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A Dancing, Prancing Ego

Nothing exciting out here, except some serious self-glorification and unengaging trivia

A Dancing, Prancing Ego
A Dancing, Prancing Ego
The Voice Of The Heart—An Autobiography
By Mrinalini Sarabhai
HarperCollins Pages: 316; Rs 495
Among the many duties I had to perform as public relations officer of the Indian high commission in London following Independence was to ensure adequate media coverage for visiting Indian artistes. Of them, the most daunting was to rouse interest in classical Indian dancing. Few in England were aware that such a thing existed. For most of them, Indian dancers were nautch girls gyrating to the jingle of ankle bells. The only one who had established himself as a class dancer was Ram Gopal. He had a sizeable following in England’s gay circles. Then came Uday Shankar, his wife Amala Nandi and their troupe partly sponsored by our government. There were not many willing to buy tickets to see something they knew nothing about. We had to persuade the staff of India House to bring their families to fill at least half the hall. With Mrinalini Sarabhai it was slightly different. She came from the well-known Swaminadhan family of Madras and her mother was a member of Parliament. Her husband Vikram was on the make as a space and nuclear research scientist; he was also a Sarabhai of Ahmedabad, among the 10 richest industrial families of the country. Wherever Mrinal went, the red carpet was laid out with embassy receptions for her Darpana troupe. The only thing we failed to galvanise were audiences. We were in luck if the halls were half-full. Indian ballet got very perfunctory notices in the English press. Whatever appeared was faithfully wired back to India where it made the front pages.

The blurb on the jacket of Mrinal’s autobiography claims that "she is single-handedly responsible for taking classical Indian dance beyond the shores of India and making Bharatanatyam a dance form that is revered and respected throughout the world". The statement has to be digested with a large dose of salt. She was by no means the first or single-handed. There were a few before her and many contemporaries who excelled her, including later her own daughter Mallika who outshone her in looks, as a dancer and as an honest raconteur of her life.

Mrinalini’s autobiography makes tedious reading. It is a succession of events, including trivia like lost and found baggage on her trips abroad, important people like presidents, prime ministers, godmen, faith healers, miracle men and men of eminence she met, which makes it read like a catalogue in the diary of a name-dropper. Even when she digresses into matrimonial differences and family squabbles after her husband’s death, she conceals more than she reveals. While Mrinal was preoccupied in conquering the world with her dancing, her husband found a more fetching and understanding companion in the sociologist Kamla Chowdhry who had taken up a job in one of the institutions set up by the Sarabhais. It came as a shattering blow to Mrinal’s amour propre. In her account of her relationship with Vikram, Kamla makes it quite clear that it was more than platonic. And remained so till the end of his life. Kamla still organises an annual Vikram Sarabhai Memorial Lecture in Delhi.

Mrinal also writes about the break-up of the Sarabhai family. After the death of the founding-father Seth Ambalal and his eldest son Suhrid, the entire burden of managing the industrial empire, which included Calico Mills and Sarabhai Chemicals, fell on the eldest remaining son, Gautam. The rest of the clan were busy doing their own thing and treated the family fortune as theirs for the asking without contributing to its management or looking after any part of the business. All of them had spacious bungalows separated by ancient tree-lined avenues overrun with peacocks called The Retreat. Whenever they were in Ahmedabad, they stayed in their bungalows and indulged in their favourite hobbies. One ran a school, another set up a botanical garden with all the flora and fauna of Gujarat, one reared pheasants, another reared snakes. Everyone had a consuming passion of his or her own. The business of earning money was left to Gautam who, with his youngest sister Gira as his companion, did the best he could. He put an end to non-working members of the family withdrawing money at will. By then it was too late to salvage the Sarabhai enterprises. Mrinal goes out of the way to vilify Gautam and describes his decisions as vindictive. The word could be more appropriately used for Mrinal’s version as Gautam is no longer there to defend himself.

The tone of self-gratification runs throughout Mrinal’s narration of her life. The last few lines are revelatory. "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 when I dance? I am only that ‘I Am’ when I dance. I am only eternity when I dance, silence is my response, movement and answer." All that may be true, but did she have to rub it in over 300 pages?

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