassy to dance for Indian organizations. We zigzagged, flying
all over the USA., which was torture for me. Shubha, one of my dancer
daughters who looked after me all the while, told me many years later
that she and Mallika used to crush half a tablet of Calmpose into whatever
I drank which was usually vodka mixed tomato juice. That was my saving
grace on all flights and still is.
In Atlanta Mrs Martin Luther King wrote me a lovely letter after the
performance:
In bringing Mrinalini Sarabhai to Atlanta, the India American
Cultural Association has provided our city with a unique
opportunity to enjoy one of the worlds finest dance troups. This
very distinguished group has won numerous international awards
and their performance is certain to be hailed as one of Atlantas
cultural highlights of the year. Atlanta and India share a common
heritage in the spirit of non-violence through Martin Luther
King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi and this evening we can enrich
the bonds of friendship between us as we share the wondrous
experience of Mrinalini Sarabhai.

Apart from regular performances, looking after Darpana which was


expanding every day, the household and the children, unexpected events
often came my way. In 1979, the Sahitya Parishad from Kerala requested
me to create a dance piece to protect the rainforest in Kerala, knowing
my commitment to the environment. The piece, Silent Valley, created
to the music of Sunil Bhattacharya of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, was
presented all over Kerala and I spoke the commentary, usually different
each time, and joined the dance towards the end. Indira Gandhi heard
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about it and asked me to present it at the Conservation Congress in


Delhi. There was no proper stage or lighting. The piece was only fifteen
minutes long but it created an impact on the delegates and the president
who was American, asked me who had written the script and was surprised
when I said I make it up as I go along!. In fact that particular afternoon
where there is a fleeting image of Jesus Christ, I usually spoke the words
from the Bible but suddenly out of my mouth came the fierce utterance:
Father do notforgive them for they do knowwhat they do! Dr M.S.
Swaminathan told me many years later that he had never forgotten that
sentence as I spoke it.
You have done in a few minutes what all our speeches could not,
said an American delegate.

In 1981, the films division requested me to do a travel film on India. As


usual I thought of what could be done that would make it different, and
suddenly an idea came to me. It would be a young womans search for
identity, a dancer wondering about the gods and goddesses who created
dance and how she related to them in her own work. It was directed
by Sri Lalwani who was excited with the idea and we worked closely
together. The scenes of the Himalayas, the inner sanctuary of
Chidambaram where the priests allowed Mallika to dance (this temple
is yours, they told me) the image of the goddess Meenakshi at Madurai,
the wandering in Gangai Kondacholapuram and the dancer asking the
image of Parvati, Am I part of you? all created a lovely film. Doing the
commentary, I tried to show how our past is so much within us. Only
in Kerala was it forbidden to dance in the temples, but we chose the
spectacular seashore instead, which actually turned out to be a more
lovely setting. The film won several prizes abroad and was shown in many
of the embassies.

Another unexpected offer to choreograph a dance film came from Jorn


Thiel of Austria. He had seen Mallika dance in Paris and asked her, whom
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to use in his film so she referred him to me. He was a forceful character,
rather formidable in appearance but extremely sensitive. The film was
Shakuntala
danced to music written by Schubert on the same theme. In
Gujarat we hunted for empty palaces and finally found space in
Himmatnagar where there was an old palace and rocky hills beyond. The
film with all my dancers, Mallika as Shakuntala, Chathunni Panicker as
Dushyanta, Shashi and Shubha as Destiny was very different from the
usual productions. Shown on TV in Germany and other countries, it won
Jorn a lot of accolades. I still remember, whenever the sky clouded over,
Jorn would shout in his rather strong accent, Mrinalini! magic please
and I would pray for the clouds to clear!

In 1981 Father Poothokaran Rappai, at St. Xaviers College, Ahmedabad


came to ask me to create a life of Jesus Christ in dance. The music in
Gujarati was already written and the dance sequences were to be
choreographed. Rehearsals began on the lawn outside Chidambaram.
Young Jesuit novices took part with our dancers and it was an interesting
and exciting experience. All through I had high fever and had to sit in
an easy chair to direct the performance. Mallika played the Virgin Mary
and Jesus Christ was a brother from St. Xaviers.

