Mallika Sarabhai: The arts are an extremely powerful sweet pill to swallow some bitter truths

An exclusive interview in which Danish Husain speaks to Mallika Sarabhai about ‘Kathaastu’, a recent Festival of Storytelling, and opens a bhandar of stories, taking the Sarabhai legacy forward

Mallika Sarabhai: The arts are an extremely powerful sweet pill to swallow some bitter truths

Danish Husain

“It wasn’t meant to be an interview. I was in Ahmedabad for the Kathaastu storytelling festival on Mallika Sarabhai’s invitation. My poet friend and editor, Sampurna Chattarji, saw my social media posts and suggested I do a retrospective piece, an insider’s take on the storytelling festival. I warmed to the idea and took on the assignment despite a schedule packed with travel and shoots. Just before leaving for the airport, I dropped in at Mallika Sarabhai’s office to bid her goodbye and take a few bytes that I thought might help me in writing the article when I got back home. But as the voice recorder clock ticked by, the interview took on a life of its own, and I became aware that this was much bigger than any possible take I could provide on the festival. Candidly, and with eloquent lucidity, Mallika Sarabhai unravels some of her toughest struggles as an artist, her Weltanschauung, and the Sarabhai family’s legacy through—no surprise there!—the recounting of stories. I’m honoured to have played catalyst to this impromptu interview, which I believe must be heard, shared, and read in totality.”

Danish Husain is an actor, poet, storyteller, and a theatre director. He was instrumental in reviving the old form of Urdu storytelling Dastangoi, which he later expanded into a multi-lingual storytelling project Qissebaazi. He runs a theatre company called Hoshruba Repertory, and lives in Mumbai. 

Danish Husain with Mallika Sarabhai
Danish Husain with Mallika Sarabhai

Mallika Sarabhai: You know when people say stories, nowadays you invariably think of children, and yet, storytelling is such a primary art and a primary way of communicating ideas and taking people into a different world that I consider myself a storyteller, as a performer and a storyteller—and we thought it needs to be revived seriously. You have managed to revive Dastangoi, when you say Dastangoi, people take it seriously, but when you say ‘stories’ they immediately think ‘children’, like when you say ‘puppetry’ they think children. So we thought we need to cultivate an audience for stories. In India we have so many storytelling forms—pictorial, musical, non-musical—and many of them are just falling by the wayside, which is why we thought this festival ‘Kathaastu’ is something we would like to start.  However small an audience, they will go and talk to 10 people, so next year we will certainly have a bigger audience. We’ve tried to balance one well-known storyteller (I mean, you’re the best known, you’re the only nationally-known storyteller) but well-known within their own community at least, and one local one, so that it’s balanced and the local people get another point of view, and the audience also gets one in a local language and one in either Hindi or English or Urdu. Today’s storyteller [Abhishek Dukhande] is referring to the whole Chitrakathi tradition, so he’s coming with his own musicians, he is using visuals. The Chitrakathi in Rajasthan is dying out. The Babu Ji Na Phad Katha is also dying out, and yet, these were the precursors of comic books. We love comic books, and avataras and things like that but the base is being eroded. We need to repackage the base so that the sheer magic of storytelling comes back.

Danish Husain: So when did the idea first come to you?

MS: We have on our staff a young woman called Preeti Das. Preeti herself is a storyteller and one of the few women stand-up comics. She is also an academic and when she came on board, she is the one who first mooted the idea. And said Natarani [Amphitheater, Usmanpur, Ahmedabad] is the exact kind of place where we should have a festival like this, so it’s really her ideas and imagination that fuelled us into doing this. She also has a lot of contacts across the country who are storytellers, so we had somebody from Bangalore, somebody from Chennai, somebody from Pune, so we extended the network, and talked to other storytellers to see who is doing something very different.

Tell me a bit about the process of curation, and how you zeroed in on the performers and format?

