Mrinalini Sarabhai’s autobiography ‘The Voice of the Heart,’ published by Harper Collins India in the year 2004, is now available for free download

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Dance of Eternity

As I listened to many voices and share with them the grave concern about the future of humankind, I feel we all have become prisoners of our own creations, especially our technologies. I am perhaps somewhat of an outsider in this respect, as one who rejected the formality of education as taught in our westernized colleges and instead searched deeply for my own roots, my own identity. Starting in 1949, dance for me became what the writer Joseph Campbell called ‘a courageous open-eyes observation of the sickening broken figuration that abound (before us, around us and within.’) before, around and within us.

Dance I feel is a fundamental spontaneous expression of humankind from the crudest leaps around a fire to the sophisticated forms of the dynamic spirit within us. Creative work is a mystical experience. In literature, in dance, in drama, indeed in all the arts, the inspiration is the springboard for the final work. But inspiration is itself the result of many years of study, a deep knowledge of the subject and hard work.

Tradition is one `aspect' of culture. To be traditional in art is to be able to recognise a known structure which has retained a clarity that has withstood time. It is the art of perceiving a reality in patterns formed by years of experience. But it is not a static entity. The development of any art is usually based upon the backdrop of one's own birthright. Many traditionalists ignore this fact and insist upon mere repetition, not realising the technique they so firmly advocate (I speak of dance) is only about three hundred years old already moulded from ancient sources. The creative artist is often the real `knower' of tradition which perhaps could be called `source material', and gives new vitality to ancient forms. At Darpana, I tell my students that our work is rather like the catapult, one draws `way back' in order to `spring forward'.

Knowing the basic designs in dance, understanding of language, gesture and cultural background, all work together towards a meaningful search for a fresh identity, a significant bridge between past and present. To me, dance, apart from its essential beauty, has to be awareness and a relevant force in contemporary life. Can an artist truly exist without self expression? It was not to meet the current desires of the audience that I began to create new works, but an innate need to express my involvement with the world around me, the world I lived in, breathed in, the world of constant dualities, joy-sorrow, life-death, love-hate, construction-destruction, creating insights towards awareness.

Behind each movement was an inner energy, the result of years of training. It took hundreds of performances and relentless work to establish a reputation of classicism. Only then did I present my own perspectives. Sometimes in a composition there is no need for words for they have different meanings. But often words and shapes are born together within my mind. Perhaps that's why some critics have called me `intellectual'. But I am far from that. It is the significant or, the shape of a solo or a group movement that creates tension and vitality, and makes for clarity.

Choreography (a word I learnt much later) is a comprehensive wholeness of a work. In dance the body speaks with the power of the mind behind it. 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. But each new dance composition springs from the result of years of practice. Practice is the "puja" of a dancer, constant daily "puja".

Dance education is more than the technique of the Natya Shastra or any other sacred text. It should envelop other perceptions if it is to become meaningful. Our puranas tell us of the valuable beauty of nature. To watch a falling leaf, the movement of water, a flight of birds, the shape of the clouds, all these are meditations that are revelatory. `Sarva shrishti parinamam', 'all creation is limitless' is a basic tenet of Indian philosophy. A dancer has to be an observer of all movement(s) as does a scientist. Vikram's remark that `it is necessary in creative work to be able to see the squirrels and the birds' is a profound statement. It means to awaken the relationship with nature, the spirit of our Vedic heritage which tells us that we are each a particle of the universe and share in its wholeness. These thoughts of a universal oneness lead us to realise the values of our traditions when India was a land of tolerance, welcoming and protecting everyone. New ideas flowed in and were absorbed in all the arts. But underlying every art are the eternal truths as told to us by Devi, Shiva, Krishna and the great seers. A passage I find meaningful is "In the heavens of Indra, where there is a network of pearls, so arranged that if you look at one you see all the others reflected in it. In the same way each object in the world is not merely itself, but involves every other object and in fact is everything else".

Through dance, after the physical and mental training, we try at Darpana to teach the dancers the spiritual nature of gestures. For instance, the simple `namaskar' brings symbolically the conscious and the super conscious together. When the dancer prays obeisance to Mother Earth, and the hands are then lifted to the centre of the forehead which is considered the third eye, there is a new dimension. Each mudra has to be understood with its deeper meaning. The simple `abaya' gesture is dynamic when linked with the divine. Nataraja's hand of blessing, is also that of the Buddha, the Christ, the Madonna the great gurus, and the mother who blesses her child.

