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'The essence of Indian thinking is self-examination'

Last updated on: October 20, 2005 19:59 IST
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Indefatigable is the word many use to describe Mallika Sarabhai, the actress, dancer, choreographer and writer who also hosted CNN's Style South Asia.

She also continues to be a strong voice against communalism and social inequities.

In an e-mailed interview with rediff India Abroad Managing Editor (Features) Arthur Pais, Sarabhai spoke extensively about her political convictions, her concern for personal safety, her passion for dance and the fight against communalism.

What would you tell some NRIs who resent anything that is critical of India being presented by Indian artists or expatriate Indians in books, movies, and dance performances?

The essence of Indian thinking is self-examination -- atma manthan.

It is not by hiding things under the carpet that things improve or change.

It is by being critical and finding solutions that they do.

Don't be afraid of looking at truth, but don't also sit in your massage chairs with little understanding of anything but what politicians or television shows tell you, and then criticise and condemn the people who are in their trying to bring change to those who don't have the power to do it themselves.

Today we think that cosmetic surgery can replace good health. We think that a fancy car can replace an emptiness of the mind. It can't. Only if we realise this, face it, and are willing to do something ourselves, do we have the right to criticise. Otherwise you will continue feeling insecure about atma manthan.

You have been attacked in the past three years for your stand against communal politics. You have also faced charges from the Gujarat government about taking dancers abroad and violating American immigration laws.

I have been fighting against injustice and discrimination since I was a child. My family taught me that by doing it. I thought it was something one had to do, coming from a family privileged by education and the kind of exposure I had to people from the world of art, science and world affairs.

But this was the first time that I was in the dock directly.

It was also the first time that there was no constituency in my home state that backed me. They were too terrified of the repercussion and reprisals to stand up for what was right.

I didn't think I had a choice but to do that -- how else would I ever be able to face myself, or be anything but an armchair gas bag pontificating on human equality and the right of all beings for justice?

Only my immediate family and my colleagues at Darpana stood by me in my own state.

How afraid were you?

Of course, I was afraid. I was so afraid that I had to go underground for months. My family, my children could have been attacked, our institution burnt down.

In fact we lost every last rupee of corporate sponsorship overnight -- and three years down the line not a rupee is back -- that is how afraid people are even today.

I am told that even if someone is negotiating with us for a tie-up, they receive a phone call and they back off.

What kept you going on?

My one constant belief has been, that with all the privileges that my family and upbringing give me, with the voice that I have nationally, if I don't stand up for truth and justice in my own country, how can I ever live with myself? What moral authority would I still have to criticise what is wrong?

Mallika Sarabhai seeks help from friends

How has the harassment and threats affected your work? And is the harassment continuing?

Every time the harassment got worse, I used it to create a new show! And, yes, in insidious ways it is still on, though not so openly.

Your version of Draupadi in the 1980s Peter Brook's drama Mahabharata startled many people. What made you think of Draupadi in a very different light?

I have always felt that our mythological women and historical women got a raw patriarchal deal. The writers of history were men: the priests were men, the storytellers were men, the historians were mostly men. And they ended up by reducing all the women into cardboard cutouts – wimps, in fact.

And yet they (the women) could not have been so. Think of this -- why are all the men identified by their women? Radheshyam -- Radha's Shyam; Umashankar -- Uma's Shankar; Sitaram -- Sita's Ram etc? Yet through all of this the one woman who refused to be reduced was Draupadi. And that is why, except in a couple of villages, she was never deified. She was too feisty, too much her own woman.

When did you first start thinking of her?

Ever since I was about five Draupadi started intriguing me. Living with her for five years convinced me that I was right -- that she, in fact, is the epitome of the 21st century woman -- someone proud of her womb and proud of her brain -- someone who does not fear vulnerability in love as a weakness nor thinks that that stops her critical faculties.

That is the woman I tried to and still try to bring forth. And she became a rave in all the countries I performed. I had all kinds of women come and ask me why we had hidden such an incredible role model.

You have had a mixed career in the movies. Is it because you did not get the roles that suited your personality? What are two or three of your films that you cherish most?

I walked out of Hindi films at 18 because a dance director said to me, 'Shake your t**s.' He was the mid-seventies, and I hated the atmosphere of commercial Hindi cinema.

I still love my first three films the best -- they were new wave films before the new wave happened. Even at 16 when I did my first film I was looking for issues and strong women's roles.

The first, Sonal, was about a young girl who finds within a week of her wedding that her husband is in an incestuous relationship with his sister.

The second, Mutthi Bhar Chawal, was about a young slum girl who decides to go into prostitution when her father loses his job and the family is starving. She decides that her body is less important than her siblings' starvation but that that was not a body she could live in once her role as a provider is done.

When her father gets a job she commits suicide under a train.

The third, Kalankini, was about a 14 year old who decides that marriages in our society are a sham and a convenience and the only thing important is motherhood. The film takes her up to the age of 50. I still love films and would take a film that had a challenge in it and made by a director I admired.

Meanwhile my extensive work in development television is great.

You have worked under some of the best talents in the world. Tell us about two or three people you have learned the most from?

My mother and Peter Brook. The first is about total dedication and gruelling hard work; the second about stripping down to the void and then having the courage to say what matters to one.

What do you tell the younger artists at Darpana about their future and their social responsibilities?

I try not to tell. I try to inspire by showing them the difference our work makes to society, to people; by working harder than all of them and by pushing the limits constantly. That is how I learnt and it is an effective way.

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