We wanted variety. So, for instance, Vikram [Sridhar] uses objects, and musical instruments which he punctuates his stories with. Aparna [Jaishankar] uses her body much more, and speaks in English. (Vikram also speaks in English.) You, of course, are distinct and Dastangoi, and all of that! Then, Abhishek [Dukhande]—he’s a very young storyteller, who is trying to revive yet another form. We wanted to make audiences understand that storytelling takes on many different forms, it can be closer to music, theatre, or just storytelling. Yours yesterday was very dramatised, you took us into a different century, you took us into a different mahaul, the few gestures that you did, the way you picked up your glass—all of that was very theatrical, your lighting was theatrical. Aap toh theatre ke hain, so you already know about that. But a lot of storytellers tell it very simply. Without affecting their story, you can still make a mahaul that is very dramatic or very beautiful which immediately attracts an audience. I have always felt personally that if you can change the packaging to suit audiences, all you need to do is grab them—then they want to come in. As a performer myself, I don’t believe that the kind of Bharatanatyam or Kuchipudi I would do in a Chennai music academy or in a Chidambaram temple festival is what I will do to attract a college audience. The Bharatanatyam itself is what I’m trying to talk about. And why should I not package it? Because after all today we need to market the arts to get in continued audiences and we’re fighting technology, so why not use technology? If we’re trying to pull them away from their 5-second focus on Insta into something that you and I and other artists think worth it, then we have to try all the tricks in the trade.

Many people nowadays do perform abstract dance forms. As a dance maestro, you know that all the traditions, Yakshagana, Bharatanatyam, Kathakali, Kuchipudi—they’re essentially storytelling, they’re not abstract dance forms. If you look at your own vision, your own struggle to keep this thing alive, how does this festival dovetail with your larger vision, your politics, your worldview?

Not all, but some of the stories, and storytellers, certainly wove in the ideas that adhere to the core values of Darpana, and I’m sure your core values [as well], which is [all about] a plural India, a free India, a questioning India, a debating India. An India where freedom of thought and expression is paramount. A Hindu India where every major treatise was an effort at debate, not adherence. Debating, questioning, doubting. I mean, from the Gita to the Vedanta—they’re all about people raising doubts and others trying to convince them. That India has shrunk and is shrinking by the minute as we talk. And I think the arts are an extremely powerful sweet pill to swallow some bitter truths and make people aware of bitter truths. Somebody can come to a performance of yours and disagree vehemently. But they sit through it because it’s beautiful. They might disagree with your values, but somewhere you’ve put a keeda into their heads that they can’t get rid of. You have put an alternate ideology, an alternate perspective into their heads. Till now they had a wall up—where no alternate thought could even sit at the same table, but through performance we are able to do that. When I talk of the way girls are conditioned to adjust all the time, to be restricted, don’t do this you’re a girl, don’t sit like that you’re a girl, you mustn’t act like that you’re a girl, and when I do it with rappers and I do it in Bharatanatyam, then people take notice. And large parts of the audience come and say to me, “Hum achhi ladki nahi banenge”. So we are getting through, in a way that is, by definition, provocative. And it makes them wonder about the golden cage in which they are, whether the gold is more valuable than the cage, and whether they should concentrate on the lack of freedom or on the decoration of that slavery. I think that is the power of the arts, and that is what we try and do.

Mallika Sarabhai: The arts are an extremely powerful sweet pill to swallow some bitter truths

Why do you think these tenets are essential for the arts to flourish? What do they do for the art [form] itself?

Give it it’s true meaning. Nowhere, even in prehistoric cave paintings, was art just a representation. When you go to a temple like Khajuraho and you see all these sexual poses, it was meant neither to titillate nor to say to people “this is all dirty”, it was to make people realise that there are passages in life that you cannot avoid—you have to go through them. It’s like peeling an onion, to come to the shunya you still have to peel that onion. And I think that’s where art leads. To make it just entertainment is, for me, missing a huge opportunity. The world has been in chaos for hundreds of years. Different kinds of chaos. Today there’s the chaos world-over of autocratic governments taking over, taking away freedom; of civilisation destroying the very earth on which we live. Climate change is such a frightening reality. And of course, it affects the poor more than the rich, of course it affects the developing countries more than the developed ones, but it does affect everybody, and if we have a magical wand that we call the arts, then it is our dharma to use that to reach people, to make them understand that we are going the wrong way, not only for society but for [each one of] us. Let it be a selfish, self-interest thing. If Delhi gets polluted, not even the richest Delhiite can protect themselves from it. […] If the seas bring in a tsunami, every single person gets washed away. I mean, the pictures of these big mansions completely flooded with water show us how fragile we are. And if lecturing doesn’t work, if dire warnings don’t work, and they don’t work, we know that, because otherwise hum to sudhreli society ban jate ab tak, humanity would have been a sudhrela humanity. If the general level of aggression is so high that just by bumping into somebody you can get lynched to death, then we are in a very, very difficult state of mind, and in a very difficult place as a race, and I think the arts humanize more than anything else. They put you in touch—or they have the possibility of putting you in touch—with the light side of you, not the dark side. My prayer when I go on stage is—if I can make two people in the audience forget the realities and the tedium and the worries and take them to where I go when I’m dancing, to a place where you’re one with the cosmos, and you forget the horrors of everyday, and you just get that one instant of the otherness that we are, the otherness that is peace, serenity, beauty and connectedness with every aspect of the universe. If I make one person in the audience realise this for one second or five seconds or ten seconds, then I’m succeeding in what I do. Because I—and I’m sure you—are the very, very lucky ones. I can raise my hand and zone into something that people need to do hours of meditation for. How do we share this with others? How do we show the possibility that the inner life exists? And that one can zone into that inner life and make that inner life our reality? If there are one million people like that, then peace will progress so much more.