In this century of material progress, it is imperative that universal oneness is taught from the earliest age. The child has to learn to look inwards as well as outwards, the inner and the outer sky, to be observant of the environment in its beauty and also ugliness, a conscious caring citizen of the world. Often a simple story in dance or drama can inspire people. Many were the dance pieces on subjects that disturbed me and often in the villages we used the popular Bhavai.

As for instance when we spoke of environment we used the (well-known) story of Radha and Krishna. The ending however was the message. Radha goes to meet Krishna at night on the banks of the river but instead of flowing water, finds a stagnant pool, and where the trees grew is a concrete jungle. The message was loud and clear and the villagers understood it, and often planting of trees, teaching of Sanskrit and Gujarati verses on nature followed. On one occasion a whole fascinating exposition of the tree connecting heaven and earth was expounded by a local pandit who referred to the sacred trees of India, around which villages were originally built. The young villagers enthused by the drama and the discussions often continue the project on their own, so not only trees but ideas are planted.

Deeply rooted in my own psyche are the rituals of Kerala and Tamilnadu, and often, while composing a dance piece, a hidden memory brings up a form. 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 Tulasi 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.

What am I but an abstract form 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'!

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 fulfillment people ask me now. `You have achieved fame, you are called the goodness 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.

Monday, November 22, 2010

From Arangetam to Aradhana

When I started Darpana in 1949 in Ahmedabad, the concept of dance was novel and looked down upon. It was not, therefore, till the early 60s that my first local students completed their 7 year basic course. I decided to institute the event of an arangetram, as it had been practiced in Tamil Nadu. For the first twenty or so years of Darpana's graduations, this solo arangetram continued with a couple of thousand young women performing it.

It was not till 1981 that I started feeling that parents of my dance students were bringing a monetary, wealth flaunting tinge into what should be a spiritual and maturing event. I started getting complaints that parents of less well off or poor children were being forced by their offspring to spend as much as the richer kids on the arangetram - buying expensive saris, feeding a thousand people, printing plush brochures, even giving gifts to all the guests. To put an immediate end to this, I decided to rename it aradhana, dedication, and to have groups of girls doing it together so that costs were controlled and shared, and the bhakti aspect of the sadhana was at its core. Girls were not allowed to spend any extra money, saris were given from Darpana, and girls were given jewels from older students. A common invitation card was designed by darpana and printed. The practice still continues in Darpana, while in other arts institutions arangetrams have become close to wedding like events.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Dancer

The whirlpool of my life finds the still centre
In a burst of wonder
Splattering into arms and legs
A unique movement in timelessness
Only my thoughts intent terrible
Birth into being
Who knows from whence
Came the desire
The need of turbulent discipline
How many lives before
I danced away the passions
Of my heart
How many fires lit my body into nothingness
Releasing again the energies
More real than life
Curled into my very atma
For each new life renewed
I dance
And will dance again

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Nine Rasas

A group of seventeen students are here in Darpana from Sanved, Kolkata (, an NGO which uses dance movement as an alternative approach to recovery, healing and for the psychosocial rehabilitation of victims of various forms of violence.

They have been attending and participating in various dance lessons with the Darpana teachers and I had my session with them on 23rd July for the first time.  

On July 27, we had another session on ‘Nava Rasa (nine expressions)’ in dance as they wanted to learn facial expressions in dance.

Bharata Muni, author of Natyashastra, defined eight rasas Sringara (love), Hasya (Laughter), Raudra (Fury), Karuna (Compassion), Bibhatsa (Aversion), Bhayanaka (Horror), Vira (Heroic mood) and Adbhuta (Wonder) and  Abhinavagupta later added Shanta (Peace), making the rasas nine.

In dance, the expressions have to be almost exaggerated and very clear.  The use of facial expression is important in almost all classical dance forms. The body follows the expression according to the context of the theme.  

The students found it difficult at first, but explaining to them to think of incidents in their own lives when they were ‘happy’ or ‘frightened’ or ‘sorrowful,’ they soon realized that it was important to ‘feel’ the emotion ‘bodily.’

