Seth Shri Ambalal Sarabhai was a doyen industrialist, a mill-owner and also interested in philanthropic activities. He and his wife Sarladevi had five daughters and three sons and all of these members of the family showed considerable interest in national independence movement as well as post-independence developmental tasks.
Seth Ambalal Sarabhai
Born on 24th March, 1890 to Godavariba and Sarabhai in the city of Ahmedabad, Gujarat,it was
the decision of his mother that a son was born through the grace of the deity Ambaji Mata, he would be named Ambalal.
Ambalal and his wife Sarladevi had five daughters and three sons. They were all involved the independence movement for India and later with the developmental tasks to be undertaken by a national government.
Ambalal Sarabhai inherited from his grandfather Maganbhai Karamchand a passion for the environment. When asked if a tree could be cut to extend a building, he remarked, “You may cut off my hand, if you wish, but not the branches of a tree”. His commitment to nonviolence was well knownand his timely help to Gandhiji saved the ashram.
In the beginning of the 19th century, a seed was sown, a seed of entrepreneurship, business integrity and social awareness. Karamchand Premchand of Ahmedabad started what became a flourishing trade between India and China. From the trading house, came the first industrial enterprise. ‘Calico’, one of Ahmedabad’s oldest textile mills in 1880.
Under the stewardship of Ambabal Sarabhai for half a century, its cotton mills became one of the most modern, with extensively diversified pacesetters of the Indian cotton industry. Calico was the first Indian mill to give shareholders cloth at concessional rates. It was the first Indian textile mill to make cotton sewing thread, and later 100% synthetic sewing thread.
Calico’s main textile unit was the first and only textile plant in Ahmedabad to be fuelled by natural gas, with virtually no smoke and no air pollution. To minimize water pollution, Calico and it’s own primary effluent processing plant, which ensured that no waste was thrown directly into municipal sewers.
Calico erected India’s first Diamond Mesh Mosquito Netting plant in 1937. In 1947, it diversified into chemicals for manufacture of Caustic Soda, Chlorine and related products. Calico also erected India’s first PVC plant. In 1974, Calico commissioned its Polyester Fibre Plant in collaboration with ICI, UK producing four exclusive grades of Polyester Fibres besides three superior conventional grades, for the first time in India.
In order to reach smaller towns, Calico introduced a novel medium in 1975 – the ‘Calibus’. Manned by six people, it carried the complete range of Calico textiles and also erected a vehicle mobile shop, the first patented mobile shop in India.
Seth Ambalal believed in resolving labour – management disputes through mutual understanding and respect. When asked if there should be a strong and sound labour movement, he replied “If strong and sound”, ‘Yes’, if only strong, ‘No’.”
Ambalal Sarabhai took, consolidated and diversified the family business, which included a sugar factory in Bihar, a railway line in East Bengal, the importing of Borax from Tibet on yaks, cotton ginning factories in East Africa and a trading office in London. The Sarabhais have many ‘first’ in their business. They were the first employers to recognize representative trade union. They established a hospital for employees and their families, and a crèche for infants of working mothers. This was done long before these services acquired statutory status. The Sarabhais also established the first girls’ school in Ahmedabad in 1850.
With the coming of Indian independence, the emphasis was on developing indigenous technology. Quick to feel the pulse of the nation, Sarabhai Enterprises branched out yet again. Many pioneer ventures were made in fields dominated by foreign companies. The manufacture of drugs and pharmaceuticals, chemicals and intermediates, dyes and pigments, industrial and house hold detergents, soaps and cosmetics, industrial packaging and containers, and later engineering and electronic products were started. These activities were carried on by separate corporate entities – Sarabhai Chemicals, ORG, Sarabhai Machinery, Bakubhai Amabalal, Packart and Sarabhai Glass. In 1977, all the closely held Sarabhai Enterprises were brought together in one corporate entity named Amabalal Sarabhai Entprises Private Limited (ASE).
Anasuya was born on 11th November, 1885 to Godavariba and Sarabhai. That year was significant for India as it was the year of the birth of Indian National Congress. She was brought up among the upper class people and had no reason or occasion to rub shoulders with the poor. One cannot think of the Indian Textile Industry without first thinking of cotton. India and cotton have always been irretrievably linked down the ages. Ahmedabad had about 100 establishments engaged in the weaving of turbans, 50 in the manufacture and sale of carpets and 70 shops producing and marketing silk goods. The seeds of militant but non-violent trade unionism were first sown in the second decade of the twentieth century by this remarkable lady ‘Anasuyaben Sarabhai’. She organized Ahmedabad’s cotton textile labour along Gandhian lines of thought and worked in close cooperation with others, notably Shankarla Banker. The inspiration and guidance came from Mahatma Gandhi. She was a doer, not a writer and was elected and remained President of Majoor Mahan (Labour Union) till her death.
Born in Ahmedabad on 6th May, 1911, she studied in her own home ‘The Retreat’, the school established by her parents specially for their children. She was the oldest daughter of Amabalal Sarabhai and Sarlaben Sarabhai.
Mridula was an institution builder. She had the capacity to train and enthuse workers, and inspire loyalty in them for the cause.