In 1988, the Seibu group of Japan one of the well-known industrial


houses, came to India to select the dancers and musicians for the
Tagore Cultural Festival in Japan, a part of the Festival of India. They
were already cognizant with my work as I had been to Japan and got
excellent reviews on previous tours many years ago. So after visiting
Shantiniketan where they invited Shantidev Ghosh for a musical
programme, they came on to Ahmedabad to invite me to present the
Tasher Desh
Tagore dance dramas which I had choreographed.
, Chandalika
andChitrangada
were selected. The other half of the programme included
classical items of Bharatanatyam, Kathakali, Kuchipudi and some of my
creative work.
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The dance group (without me) first finished touring the USSR. for
a month and then came straight to Japan. I left earlier, from India as there
were some lectures to be given. The Mahabharata
, directed by Peter
Brook, was already in Japan with Mallika as Draupadi playing to packed
houses. It was a real juggling of programmes! The first performance was
in Tokyo at the Aoyoma theatre and was received with immense
appreciation. The theatre was on the ground floor with a stage that could
rise 20 feet so I had to rearrange the choreography! The light arrangements
were done by a truly dedicated crew, who became so attached to us that
they accompanied us everywhere we danced and soon understood each
The Mahabharata
nuance and change.
light designer, Mike Wolt, joined
in to help with the lighting design. Many of the dancers Mahabharata
of the
group had become good friends when I sat, watching their rehearsals
in Paris, and now they were interested in mine.

The second day was made more interesting as some of the audience
wanted me to show how theMahabharata
, which they had seen, could
be interpreted into new meaning through dance. Show us something
in the process of creation, they requested. It was difficult to think up
something immediately but with four dancers and three musicians I
began to depict the nucleus of an idea, making it up as we went along,
talking and dancing. It is, I said, the battlefield after the great war. First
Gandhari the queen comes searching for her two sons Duryodhana and
Dushassana. She dances in great sorrow and takes the body of Duryodhana
upon her lap. Ashwathamma enters and swears vengence against the
Pandavas. He goes stealthily at night to the hut of Draupadis young
children and slays them cruelly. Draupadi enters mad with grief. Nothing
has left her more bereft than this loss. It is as though she is at the end
of her tether, she who has been so brave throughout the exile and war.
Arjunas daughter-in-law Uttaras child is still unborn. Ashwathamma
aims his arrow at Uttaras womb. [Here I changed the ending]. She runs
to Draupadi and they both cry out, Krishna, do not save this child. They
approach Gandhari, take her hand and the three women speak together,
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We will never allow children to be born in the world, till men swear to
give up war. It was an unexpected experiment, choreographed on the
stage and the audience were very involved.
Mallika danced with us wherever she was free and with her came
most of the cast from the Mahabharata who were very excited with the
performances. One day, they sat through the matinee and the evening
show and told me how they were moved by the power of our work. In
Chitrangada and Chandalika, both Mallika and I danced together and
these were the most popular dance dramas. For Mallika it was tiring as
sometimes she joined us after a marathon nine hour show of the
Mahabharata.

It was at a conference in memory of Indira Gandhi in 1991 when I


spoke impromptu, that Nikhil Chakravarty, the eminent journalist, met
me and asked for the script. I said I had nothing written down but
would try to do so. That is how our friendship began and it was perhaps
one of the finest relationships I ever had. Strangely enough our lives
had run almost parallel, we had many common friends but we had
never met.
It was a wonderful relationship and in Delhi and in Ahmedabad we
met constantly. The children too enjoyed his company and when he
shared his experiences and views of the political scene, Kartikeya, Raju
and Mallika listened avidly. Mallika especially grew to respect and love
him. After so long, I had found a man, whose gentleness, wisdom, sense
of humour, commitment to the highest values, a writer, filled the vacuum
in my life. He wrote me in 1990:
and just at that moment as I recollected about my
birth, I thought of you. I know why I thought of you at that
moment. From the moment I felt our togetherness I could feel
in my inner say that you have come to me as part f my destiny,
that you are to me a token of a Great Presence. Thats why when
I tell you that meeting you, holding you in my arms, is like
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recharging my battery. I mean it every word of it. I do not come


to you because of your fame though I must say it pleases me
whenever I hear great things about your work, your personality
and makes me feel good. But what lifts me, what touches my soul
is the awareness that you have come to me as a messenger as
a transmitter of some Supreme Force who guides me, who needs
me and lead me. You are therefor very sacred to me. And so even
when I do not write to you for weeks or moths, I communicate
to you constantly. Because I have come to realize that you are
to me something which is part of a being who is always present
in me. There is so much of violence all around, so much of deceit,
so much of dirt, stink, the sordid. I watch them all, I try to
understand why such things are happening. Why human beings
who are so noble could debase themselves, become so lowly. I
do not get an answer, but I know within me that all this dross
and dreg do not constitute the totality of life. Beyond and above
some supernatural power is moving, us and out of all this evil
shall come the good and the noble