These students had come up to my office one day and seen my photograph with Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore and said it was the first ‘relaxed’ photo of Tagore they had seen.  So at the end of our session, I gave them all copies of the photo which pleased them very much.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Self Esteem

I read this the other day and wondered when India lost her self esteem!  Perhaps we are slowly getting it back!

Lord Macaulay's speech in the British Parliament on 2nd February 1835.

"I have traveled across the length and breadth of India and I have not seen one person who is a beggar, who is a thief. Such wealth I have seen in this country, such high moral values, people of such calibre, that I do not think we would ever conquer this country, unless we break the very backbone of this nation, which is her spiritual and cultural heritage, and, therefore, I propose that we replace her old and ancient education system, her culture, for if the Indians think that all that is foreign and English is good and greater than their own, they will lose their self-esteem, their native self-culture and they will become what we want them, a truly dominated nation."

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Certificates and Mementos

My office walls are covered with certificates and many awards adorn the shelves.  While I appreciate the gesture of goodwill, I cannot help but wonder what utility they have.  Of course it is a reminder of achievement.  But I think a cash price to the institution is more meaningful, with perhaps a small certificate!

Institutions are always in need of funds for their upkeep, for salaries, for new productions, for costumes – the list is endless!

So let’s rethink certificates!

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Mahatma and the Poetess

The book ‘The Mahatma and the Poetess,’ is a series letters exchanged between Gandhiji and Sarojini Naidu, compiled by Dr. ES Reddy, edited by me and published by Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.

These letters show a deep relationship of humor, their concern for the country and understanding.  

Gandhiji's teachings are as relevant today as ever. Everybody should be acquainted with his life and times.  This letters bring out a different image to what we know about him.

When I thought of a stage version of the letters, Tom Alter seemed to be the best person to be my counterpart in this rendition.

We have done 10 shows so far, and hope to do many more…..

Soul's Pilgrimage

The lifetime of each person, is an experience of the soul's pilgrimage in existence.  A whole human being is one who can balance attachment and detachment in living.  Every experience in existence can create harmony or disharmony.  All values and perception are determined by the values we cherish in life.  When we work to take instead of to “give” we are treating life without reverence.  

If each one of us believes in the sacred responsibility of life’s journey, then create loving thoughts as they draw currents of positive energy, and help to invoke positive energy. The person who cultivates the path of peace and love enhances the atmosphere around which in turn contributes to an atmosphere of vibrant positive energy.  

Wisdom, compassion, nonviolence are all lessons to be learnt by deliberate means.  Each one of us need to replace anger with compassion, hatred with understanding and other negative emotions – with a conscious effort.

Respect for life can begin with respect for nature.  Great saints have found enlightenment relating closely to nature.  Buddha under the Bodhi tree, Srikrishna who dances under the Kadamba. All ashramas were situated in forest groves and were centres of learning.  Nature contributed to its atmosphere.

Bhatruhari sings:

“O Mother Earth
O Father Air
O Friend Fire
And Precious Water
O Brother Sky
I salute you all !
From you I received pure knowledge.”

In our country, we have been taught to live with Prakriti to worship even the delicate Tulasi plant to the strong Peepal and Banyan trees.

Music too has been given reverence as it brings peace and healing.  Dance through its rasa lifts us into an eternal ananda, linking the performer with the Divine.

The light on the stage remains uninvolved.  Yet it illumines.  

When we meditate, we try to acquire inner and outward silence.  In that silence, there is peace and quietitude.  And in peace, there can be no anger, no hatred.  There is a realization, that we are all one.  “Tat Tvam Asi.”

Today, we need a  new consciousness, to teach our children that each one of them is responsible for the universe.  There is too much of negative energy perpetuated by news channels and newspapers where we read only  about violence.  But there are wonderful things also taking place.  New thoughts, a new vision of humanity, a new world order of oneness, new technologies of living and ways of eradicating poverty and violence.

Let us all be participants in realizing the divinity in all beings, the oneness of life.  In our country, we greet each other with ‘namaskar’, the meaning of which is “I salute that eternal being who is in you and me” – let us not forget that in our daily lives.