“If I had a hundred women like Mridula”, said Gandhiji, “I could launch a revolution in India”. At a very young age, she came under the spell of Gandhi and left her home to join the Salt Satyagrapaha. She worked for women, the freedom of the country and for Hindu – Muslim unity. A nonconformist, a rebel championing unpopular causes, she spurned offers of high office in the political arena of national government. She was imprisoned several times between 1930 and 1944. Deeply influenced by Nehru’s ideas on socialism and secularism, and a close associate of his, Mridula Sarabhai was involved not only in the freedom struggle but also in the fight for women’s right to equality, civil liberty and in the individual’s right to dissent. She worked fearlessly during the communal riots to protect the rights of minorities and restore communal peace and harmony. Her work for the recovery of abducted women in the Punjab in the aftermath of the partition of India is well known. The last twenty years of her life were devoted to Kashmir and championing the cause of Sheikh Abdullah. As a reporter, she worked for Gujarat Samachar in Ahmedabad and for the National Herald.
Born as the fifth child of Ambalal Sarabhai and Sarladevi on 4th March, 1917, Gautam Sarabhai joined Calico in 1940 as a Director at the age of 22. With his keen sense of initiative, entrepreneurial talent and an innate financial acumen, he succeeded his father as Chairman of the Company in 1945. He expanded the textile mills and diversified the group into chemicals, plastics and fibres, harnessing modern technology to meet the challenge of the future. He not only looked after the Calico Mills but also helped started the National Institute of Design along with his sister Gira. He took charge of the Sarabhai Group of Companies after Dr. Vikram Sarabhai was nominated as Chairman of Atomic Energy Commission in 1966.
Dr. Vikram Sarabhai
Born in Ahmedabad on 12th August, 1919, Vikram Ambalal Sarabhai had his early education in the family school directed by his mother, Sarladevi. This school was run on lines inspired by the theories and practical teachings of Mme. Maria Montessori. On completion of his secondary school examination, Vikram joined Gujarat College, Ahmedabad, and later St. John's College, Cambridge, UK. He took his Tripose in Natural Sciences. Due to the Second World War, he returned to India and continued his postgraduate study under the inspiring guidance of the Noble Laureate, Sir C.V. Raman, at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. After the war, he returned to Cambridge and conducted research in photo fission at the Cavendish Laboratory. In 1947, he was awarded a doctorate of Cambridge University for his thesis “Cosmic Ray Investigations in Tropical Latitudes”.
In 1942, he married Mrinalini Swamindhan who is an internationally renowned exponent of the classical dances of India. Together they established Darpana in Gujarat in 1949. They have two children Kartikeya and Mallika.
We are told that anybody, irrespective of his position in the organization, could meet Vikram Sarabhai without any fear or feeling of inferiority. Sarabhai would always offer him / her a seat and make him / her relax and talk on equal terms. He believed in an individual’s dignity and tried hard to preserve it. He was always in search of a better and efficient way of doing things. Whatever he did, he did it creatively. He displayed extreme care and concern for younger people. He had immense faith in their potentialities. He was always ready to provide opportunities and freedom to them.
In 1947, he established Physical Research Laboratory and the Ahmedabad Textile Industry Research Association at Ahmedabad.
This extraordinary man, builder par excellence of institutions wasn’t through yet. He took over the management of Sarabhai Chemicals in 1950, established Suhrid Geigy Limited in 1955, assumed the management of Swastik Oil Mills Limited and founded the Ahmedabad Management Association I 1957, set up Sarabhai Merck Limited in 1958. He also took over Standard Pharmaceuticals in Calcutta and found time and energy to establish both the Sarabhai Research Centre at Baroda and Operations Research Group in 1960. The following year he set up three more companies. He was also the prime mover behind establishing the Indian Institute of Management. Dr. Vikram Sarabhai could not only wear multiple hats, he could also wear them well. He used computers to analyze the marketing methods of Swastik Oil Mills. He worked twenty hours a day and considered sleep a luxury. He always found time for all his various duties. In 1962 he was appointed Chairman, Indian National Committee for Space Research and in 1966, appointed Chairman of Atomic Energy Commission and was also awarded the Padma Bhushan. He established and developed the Space Science and Technology Centre (SSTC) at Veli, the Rocket Launching Station at Sriharikota, the Experimental Satellite Communication Station at Ahmedabad and Overseas Satellite Communication Centre at Arvi in Maharashtra. His untimely death on December 30th at Trivandrum, Kerala cut short a brilliant and outstanding visionary.
With his wide range of interests, he was a rare personality who ventured into the areas of cosmic ray physics as well as that of space and nuclear power and achieved many accolades in both. Sarabhai pioneered India’s space age by expanding the Indian Space Research Organization. He set up branches in Gulmarg in Kashmir, Trivandrum and Kodaikanal to study cosmic rays and outer space. A moon crater has been after him.
Vikram Sarabhai’s only son Kartikeya, a communication expert, is now the chairman of Ambalal Sarabhai Enterprises Limited (ASE Ltd.); which came into existence after amalgamation of various independent Companies/ Units within Sarabhai group in 1978.