In 1994, Mallika and John Martin, who had become a dear friend and
directed many of Mallikas new experiments, were both discussing how
to build a proper theatre at Darpana. We could not afford to buy land,
and had to make do in the small space available. The theatres in Ahmedabad
were rundown, badly equipped and had no proper amenities. For every
performance we had to put up our own curtains and lights, sweep the
floor, pull out hundreds of nails, and clean the bathrooms, in fact almost
rebuild the hollow structure! Unfortunately, audiences in India have no
respect for theatres. They rip the seats, throw paper everywhere, and
of course, as in all government buildings spit on the walls. For years I
had humbly suggested making all public buildings bright red, a suggestion
not greatly appreciated.
The problem of land was solved when it was decided to hollow out
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the land we already had and make an open air theatre. And that is how
Natarani came into being. Many were the kind friends who helped with
equipment and finance. All Darpanas (mainly Mallikas) earnings went
into the building of Natarani.
It was a truly marvellous and deeply emotional day for me when on
December 28, 1994, it was opened and dedicated to me for forty-five
years of work. Mallika had secretly invited many of the old staff and
students and forbidden me to enter Darpana for three days! I thought
she was decorating the place but when I was grandly escorted to my seat
in true Kerala style, the scene opened with a film of many of my past
photographs put together. Tears poured down my face as I watched. But
the real surprise was still to come. A huge charaka had pride of place
in the centre of the stage. One by one names of past teachers and
students were called out and I nearly fainted when many I had not seen
for years came and placed lamps in the vessel. Shivashankar, Haridas,
Rama Rao, Minaldevi, Rupande, Purnima, Pratiksha, Geeta. As my dear
friend Prabha later told me, many of the audience were also in tears. It
was a stirring experience, very sentimental but heartwarming.
Shadows
I danced my latest piece
and was on a real high. No mother
perhaps has ever had such a tribute from a loving daughter. At that moment
I thanked my Krishna, that in spite of all our tribulations, he had given
me love, the greatest gift of all, and children who cherished me.

After his schooling in Ahmedabad Mohal decided to go to the University


of Wisconsin Madison in the USA. Children grow up so soon and for
parents letting go is always difficult. I felt it particularly for Mohal was
very close to my heart and I knew it could never be the same again. But
there is always much to look forward to and when he came back after
five years (he had been in, between) with a lovely American girl Christina
Sullivan whom he wanted to marry, it was a happy occasion. I was a little
apprehensive perhaps because of my own feelings so long ago, but
realized how the world had changed and America is no longer so far away
nor perhaps very different.
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The wedding was quiet, as we had lost three young and very dear
friends that same year. Mohal wanted it in Udaipur and so it was held
there. It was one of the most beautiful yet simple weddings I have ever
been to. It took place in the Jagmandir in the evening. The building
needed no decoration, only the wedding pandal made of leaves and
flowers. The bride Christina looked very beautiful in a sari. The moon
rose as the ceremony ended and lit the sky in radiance. The Maharaja,
Arvind Singhji who had been especially kind about the arrangements,
blessed the young couple, as did all of us.
Raju, looking especially lovely, was surrounded by many of her
relations, who had all motored from Ahmedabad Kartikeya had supervised
the arrangements and taken the Lake Palace Hotel for the night. Many
of their close friends came and helped, and it was an intimate occasion.
Coming back from the ceremony by boat, Samvit, my second grandson
said, Amma, such moments have to be captured and kept.

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and life moves on!


