If Gandhi were alive

Updated: Dec 22, 2018, 09:30 IST | Snigdha Hasan

In town with her dance theatre performance that explores Satyagraha through a contemporary lens, Mallika Sarabhai talks about her association with the Mahatma, his relevance in today’s turbulent times, and why feminism and humanism are the same

Never the one to mince her words, noted Kuchipudi and Bharatanatyam dancer and activist Mallika Sarabhai offers a pithy response to an oft-asked question. Had Gandhi been alive today, what would he make of his country? "He would have been heartbroken, but he would have found strategies of bringing people together," she says, referring to the pragmatist in him.

This and several other probing questions have surfaced in her imagined conversations with the Mahatma, with whom her family has shared a deep connect. And it is this exchange that finds its way into her dance theatre piece, Svakranti: The Revolution Within, which she performed in Mumbai at the National Centre for Performing Arts' Pravaha Dance Festival yesterday.

"We need to relook at the core of non-violence. We are becoming a society that first turns to violence, whether it's the lynch mob or trigger-happy people. I have been in situations where my vision has been questioned, where I have been heckled, harassed and trolled. And that's why Gandhiji becomes more and more relevant, as does the courage shown by Satyagrahis," Sarabhai says, explaining the idea behind the performance, where she is seen talking to Gandhi about people who she thinks are Satyagrahis.

Mallika Sarabhai
Mallika Sarabhai

"These are people who have adopted his method. Some of that includes violence as well, but [they resorted to it] at a time when no other way of protest was available. So, I talk to him about a woman in Ahmedabad in 1820, women in Kerala in 1989, and ask him whether he is aware of them and if he sees their methods as Satyagraha," she adds. A dynamic performance, Sarabhai's conversation with Gandhi changes with every staging. "It depends on what is happening around us at that time. When I was creating the show, nobody was using Satyagraha. But over the last one and a half years, Gandhiji's methods are making a comeback. The thousands of farmers marching into Bombay and Delhi — if that's not Satyagraha, what is?" she asks.

This engagement with the principles and philosophy of the Father of the Nation goes back to her childhood. "I was brought up on stories of both my grandmothers going to the jail for the freedom struggle. My aunt gave up everything at 14 to join Gandhiji in his movement," recalls Sarabhai. In fact, many believe that Gandhi's non-violent strategy of fighting the British was first witnessed in Ahmedabad, where he weighed in on a situation involving her grandfather, who was the head of the mill owners' association, and her great aunt, who was the head of the labour union.

Another theme that runs through Sarabhai's works, including her next production, is feminism. The dance theatre piece called Colours of the Heart is a re-look at her 2005 production, though this time, she delves into recent studies on attitudes towards women in India, including the book Chup by Dr Deepa Narayan.

Why is it that many hesitate to be associated with the word feminist today, we ask. "Feminism is not about putting down men; I couldn't care less about it. It's about bringing women out of their shadows, about giving them choices in life, and taking entitlement away from men to use women," she responds. "I don't think people colouring the word as a word as against men have anything to do with feminism. If you are a feminist, you are a humanist. And I am certainly both of those."

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