Kartikeya, also the Founder and Director, Centre for Environment Education, Managing Trustee, Nehru Foundation for Development, Ahmedabad, is also Asian Regional Chair of IUCN Commission on Education and Communication. Educated at Cambridge University, UK, and MIT, USA, Kartikeya Sarabhai received the "Tree of Learning "award from IUCN (The World Conservation Union) in 1988. He also serves on several national and international committees, boards and trusts.
Vikram’s wife Mrinalini Sarabhai is a well-known dancer and started Darpana Academy of Performing Arts in Ahmedabad. She has choreographed more than three hundred dance dramas and is a writer of novels, poetry, plays and stories for children.
She is one of the trustees of the Sarvodaya International Trust, an organization for promotion of Gandhian ideals and Chairperson of Nehru Foundation For Development, which has been promoting educational efforts since 1966 in the areas of science, nature study, health, development and environment. As a keen environmentalist, she is the President of Prakriti, an organization committed to preserve the greenery of Ahmedabad while handling other social issues.
Vikram’s daughter Mallika is a celebrated dancer-communicator, a creative experimentalist and social activist, involved in various developmental activities for women, children and human rights. She holds an MBA and a doctorate from IIM Ahmedabad.
Institutions built by Sarabhai family
1. Calico Mills - Ambalal Sarabhai
2. Jubilee Mills - Ambalal Sarabhai
3. Jyoti Sangh - Mridulaben Sarabhai
4. Vikas Gruh - Mridulaben Sarabhai
5. Majoor Mahajan - Anasuyaben Sarabhai
6. Kasturba Gandhi Rhastriya Smarak Trust - Sarladevi Sarabhai
7. Shreyas Foundation & School - Leenaben Sarabhai
8. B.M. Institute of Mental Health - Gautam Sarabhai
9. National Institute of Design - Gautam Sarabhai & Giraben
10. Darpana Academy of Performing Arts - Mrinalini & Vikram Sarabhai
11. Calico Museum - Giraben Sarabhai
12. Ambalal Sarabhai Enterprises, Baroda - Gautam Sarabhai
13. Centre for Environment Education - Kartikeya Sarabhai
14. Viksat - Kartikeya Sarabhai
15. Chetna - Kartikeya Sarabhai
16. Sangeet Kendra - Geeta Mayor
17. Darpana for Development - Mallika Sarabhai
18. Mapin Publishing Pvt. Ltd. - Mallika Sarabhai & Bipin Shah
Major Institution Building Efforts of Dr. Vikram Sarabhai (1947-1971)
Textile Industry’s Research Association (ATIRA), Ahmedabad
Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), Ahmedabad
Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad
Community Science Centre (CSC), Ahmedabad
Nehru Foundation for Development (NFD), Ahmedabad
Ahmedabad Management Association (AMA), Ahmedabad
Sarabhai Chemicals, Baroda
Sarabhai Glass, Baroda
Suhrid Geigy Limited, Baroda
Synbiotics Limited, Baroda
Sarabhai Merck Limited, Baroda
Sarabhai Engineering Group, Baroda
Operations Research Group (ORG), Baroda
Sarabhai Research Centre (SRC), Baroda
Swastik Oil Mills Limited, Bombay
Standard Pharmaceuticals Limited, Calcutta
Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS), Trivandrum
Space Science and Technology Centre (SSTC), Trivandrum
Shriharikota Rocket Range (SHAR), Sriharikota
Experimental Satellite Communication Earth Station (ESCES), Ahmedabad
Satellite Communication System Division (SCSD), Ahmedabad
Electronics System Division (ESD), Ahmedabad
Microwave Antenna Systems Engineering Group (MASEG), Ahmedabad
Audio Visual Instructional Division (AVID), Ahmedabad
Remote Sensing and Meteorological Division (RSMD), Ahmedabad
Indian Scientific Satellite Project (ISSP), Bangalore
Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE), Ahmedabad
Indian National Satellite (INSAT) Satellite Launching Vehicle (SLV) Trivandrum
Satellite Communication Earth Station,
Arvi Fast Breeder Reactors (FBR), Kalpakkam
Nuclear Centre for Agriculture, New Delhi
Variable Energy Cyclotron Project (VECP), Calcutta
Electronic Prototype Engineering Laboratory (EPEL), Bombay
Electronic Corporation of India Limited (ECIL), Hyderabad
Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL), Jaduguda, Bihar
No.4 was renamed as the Vikram A. Sarabhai Community Science Centre after Dr. Sarabhai’s death in 1971. No.18 & 19 were merged under the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre after Dr. Sarabhai’s death in 1971. Nos.21,22,23,24,25 and 26 were merged under the Space Applications Centre after Dr. Sarabhai’s death in 1971. No. 31 was renamed as Vikram Earth Station after Dr. Sarabhai’s death in 1971.
Mrinalini Sarabhai, India’s celebrated dancer and choreographer, has achieved an international reputation that is unmatched by any contemporary Indian classical dancer. The syntax of her creativity mediates between a moral commitment to traditional form and the desire to claim one’s own experiments as unique, unrepeatable. This interface of technical mastery and creative expressionism achieves a profoundly versatile language of the body-simple, eloquent, visually inspiring.
