Book extract: A story of cosmic love

Space scientist Vikram Sarabhai's biographer Amrita Shah says he grew to love a woman he had once written off as a frisky teenager

IT was not the first time Mrinalini and Vikram had met. The Swaminathans were a well-known clan in the South.

Swaminadhan, Mrinalini's father had been a respected advocate at the Madras High Court. A man of liberal persuasions, he had encouraged his wife Ammu, to adopt a glamorous, modern lifestyle which she retained after his death, a bold move for a time when widows were condemned to a marginal existence. She had also entered politics and one of the people she had met in the course of her public work was Sarla Sarabhai. The two women had much in common: Like Mridula, Ammu's elder daughter Laxmi too was a fervent idealist and would become well known as 'Captain Laxmi Sehgal' of Subhash Chandra Bose's Indian National Army, the squad of volunteers that planned to liberate India through military means.

Mrinalini and Vikram Sarabhai at their wedding in 1942. pic/afp
Mrinalini and Vikram Sarabhai at their wedding in 1942. pic/AFP

Mrinalini was nothing like her sister. When Vikram first encountered her — the Sarabhais had stopped in Madras on their way to the hill station, Ootacamund — she was in tennis shorts and looking the picture of the emerging socialite. He asked her out for a film. The invitation appears to have been perfunctory for he later confessed to having been put off by her apparent frivolity. Meeting her again, as an adult, in Bangalore, however, he was struck by the transformation in her personality. The frisky teenager, he realized, had grown into an elegant, young woman and one quite different from the tennis, bingo, ballroom dancing obsessed creature he had met. In fact, Mrinalini had taken a leap in quite another direction: she had become passionately involved in the study of Bharata Natyam. The interest had led her from a stint at Tagore's Shantiniketan to Ram Gopal's school in Bangalore. She had even sworn, she told him, to stay unmarried, in order to give herself completely to her art. Her engagement, so akin, it seemed, to his own involvement in science touched a chord in Vikram. He asked her out. They began to date.

There were long, romantic drives in Vikram's Bantham and endless conversations. They munched on fresh makkai and recited poetry to each other; Mrinalini breaking into lyrical Bengali recalling Tagore and Shanti Niketan; Vikram quoting Kalidas. Both professed repeatedly to have no inclination for marriage and yet they were moving relentlessly closer. In her autobiography Mrinalini writes:

"His (Vikram's) intellectual ability interested me deeply and he seemed far more mature than his age. His vision and knowledge astounded me.......We had so many things in common: our love for beauty, for honesty, for tradition, and for the country and at the same time our excitement about new developments in civilization…… Science is so similar to Art…both spiritually aware of the indivisible wholeness of the cosmos… Vikram as a scientist, and I as a dancer, shared a 'togetherness' that was hard to define." After a few months, she goes on to claim, "Vikram showed me, not so much by words but by his manner that he loved me."

(Extracted with permission of the author from Vikram Sarabhai - A Life by Amrita Shah (Penguin-Viking, 2007)

Her life
>> Born in Kerala on May 11, 1918.
>> Her father Ammu Swaminathan was a barrister at the Madras High Court and principal of the Madras Law College.
>> Her sister, Lakshmi Sehgal, was the commander-in-chief of Subhas Chandra Bose's Rani of Jhansi Regiment of the Indian National Army
>> She received her first dance lessons at the Dalcroze School, Switzerland
>> She was educated at Shantiniketan under the guidance of Rabindranath Tagore
>> She enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts for a short stint
>> She learned Bharatanatyam under Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai and the classical dance-drama of Kathakali under the legendary Guru Thakazhi Kunchu Kurup.
>> She was married to Indian physicist Vikram Sarabhai. They had two children, Kartikeya and Mallika
>> Mrinalini was the founder director of the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts.
>> She choreographed over 300 dance dramas and trained over 18,000 students
>> She authored many novels, poetry, plays and stories for children.
>> She wrote an autobiography titled Mrinalini Sarabhai: The Voice of the Heart
>> She was a trustee of the Sarvodaya International Trust, an organisation for the promotion of Gandhian ideals

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