Sarabhai demonstrates activism through choreography
By Rebecca Cress, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Wednesday, April 23, 2008
After inheriting the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts from her mother, Indian artist Mallika Sarabhai transformed the dance academy into a think tank to fight social injustices in India. Sarabhai drew upon her experiences to show how art can be used to effect social change in the lecture "Arts for Peace in India," which she gave on Tuesday afternoon at the Rockefeller Center.
India has a 2,000 year tradition of using art to draw attention to the most pressing social issues, she said. In the past, art often incorporated spiritual issues such as the search for God, she said, but now it should be applied to secular causes.
Sarabhai, the co-director of Darpana, presented a video documenting the strategies Darpana employs to effect peaceful change. In her performance art piece "V-for," Sarahabhai stood alone on stage, half of her face painted white. Silently, she smeared red paint across her face and then declared "Goodbye Abraham Lincoln, goodbye Mahatma Gandhi ... Hello gangs ... Look what they've done." Her intent, she said, was to explore how a proverbial "they" is always blamed for violence.
Sarabhai's work has met with some resistance from conservative politicians. Darpana's television network was pulled off the air in Sarabhai's home state of Gujarati because their television shows discussed sexuality among adolescents.
"That's part of the fun," she said. "I am the only secular voice in an extremely right-wing state."
Darpana also sponsors out-of-work folk actors and volunteers to perform interactive plays that educate rural villagers about women's rights. The actors have twice performed a play about a women giving birth, instructing members of the audience to shout "stop" at any time to freeze the scene and suggest how it could play out differently. When, in one clip, an actor complained that giving birth to a baby girl is no better than giving birth to a stone, an audience member froze the scene and told the actors that their characters should value all life equally.
"In that way, [the audience] steps in and changes destiny," Sarabhai said.
The key to Darpana's grass roots efforts, Sarabhai said, is gradual implementation. During one three-year project on women's reproductive rights and health, her team spent the first two years speaking about broad community and family issues. After a while, male and female members of the community started to approach her team for advice, she said. The issue of women's rights was not raised until the third year of the campaign.
Darpana does not perform with a specific agenda, according to Sarabhai.
"It just happens that the work we do speaks to one issue or another," she said.
Sarabhai was drawn to social justice causes by her mother, Mrinalini Sarabhai, a famous dancer and the founder of the Darpana Academy. One of her mother's dance performances expressing the economic strain put on Indian brides prompted the Prime Minister to institute a new dowry debt law, she said. Growing up, helping others was "something you just did," Sarabhai said.
Sarabhai is a premier dancer and choreographer in classical Indian dance. She is also an actress and played Draupadi in Peter Brook's play, "The Mahabharata," which launched her international career, she said.
"It was really exciting for me, because as a dancer, it was really inspiring to see what you can communicate." Manasi Desai '11, co-president of Vandana South Asian Dance Troupe, said of Sarabhai's lecture.