The creative anarchy of her essentially modern style is convincingly disciplined by the taut orthodoxy of her classical technique, learnt from her guru Sri Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai. The result is an exalted visual statement combining almost fanatical purity of vision with modish formal experiments. An alchemy of skills, almost unparalleled: the result of both rigorous training and eclectic learning. This manifests itself even more clearly in her choreography, where she has attempted innovations that have increased the vocabulary of dance. It is no wonder that she is a legend in her lifetime’ and has been called the ‘Empress’ and ‘High Priestess of Indian Dance’.
As a critic wrote recently. ‘The festival attained a high water-mark of excellence due to the divinely inspired dance that Mrinalini created in the truest of traditions of Bharata Natyam. When she came on stage Mrinalini was the very picture of a heavenly dancer in the court of Indra. In her Ragamalika Varnam, she is able to give free reign to her choreographic imagination and reveal the true meaning of Bhava, Raga and Tala. Such flawless perfection is rarely seen and , what is more, rarely achieved. It was not just the body of the dancer that danced, but the mind, soul and intellect.’
Mrinalini began her training in Bharata Natyam at an early age under Sri Muthukumaran Pillai of Mannarokoil and later under the gurus of South India including Sri Ellappa of Conjeevaram and Sri Chokkalingam Pillai. She became a favorite pupil of the great master of Bharata Natyam, Sri Meennakshi Sundaram Pillai of Pandanallur, with whom she studied until his death in 1945, imbibing the purest form of traditional Bharata Natyam.
She underwent specialised studies of ‘Abhinaya’ and the ‘Kuravanjis’ from Mylapore Gauriamma and Andalamma of Tanjavur.
She had the distinction of being the only Indian to be taught by Prince Tedjoekoesoemo, the brother of the Sultan of Jakarta, who was a teacher of the most ancient school of Janvanese dancing. Here she exhibited her dancing before the Sultan. In Java, at that time, dancing was a prerogative of the royal family : Mrinalini was the only foreigner ever allowed to dance with the princesses.
From Java, she went to New York, where she took a six-month course in acting and stage technique at the American Academy of Dramatic Art. On her return to India she continued her performances of Bharata Natyam and also studied Kathakali with Sri Kunju Kurup, who lived for many years teaching in her home.
Mrinalini came into close contact with Rabindranath Tagore at his school in Shantiniketan and took leading parts in many of his dance-dramas. Her emphasis on purity of tradition and classical technique in her solo Bharata Natyam recitals were received with acclaim, and she began to compose new items and stress the classical religious atmosphere for the recitals, not only through dance but through costumes, lighting and stage decor. Through long years of study she has mastered the art and has evolved her own technique known as the ‘Darpana’ style which stands out for its technical perfection and aesthetic sensitivity.
In 1963, Mrinalini was invited by the New York Institute of Advanced Studies in the Theatre Arts to direct the Sanskrit play ‘Swapna Vasavadatta’ with American actors in classical Sanskrit drama technique.
An American described her as ‘a guru with a light, soft, gentle touch-strong enough to take root in my life’. During the bicentenary celebrations of Beethoven in Italy, 1970, an unusual experiment took place, with a dance dialogue between the East and the West. Mrinalini was invited to represent the East and the well-known balletdancers Milorad Miskovitch and Carla Fracci represented the West in a dance-drama to Beethoven’s ‘The Creatures of Prometheus’, which was shown in many cities of Italy.
A rare manuscript of Schubert’s on the Indian classic ‘Shakuntala’ was found some years ago and was handed to Mrinalini. What resulted was a unique dialogue between the East and West of which “The Kurier” of Vienna states, ‘An unusual contribution to Schubert year. It is colour and poetry-mysterious in its manifold expressions of the Indian dance style-successful in its effect to transform the wonderfully melodious and truly valuable Schubert music.’
‘Chitravali’ was a venture where Mrinalini captured, in moments of inspiration and acute sensibility, the paintings, sculptures, and the works of art through the centuries. It was an attempt to preserve the rich beauty of India’s heritage for posterity ; ‘Chitravali was a visual worship of Art, its sanctifying, near cathartic intensity inviting us to participate in some of the most memorable past experiences that live on.’wrote a critic of the Express.
Writing in the ‘National Herald’ the eminent writer P.D. Tandon says; ‘The beauty and purity of her style makes people realise that art has no barriers and it is no wonder that she is adored wherever she dances. If one wants to know Mrinalini, one should see her dancing. Her entire spirit is reflected in it. Her belief is that the artist is the truest link between the outer and the inner worlds, the perceptible and the imperceptible. She is the glory of Indian Art.’
As the critic of The Statesman, Delhi wrote: ‘What distinguishes the dance art of Mrinalini Sarabhai from that of other exponents of classical Indian dance is the insistence on creative interpretation and the use of pure dance techniques to explore the elemental issues concerning man and his environment. In this sense, Mrinalini’s dance is at once modern in theme and ancient and traditional in style and form.’