Friday, July 9, 2010


This morning a young gentleman came from an FM station to interview me.  The profession of Radio Jockeys is indeed a thrilling one.  Quick, courteous and witty these are the three words that come to my mind when I think of our new generation.  In no time he untied the bundle of questions and the next ten minute was like reviewing my life, spanning from my birth to the contemporary scenario of Ahmedabad.  A brilliant job!  They will broadcast it next Sunday.

Radio always had a prominent place in my life before this era of ‘information flood.’  Tuning the radio to get BBC was always a tedious exercise. When tuned properly, it was always a pleasure to listen to various programmes.  Often I wondered about the sound that travels thousands of kilometers before reaching my radio set.  Gradually television pushed the radio back.  Then came mobiles, internet and the world is now teeming with the influx of knowledge.

Wikipedia says that this flow of information has created a new life. We are now in danger of becoming dependent on this method of access to information. Therefore we see an information overload from the access to so much information, almost instantaneously, without knowing the validity of the content and the risk of misinformation.

But its exciting all the same!

Some thoughts on ecology

“The Universe has a compelling need today
To comprehend and restore the equilibrium
Of economic, political, social, technological
Changes with the disciplines and practices 
To make life worthwhile at a crucial moment
Ina wide range understanding of Nature’s laws
A catalysed moment, this with innovative forces.”

Now Darpana has a biogas plant that uses leftover food and green foliage to generate cooking gas. Every morning, we feed the methane generating bacteria with the messy stuff.  What comes out then is pure methane gas that we use for cooking.  

Since childhood both Kartikeya and Mallika showed a strong penchant towards nature and eco living.  A leaking tap or some leftover food always disturbed them. Mallika has a self sustained farm house runs on biogas and solar energy.  Now Darpana has joined her green bandwagon, creating clean fuel and fertiliser for the plants.  

Kartikeya heads the Centre for Environment Education in Ahmedabad.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Blog to Timelessness

“Each artist unconsciously seeks his own immortality in every work he or she creates.  But each composition is formed in its own time and often the beauty is seen only many years after the actual creation.’

In the west, the passing of time is counted feverishly, and every minute is urgent with the necessity of asserting life in what seems to be a positive denial of death.  From early days, the sundial which originally came from East, was used to count the hours, as the sun cast its shadow upon the stone.  Most of the sundials had inscriptions giving dire warning that man’s sojourn on earth was of short duration.

“Amend today slack not
Death commeth and warneth not
Time passeth and speaketh not”

More than in any other country, one is aware of the swift passing of time in the USA, especially in the city of New York.  “After a frantic five day week, there is a rush for the country side, to get away  to snatch moments of leisure, to fish, to picnic, to sail a yacht, but all the while with an eye on the clock.”  Western civilization has become so aware of time, and the reality and finality of death, that not a moment can be wasted in sitting still.

Concepts of Spare and Time are very different in India where the entire philosophical background is one of eternal values, and there is no separation of life and the time in the western sense of the term.  This concept makes each life or sojourn on earth, precious and meaningful, for the process of realizing man’s inherent nature to identity with God, is the ideal and the ultimate goal. Therefore, events and doings are important in themselves not necessarily in the time sense.  The moments of existence are but passing clouds on an eternal horizon

The nuclear physicist Wilkinson tells us that ‘Perhaps there do exist universe interpenetrating with ours; perhaps of a high complexity; perhaps containing their own forms and awareness; constructed out of other particles and other intersections than those which we know, but awaiting discovery through some common but seclusive interaction that we have yet to stop.  It is not the physicist’s job to make this kind of speculation, but today, when we are so much less sure of the natural world than we were two decades ago, he can at least license it.”

This inherent different in the stress on time between Eastern and Western thought has naturally had a great impact on the work of the people.  Shri Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita says:

“Live in action
let right deeds be thy motive
…but not the fruits which come from them
only that man attains perfection
surcease from care,
whose work was wrought
with mind unfettered, soul wholly subdued,
desires forever dead, results renounced.”

The perfect way of living according to our philosophy is to do the work allotted to us humbly, energetically and honestly, as trustees rather than owners.  Nor our will but God’s, nor our decision but God’s, not our desire but God’s.

Yudhishthira, the mighty here of the Mahabharata once asked Bhishma, “What do you regard to be the greatest of all Dharmas?  By reciting what, will beings be liberated from the eternal cycle of birth and death?”  Bhishma replied, “The chanting of the Lord’s name is the Dharma of Dharmas.”

