Mallika Sarabhai
India
Mallika Sarabhai
  • Darpana Academy of Performing Arts (Arts, Media, Entertainment)
Mallika Sarabhai is the co-Director of Darpana Academy of Performing Arts, as well as a well-known dancer, speaker, writer, and activist.
“To me modernity is openness to ideas whether they are new or old, it is the capacity of taking ideas and seeing if they are relevant—relevant to what? Not relevant to my bank balance, relevant to humanity, relevant to making the earth survive, to making the earth a better place.”

Summary

In this interview, Sarabhai discusses the broad trajectory of her career, beginning with the early influences that shaped it: her distinguished parents and grandparents. Sarabhai attributes her intellectual curiosity to her paternal family. Her father, she explains, emphasized the values of hard work, the drive to achieve success, and the desire to work towards the betterment of her country in all pursuits. Her father embodied these values throughout the course of his career as a scientist and founder of educational institutions, as did her paternal grandfather, who took over Ahmedabad’s Calico Mills in the 1880s and went on to become the head of the Mill Owners Association at the young age of 24.

To her maternal family, Sarabhai attributes her passion for the arts and dancing. Her mother founded Darpana Academy for Performing Arts in 1949, seeking not only to promote the performing arts in her community, but to capture and preserve Indian cultural traditions, from visual arts to the performing arts. Sarabhai also credits her mother for pioneering the use of dance and the arts as a powerful medium of social change.

Sarabhai has drawn on both of these familial influences throughout her career. In the 1970s, she enrolled in Gujarat University to pursue a PhD in business management, determined to understand the forces driving people to become dishonest and corrupt. While there, she starred in her first major film, Himalaya Se Ooncha. This experience left her disillusioned about the world of cinema and stardom, and she stepped away from acting after completing her PhD. Instead, she took on a managerial and administrative role at Darpana. Sarabhai followed in her mother’s footsteps, growing and expanding the academy, however she also blazed new trails. In 1980, she launched Darpana for Development, an organization designed to promote the use of performing arts to tackle difficult social issues. She also founded a new department within the academy, Janavak (The Voice of the People), with the mission of researching and documenting tribal folk arts and crafts to prevent these traditions from disappearing. Darpana now holds over 100 hours of video and audio recording from tribes in northwest India.

In addition to her involvement at Darpana, Sarabhai also became active as a performer herself. She began alongside her mother, who developed pieces for them to perform together on local tours, however Sarabhai explains that it wasn’t until she was cast in a French production of The Mahabharata, that she truly came into her own as a writer, choreographer, writer, and activist. By the early 1990s, Sarabhai had developed her own “contemporary vocabulary” of dance – drawing inspiration from theater, dance, music, martial arts, and other cultural practices to create her own unique space as an artist. She began touring internationally, from New York to Hong Kong, and performed at prestigious festivals around the world.

Sarabhai explains in the interview how the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 was the catalyst that inspired her now well-known career as a social activist. She responded first by establishing a center for non-violence at Darpana, which is still active today. The goal, she explains in the interview, was “To try and engender artists to look at issues of violence and non-violence, to create more works, to bring [the] topic[s] back in to the mainstream because nobody was talking non-violence by then.” Sarabhai herself embraced this idea of non-violence, creating and performing short pieces designed to challenge mainstream social and cultural norms and spread a message of tolerance and acceptance. She continues to support and promote these values through Darpana, with the firm believe that the arts have an important part to play in spreading social activism. “As an artist I want to continue being at the cutting edge. But being relevant to that change, [part] of driving that change of enticing people towards values that are at the core of my being.”

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In this interview, Sarabhai discusses the broad trajectory of her career, beginning with the early influences that shaped it: her distinguished parents and grandparents. Sarabhai attributes her intellectual curiosity to her paternal family. Her father, she explains, emphasized the values of hard work, the drive to achieve success, and the desire to work towards the betterment of her country in all pursuits. Her father embodied these values throughout the course of his career as a scientist and founder of educational institutions, as did her paternal grandfather, who took over Ahmedabad’s Calico Mills in the 1880s and went on to become the head of the Mill Owners Association at the young age of 24.

To her maternal family, Sarabhai attributes her passion for the arts and dancing. Her mother founded Darpana Academy for Performing Arts in 1949, seeking not only to promote the performing arts in her community, but to capture and preserve Indian cultural traditions, from visual arts to the performing arts. Sarabhai also credits her mother for pioneering the use of dance and the arts as a powerful medium of social change.

Sarabhai has drawn on both of these familial influences throughout her career. In the 1970s, she enrolled in Gujarat University to pursue a PhD in business management, determined to understand the forces driving people to become dishonest and corrupt. While there, she starred in her first major film, Himalaya Se Ooncha. This experience left her disillusioned about the world of cinema and stardom, and she stepped away from acting after completing her PhD. Instead, she took on a managerial and administrative role at Darpana. Sarabhai followed in her mother’s footsteps, growing and expanding the academy, however she also blazed new trails. In 1980, she launched Darpana for Development, an organization designed to promote the use of performing arts to tackle difficult social issues. She also founded a new department within the academy, Janavak (The Voice of the People), with the mission of researching and documenting tribal folk arts and crafts to prevent these traditions from disappearing. Darpana now holds over 100 hours of video and audio recording from tribes in northwest India.

In addition to her involvement at Darpana, Sarabhai also became active as a performer herself. She began alongside her mother, who developed pieces for them to perform together on local tours, however Sarabhai explains that it wasn’t until she was cast in a French production of The Mahabharata, that she truly came into her own as a writer, choreographer, writer, and activist. By the early 1990s, Sarabhai had developed her own “contemporary vocabulary” of dance – drawing inspiration from theater, dance, music, martial arts, and other cultural practices to create her own unique space as an artist. She began touring internationally, from New York to Hong Kong, and performed at prestigious festivals around the world.

Sarabhai explains in the interview how the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 was the catalyst that inspired her now well-known career as a social activist. She responded first by establishing a center for non-violence at Darpana, which is still active today. The goal, she explains in the interview, was “To try and engender artists to look at issues of violence and non-violence, to create more works, to bring [the] topic[s] back in to the mainstream because nobody was talking non-violence by then.” Sarabhai herself embraced this idea of non-violence, creating and performing short pieces designed to challenge mainstream social and cultural norms and spread a message of tolerance and acceptance. She continues to support and promote these values through Darpana, with the firm believe that the arts have an important part to play in spreading social activism. “As an artist I want to continue being at the cutting edge. But being relevant to that change, [part] of driving that change of enticing people towards values that are at the core of my being.”

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Additional Resources

Interview Citation Format

"Interview with Mallika Sarabhai, interviewed by V. G. Narayanan, Ahmedabad, India, December 15, 2016, Creating Emerging Markets Oral History Collection, Baker Library Special Collections, Harvard Business School."