Dancing truth to power: Q&A with Bharatanatyam dancer Mallika Sarabhai

(Courtesy of SF Station)

(Courtesy of SF Station)

Mallika Sarabhai shares how she uses the ancient Indian art form to address climate change, gender-based violence and human rights.

Bharatanatyam performances traditionally depict Hindu mythology and epics. They speak of heroes and villains, gods and monsters, and everyday human experiences, such as the love a mother feels for her child and the beauty of monsoon season. 

But acclaimed artist Mallika Sarabhai is pushing the boundaries of what stories dancers tell through Bharatanatyam — her performances address climate change, gender-based violence and human rights alongside traditional themes of mythology. 

Bharatanatyam may seem like an intimidating word. But each syllable represents a different Sanskrit word to capture each aspect of this ancient Indian dance. “Bhava” means emotion, “raga” means melody and “tallam” means rhythm. These three elements work together to create a performance that is expressive and dramatic, rigorous yet graceful.

Originating from the temples of Tamil Nadu in South India in the sixth century, Bharatanatyam can be performed as a group or solo performance. Dancers wear colourful costumes and ghungroos (ankle bells) and are accompanied by musicians on the mridangam (double-sided drum), flute and violin. 


“It’s an amazing language to break through walls of prejudice, walls of fear and also walls of patriarchy,” shares Mallika. “Because it touches the heart, and people don’t even know that you’re touching the heart and then suddenly they have realised that you have touched something.” 

Mallika has connected with audiences both young and old through performances across India and around the world, from the Freer Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. to the Festival des Champs Élysées in Paris. In recognition of her talent, Mallika received the prestigious French Palme d’Or Award and the Padma Bhushan Award of India. As an activist, she has participated in the World Economic Forum and worked with UNESCO to protect world cultural heritage.

As a Bharatanatyam dancer myself (and a huge fan of Mallika’s work), it was incredible to speak to someone who has helped pioneer South Asian arts activism. I spoke with Mallika about her creative process, common themes in her pieces and what makes Bharatanatyam a powerful vehicle for social change.

Dhanya Rao (DR): To begin, I was hoping you could discuss your parents and how they shaped your career and interests?

Mallika Sarabhai (MS): My parents and my entire family on both sides, in their own different ways, were trying to build the nation that they hoped India would become. My father as a scientist with the dream of bringing space to help the most marginalised in India. And my mother with the arts thinking that India is special because of her culture and that needed to be nurtured after the British crackdown on a lot of our arts and culture. 

My mother also believed that the arts are something that would become a language, that would break through walls of prejudice and of disbelief. I had aunts who were in the Gandhian movement. I had grandmothers who were in and out of jail thrown in by the British. I had a maternal aunt who led the women’s army under the India National Army from Singapore. So it was a family, basically without saying anything, that I think imbued me with a strong sense of doing for India, being for India, being and doing for humanity.

DR: What makes Bharatanatyam such a powerful tool for tackling social issues?

MS: I think, first of all, as a style, it can be very strong, yet very soft, so you can combine those two. Also, the language of the hands, the gestures and the facial expressions is so sophisticated that you can talk about most anything. So for instance, my son does one [piece] about long distance love where he is Skyping his beloved and he is calling her and they are both listening to music on an iPad with earphones. There are equivalent mudras [hand postures] for all of that. There’s nothing you can’t talk about and that’s an amazing thing. 

...within the very strict traditional format of lyricising in Bharatanatyam, I am writing about gender, I am writing about violence, I am writing about human rights, I am writing about the environmental issues and always bringing in the gods, but questioning them.
— Mallika Sarabhai

DR: What themes and issues continue to come up in your work and why do you think that is?

MS: You know, 30 years ago when I started this work, I was talking of gender. I was talking of violence. I was talking of human rights and I was talking about environmental degradation. And unfortunately, all of those are more vital to speak about today than they were 30 years ago. I thought the situation was dire then, it’s 100 times more now. Some years ago I said that my ideal is that I become so old fashioned because none of these issues matter anymore. 

DR: Are there times where the social messages in your performances are not well received? How do you continue conversations with those who are not as receptive?