Tyagaraja, in his epic, ‘Inta Saukhyemani’ says:  ‘It is possible for me to describe the Ananda one derives from chanting Rama’s name?  Who knows its measure and quality?  Only true and great devotees know it.  Only Shri Sankara, who delights in drinking the nectar of music with Rama’s name sweeter than sugarcandy, knows it well.”

It is strange that the three singer composers who formed the great musical trinity of South India were born in Tiruvayur.  They were Shyama Shastri, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Tyagaraja.  Here where five rivers flowed, poets, philosophers, musicians, dancers and saints dwelt.

All three musicians refused to sing in praise of the Kings.  Tyagaraja, though a friend of the Tanjore King, who was cultivated and an enlightened ruler, refused to accept any gift for his music, but took a vow to sing the praises of God and beg for alms.  He was aware of his mission in life, which was to sing the praise of Shri Rama.

The entire philosophy of Indian art has been that music, and dance are offerings to the Lord.  Many treatises refer to the fact that these are the most pleasing of rites.  Bharata – the muni, who complied the Natya Shastra, emphasizes the solace art gives and designates its various rules finally comparing the totality to a mirror within which life itself is reflected.  The many years of study are years of standing and waiting.

….”It is baffling to recall that for a period of thirty years, the son of God did not appear to be anything other than a man”, writes Mauriac.  Thirty years in a closely-knit Jewish family in an obscure town, plus only three brief years to spread fire upon the earth.  What patience before such impatience.  To us in India, there is nothing strange in the years that Christ spent unknown to the world as the Son of God.  For perhaps the time of silence and waiting which seem to be meaningless is the most fruitful.  Every artist knows this.  Art for art’s sake has become a trite maxim today.  But art dedicated to God has been the ideology of India since the beginning of knowledge.  Musicians have constantly sung in the praise of God, without any sense of time or haste.

Milton tells us in his poem on his blindness that “God does not need either man’s work or his own gifts; which best bear his mild yoke, they serve him best.”  In India, there has been always joy in bearing the yoke.  Trained by Valmiki, the two young boys Lava and Kusha, sang the Ramayana, not knowing whose story they were studying, repeating and reciting.

The Vaishnava saints in the sixteenth and seventeenth century introduced a new beauty and sweetness into music and many were the bhajans sung by the great saints, Mirabhai, Surdas and others, all unconsciously enriching the musical and spiritual heritage of India.

The divine story of Radha and Krishna as sung by thousands of musicians and composers all over India embodies the longing of the human spirit of God.  Jayadeva’s lyrical ‘Gita Govinda’, swept the entire country with its superb poetry and after that Chandidas, Lilasuka, Vilvamangala, Umapati, Vidyapati and many others composed songs on the divine lovers in the sheer joy of surrender to the Supreme.

It is not accidental that Krishna is depicted as Venugopal for we human beings are all the empty reeds standing and waiting for Gopala to pour His Divine music into us.  Timeless indeed is the period of waiting.

Igor Stravinsky, the great composer of ballet music, said that a composition is ‘to create order between things and, above all, an order between man and time’.  He believed with the philosppher-writer Emerson, that beauty is its own excuse for being.  He thought that inspiration could only come with exertion and the knowledge of how to sublimate instinct to a regulating force.

Each artist unconsciously seeks his own immortality in every work he or she creates.  But each composition is formed in its own time and often the beauty is seen only many years after the actual creation.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

My Blog

Dear Friends,
Every human being is born with a vision.  Some recognize it, some become aware of it and some know it not at all.  From the moment of my knowledge of existence, I claimed the dance as my own life.  It shaped the entire consciousness of my being and never changed, for it was the only direction of my heart, mind and innermost soul.  It has, till now, been my state of enlightenment, my closest experience of divinity.
In this creative journey, my realization always was that we are all part of this great cosmos; continuously, this awareness reiterates itself more and more.  I try to tell the world how each one of us belongs to the other and that those relationships must be cherished.  And I know that there are many who respond, and as we gather our forces, there will surely come about a world consciousness that truly believes in peace and understanding.  
In a contemporary scenario, blogs and networking websites do exactly the same, provided we use them creatively.
I would like to take you on my journey of discovery through this novel platform, my blog.
With best wishes
Mrinalini Sarabhai