A couple of months after a girl was born in a family with roots in a semi-hilly Kerala village where paddy fields were readying for harvest, rolling meadows turned green in Switzerland that was ushering in spring for yet another time—in 1918. It was to that scenic Alpine country the child, who went on to gain fame as Mrinalini Sarabhai in the field of dance, was to move as a toddler.
Towards the end of that century, a 31-year-old vocalist won the appreciation of music buffs in two Swizz cities, among other places across the West. Sanjay Subrahmanyan’s 1999 concerts in Zurich and Geneva were as part of a European tour by the Chennai artiste, who had just begun to rise as a star in Carnatic that was gaining stronger accessibility across continents.
Unlike Sanjay, who turns 50 today (January 21, 2018), Mrinalini chose to make her practical life multi-track. Her cultural endeavours were largely backed by a spirit of social uplift as well as entrepreneurial benignity. If much of Sanjay’s daring artistic forays have primarily been embellishing the five-century-old Carnatic idiom, the danseuse double his age had been a noted choreographer and teacher was the founder of a cultural institution that turns 70 this year.
Darpana Academy of Performing Arts stands on the banks of the Sabarmati in Ahmedabad, where Mrinalini spent much of her life—having been married to iconic physicist Vikram Sarabhai, the father of India’s space programme. If the river’s name invokes a streak of Gandian feel owing to the Spartan-looking Mahatma ashram alongside it in the Gujarat city, his style of non-violent protest against various injustices was of part of Mrinalini’s character too.
In fact, the only text in nascent India as an independent nation as one “that stands out as marking the assertion of a woman as an individual” is by Mrinalini, according to a research book. The autobiographical This Alone Is True (1952) “places career above love and marriage in a woman’s life and foregrounds the question of woman’s identity as an artist against complete opposition from an orthodox family,” notes author Chandra Nisha Singh’s Radical Feminism And Women’s Writing: Only So Far and No Further (2007).
That subtle style of rebelliousness is not surprising, given that Mrinalini was daughter of social worker and political activist Ammu Swaminathan (1894-1978). Little Ammukutty’s marriage (at age 13) to a Madras-based lawyer educated in Britain and America led to her spending life from teenage in Tamil Nadu. Brought into a Tamil Brahmin family from a Nair tharavad in Anakkara village in what is now Palakkad district, her husband Subburama Swaminathan, 20 years older, encouraged Ammu’s talent and infused in her a Gandhian spirit that was essential to the middle-class household amid heightened freedom struggle.
Mrinalini was the youngest of the couple, born four years after their first daughter, who was to become a medical practitioner Marxist and a revolutionary: Lakshmi Sehgal (1914-2012), who served as a captain in the INA (Indian National Army) under defiant patriot Subhas Chandra Bose. Incidentally, it was the year INA was formed (1942) that Mrinalini married Vikram—a relation that was not very happy by several accounts. By when she tied the nuptial, Mrinalini had had good exposure to a wide range of dances from across the world. As a child in Switzerland, she received classes in western dance movements under Émile Jaques-Dalcroze (1865-1950), a renowned composer-musician who had moved into Geneva from Italy when he was 10. Back in India later, Mrinalini learned two classical dances from reputed masters: Bharatanatyam under Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai and Kathakali under Thakazhi Kunchu Kurup (besides Kerala’s Mohiniyattam). That was after a couple of related academic stints: at Santiniketan in West Bengal and briefly at American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York.
Mrinalini excelled in making greater use of her proficiency in a mix of dance forms by striving to become much more than a Bharatanatyam dancer or even a collaborator with colleague Kavungal Chathunni Panikkar, a Kathakali artiste with whom she staged projects that earned critical acclaim. Culturally for India, it was a long way of a gritty woman who spent her early years in Madras, known also as the capital of modern-day Carnatic music.
It was in that a city that an early-teen boy met with a minor road accident that proved to be a blessing in disguise for a world-class traditional music system. Sanjay was in his high school when his two-wheeler skidded, forcing him to give rest to his arms that had suffered a temporary difficulty in movements. It meant that he had to take a break from his Carnatic violin classes (from V. Lakshminarayana). This was one period when Sanjay sidetracked to vocals—only to stick to it as his main artistic pursuit. Sanjay’s father S. Sankaran had been a member of the drama troupe led by (late) journalist Cho Ramaswamy, but the boy’s second love (has) remained cricket. Sanjay is one of those vocalists who, having learned a bit of Hindustani classical, employs the modulations and aesthetics of the northern music into quintessential Carnatic in a way like none other.
Sanjay’s gurus (Rukmini Rajagopalan, [aunt] Sukanya Swaminathan and Calcutta K.S. Krishnamurthi) aren’t exactly celebrated names in Carnatic, but the musicians who have influenced him hugely are all-time greats: G. N. Balasubramaniam, S. Kalyanaraman, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, Tiger Varadachari, M. L. Vasanthakumari, Ramnad Krishnan, Alathur Brothers, Musiri Subramaniya Iyer and T.N. Seshagopalan, besides Sethalapathy Balasubramaniam, T. K. Govinda Rao, T. M. Thiagarajan, Madurai Somu, Nedunuri Krishnamurthy and M. D. Ramanathan. For all his individual stamp in Carnatic, Sanjay’s has also been a pleasant mix of the essence of each of these music, without seldom sounding to be imitating any of the titans.
In December 2015, Sanjay won the Sangita Kalanidhi, becoming one of the youngest awardees of Carnatic’s most coveted title (conferred by Madras Music Academy annually since 1929). A month after that milestone turn, the art world learned of the news of 97-year-old Mrinalini passing away in Ahmedabad, almost 2,000 km away from Chennai where she had walked her baby-steps.