You made a very interesting analogy of peeling an onion. When you started off on your transformative journey, and you started peeling these onions that you had inherited—what was that peeling process like for you?

For me that peeling process started seven or eight years after I began professional dancing, and it came when I joined Peter Brook and the Mahabharata. As a dancer, being based at home, and having my mother as my mother, and having Darpana as Darpana, there was a security blanket. At the most I’d fall flat on my face, but there was always somewhere to go back to. When I joined the Mahabharata in 1984, I had no security blankets. I was the only person in the company who had never done professional theatre, I was the only person in the company who didn’t speak a word of French, and had to learn an entire language for a 12-hour production. I was the only one who was Indian. I was the only one who had actually consciously read many versions of the Mahabharata. And who had had Draupadi as a favourite character since I was about five years old. Because she didn’t fit anybody’s definition. It was a terrifying process. And I had to plumb internal resources that I had to find. I didn’t even know I had them. I had to search for them. I had to find them. And then I had to convince other people of my points of view, [I had] to have an argument for every single thing that I suggested. I had to have layers of backing material, I had to have layers of personal strength.  Peter had a guru called Gurdjieff [the Armenian philosopher] and Gurdjieff basically believed that in order for a follower or a seeker to find what he or she seeks, they have to self-destruct. I came from a background where every minute had to be ananda. And the two don’t match!  So, working with Peter, I had to negotiate a way where I could find the self without self-destruction. And that was very, very hard, it was very painful, I wanted to run away constantly. But hanging in there, and having Peter really push me into a corner, constantly, to find new depths inside me, was what made me as a performer. Amma could have never done it. She loved me too much.

‘It’s like peeling an onion, to come to the shunya. I think that’s where art leads. To make it just entertainment is missing a huge opportunity. Today there’s the chaos of autocratic governments taking over, taking away freedom; climate change is such a frightening reality. If we have a magic wand that we call the arts, it is our dharma to use that to reach people, to make them understand that we are going the wrong way’

You mentioned depths, when you reached those depths—what were some of the illuminations from that time?