In the beginning was a dream, 1949. Just a few dancers and some performances. Then came a school. Slowly, the school began to grow. And the dream was realized. The years passed. Darpana began to take Indian classical dance all over the world. People were amazed at the profundity, the discipline, the beauty of the classical dance. And at home the canvas began to expand. New insights were provided, new forms realized.
A drama group came into being and classical and contemporary plays were produced. For ten years, in order to encourage young Gujarati playwrights, Darpana undertook a production of every original play it was offered.
And then came puppetry. The shadow puppets of Andhra, an exquisite crafts and art, brought to life again by skilled practitioners. Ahmedabad’s first Kathakali appreciation club, Kathakali Darshan, was born. Darshita, the first film society, followed. Soon after, Shatak, a club to support and nurture experimental theatre, was established.
Darpana grew : Dance, drama, music, puppetry; classical, folk, contemporary, experimental; research; publications; films and later, videos. Intercultural, interdisciplinary, international and inter-regional collaborations grew. More and more began to happen. And continues to do so.
Today Darpana is a centre, a workshop for the arts, where art and life meet and the horizon of language gets stretched. Darpana is a workshop committed to the contemporary symbiosis of art and life, affirming the role of creativity in culture, researching into our origins, reaching out to the unsaid or unthought with a language that is universal.
She is the first Indian to receive the medal and Diploma of the French Archives Internationales de la dance. She was awarded the title of Natya Kala Sikhamani in Madras in recognition of her artistic eminence and her unequalled performances of Bharatanatyam. In 1965, she was awarded the Padma Shri by the Government of India. In 1968 she was honored with a gold medal by the Mexican Government for her choreography for the Ballet FolkIorico of Mexico. In 1969, Gujarat’s first State Award for dance was awarded to her for her unique contribution to the art. She is the first and only woman to receive a Veera Shrinkala for her contribution to the Kathakali dance form. In 1979 Mrinalini was awarded the D.Litt. degree for her eminence in dance and literature by the Rabindra Bharati University of Calcutta. She was honoured with the coveted Vishwa Gurjari award in 1984 for achieving an unique international reputation as a contemporary Indian classical dancer and for her contribution to Indian classical dance. She was awarded the prestigious Desikottama (D.Litt. Honoris Causa) degree, the highest honour of the Vishva-Bharati University in 1987.
She was nominated to the Executive Committee of the International Dance Council, Paris in 1990. She was presented the Honor Summus Award by the Watumull Foundation, Honolulu, Hawaii in
1991 in recognition of her outstanding success as a dancer, for her creative dance-dramas, and for her revival and preservation of Indian dance, drama and puppetry forms. The first Hall of Fame Award for life-long service to dance was given to her by Dynasty Culture Club in 1991. The same year the Gujarat Government honoured her by presenting the Pandit Omkarnath Thakur Award for valuable contribution in the field of performing arts. She was presented the Rasehwar award by the Sur-Singar Samsad, Bombay in 1992. She was awarded the Padma Bhushan by the President of India in 1992. She was made a Fellow of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, New Delhi in 1994. She was awarded the Scroll of Honour by the Vice-President of India in 1995 in recognition of decades-long research, experimentation and presentation of Indian classical and creative dance choreographic creations. She was awarded the Kerala Kalamandalam Fellowship in 1995. She received the Kalidas Samman by the Madhya Pradesh Government in 1996 for her contribution to Classical Dance. She was honoured with the Degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris cause (LittD) by the University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK in 1997. A special award was given to her by Swami Ishwarananda Giri of the Samvit Sadhanayana Mt. Abu in 1998 for preserving India’s heritage of ‘Bhakti’ through her creative work and dedication to India’s cultural traditions.
Felicitated by Narada Gana Sabha (Chennai) in 2005 by guru C V Chandrasekhar.
Nominated amongst the list of 1000 women worldwide for the Nobel Peace Prize 2005
Recipient of V. Gangadharan Smaraka Award 2006 instituted by the Kadappakada Sports Club in memory of the late Kerala Assembly Speaker, freedom fighter and journalist V. Gangadharan.
Recipient of Mukundaraja Puraskaram 2006, instituted by the Mukundaraja Cultural Academy and the Mundathikkodu Gramapanchayat, Trichur, Kerala.
Honoured with the Legends of India Lifetime Achievement Award 2007 in Delhi for her immense contribution to Indian dance.
Conferred with ‘Natya Kalanidhi’ by the Association of Bharatanatyam Artistes of India, Chennai in November, 2007 for her service and contribution to the field of Bharatanatyam.
Conferred with E. Krishna Iyer Medal by Sruti Foundation, Chennai in November, 2007.
She was Chairperson of the Gujarat State Handicrafts and Handloom Development Corporation Ltd. For many years and inculcated the taste of her own vision into the creative work of the artisans reviving ancient techniques, designs and village crafts.
She is one of the trustees of the Sarvodaya International Trust, an organization for promotion of Gandhian ideals.
She is the Chairperson of the Nehru Foundation For Development, which has been promoting educational efforts since 1966 in the areas of science, nature study, health, development and environment.
