Fine-Tuning The Art Of Juggling

Updated: Jul 1 2004, 02:52am hrs
Her recent run-in with Rashtriya Swayam-sevak Sanghs latest blue-eyed poster boy, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi has not broken her spirit. If anything, the fabricated charges of human trafficking which the state government has foisted on her as a punishment for her open criticism of the post-Godhra communal riots have left her even more determined to fight for what she believes is right. Never one to mince words for causes she holds dear, her tone is shriller now and her comments more acerbic even as she prepares for her next bout with Modis men in the Supreme Court in the ongoing case slapped against her.

Meet Mallika Sarabhai, 51, noted danseuse, theatre and film personality and progeny of one of the countrys greatest space scientists, Dr Vikram Sarabhai and famous dancer, choreographer and writer Mrinalini Sarabhai. The past few months have undoubtedly been an ordeal. Thats because never before has an entire government machinery been after me, she says, admitting that the lopsided battle has been extremely unnerving and frightening at times. One has heard so much about what they do to people in jail, she confesses, adding that what shes been through in the recent past is akin to Mallikas experiments with truth.

Mallika Sarabhai
Sitting in her tastefully done-up office, with its unusual table carved out from the trunk of a eucalyptus tree she grew up with at the Ahmedabad-based Darpana Academy of Performing Arts which she co-directs along with her mother, Mallika talks candidly about her unconventional life. I have never been scared to speak out on issues I feel strongly about. But this time it was a testing ground for me as I had to see whether I have the courage of conviction to come through this. It has been an eye-opener and has shown me who my friends are.

But then, courting controversy and choosing roads less travelled has almost become a habit with her right from a young age. Hailing from a famous family, she wears her famed legacy lightly, almost nonchalantly. For her, Papa, who was a scientist only because he felt that science could change lives as well as empower and educate was the crucial leg of the four-legged family table comprising her mother, her brother, her father and herself. It was exactly because of this that when Papa died, it was such a tragedy, she reminisces softly. It was from him that she learnt to be a developmental activist with the same mission to empower and educate, albeit in her own chosen fields of work. How difficult was it coming out of the shadows of such illustrious parents to find a place for herself in the sun Funnily, I never considered myself being in anyones shadow. In our family, everything was shared. There was never any question of competing as both me and my brother were given a chance to flower in any direction of our choice.

Comparisons with her parents were nonetheless there. If I performed well in school or college, it was always attributed to string-pulling by my father and when I did well in dance or theatre, it was palmed off to my mothers influence, she laughs. She recalls the time when she had just bagged the best dance soloist award at the Theatre De Champs Elysees, Paris, way back in 1977. When murmurs of my mothers influence reached my ears, I told Amma she must be a considerably influential lady internationally to have rigged such a prestigious award for me, she reminisces.

But if the awards and honours in the field of culture occupy an entire page of her impressive curriculum vitae, then her academic accomplishments bedazzle even further. A management graduate from no less than Indias very own Ivy League Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, Mallika added to this a doctorate in organisational behaviour from the Gujarat University. With such impressive academic credentials, how did she end up choosing dance and theatre as her main callings in life Funnily, I took to dancing at a rather late stage in my life though I had learnt it as a child too. However, at age 22, a bad love affair and a dreadful depression made me take to dance in a big way and thats when I started a new partnership with my mother, Mallika recalls.

The Communicator

Managing time
Im constantly juggling tasks while keeping my sense of humour intact. But as a rule, I spend more time on whatever deadline I have at a particular point of time. One things for sure, Im always multi-taskingnever doing one thing at a time. For instance, just this morning Id taken my son for an MRI to the hospital and while they were doing the test, I was working on a new piece sitting outside. My laptop goes with me everywhere and Im constantly on the phone as well, doing and fixing various things.
I dont try and pigeon-hole things because it is only when people try and pigeon-hole that problems arise. I dont believe in compartmentalising.
In any case, I see myself mainly as a communicator. Whatever I do, whether its dance, TV shows, theatre, films, it is basically like using different languages to convey my thoughts.
Present preoccupation
There are around seven new things Im working on of which the piece de resistance is a dance-cum-theatre piece which Im doing with a Pak-British friend Samya Mallik. It focuses on human rights and womens issues and well spend the whole of August touring the country staging the show.

Doesnt she ever regret the decision not to pursue a top notch corporate job I never went into management education thinking I wanted to sell soap, says an indignant Mallika. Elaborating further, she says creating management structures with profit as a motive is relatively straightforward, while creating structures to create freedom from which people can profit is much more complex and challenging.

But its not as if Mallikas management training has gone waste. The Darpana Academy of Performing Arts is, as Mallika views it, the only arts institution which is structured on management principles. We have management consultants do change analysis for us every three to five years. Its a time when we look at the aspirations of each of the 70 full-time members of the academy.

Mallika has juggled careers as diverse as dancer and film personality to being an activist and commentator and director of a TV channel, TARA (Gujarati), while being a single mother to two grown-up children. Hasnt such a busy life taken its toll anywhere Ive been singularly lucky to have found partners in each field who have understood that Im merely juggling time priorities, she confesses.

Talking about bringing up her son, 19 and daughter, 14, she says: Were a very close-knit family, with my children being brought up almost communally by everyone from my mother who stays right across to my brother and his wife and their children who also stay in the same vicinity. Not only that, Ive made sure that when they were young, theyd accompany me on all my travels and so never feel excluded from my life, Mallika avers.

What has also helped is the camaraderie she enjoys with her ex-husband, publisher Bipin Shah, owner of Mapin Publications. Both the children are very close to their father and share a great rapport, she acknowledges. Then why did the marriage fail Thats because marriage is a mistake for a woman like me with a mind and life of my own. Its not very easily workable, she feels. But what about the requirement of companionship in old age

I have some wonderful friends and family plus Im very happy in my own company. I dont believe its worth going through 50 years of bull shit just so that you can be happy at 75, she quips jocularly.

What she has instilled in her teenaged children, however, is the importance of honesty and transparency in any relationship. I never hide anything from them whether its a relationship of mine they disapprove of, or any other matter, and I expect them not to hide anything from me. Thats the only way to build a solid relationship at all levels at all times, she emphasises.

Where then does she see herself in the future. Id like to run another TV channel with total freedom with the basic aim of empowering people. Something on the lines of Channel 13 in the US, which is run on private donations. Only problem is funding, because no government or corporate would openly risk being associated with such a channel, she rues. Meanwhile, for this gutsy and talented lady, lifes challenges are mere processes towards distillation of her character.