Two or three things. One was that my performance skills were the best language for my activism and what I wanted to say about everyone’s need to have equal rights on this earth. The need for justice, alerting people against exploitation, cruelty, wanting an equal space for all communities, all castes, all genders. So that was one revelation. That I have in my body and my talent the greatest languages to alert people to all this. The second was that what I wanted to say was important. Whether people thought I looked great or not or was a good actress or not, or sang well or not, was unimportant. And that was a huge liberation. I’ll give you one example. I had learnt Hindustani music since I was about 7 years old. I got a gold medal in Hindustani singing in SSC. When I joined films at the age of 16, I was told that I had a voice that was too husky and very manly. And so, I never sang in public. Just after I came out of Brook’s Mahabharata, I was forced to birth my own piece because I wanted to say things that no dramaturge or scriptwriter could understand. The piece was called ‘Shakti – The Power of Women’ where I wanted to reinterpret Meera as a rebel. People see Meera as a bhakta but a greater rebel in the 15th century didn’t exist. She broke every convention. She broke everything that a Rajasthani princess was supposed to do. She broke everything that a woman was allowed to do. But that is not an aspect of her that patriarchy allows us to highlight. I said to myself, “How can I do Meera and not sing?” And I remember long conversations with myself, saying, “Mallika, what is more important to you? That people call you a fabulous singer, or that people are convinced that Meera was a rebel?” That is when I was actually able to break that thing, by saying to myself that none of us knew whether Meera even sang in sur. She sang and people followed her. Besur gaati thhi, achhi awaaz thhi, gandi awaaz thhi, kaunse raag mein gaati thhi—those are not important. Her words remain. So whether people say awaaz acchi hai ya nahi is completely irrelevant. That was another major turning point. And I have followed that. I do cartwheels on stage, I learnt kalarippayattu to do ‘Rani of Jhansi’. [I received] one of the greatest compliments when I was in America, doing ‘Sita’s Daughters’—a story called ‘The One-eyed Monkey’. In which a one-eyed female monkey is watching the whole Gautami story, how Gautami’s husband goes out, and Indra comes and rapes her and goes away and when the husband comes [back] he sees that she has been raped and he calls Vishnu, and says “I want justice”. So Vishnu gets Indra to do an Ashwamedha yagna and offer salutations to the husband, and nobody thinks about the wife who has been raped. And so, the story is about this one-eyed monkey saying, “Has justice changed in these 3500 years?” Yeh Indra free ho gaya, usne yagna kar diya, husband ko uski ego mil gayi, aur jiske saath yeh hua thha, woh toh wahi ki wahi reh gayi. It’s a comical story, and I do it in a very comical way. And [I remember] a woman in the audience said to her teenage daughter, “Darling, here is a beautiful woman, who isn’t afraid of looking ugly and stupid.” That to me was a huge compliment. When one can risk that [need] to look my best all the time. Yes, I like looking my best, but I don’t have to, if to tell a story I have to do something that is ugly or makes me look stupid or foolish, as long as the story is being told, as long as I am transmitting that and the rasika is receiving it—then I have succeeded. That is what is important. After all, what I’m trying to do is to communicate ideas.

Tell me a little bit about how the Sarabhai legacy has shaped you… what it has done to you as a person. Because you are going ahead with all those values.

Values were never spoken about. Values were lived. We saw what the family did. We saw my aunt, Mridula, in her home with all the rebels from Kashmir going on a hunger fast for Sheikh Abdullah because Panditji [Nehru] was not giving Sheikh Abdullah the Chief Ministership. We saw Dadima only wearing khadi, going off and working with the community. She worked very closely with Kasturba…

Her name?

Sarladevi Sarabhai. You know when the British came and they wanted forms filled? Usme likha thha—first name and surname. Dadaji’s first name was Sarabhai and he did not want to take a family name that could be associated with either caste or community or occupation. So, he made his father’s name the surname of the family and became Ambalal Sarabhai. Because it has no caste or community connotations. Sarladevi Sarabhai was very connected with Kasturba’s institutions and women’s rights and all of that. My great-aunt, that is Dadaji Ambalal Sarabhai’s sister Anasuya Sarabhai (in whose home you are living) started the whole textile labour movement by pitting her own beliefs against her beloved brother’s textile mills and involving Gandhiji for the first time.

On my mother’s side, my great-grandmother was a young widow with eight children living in Kerala during the Mapla revolution. All the exploited castes were farm labourers, North Kerala Muslims called the Maplas, and they were burning farms (because they were so exploited). The neighbours came and said to my great-grandmother, “Escape.” And she said, “I’m not going to escape, because I treat my Maplas as I treat my family.” She asked the family to cook for 200 people, and when they came to burn, she said “Calm down. I’m sure you’ve not eaten, why don’t you sit and eat, and then you meet my Maplas, and if they tell you that they are exploited, you are welcome to kill me.” They didn’t expect this tiny woman to be saying this! So they sat down and they ate and then the Maplas who were working on the farm came and said, “No, there’s no difference in the way she treats her children and treats us.” So, they said their namaskars and left. These are the kind of stories…

What was your great-grandmother’s name?