W

I FIRST CAME TO A HMEDABAD, THE CITY OF DUST, AS JEHANGIR


called it, I decided to try and make people more aware of trees. Ecological
awareness is the intuitive awareness of the oneness of all life. A group
of us met regularly and soon Friends of the Trees was started. But soon
it became almost a one woman chapter! From all over the state people
would ring up Ben, they are cutting our trees, what do we do? Once
a Harijan group gave me a call from a small village far from Ahmedabad.
This is where I shamelessly used whatever clout I had. With the help
of the collectors, the forest department, the press and prominent citizens,
the ruthless cutting could be stopped. Now Im delighted that Kartikeya
has developed a Centre for Environment of Education (CEE) and many
citizens and children are fully aware of the heritage and value of trees.
Aruna Lal, wife of the new director of P.R.L. after Vikram, was a staunch
supporter and good friend of mine. When Dr Lal and she left for the
USA., she regularly sent me cuttings about environmental programmes
which helped the whole movement.
A more recent addition to my campaign was to present plants to
chief guests instead of plastic covered bouquets which are usually left
behind. A plant becomes a responsibility and it can be something
simple and herbal like Tulasi. I also extended these ideas into the
Gujarat Handicrafts when I gave bead necklaces instead of flower
garlands to visiting dignitaries as gifts they could take home with them.
I remember when Indira Gandhi came to the Nehru Foundation for
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Development, invited by Kartikeya, she was delighted with her necklace.

Being appointed as Chairperson of the Handicrafts was complete surprise.


It was Brij Bhasin, who I had met as A.D.C. to the Governor, with a
mutual friend Kirtee Shah, who came to ask me to be the chairperson.
Bhasin was a police officer, extremely artistic and deeply involved in
reviving handicrafts. Because of him I accepted the post. At that time
I did not even know that such a corporation existed! With him, and I
say this with pride we really put Gurjari, the Gujarat emporium on the
map of India. When the New York Times wrote, the best emporium in
Delhi is Gurjari, it was a real compliment. New ideas flowed continuously
and I thoroughly enjoyed the work, going to villages, helping the
marvellous craftspeople and discovering new areas of creativity. The
people also interacted with us so warmly especially in Kacch and we were

Showing Indira Gandhi some new samples using old Techniques.

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often invited into houses for a cup of tea or milk. The latter I swallowed
out of politeness! It was an inspiring task to discover treasures of
workmanship, revive the skills and renew forgotten designs.

An aspect of city life which worried me was the way young women
dressed. Some in jeans, others in white petticoats neither traditional nor
modern. So I thought of the Punjabi salvar kameez, but in a more modern
design. We had excellent designers Villoo Mirza, Laila Tyabji and others.
I spoke to them and told them what I needed. We have some lovely
embroidered yokes, I said. Can we not use them for kurta-like tops with
different kinds of pyjamas to match and make them fashionable and not
too expensive for young people?
So thats how it started, a new fashion, based on tradition as in my
dance compositions! These outfits caught on like wildfire all over India,
and as we opened outlets in many cities, the demand grew. Today, when
I see everyone wearing them (of course far more design oriented and
sophisticated) I feel a real thrill! Everything possible was created for
Gurjari. Bhasin was a wonderful managing director and we were in
complete harmony where taste was concerned. After he left for Delhi,
I had many other excellent young men who became friends and helped
develop the emporium.
In 1988, circumstances made me resign. I had always been deeply
involved with the environment and was aware of the disaster that huge
dams make, especially to the environment of the country. I had read in
the Times of India
of the major disaster of the Machu dam which killed
an estimated 2000 people in a relatively remote area of Gujarat. Also the
trend the world over today is not to build large dams, but to rely on
integrated water systems and developing groundwater resources. I
opposed the idea of thousands of tribal settlements being disrupted and
dispersed which to my mind meant the destruction of a whole culture.
What a furore it created. The Chief Minister, Amarsingh Chaudhary,
asked me to resign from Gurjari. Ironically, he himself was a tribal and
later used it as an excuse to marry a second wife! marry a second time.
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People with a vested interest in the dam ordered dharanas and


suddenly I became an outsider from Kerala. I remembered another Keralite
who has done so much for Gujarat going to Delhi ready to resign, during
the Chimanbhai Patel ministry disgusted because though he was chairman
he was not allowed to select a managing director. Vikram persuaded him
not to do anything drastic. Dr Kurien and I are both still in Gujarat! I
also did not resign as many of the craftspeople came to see me with so
much affection, pleading with me not to leave. But soon Chimanbhai
Patel became the chief minister and all the chairpeople from every
corporation were asked to resign.

