Reinventing tradition to make it relevant today

Mallika Sarabhai, Ph.D. (Photo: Kyilah Terry/ UCLA.)

Reinventing tradition to make it relevant today

Indian classical choreographer, dancer and activist Mallika Sarabhai spoke at CISA about her dancing and how it relates to her advocacy work to improve the lives of Indian women.

By Kyilah Terry (UCLA 2019)

UCLA International Institute, May 17, 2019 — “Art is a powerful language to educate, illustrate and enlighten; to reduce it to entertainment is to give up on this powerful language,” said Mallika Sarabhai, Ph.D., a globally acclaimed dancer-choreographer and activist from the Indian state of Gujarat. Sarabhai delivered the 2019 Dr. Sambhi Memorial Distinguished Visitor Lecture sponsored by the Center for India and South Asia on April 15, 2019.

Trained as a vocalist but soon recognized as an exceptional dancer, Sarabhai won her first of many awards for artistic talent at 18 years old. She uses dance to address topical issues; her choreography focuses on women’s empowerment, environmental issues and the treatment of marginalized groups in India.

Dancing as a home language

Akhil Gupta, director of the Center for India and South Asia, introduces Ms. Sarabhai. Sarabhai was influenced to become a dancer at an early age. “Being the daughter of my mother, dance was everywhere. When we would come back from school, you couldn't go into the dining room because a class was going on, and you couldn't cross into the garden because there was a class there as well,” she recalled. Sarabhai’s mother was also a choreographer whose works were recognized on a national scale.

“One of her earlies pieces,” said Sarabhai, “was called ‘Memory is a Ragged Fragment of Eternity,’ which involved a performance where no one sang; instead only syllables and a ceremonial drum were used.” Other works created by Sarabhai’s mother included a 12-minute performance describing the communal riots that took place during her lifetime, where the only distinguishable sound was sticks breaking like bones.

Her mother’s last piece was inspired by newspaper articles detailing suicides that young, newly married girls often committed in order to escape harassment from their mother and sister-in-laws regarding insufficient dowries. “These girls could not go back to their parents to ask for more money because they had already gone into deep debt to get them married; their only way out was to kill themselves — often with their children,” explained the speaker.

This performance about societal pressures on women in India was attended by India’s prime minister and led to the first-ever commission that launched investigations into domestic violence and resulted in current Indian laws against dowries.

Using classical choreography to address women’s issues

Sarabhai performs a genre of classical Indian dance known as Bharatanatyam, which is usually performed by women. (She is also a Kuchipudi dancer.) According to her, “It has a sophisticated vocabulary, but most of the songs we perform were written at least hundreds of years ago and most of them talk about the central question of life: the search for the supreme.”

Within this genre, Sarabhai uses her choreography to address many issues, particularly the role of women and gender discrimination. One piece that she choreographed, Sativrata, addresses the practice of young brides burning themselves on their husband’s funeral pyres because they are told that virtuous women refuse to live if their husbands die. However, Sarabhai finds fault with the use of Hindu texts to support this practice.

“I started reading lots of versions and the more I read, the more I realized that in none of the ancient texts or their translations does the [woman] say ‘I refuse to live if my husband dies,’ instead it says, ‘I will not let my husband die,’” commented Sarabhai. “When the god of death comes to take her husband,” she continued, “the wife pursues him and with intelligence and wit, she defeats the god of death and he is forced to yield to her demand and give back her husband.”

Reactions to the dancer-choreographer’s “Sativrata” have been varied. On the one hand, the head priest of all Hindu temples exalted her for ‘returning Hinduism to its roots,’ and on the other, some organizations attempted to burn down the amphitheater where she performed. Despite diverse opinions, an Indian official evidently recommended that judges and government officials view the performance as part of gender sensitization training.

Sarabhai spent five years performing the role of Draupadi in theater director Peter Brook’s staging of the Hindu epic, Mahabharata. Draupadi, who has five husbands, is the chief female character in the epic. “Draupadi is a woman who I think epitomizes the 21st century woman. She is a very proud woman who does not want to rid herself of her femininity,” said Sarabhai. Unlike her Sativrata performance, she said her characterization of Draupadi “resonates with all women.”

Sarabhai noted that dancing in the Brook production changed how she approached her work as a dancer. “I came out of these five years thinking that I cannot go back to being a dancer and somebody who fights for social justice; these two have to meet,” she stated.


Sarabhai’s pieces, like her mother’s, discuss beauty, love and love for the eternal supreme while incorporating elements of activism that challenge traditional views of women in India. “Colors of the Her Heart,” Sarabhai’s newest piece, is about the stories that women hide. These are stories about which they feel the most shame, guilt and fear, she explained, and only by telling those stories can they be free of that fear.

In the end, it is the agency of storytelling that Sarabhai emphasizes in her works. “I am an artist and I have a voice. I cannot not talk about what bothers me. My language is art, so if I question things, I question through that,” she concluded.

All pictures by Kyilah Terry/ UCLA.



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Published: Friday, May 17, 2019

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