Ammukutty. And you know in Kerala they write the village name and the house name? So Anakkara Vadakath Ammukutty. So Anakkara is the village, Vadakath is the house. All of us had A. V. [before our names]. So I’m A. V. Mallika in the Kerala matrilineal system. We were brought up on stories like that. I have never seen my mother in my entire life going into a jewellery shop. I have seen her in some khatri’s place looking at ajrakh; I have seen her stopping village women on the road, saying “what a beautiful anklet or bangle you’re wearing, can I buy it off you?” Not because it was valuable, or expensive, but because it was beautiful. I’ve never seen her wearing diamonds. I’ve never seen her wearing platinum. It just didn’t figure. I have always heard her saying, “My dancers are my gems. These are my jewels.” Rather like Akbar used to say. Papa also used to always wear khadi. And so—values were instilled. We constantly met committed people who came to the house. Frontier Gandhi would come. As children we were encouraged to sit and converse with them. There was never this “bacche ho, kuchh samjhhoge nahi”. Ek din koi Nobel Peace Prize winner aa gaya, dusre din ballet ka koi bada artist aa gaya, ek din Merce Cunningham aa gaya. One day the astronauts would walk in. And we were encouraged to engage with all of them. We basically saw two parents deeply committed to the idea of liberation, constantly talking of their dreams of what India must become, through their different paths. I never saw Papa as a ‘science-scientist’. I always saw him as somebody using the sciences to bring India’s most-marginalised people into the mainstream. By using television and satellite communication so that agriculturists could be informed, meteorologists could tell agriculturists if the monsoon was going to be good or bad, education in every village.

I saw Amma’s work as a legacy I have carried forward. Of using the arts as a language for change. Of reinterpreting mythology for today. What does it mean when Krishna steals the gopikas’ clothes? It means that if you want to find truth you have to make yourself vulnerable. The gopikas, before realising Krishna, had to shed all their clothes [along with] I am this, I am that, I have this much, and become vulnerable to be able to find their truth. This is how we interpret these stories for our young children now. So that they understand these are not frozen in time. These are the legacies that you can grow. You can only give a child values. You can’t police a child. Parents are gardeners. They have to provide the soil, and water the plant, and see that the plant gets sunlight. They can’t maaro-machhro a plant and say “this is how I want you to grow”, “that is how you’ll become a flower”. Which is what society does. Society maaro-machhros children to become what the parents wanted to become and didn’t. We never felt the weight of [our parents’] success. I have often cited this episode. I must have been five and Kartikeya was eleven. At that time, Papa was teaching in Harvard and Mamma was dancing in Boston, and the two of them went to CBS for an interview. Karthikeya and I were sitting in the producer’s glass cabin, and the interviewer said to them, “You’ve both achieved so much. What is your greatest achievement?” And without blinking an eyelid, both of them said, “Our children.” There was never a feeling that we have to prove to them that we are as good as them. Woh weight hi nai thha kabhi.

You know that interesting sign you’ve done at the entrance, where you call your mother the scientist and your father the artist…

(laughs) Yes! That idea, as well as sourcing the lights from the store room, are all Yadavan Chandran’s tribute to them. [Yadavan is the artistic Director of Darpana, and a co-creator with me for 22 years.] Papa never published a paper without Amma going through it. And Amma would say, I remember this clearly as a child, “Vikram, is this science or is this supposed to be English?” When Papa and Amma married, Papa realised that the theatre arts in India were very, very technologically “backward”, even then in ’49. So he flew to London to do a one-week course in theatre lighting and brought back the first three of the lights that are displayed outside. For about 15 years, he lit and did the sets for Amma’s shows. He also got Max Factor to manufacture make-up for non-white skins because he felt that more and more people in the ‘brown’ world would require make-up and had nothing [that suited them]. Papa loved the arts. My passion for western classical music comes from the hours spent in Papa’s study doing my homework. And what people don’t realise is that till I was 12, it was Papa who was doing the baby-sitting, not Amma. Because Amma was constantly on tour. (Papa got busy after that.) So, if I got into trouble in school, it was Papa who had to come and be answerable. And he used to be very amused by me, always.

(laughs) Okay, last question. How did you come up with the name ‘Kathaastu’?

We were just throwing words around, and suddenly hit on this. It was again Preeti’s word. In Darpana, we always try and find catchy words that combine English and an Indian language; and tathaastu is such a misappropriated word just now, most people who say ‘Tathaastu’ lead you on such dirty pathways, we thought that if we bring some [sense and] sensibility back into the astu, ‘Kathaastu’ might lead the first step. 

Danish Husain is an actor, poet, storyteller and theatre director. He was instrumental in reviving ‘dastangoi’, an old form of storytelling in Urdu, which he later expanded as a multilingual storytelling project, ‘Qissebazi’

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