Mrinalini, three generations of female power begin with you. What were your formative years like?
Mrinalini My mother Ammu was a fashionable young lady. She drove her own horse and carriage, and was friendly with many of the women who were at the forefront of society. After my father’s death, my mother made our home, Gilchrist Gardens, a centre for both social and political circles. With the growing unrest in the country and Gandhiji’s call to women to participate in the freedom struggle, she joined the Congress in the late 1930s, became President of the All India Women’s Conference, and later a member of the Legislative Assembly in Delhi from Dindigul in Tamil Nadu. Sarojini Naidu visited us often, with her sisters Mrinalini and Subhashini and brother Harindranath. My mother was drawn into the women’s movement and became active in the struggle for their rights through them. Subhashini was an ardent communist, an enemy of the British, and once took refuge with us. The government appointed a CID officer to follow her wherever she went. When she stayed in our house, two officials sat at the gate. In a loud voice she would sing “wherever you go, whatever you do I want you to know — I’m following you”. She would also send out cups of tea! Once, the well-known communist Lester Hutchinson visited us. I was given a letter to hide in my pavade (skirt) and thought it all a great deal of fun, like being part of a detective novel. I made him sign my autograph book. I still recollect the words he wrote: “We dance along death’s icy brink, but is the dance less full of fun?”
Mallika, you’ve inherited your feminism then… those are the family jewels?
Mallika Absolutely. The legacy I got from my mother was to not have to think in terms of gender, to celebrate being a woman, a feminine feminist. I was also in a school where gender, caste, religious differences didn’t exist. So, when I first encountered it in college, when I was told that I couldn’t do such and such because I was a girl, I couldn’t fathom it at all. No it was never about ‘wearing the pants’. Ugh!
Lots of pressure on you then, Anahita, to keep up the fight?
Anahita Not really. Considering how I was brought up, I have never thought of it as a burden or daunting in any way. My own passion to fight the good fight is far too intense and ever present (much like my mother’s) for me to need to worry about ‘living up to’ something or someone’s expectations of me.
Fighting the good fight has been both on the personal and professional fronts, hasn’t it?
Mrinalini For me, getting married and moving to Gujarat was a big challenge. Especially since I married into such an overpowering family like the Sarabhais, I felt very alone. Vikram was immediately immersed in the business and his laboratory, and did not have much time to be with me. The whole family was extremely self-contained, and seemingly so confident, which made me feel inadequate. To live up to the high ideals of the family, which were never put into words but very obvious from my mother-in-law’s behaviour, gave me a sense of isolation that has lasted all my life. They conversed in Gujarati, which I did not understand. People do not realise the trauma a girl goes through when she marries into an alien background. Perhaps that is why marriages in India are still arranged by the families whenever possible. Even little things like food suddenly take on enormous proportions. It was as though I did not exist, except when we met at lunch or dinner. It was so overwhelming. Small happenings, but they leave deep scars.
Economic independence helps though, doesn’t it?
Mrinalini I think economic independence is very much required to live the life of your choice. My father’s will was unusual. He had left my mother her own income, and equal shares to each of the four children. So all of us were financially secure.
Anahita Economic independence plays a huge role in equality, especially in India, where women are still considered excess baggage that needs to be passed on from the father to the husband to be looked after and provided for. What it gives us is a great amount of self-confidence and self-assertion, which is incredibly important when your society and culture are still ( just less loudly) trying to brainwash you that you are less than the ‘superior sex’; less strong, less capable, less smart, less worthy.
Mallika, your battles with patriarchy have increasingly been against the state — very political.
Mallika Yes, and it’s been very, very hard. When I took over Darpana — the institution for performing arts which my mother had set up — in 1977, about 30 percent of its funding came from the government. I decided that if I wanted to chart an independent course, I had to reduce our dependence on the government. By the 1990s, we used to get a fair amount of corporate funding for either individual events or for festivals. But after 2002, and my stand against Narendra Modi and my public interest litigation against him in the Supreme Court, the corporate sponsorships gradually stopped. For instance, we have an amphitheatre space that Amul used to sponsor events at. Post 2002, that stopped. A lot of these CEOs are my classmates from IIM Ahmedabad, and they would say to me: “Mallika, we can sponsor you anywhere outside Gujarat. But in Gujarat we are told in no uncertain terms that we will not be allowed to operate here if we associate with Darpana.”
In 2006-07, we were going to do a performance at the Dhirubhai Ambani Institute in Gandhinagar. They were very keen to have us. The audience was in place and the show was set to begin at 6:30 PM. At 5:45 PM, the Director, looking very shame-faced, walked up to us and said, “Sorry, I have to cancel the show because I’ve just had a call from Anil Ambani’s office. The Chief Minister’s office called Anil Ambani’s office to say, ‘You will not have Mallika Sarabhai perform.’”
But I continue the work because I believe it’s important. We’ve just done an outreach project in Jharkhand, in 400 villages. The performance was developed with the local people. It’s about the lives of two families — one has six children with one girl. At one stage, the woman is pregnant for the seventh time and she is brought in through the audience, screaming with pain. You had to see the faces of the women in the audience. Because this is all a nightmare they have lived. The woman goes into a government clinic behind the screen and there is silence. The doctor comes out and says, “We’ve lost her.” One year later, the university that sponsored this programme did a study and found that 85 percent of the people who saw that performance had adopted to family planning methods. It’s the highest they have seen anywhere in the world.
What about you, Anahita? Tell us what your battles have been, even at 22.
Anahita For me, I was always different in one way or another, and more often than not I embraced that happily. Of course having to tell my friends I was gay was a big bump in the road. Some stayed, some laughed, some left. Seeing as I was never ‘questioning’ really, it was easier for me to just stand strong, and I was happy to be left with those who loved me and accepted me for who I really am.
Mrinalini As artists we influence the thought process as catalysts.
As feminists and artists…it’s all the same, isn’t it?
Mrinalini Yes, indeed. It was always my desire to address the problems of life through dance. It was only when I came to Ahmedabad that I became aware of the problems of women. I was studying Gujarati and had begun to read the newspapers every morning. There were constant reports of young women who died, who were burnt alive. Slowly the horror of these incidents obsessed me and Memory, the dance drama about these hapless brides, was created. I set the plot in Saurashtra. It was the first time that Bharatanatyam spoke of a social problem. From then on, there was no looking back.
What is it then that you celebrate as being essentially feminine? What have we in India inherited that is empowering for women?
Mallika I’m going to go back to Draupadi. Because in the Mahabharata, she said to Yudhishtra after he lost the game of dice, “I love you but you are a weak man and what you have done is wrong.” For us, when we say “I love you”, it means taking the whole package. We do not separate the fact that you can love somebody and still say, “you are wrong.” Draupadi also says: “I have a brain and a womb, and I’m proud of both.”
I think where India can score is that our feminism does not have to equate with masculinity. I’m empowered because I’m empowered. Not because I’m powerful in relation to somebody else. It’s not a race with somebody else. That is essentially feminine. We were never a monoculture. The same woman could be a trident-wielding Kali and also become Parvati and who could then flow as Ganga. We are losing this.