As a keen environmentalist, she is the President of Prakriti, an organization committed to preserve the greenery of Ahmedabad while handling other social issues. Prakriti has recently been working with the riot hit victims of Gujarat, helping them rebuild their lives.
As a writer, Mrinalini’s first publications was a play dealing with the Indian struggle for freedom, called ‘Captive Soil’.
A novel in English, of a dancer’s life in South India, ‘This Alone is True’, followed and then many books on Indian dance.
Her poems have frequently been printed and included in anthologies. ‘Selections of Kan’, which first came out in the Aspen journal, USA, has been published in India. Her ‘The Heroines of Classical Dance’ was published in the U.S.A.
Mrinalini has written books for children, printed by Tata. In McGraw Hill they include ‘Nala and Damayanti’, ‘Krishna’, ‘Kiratar juniyam’, ‘The Ramayana’, ‘Geeta Govindam’, and ‘Usha Anirudda’. Her latest book is 'Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi' published by Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan for children.
From the beginning, Mrinalini felt the need to express herself and her own ideas in new forms. At first she experimented with classical styles, changing the content dramatically, and using it to express contemporary ideas and concerns. Soon however she started creating a new genre of dance moving more towards the abstract.
Her first experiment ‘Manushya-The Life of Man’, became a classic of Indian dance and heralded a new path for dance compositions. The critic of The Statesman, wrote: ‘I cannot think, in the whole repertoire of all the Indian dancing troupes, of a modern ballet, comparable in perfection and beauty to “Manushya”. Based on the Kathakali technique, it contains innovations so carefully introduced with such exquisite taste that these modernities fit into the general design to perfection. The mime, of which there is a great deal, makes every scene intelligible to the untrained audience, and the effect of this beautifully told story of Man, from birth through childhood to death and return into limbo, is both dramatic and moving.’
The beautiful lyrical dance-drama, set to instrumental music, ‘Matsya Kanya’, followed. ‘No other Indian artist,’ wrote the critic of the Dancing Times, London, ‘has made such successful attempts to weave the unlimited vocabulary of the Hindu dance without losing something of the fine artistry.’
‘She is not only a genius at dancing but with each ballet, she has created an idea that is valuable to the whole dance form,’ wrote the critic of India News, London.
Mrinalini continued in her search for expression by integrating and experimenting, so as to make the classical dance comprehensible without compromising aesthetic standards.
One of her efforts with poetry in dance was to give visual form to Kant’s famous Gujarati poem ‘Vasant Vijayam’. Then came a full length three-hour Kathakali dance-drama ‘Nalakhyan’ with the text by Premanand. For North Indian audiences, ‘Bana Yuddham’ was danced with the lyrics in Hindi. Especially for the Tagore Centenary Year, new interpretations in Bharata Natyam and Kathakali were give to ‘Bhanusinher Padavali’ and ‘Tasher Desh’ to the accompaniment of music in the original Bengali. ‘We have had many Tagore dance-dramas during this festival in all sorts of styles. Mrinalini Sarabhai’s dance-dramas stand out as the most accomplished, most carefully thought-out actions, full of originality and based on strict classical training, ‘ wrote the critic of The Statesman. In Delhi The Times of India also commented: ‘A student of Shantiniketan having learnt at Tagore’s feet, she has taken to the poet’s works in a spirit of dedication.’ A new interpretation of the ‘Geeta Govindam’ included another ancient technique of Bhagavata Mela Natakam of Kuchipudi, Andhra. In New York, in 1961, Ruth St Denis wrote in Theatre Arts, ‘In one stunning gesture, she lifts the use of the dance from the ordinary to the sublime. As a cultural ambassador, she is worth fifty statesmen.’
A full length dance-drama, written by the Maratha ruler, Shahji of Tanjore in Khadiboli, was staged and set to Carnatic music. ‘This 17th century musical drama soaked in religious atmosphere is a marvellous blending of Carnatic music with verses in Khadiboli; the whole piece has been created with vision and knowledge,’ wrote an Indian Express reviewer.
The classical production in 1968 of ‘Silapadikaram’ in Gujarati, was hailed ‘as a master-piece of art,’ and ‘a true example of perfect integration and superb entertainment’. Other rare pieces staged by Darpana, such as ‘Vikramorvasiyam’, ‘Meghaduta’, ‘Sarabhendra Bhupala Kuravanji’, ‘Gowri’, ‘Abhisarika’, ‘Usha Aniruddha,’ ‘Pallaki Seva Prabandham’, ‘Valli Kalyanam’, ‘Yasovarman’, ‘Nalakhyana’, ‘Malavikagnimitra’, ‘Krishnagaan’, ‘Prahalada Charitam’, ‘Pancharatna Kritis of Thyagaraja’, ‘Ashwatthama’, ‘Stree Priyadarshini’, ‘Bhakti’, ‘Bhama Kalapam’, ‘Maricha Vadham’, ‘Ahimsa’, ‘Kiratarjuniyam’, ‘Mohini Bhasmasura’, ‘Sampoorna Ramayanam’ and Nataraja Vandanam’, have explored the entire gamut of Indian dance, drama and music.
