Under my byline

The good person of Ahmedabad

Posted in Art, Profiles by Rrishi on 14 August 2010

Danseuse, activist, teacher and politician Mallika Sarabhai plays Ramkali in an adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Person
of Szechwan

“I rise” is the refrain of Maya Angelou’s thumping feminist poem “Still I Rise”. Here is one relatively mild stanza:

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Mallika Sarabhai used the poem as one element of the dance performance she gave instead of a TED talk, at TEDGlobal in Oxford this year. TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) is a well-known US non-profit which invites global achievers to lecture on “Ideas Worth Spreading”.

This weekend in Delhi, Sarabhai, now 57, plays the lead in an adaptation of yet another literary masterwork, Bertolt Brecht’s evergreen German play The Good Person of Szechwan. It is called Ramkali and is directed by Delhi-based theatre director Arvind Gaur. “We previewed it here [in Ahmedabad],” she says over the phone, “for the annual festival held in the name of Pappa.” Her father was Vikram Sarabhai, pioneer of India’s space programme.

In Brecht’s original, the gods take human form and go walkabout in China. Wherever they go they find nobody who acts out of goodness rather than greed and evil. Finally they are led to the home of a young prostitute named Shen Teh, who, despite her poverty, welcomes them in. The gods are pleased, and they reward her with money — and then, cruelly, they step back to see what she does with it. Naturally, as always happens in Greek drama when the gods interfere, there is a tragic denouement. To protect her (good and honest) self, Shen Teh has to create an alter ego, a rough male character… who eventually grows to dominate.

This double role of Ramkali is played by Sarabhai. She seems to be uniquely suited to it. She has had a long career on the stage (albeit as a Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi dancer), been involved for decades in development and rights work in poor localities of Gujarat, and, memorably, opposed the BJP’s L K Advani in his Gandhinagar constituency during the 2009 general election. She lost, unambiguously, but her engagement with the people of the villages and slums of the area has grown greatly, she says.

So to the question of why this, and why now, Sarabhai says, “Ramkali brings a lot of discussions to the fore — gender, marginalised communities, upper class-lower class, corruption and a putrid society…” On the last theme, with her bruising introduction to professional politics just behind her, she elaborates: “There are two kinds of corruption. One kind comes out of desperation, as when a chowkidar pays a bribe to get his wife into hospital. The much more worrying kind is the corruption of the rich. That is boundless. It has nothing to with desperation, it is just pure, unadulterated greed.”

The Sarabhais themselves are a wealthy industrial family. Her grandfather owned textile mills. The greed which has “been growing by leaps and bounds ever since we’ve opened up the economy”, however, says Sarabhai, is something new. Until liberalisation, “wealth was still considered dirty unless you used it for the public good”. Which the Sarabhais did, quite lavishly; her mother, dancer Mrinalini Sarabhai, founded the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts (and here) which Mallika Sarabhai now runs. Her father, among other things, set up a Community Science Centre and helped establish the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad.

“It’s apparent everywhere,” Sarabhai continues. “Tell me,” she asks rhetorically, “who does our media applaud? Bollywood and its fringe of rich people.” She pauses to clarify, “I’m not talking about Narayana Murthy [the Infosys co-founder and philanthropist], I’m talking about the darlings of the media. These are our icons. These icons are putrid,” she repeats. “When we applaud somebody who buys a bauble for his wife for Rs 300 crore, we are a sick society [she is most likely referring to Mukesh Ambani’s reported gift of a private jet to his wife Nita]. We are teaching the new rich that that’s the only thing that’s important.”

Which is why she says her election campaign was “the highest learning experience — but I have to tell you, it was great fun. Actually going out and meeting people and collecting 10 rupees each for the campaign…” Sarabhai has a number of organisations, not all devoted to the performing arts. “I have worked in villages and slums for 25 years,” she says, “but going in to talk about maternal mortality, [for example,] it didn’t occur to me to ask whether they get drinking water or not.” As a candidate, she did ask such questions, and “I was horrified at the humiliations faced on a daily basis.” Thanks to the Narendra Modi government’s “Gujarat Shining” campaign, she says, each settlement believed itself the only one that was unlucky. But, “Close to 80 per cent of the villages in my constituency had no drinking water or sewerage.”

Would Sarabhai contest again? “Of course.” She says she has now to consider whether it is better to campaign as member of a party than as an independent. “I’m talking to a variety of people to find out. There is so much clubbism, and that engenders so much bribery. I’m not sure being the Don Quixote will work unless the electoral system changes.”

To concide with “August Kranti” (Independence Day), Sarabhai this month starts CRANTI, the Citizens’ Resource and Action Initiative. For CRANTI, Darpana has “tied up with 20 local NGOs so that we can direct people there for specific help like legal aid or in cases of child abuse or domestic violence — ordinary people who have been running from office to office to get some paperwork or clearance. The greatest frustration and anger come from this basic helplessness.” It is undemocratic, she says, because it sustains a “feudal mentality”, the idea that “there is a mai-baap who gives out of munificence. We still feel grateful when even a small thing gets done. This is a pathetic understanding of democracy.”

All this experience and exposure, Sarabhai explains, she calls upon when she plays Ramkali. “We are using all of this to feed into our performance,” she says; “we” because in the cast and crew are 20 people from Darpana. Altogether, it’s clear why the character of one good person struggling to stay afloat in an unfriendly, unforgiving sea would appeal to this hardworking celebrity.


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