Mrinalini Sarabhai, to many an epitome of grace and impeccable taste, was traditional yet contemporary in her work and she had a keen eye for dance aesthetics, say Indian dance icons, for whom the late danseuse — lovingly called Amma — will continue to be an inspiration.
In the words of her daughter Mallika, “Mrinalini Sarabhai has just left for her eternal dance.”
Mrinalini breathed her last on Thursday morning in Ahmedabad following age-related health complications. The Padma Bhushan awardee was 97.
“In the passing away of Mrinalini Sarabhai – whom with great affection we in the dance community all called Amma – a significant volume of Indian dance history reached its last page,” Bharatnatyam dancer Geeta Chandran, a Padma Shri awardee, told IANS.
“She will be best known for two crowning achievements: First, for introducing the dances of South India to Gujarat, where till then only the folk dances had ruled. And later, she became the first icon to daringly embrace contemporary themes of social integration, social justice and human rights into her dance repertoire. She was truly a leader and a culture visionary.”
Kathak exponent Shovana Narayan said that Mrinalini was a “one of the pioneers of the dance field of an era when India itself was in a phase of discovering itself and its identity”.
“She was a part of that movement and she represented that genre… So, it’s a big loss,” Narayan told IANS, reminiscing Mrinalini as a “down-to-earth, gentle, well-spoken person, who was very connected to her work”.
Talking about Mrinalini’s body of work, Narayan said: “She did a lot of work. She was a traditionalist in a way, yet there was a contemporariness about her work. She has left behind a great legacy.”
Mrinalini’s daughter Mallika is now taking that legacy forward.
But Mrinalini Sarabhai was herself “legendary”, says choreographer Shobha Deepak Singh of Delhi’s Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra.
“I have photographs of her which are perhaps 50 or 60 years old. She used to stay in our family home, which is on Kasturba Gandhi Marg (in Delhi). She and her husband (Dr. Vikram Sarabhai) were an integral part of my grandfather’s household.”
“We have spent a lot of time with them as children…She was a great person and dancer. She did a lot for Bharatnatyam, and had impeccable taste,” Singh said.
“She always had an amazingly keen eye for dance aesthetics, so what she wore in terms of costume and jewellery, was also all fantastic,” Singh recounted.
Also touched by the news of Mrinalini Sarabhai’s death was Kathak exponent Shaswati Sen, a senior disciple of Pandit Birju Maharaj.
She said that it was just in mid-December last year that she was in Ahmedabad and inquiring about Mrinalini Sarabhai.
“She was a little weak. Losing her is a very big loss for the total art community because she has been a great pillar in the field of dance. She supported and propogated the development and enrichment of Bharatnatyam in particular in the country and beyond borders.”
Sen said Mrinalini Sarabhai’s death was “unfortunate” as she has been a role model for most Indian dancers.
Mrinalini trained in the south Indian classical dance form of Bharatanatyam under Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai and the classical dance-drama of Kathakali under the legendary Guru Thakazhi Kunchu Kurup.
A highly honoured artiste, Mrinalini Sarabhai was also the founder director of the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts, an institute for imparting training in dance, drama, music and puppetry.