“Mrinalini Sarabhai” exclaims a French critic, “puts colour, rhythm and movement to the service of birth, love, death, worship and play, with an indescribable beauty and purity. Seeing her, is seeing the genius and spirituality of an ancient time recereated in perfect harmony”.
In 1969, the premier of a composition on suicide called ‘Memory is a Ragged Fragment of Eternity’, in Bharata Natyam technique, was enthusiastically received by audiences. ‘This touching theme inspired by the appalling suicide rate of women in India, dealt tellingly with the life of a woman being uprooted in marriage and her suffering in her new world, but never descended to the morbid; ‘It had intellectual force and dedicated artistic purpose and was profoundly exciting; wrote the critic of the Hindu (1969). An editorial in the Indian Express called it the first experiment in dance that spoke boldly of a social evil that haunted women everywhere ( 1971).
Of the ‘Vidhi Natakam’, a seven-hundred -year-old Andhra street theatre form combining shadow puppets and dance, the critic of The Times, London (1980), says ‘The puppets are delicious with their intricately patterned costumes. The dancers seem to have great fun manipulating them in between their own appearances from behind the screen. A fascinating experience indeed!’
In a recent production of Kalidasa’s ‘Kumara Sambhavam’, Mrinalini based the entire choreography on the tenets of the ancient treatise on drama, the ‘Natya Shastra’ following the rituals and conventions of the treatise. ‘Seeing Kumara Sambhavam is seeing the genius and spirituality of an ancient time recreated in perfect harmony,” wrote a critic (1981)
Mira, a composition based on the Bharata Natyam technique tells of the search of the individual for enlightenment. ‘Through “Mira”, showing the ecstacy of suffering that leads an individual to salvation and complete surrender, Mrinalini has, as no other dancer before, told the story of an individual’s life with complete purity of technique. She dances with the truth of being and the sensitivity of a great artist’. wrote a London critic.
‘The relevance of arts and specially dance to the prevailing world conditions has always been a bone of contention with the “committed progressive” Mrinalini has proved beyond doubt that the room for versatilility even inside the frame-work of our traditional arts is immense’, wrote a Delhi critic in 1982.
As the critic of ‘Combat’, Paris wrote, ‘Her feminity and precision makes La Sarabhai the ideal Bharata Natyam dancer. What a wonderful technique in every movement of body and limb. What richness in every gesture. What a coordination what a deep unity between body and soul.’
The first dancer to use the philosophy of Tantra in dance she choreographed and danced in ‘Maya and the Disciple’ which has its world premiere at the Champs Elysee Theatre, Paris, in 1954. In the Germany, a critic wrote, ‘the power and ecstacy of all Indian thought was portrayed by India’s greatest dancer in “Maya and the Disciple”. We are indeed blessed to view this magnificence.’
Of ‘Shakuntala’, which was staged in 1971, Mrinalini says,’All thought to me is dance and when an idea takes root in my being I have to let it go into movement. Though “Shakuntala” followed Kalidasa’s story, I could not agree with the end. Suddenly the idea came to me to make Shakuntala ask King Dushyanta, “If the ring is not with me, it must be with you. Surely a king would know where his signet ring was?” Shakuntala in the end rejects everyone and says,”We come into this world alone and we go out alone, I have no need of anyone to protect me.”
Deeply disturbed with the plight of the downtrodden and the torment in the world around, Mrinalini expressed each human action in a dramatic movement of dance. The terrible burning of the Harijans was first re-created by her in a short piece called ‘Ranmalpur’ which so stirred audiences that she was requested to take it all over the country. ‘Chandalika’ by Rabindranath Tagore was a re-interpretation of the theme of social ostracisms. ‘At some moment in time we are all Harijans,’ says Mrinalini, ‘rejected by our families or by society or by existence itself. Chandalika is the isolation and loneliness of every human being in the drama of life.’ A critic wrote, ‘Chandalika was purposive art at its best. It was a familiarly pleasing yet a disturbingly new experience. As one Shakespearan character enamoured of music, we feel tempted to tell Mrinalini, “If this be experimentation in dance form, give us more of it”.
‘Witnessing Mrinalini’s “Chandalika” at Sadler’s Wells was to peep into the 21st century of Indian dance,’wrote the critic of Indian News, London.
Mrinalini has always found a need to go beyond themes or ideas and explore the abstractions of movement and form.
‘Rig Veda’, or ‘The Song of Creation,’ was an experiment is sound, silence, movement and music, of which the The Times of India critic (1969) wrote, ‘Mrinalini Sarabhai’s “Song of Creations” is a landmark in modern Indian dancing. And as long as we have dancers like her, we can look forward to bold experiments. It is the product of a restless soul creating her own idiom to fully express the richness compressed in her.’ ‘I love the sound of silence,’says Mrinalini. ‘I find sometimes, music disturbs the intensity of my thoughts. The Song of creation was formed while I was sitting alone, silently. In the distance was the sound of chanting while it formed a distant background to pure movement it had no connection with the dance,’
‘Aspirations’ choreographed in 1979, was a depiction of the search of the ‘Atma’ for understanding and knowledge. Soaring beyond time, waiting for grace, man relentlessly destroys and in destroying finds the desert. Endlessly he rise to fall and loses his kinship to Eternity. Yet he knows there is a flame within than can glow into a mighty life of glory. For that moment he travels through the paths of time. A reviewer said, “Aspirations” was a rich aesthetic but vaguely frightening experience.’
