Home >Industry >Mrinalini Sarabhai, legendary dancer, dies at 97
A well-known face in Indian classical dance, Mrinalini Sarabhai, fondly called ‘Amma’, was trained in various art forms like Bharatnatyam, Kathakali and Mohiniattam by some of the most prominent dance gurus of her time. Photo: AFP
A well-known face in Indian classical dance, Mrinalini Sarabhai, fondly called ‘Amma’, was trained in various art forms like Bharatnatyam, Kathakali and Mohiniattam by some of the most prominent dance gurus of her time. Photo: AFP

Mrinalini Sarabhai, legendary dancer, dies at 97

Mrinalini Sarabhai was admitted to a hospital in Ahmedabad on Wednesday morning for an age-related health issue

Ahmedabad: Legendary danseuse and Padma Bhushan recipient Mrinalini Sarabhai passed away in Ahmedabad on Thursday. She was 97.

“My mother Mrinalini Sarabhai has just left for her eternal dance," wrote daughter Mallika Sarabhai in a Facebook post.

Earlier, she was admitted to a hospital in Ahmedabad on Wednesday morning for an age-related health issue.

A well-known face in Indian classical dance, Mrinalini Sarabhai, fondly called ‘Amma’, was trained in various art forms like Bharatnatyam, Kathakali and Mohiniattam by some of the most prominent dance gurus of her time.

She was born in Kerala and raised in Switzerland. Her mother, Ammu Swaminathan, was a renowned freedom fighter and a member of Parliament while her father Subbarama Swaminathan was a renowned barrister at the Madras high court and principal of the Madras Law College.

In Switzerland, she learned the Dalcroze Method, a Western technique of using dance movements to represent musical rhythms. Upon returning to India, she enrolled at Shantiniketan under the guidance of Rabindranath Tagore where she found her true calling was dance and decided to pursue a career in this art form.

She married the architect of India’s space programme, Dr Vikram Sarabhai, and is one of the first classical dancers to turn to choreography.

Besides being a classical dancer, she was a poet, writer and environmentalist. She founded the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts, an institute for dance, drama, music and puppetry, in Ahmedabad. The organisation also works towards women’s empowerment and addresses other social issues related to human rights and environment.

The house where she lived also houses the academy and was designed by world renowned Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier.

Mrinalini Sarabhai choreographed more than 300 dance dramas, including the highly-acclaimed musical ‘Krishna-Gopala’ and ‘This Mahabharata’. Besides, she has also been a prolific writer who maintained a blog (http://mrinalinisarabhai.blogspot.in/) and has written many novels, poetry, plays and stories for children.

Her autobiographyMrinalini Sarabhai, The Voice of the Heart opens with a poem that describes her deep bonding for the art form from her childhood.

Where do I spring from
I do not know
Who gave me wisdom, who charted my course
Unfolding day by day, patterns of coherence
Unknown each hour
The days became the design.
Slowly I recognised what I was
And at five years of age
So my mother told me, I said,
‘I am a dancer.’
Not ‘will be’
Not ‘was’
But ‘I am.’

Deeply rooted in her psyche were the rituals of Kerala and Tamil Nadu and often, while composing a dance piece, a hidden memory would bring up a form of expression.

“Rituals that I watched as a child, when the Devi manifests through the priest or Vellichapad, the ‘Thai thozhil’ exercises which form the basic steps of the Kalari (martial arts) tradition, and was done as a folk dance called ‘Velakali’ in the temples, the worship of snakes, the early morning ritual around the tulsi plant. Many more such impressions are all embedded within my consciousness. While I worshiped Krishna constantly in Guruvayur, it was to Shiva I danced in Bharatanatyam, searching for his stories in temples, and naming our home Chidambaram," she wrote in her blog.

She led an active life and continued to perform well into her eighties. On choreography, Mrinalini Sarabhai wrote that it is a comprehensive wholeness of work and often things could be conveyed more meaningfully using silence.

“In our country, words and music are important in the great oral tradition, but often silence seemed to me more meaningful, a totality of universal sound," she wrote in her blog.

On her passion for dance, she said, “Continuously through the years people ask me ‘What is dance to you?’ My reply usually is ‘It is my breath, my passion, my self’. Can anyone ever understand these words? There is no separateness in the dance and my entire being. It is the radiance of my spirit, that makes for the movements of my limbs. But what is meaningful, what is your fulfilment 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 ‘I AM’ when I dance. I am only eternity when I dance. Silence is my response, movement my answer."

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