“How does someone dance a nation’s women to freedom?” Well, that is a natural question to ask after you read the title. But you need to know about Mrinalini Sarabhai. She was a classical Indian dancer who used her bodily grace, movements, and her knowledge of dance to raise issues about the serious plight of Indian women immediately after India gained independence from Britain. Read this article to know more about her and her amazing accomplishments in dance!
Mrinalini Sarabhai was born into money, status, and fame
As is the case with many of India’s freedom fighters of the early and mid 20th century, Mrinalini Sarabhai was born into money, status, and fame. Her dad, Subbarama Swaminathan, was a high-ranking lawyer in the High Court in Madras. He was also principal at Madras Law College. Her mom had a prominent presence in India’s parliament. She was also an avid social worker and freedom fighter. Her amazing family background gave Mrinalini the strong legal and social background she needed to do her later work as a dancer.
About Mrinalini Sarabhai
She was born in Kerala on May 11, 1918. She grew up in a family that was like the traditional Indian elite in that they looked Indian but acted and thought like progressive, upper-class British people. Sarabhai studied dancing at some of the best institutions in the world. Her family lived in Switzerland when she was young. Later on, when she was a young kid, she trained as a danseuse. Mrinalini learned Dalcrose dancing techniques while studying at the American dance academy. She studied Shantiniketan upon returning to India and decided that she wanted to be a dancer.
She mastered in the Bharatanatyam dance methods
Bharatnatyam dance is a series of difficult dance steps that are very difficult to learn, let alone master. Those who are serious about studying dance spend years trying to master these steps and techniques. Mrinalini Sarabhai was no exception. But being an avid and passionate dancer, she also learned Mohiniyattam and Kuchipudi dance styles. These styles made her able to express herself in new and unique ways that other dancers could not. This gave her the background she needed to be a dancer who raised awareness of social causes. She learned the Kathakali dance steps which had previously only been taught and practiced by men.
As a dancer in Gujarat
Mrinalini Sarabhai moved to Gujarat in the late 1940s when India was rocked by the ‘Quit-India’ and the ‘Satyagraha’ movements. She had married Dr. Vikram Sarabhai by then. Both of them showed her passion for and commitment to dance by founding the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts which was founded in Ahmedabad in 1949. Mrinalini Sarabhai had to battle the more conservative and caste-oriented culture and mindset of Northern India. Her passion for dance was laughed at as was her South Indian ancestry and lower caste. She was derogatorily called a ‘low caste dancing woman’ Gujaratis made fun of her. They felt sorry for her husband because a high ranking and well-respected scientist had married a mere dancing girl.
She did not give up
She fervently danced and was soon respected. Gujaratis began to call her ‘Amma’ which means mother in Tamil. She became a respected and world-famous dancer. She performed many dancing tours in Europe, for example.
Though illegal, dowry was a big issue that was becoming a serious and growing problem for Indian women in the 1960s. Mrinalini recognized this and she performed many dances that raised social awareness of dowry harassment, dowry deaths. She didn’t stop at the dowry. Her dances created awareness of the growing problems of rape, discrimination against lower caste women, and the lack of women in general in the workforce. She also promoted the Swadeshi movement that Gandhi had started by using homemade materials on her dance stages
Mrinalini Sarabhai was a trailblazer
Mrinalini Sarabhai was a bold woman who grew up in a progressive family. She was an independent thinker. She used her skills as a dancer to raise awareness about serious issues in India. Since many of these issues still remain, she can be thought of as a trailblazer who set the stage for the NGO’s who would be working on getting rid of these social ills in India!
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