According to Mrinalini,”Revelations” (1980), seemed almost a continuation of every human being who comes to the cross roads of decision. While they conquered the Earth and even the skies, yet they were perhaps unable to conquer their very selves. Only when man searches for the highest truth can life be meaningful. Man has to search for answers within himself. Yet perhaps all this leads to revelation.’
Her creation ‘Surya’, was a prayer at the humble recognition of man’s smallness before the great powers. ‘Back to the beginning of time, man has to start again,’ were Mrinalini’s sentiments. ‘I needed to probe into the past of our own psyche to find the very beginning and what else but the worship of the sun that gives us the gift of perception. ‘ All the old prayers and chantings and namaskars were involved in this creation.
In the year 2002, she had created a dance drama portraying the spectacular history of the Silk Route, a fascinating chapter of the history of civilizations; of travelers who braved the elements; of religions that interwove their beliefs with silken threads.
Her creation 'The Dance of Life,' is inspired by the history of Indian science, from Brahmagupta and Aryabhata to Charaka, Bhaskara and the scientists of the 20th century.
In the year 2003, her autobiographical creation ‘Two Lives in Dance, and Two More’ won appreciation from audience across the country.
Many of Darpana’s productions have used the ancient Indian concepts of total theatre combining classical and folk dance, drama, music and puppetry.
The echoes of the world around, the reflection of our lives within and without, the experience that create and shatter man, this is our Darpana, the mirror,’ says Mrinalini of her production Abhinaya Darpana.
Malcolm Adiseshiah writing about the collage’Homage to Gandhi’ says, ‘It has been a moral experience. Mrinalini through her artistic creation, has brought home to us the vivid truth, which our society and our world seems daily to deny and for which Gandhiji lived and died.’
Through her academy she has trained thousands of young people not only in the techniques of the performing arts but through her emphasis on values in life. “Technique is fine but living a dedicated life is more important”
Her creative dance compositions speak of environment, social issues and a world of harmony and peace,’ as do her literary works like the retelling of ancient stories, textbooks of dance (Understanding Bharata Natyam is in its sixth edition) and explanations of ancient rituals with their universal message for humanity.
‘Mrinalini Sarabhai, who has taken her DARPANA to over forty countries of the West and East, stands out as being among those few virtuosi who have never brooked compromises. She has set an example by vindicating that it is possible for an Indian artist to be both authentic and progressive.’- (Enlite).
In addition to regular visits to Western Europe, the company has been to North, Central and South America, the Near East, all the countries of South East Asia, the U.S.S.R., Eastern European countries, and China.
The company had represented India at festivals in Egypt, Japan, France, U.S.A. and other countries. In 1978 Mrinalini Sarabhai led as delegation to the People’s Republic of China, in the first cultural visit since 1954. Subsequently Darpana was selected to train two prima ballerinas of China, in classical Indian dance. In 1980, the company had a successful fortnight at Sadler’s Wells, U.K. The repertoire was varied with traditional and modern pieces, including the premier of the ‘Ramayana’ in the ancient Vidhi Natakam tradition, a dance-drama utilising the shadow puppets of Andhra, with Bhagwata Mela Natakam. Each venture has been original, revitalising the rich traditional styles, experimenting various forms and successfully relating them to audiences throughout world.
RESEARCH & PUBLICATIONS
Research is being carried out in all the departments at the Academy, where lost forms of classical and folk performing arts, are collected preserved and revived. Darpana’s publications include the first book on Bharata Natyam items, with notations and ragas; a book on Kathakali; a text on the ancient dancer of Andhra in association with the Central Sangeet Natak Academy; and ‘Longing for the Beloved’, consisting of songs to Shiva, Nataraja, in Bharata Natyam, explaining the philosophical meaning of the dancer technique. A services of monographs is planned on the various aspects of the arts. The first one, on the Bhavai Vesh, has already been released. A complete text book on Bharata Natyam, in English, the first of its kind, ‘Understanding Bharata Natyam’, is now in its 10th revised edition....
In 1971 the B.B.C. London, did a one hour documentary on Mrinalini and Darpana, called ‘Darpana- A workshop of the Arts’, directed by Margaret Dale, which won numerous international awards.
In 1972, C.B.S., U.S.A. , made a film on her abstract piece ‘Song of Creation’. In 1978, ZDV, West Germany, filmed Schubert’s ‘Shakuntala’, choreographed by Mrinalini. In 1980 she choreographed a film for the Films Division, India,’ Aum Namah Shivaya,’ about a dancer in search of her identify.
In 1982, the distinguished modern composer Joel Thome of the U.S.A. inspired by Mrinalini’s dance recitals, composed a piece ‘Savitri’ , based on Sri Aurobindo’s philosophical work. ‘Savitri’ was choreographed and presented in 1993.