Renowned classical dancer, choreographer, teacher, author and environmentalist Mrinalini Sarabhai – ‘Amma’ – passed away this morning at her home in Ahmedabad. She was 97. Her daughter, well-known artiste Mallika Sarabhai broke the news to the world on Facebook saying “My mother Mrinalini Sarabhai has just left for her eternal dance”. It was just what her mother, who “had wanted to dance ever since I was a child”, would have wanted to hear.
In that statement was an acknowledgement of Mrinalini’s long and rich life spanning an eventful century. A life lived on the frontline of the recovery and reinvention of Indian classical dance in the 1940s, crowned by her lasting act of founding the Darpana Academy in Ahmedabad.
The autobiography of the Padma Bhushan awardee, The Voice of the Heart written in 2004, is perceived by many as a significant effort to fill the gaps in the narrative of Indian dance these past seven decades. As critic Sadanand Menon wrote in his review of the book, “In dance there is a special kind of dark hole. Except for an impressionistic autobiography by the flamboyant Ram Gopal way back in 1957, there have been no attempts at memoirs by leading proponents like Rukmini Devi Arundale, Uday Shankar, Balasaraswati or Kelucharan Mahapatra.”
She was also among the early classical dancers to turn to choreography, spurred by the conviction that even as new dance forms evolve, they should have the strength of classical tradition behind them.
The many facets of Mrinalini’s journey were captured in a 2012 documentary The Artist and Her Art, made by Mallika Sarabhai and Yadavan Chandran.
For many, the screening of the film at Delhi’s India International Centre was an evening to remember since both Mrinalini and Mallika Sarabhai – mother and daughter, partners and co-creators – were present in the audience. As Mallika said to a journalist interviewing Mrinalini on the eve of the release of her autobiography many years ago, “I believe she only really lives when she dances.”