MS: I personally think that we live in a society that doesn’t want to take a stand. So, if I have somebody from my audience stomp out, screaming at me, they’ve already taken a stand. The stand might be against what I’m saying, but at least the next time that issue comes up they’re not going to be neutral. So that’s also alright. Objecting to what I’m saying is already a step forward. The fact that we read a statistic about yet another rape in the newspaper, and say, “OK dadi [grandma], pass me the coffee.” If having seen my work and been ravaged by a scene I have done on rape makes you think differently or makes you feel very angry, at least it’s pushed you into that. 

DR: What do you love about Bharatanatyam and dancing? 

MS: There is a precision, like a rocket scientist getting the last micro-millimetre right in order to let it fly. It’s that kind of precision, and I love that precision training because once you’re there, it gives you the freedom to soar like nothing else does.

I have taken to writing lyrics over the last few years, and within the very strict traditional format of lyricising in Bharatanatyam, I am writing about gender, I am writing about violence, I am writing about human rights, I am writing about the environmental issues and always bringing in the gods, but questioning them.

(Courtesy of The Times of India)

(Courtesy of The Times of India)

DR: What do you mean by “bringing in the gods but questioning them”?

MS: I wrote a piece that my son performs to the trinity of gods, Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwari, that is Shiva. And Brahma is supposed to have created our Earth, so I start off by saying, “Thank you, Brahma, for creating this incredible universe with everything that it has, nature and the animals, and everything.” And then I go on to Vishnu who is supposed to be the preserver, he keeps things happening. He brings the tides in and he sees that the moon rises every day and so on. So I say, “Thank you very much for doing this for us so that we can depend on things.” And then I turn to Shiva, who is the destroyer, and say, “Shiva, I am not going to pray to you because we have become better destroyers than you. We have destroyed the Earth. We have destroyed the water. We have destroyed the plants and we are destroying ourselves, so we have no more need for you. You may leave.” So it’s about global warming. It’s taking Shiva as the destroyer and saying we are better destroyers than you are. 

DR: Have you seen any of these issues evolve in the ways you speak and dance about them? Could you take me back to earlier in your career?

MS: Yes, very much so. For instance, I have just been touring the United States with a piece with six performers called “The Colours of the Heart.”

DR: Yes, I saw your performance at the Freer Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. this past spring! It was so powerful.

MS: Oh, great! Then you know how powerful of a show it really is. The whole idea there was that we need to talk about post-#MeToo worlds. We need to talk of a world that men and women can heal together. One of the things that has happened with the #MeToo movement in India is that more and more companies are saying we won’t hire women. That is the exact opposite of what women want. I was with the CEO of a very large company who said, “You know Mallika, I see that there is always two witnesses in my office when a woman walks in.” Now that is not the discussion we want. We want a discussion where we can recognise the depth of the problem and let good men and good women together work to try and change the systems to make it safer for women. So, whereas 15 years ago I was trying to bring the fact that violence against women was so common to the fore because no one was talking of violence against women and the degree of abuse that women faces, today that is fairly well known and accepted. But, the way forward is not.

(Courtesy of Mallika Sarabhai)

(Courtesy of Mallika Sarabhai)

DR: Tell me about the reception to “The Colours of the Heart.”

MS: The number of men who came backstage after performances and held my hand and said, “Thank you for allowing us the permission to heal” was very moving to me. The number of women who came forward and said, “You have given me the courage to talk about…” I mean one woman in Seattle came and said, “The first ten years after I was married, my husband burned me with an iron. I ran away and settled in Seattle, he was an IIS officer and I’ve never spoken about this to anybody. Seeing your show helped me make a documentary so that other women must know we must speak up.”

DR: What is your message to young women considering dance as a means to speak out on the issues they care about?

MS: It’s an amazing language to break through walls of prejudice, walls of fear and also walls of patriarchy. Because it touches the heart, and people don’t even know that you’re touching the heart and then suddenly they have realised that you have touched something.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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About the author

Dhanya Rao is the operations intern at Malala Fund and majors in international studies at American University. She loves her corgi, hiking and taking care of her plants.