Unfortunately Gurjari could not maintain its standards of quality and


slowly deteriorated into an ordinary shop. It is a great pity that the
government (whoever it be) does not realize that only people whose
lives are dedicated to preserving the heritage of our country can look
after these emporia and art museums. Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya was
one of the great pioneers of this movement and I was always thrilled
when she praised the work Gurjari was doing. My friend Rekha Menon
was also very interested in such work and I made her the consultant for
Gurjari in Mumbai. At that time Narayana Menon was director at the
National Centre for the Performing Arts created by Jamshed Bhabha.
Our advisory committee also consisted of those well-known in their own
fields. Jasleen Dhamija, the celebrated textile scholar, Ashok Chatterjee,
Director of the National Institute of Design, Ramsingh Rathod whose
work in Kacch was outstanding, now treasured in a special museum in
Bhuj, and others who had contributed towards the preservation of our
culture.
Gurjari took an exhibition of patolas to Indonesia, to share and
exchange their exquisite textiles similar and yet so different to ours. T.S.
Randhawa was my managing director then. He was interested in nomadic
tribes and their culture and for many years he had been photographing
their way of life. We collected patolas mainly from Patan (the Salvi family
who made them used to send the patolas for the princely families in
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Indonesia years ago) and also from Hyderabad. It was a fascinating


experience, meeting people in Indonesia who like us were trying to
revive old textiles. I met my dancer friend Sri Kusumobroto after so
many years and was delighted to find she had established an arts centre
in Yogyakarata.
My interest in handicrafts is still very much alive but now I work
on my own with the craftspeople which in many ways is more rewarding
in the aesthetic sense.

I have always loved reading and books have been my delight and solace.
Inspiration comes to me often through poetry. Many of my dance dramas
began as poems and sometimes, after the dance was produced, I wrote
poetry around the theme. While in Shantiniketan, inspired by Gurudev,
prose poems flowed into my notebooks. My first serious attempt was
a novel about a dancer that I wrote while at Cambridge. It had been sent
and accepted byMeridian Book
Ltd in London and I needed a foreword.
In 1949, Arnold Haskell brought the writer Maurice Collis to my
performance and he was very moved by it. Later, at a dinner party, I shyly
asked him if be could contribute the foreword. I quote a few lines of
his long introduction:
I first met Mrinalini Sarabhai in the wings after one of her
London performances: She was still in the fantastic costume of
her last dance, a small wiry, vital figure, her eyes enormous, very
serious and frank, and her hands animated as if by a life of their
own. I was much stuck by her collected air, the deft was she
spoke and by the quickness of her mind. The story is a true
romance, told with feeling and remarkable sure touch. It has
coherence and balance; the rise and fall of mood are delicately
suggested; the conversations are etched in with very great tact;
she has written a novel which brings her a reputation in this, her
second, field of the arts.
While I wrote mostly about dance, I also loved writing childrens

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stories. Perhaps the strongest experience I had was the writing of a


prose-poem called Kan. It seemed to flow out of my very soul and every
time there was an urge to write a fever could come upon me and my
whole body would tremble with a strange, uncanny sensation. The writing
took about a month and worlds would flow spontaneously. One day, it
stopped. Yet it continues in a number of small poems. Kan was a strange
combination of mystic and sensual form. While writing, my entire being
was filled with the thought of Kan. Later, many people asked me who
Kan was. To me, he was a real person, part divine, part human. Perhaps
someone I longed for all my life. My friend Kirtee Shah was deeply
stirred by Kan. I had always laughed with him and said our friendship
was a strange one. But he was able to glimpse my loneliness and wrote
me a long letter where he said:
I have a feeling that loneliness has been a burden to you. Yet
I am sure of one thing. That you are still not fully realized all
that you are capable of giving and creating. Whenever you are,
whatever you do, whatever the depth of your sorrow, creative
or otherwise, do think and do remember that there is someone
obscure, unable to articulate waiting to share your joys and
burdens.
This Alone is True
In the meantime, my book
was translated into several
Indian languages. A good friend of mine, Peter Frye, whom I had met
The Three Stages of Parvati
at a seminar in Delhi adapted it as a play called
in an excellent rendering. He and his wife Thelma came to Ahmedabad
in 1985 to direct it at Darpana.
He wrote later in 1987 from London,
I dont thing it hurts to remind you how much I love you and
how I have loved you from the first moment I set eyes on you
and heard your lovely voice at that silly congress in New Delhi.
There was little sense spoken there except for Joan Littlewood
and you and I venture to say, I also spoke to the point trying
to use words that come out from the depth of truth as Tagore
says in his lovely poem. Mallika telephoned from Paris and spoke
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to Themla
. She told us you are working hard for Tagore celebration,
if it is not over yet. I am sure that you are thrusting yourself
forward where tireless striving stretches its arms towards
perfection. Something that you knew how to do even before
you met Tagore and something which was reinforced in you after
you met Tagore. Yes thats what you are and thats what I would
like to be.
Some of the childrens books I wrote were centered around Indians
most exquisite paintings. I wanted children to see the best paintings
possible and to buy the books at a nominal price. The project was
sponsored by Tata Mcgraw Hill. I had spoken about this to Jamshed
Bhabha, requesting him to select these pictures (from the museum) for
their desk diaries and later letting me use them for the books. He
thought it a very good idea let me select the picture for the calendars.
They became very popular but are now unfortunately out of print.
My first publication in 1945 was soon after my marriage when the
entire country was aflame with Gandhijis call to freedom. I wrote a
verse-play called Captive Soil
The manuscript lay on my table in our apartment in Mumbai. A
friend of mine, Minoo Masani, had come to see me and while waiting
had picked it up to read. I had met Minoo at Lady Dhanvathi Rama Raus
place at the Mafatlal Park in Mumbai. I was delighted, especially as he
came immediately towards me and sat down. A little overawed at first,
I was by his book Our India which had a tremendous influence on so
many young people. From that evening we became good friends and met
often. He was someone I looked upto as a friend and was impressed when
I heard him speak in public. His amazing clarity of thought and his
memory for facts and figures was astounding. He joined me once for a
holiday in Kodaikanal and our long talks were mostly about the countrys
politics and its future.
When, after reading the play, he suggested that I publish it and show
it to Mr Tenbrock
of the International Book House in Mumbai. I was very
thrilled when Tenbrom
liked it. He was a fine man, an American, full of
good humour and after reading it he said, I would like to publish it but
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we will probably be jailed by the British. After meeting him I spent a


great deal of time at the International Book House and met many friends
there. One day, the writer. D.G. Tendulkar, walked in and was introduced.
I mentioned that I was looking for a good cover for my book. He
immediately said, I know the right person, and took me to meet Sheela
Auden, a charming and lovely artist. She did a beautiful sketch of a
woman in chains which was exactly right for the play.

Dance was naturally a subject that most of my writing was about. I wrote
much about classical form, Bharatanatyam in particular. Our gurus always
taught us without explanation of the technique behind the art form. So,
when I was asked by the Vadodra University to give lectures on dance,
I thought it was time to write a textbook for young students of my own
academy, Darpana who had begun to ask questions. Even when I studied
from the great gurus like Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai and others, they
were not at all keen to impart the meaning of what we learnt, the shastraic
content, the stories and their spiritual content. It was only at Darpana,
when the Kuchipudi guru C.R. Acharyalu, came to Ahmedabad, that I
began to understand meaningfulness of our dance form and its background.
In the Bhagavata Mela Natakam or Kuchipudi as it is known today, there
is a great deal of emphasis on the canons of the dance technique. It was
perhaps because Brahmin boys studied the art and therefore had the
privilege of being able to understand and learn the Shastras, of which
the Natya Shastra of Bharata was one. In Tamil Nadu, the Pillais
propagated the art as Nattuvanars and the girls who danced were
devadasis who, whilst they preserved the art form, were not particularly
interested in the ancient texts.
When a Brahmin woman, Rukmini married an Englishman, George
Arundale, she was influenced by seeing the dancer, Pavlova, and began
to dance at the age of thirty. She was able to restore Bharatanatyams
technical beauty bringing out all the finer and stronger aspects of this
great art, with her guru, Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai, adding to it her own
sense of design and costume. At that time, she faced great deal of
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opposition. She led a renaissance of Bharatanatyam and faced a tremendous


amount of opposition and ridicule, but gave the great art the dignity it
had lost through the centuries. Many eminent scholars supported her.
I went through the same traumatic experience years later, as I was
in Gujarat where classical dancing was non-existent and the culture of
South India was an unknown book to most of the people. I was determined
that my students would study the background, history and technique of
the dance. The first book that Darpana promoted was edited by the
family of Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai, when we called together the music
of the Tanjore Quartette, the four great Vidwans who helped to create
the classical Bharatanatyam repertoire. This was printed in Tamil and
perhaps was the first of its kind where all the items of Bharatanatyam were
printed in a proper format. I worked on the book, for tenUnderstanding
years
Bharatanatyam
, with Guru Acharyalu and tried to include only those necessary
portions that young students needed to study. This proved a great success
and has been used by dance students in all parts of the world.
To explain the idea of Shiva being the Beloved in the technique
Longing for the Beloved
of Bharata Natyam, I wrote a small book called
. This
gave the cultural background of the temples of South India and how the
dance evolved. It explained the meaning of Nataraja and the sculptures
of the dance Karanas on temple walls. It also described how the temple
dancers participated in the rituals of the temples. At the request of a
good friend, Mr Bhashyam, then president of ASIA (Ahmedabad South
Indian Association), I created a dance drama based on this book, which
was namedNataraja Vandanam
and later The Dance of Shiva
.
Another book published in the USA spoke of the eight heroines or
Nayikasof the classical dance. This also explains the basic rasas of the
Indian techniques which is used in all forms of dance and drama, and
was very well brought out by Selma Jeanne Cohen of Dance Perspective,
an excellent journal of dance.
Always interested in ancient scriptures and their interpretation, I was
moved by Swami Chinmayanandas creative interpretation of the
Gitaand went regularly to all his lectures. For some years while
Bhagawad
President of the Chinmaya Mission I also edited a small magazine called
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Prama
which mainly had articles on the Upanishads. To me the printing
and get-up was most important but soon I did not have the time nor
the finance to continue.

Running an institution like Darpana has been a hard task, though ofcourse
rewarding in many ways. While it was growing, the students were few
and the professional group with their varied emotional make-up could
be contained. As more and more departments were added there were
problems of individual egos and clashes of personalities. It was exhausting
yet challenging for me to get together a good troupe, work endless hours
physically and mentally and then tour all over the world. As most of my
artists came to Ahmedabad from South India, we arranged free
accomodation for them near by so they had no problems of housing.
Some have stayed for more than twenty years. C.T.Acharyalu, joined in
1951 and was still guru in the truest sense of the world till his death in
1998. Sashidharan teaches and is often invited for workshops abroad.
Guru Purushottam guides our music department and has revived the
gottuvadyam. Bharatanatyam is still taught in the tradition of Pandanallur.
Students have become teachers, and Bharat who came to us as a young
tribal boy looks after the folk group and is also an excellent classical
dancer. Mallika continues the fine tradition of Kuchipudi that she studied
under Acharyalu, who taught her for twenty years. Theirs was a guru
shishya relationship and she was able to revive ancient items from the
Bhagavata Mela Natakam.
Perhaps my greatest shock in Darpana came when Chathunni left so
ungraciously. He had told me once that when he was old he would retire
to Kerala, but never teach in any other institution or work with anyone
else. He was extremely proud of his integrity and his truly fine qualities
as a dancer made me put up with is devastating temper and tantrums.
Somehow I always managed to reason with him and we had a marvellous
rapport especially on the stage. He loved and admired Vikram and would
only take criticism from him. Unfortunately he never brooked a rival and
many were the gurus and dancers who left because of him.
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Suddenly, one day with no warning at all, in 1979 he left with his
family and luggage. He came into my office abruptly and said Im going.
Nothing had prepared me. Acharyalu and I were absolutely stunned.
Well I thought, He is going back to Kerala and perhaps feels he cannot
really dance-anymore. But I was very hurt when he started a rival school
under one of my very rich but hopelessly inept students! That really
pained me a great deal but after Vikrams death somehow nothing seemed
to matter. After a few months the institution could not contain him and
I felt sorry hearing stories of his being treated badly and without respect.
He was soon dismissed and had to go back to his home in Kerala.
It was a sad ending to a fine career. But it was also ironical. After
Manushya and other compositions of mine, where there were no heavy
costumes, he disliked donning Kathakali make-up or wearing the elaborate
dress. In China we begged him to participate with the Kathakali group
but he absolutely refused.
On our many tours abroad food was always a major problem, though
now it is so much easier to find vegetarian eats. There were some
hilarious incidents one of which concerned a women musician. Everytime
food was placed on the table she would say ugh loudly and make a face.
It was annoying and embarassing as I had always tried my best to get
a basic diet of rice and vegetables. Once in Amsterdam we went to a
Javanese restaurant, where I thought everyone could have a good almost
Indian vegetarian meal which I specially ordered, with plenty of rice and
hot curries. They served us delicious papad which my musicians ate
with delight, even asking for more. After the meal the woman musician
enquired how they were made. Take a basketful of fresh shrimp, the
cook began, pound and dry them, then...

In spite of many hard knocks over the years, I still have faith in the innate
goodness of human beings. There have been many instances of loving
relationships too with my students and teachers, who left for personal
problems of their own like the Mridangist, Ganeshan, the flutist, Shankara,
the singer, Haridas (now a film-star), Govindan Kutty, who with his
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talented wife, Thankamani, have set up an excellent school in Kolkata,


Govindan Namboodiri, who was one of my first group of Kathakali
dancers, Rama Rao, who teaches music in Chennai, and many others
whom I have already mentioned.
Now that Mallika has taken up the executive work, apart from being
the biggest earner for Darpana, I feel that Vikrams and my dream of
having a real Academy for Gujarat has come true. After all to make a
state dance was not a small task! Once long ago Rukminidevi said to
me Mrinal I have opened a Pandoras box in Chennai! At that time I
did not understand the full implication till I opened one here! Bharat
Natya (not Bharatanatyam) is so popular that after the arangetram the
girls actually open academies!
In Gujarat, unlike their South Indian sisters, women prefer running
a class of dance rather than performing. So it has become big business!
What is amusing (or tragic) is that after the Arangetram (at Darpana
it is an Aradhana) they automatically title themselves Guru without any
knowledge of theory or language. In vain do I say at every Aradhana
that the Aradhana or arangetram is only like the SSC of school education
and that the decision to be a dancer and work towards it is after the
schooling. Fortunately there are a few who continue and start being
proper dancers, taking their post graduate studies seriously and equipping
themselves to be teachers. Many of the young women are now mothers
and it is a great delight to see their children in the classes. They visit
us from the UK and the USA. for study courses as they are settled there.
It is always a joy when they come and especially when they tell me how
much the atmosphere here meant to them.
The training at the Darpana Academy combines much more than
dance. The children learn about their culture and the qualities that make
for a meaningful life. One of my dancer daughters, Shubha recently wrote,
Looking at the world around us today makes me realize how fortunate
and blessed I have been to grow up at Darpana under your love and
guidance. There was a wholeness in the environment and the importance
to the adherence to discipline in every aspect of our activity at Darpana,
has stood me in good stead and I feel has given me inner strength.
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In 1998 Mallika, now the executive head of Darpana, changed its


image. After fifty years of my work with the South Indian classical dance
there was no need to teach Bharatanatyam as many of the students were
now teachers and had opened their own schools. Darpanas new directions,
as Mallika envisaged it, included a professional performing group, a
centre for international artists and workshops, a centre for non-violence
through the arts, and a creative research and communication wing for
development. Working with the tribals in Banaskanta and schoolchildren
in municipal schools on social issues was also a project of Mallikas new
ideas, for development communication.
In the new millineum, my prayer is that Darpana continues to be a
mirror of the times, awakening the consciousness, keeping alive the ancient
traditions and altogether an exciting stimulating centre of the arts.
Mallika since July 2000 has been C.E.O. of Gujarati Channel called
T.A.R.A (Televisino Aimed at Rural) and I feel Vikrams vision
of what television should be is slowly developing for that is her vision
as well.
Anahita, whose love for animals is inborn now runs a show called
Amari Vatho on childrens problems and also participates in an animal
oriented programme called, Yahoo.. Yahoo.
When the three Sarabhai Women danced together at the Kutub
Festival in Delhi in 1999, the press wrote: It was a mesmerizing moment
for the 2000 odd audience to see three generations of the illustrious
Sarabhai family perform together for the first time.
May the echoes of life dance forever in the universe as the waves
of the sea lash the shore in everlasting rhythms!

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What is meaningful, what is your fulfillment? people ask me now. You have achieved fame, you are
called the Goddess of dance, why do you go on straining yourself? I have no answer. How can I tell
them that I am only I when I dance. I am only that I AM when I dance. I am only Eternity when I dance.
Silence is my response, movement my answer.
What am I but an abstract from in time, born into a land of deepest symbolism, containing within my
work the past, the present and the future of a conscious force beyond time, beyond space, the echoes
of which may be heard and seen in later vision.
Again and again in the silence I hear the words, Who knows in truth? Who knows whence comes this
creation. Only that God who sees He only knows or perhaps He knows not!
Can anyone ever understand these words? There is no separateness in dance and my entire being.
It is the radiance of my spirit that makes for the movements of my limbs.

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