In a room with Life
Mallika Sarabhai isn't too difficult to figure out; with her what you see is what you get – inspired
When I walk in Mallika Sarabhai is sitting on the floor with a motley band of people. She looks up, bright and full of presence, and says in a strong voice, "This is the picture you should have got -- all of us from Darpana sitting down and eating an authentic Udipi lunch." With that she walks away with the empty patra and comes back with a big smile, head held high, trademark mismatched earrings (terracota this time) dangling.
"So, did you find the place easily? Of course, I couldn't have helped you anyway!" she says, laughing and I can tell immediately this is going to be good.
Here with her production Unsuni, a project that aims to make a difference, Mallika is due to perform all of 30 shows. "I am just trying to get people to say `I care' and make a difference in the smallest way possible. You don't have to have loads of money to make a difference. Start with small things - do you know your domestic help's situation in life? Does she have children? Do you have the time to take out and tutor her for two hours? Can you smile at her and treat her well? That's all Unsuni asks for," says Mallika. The performance, like most of Darpana's productions, is a mixture of dance and theatre, specifically aimed at social change. Darpana is looking at 100 performances across the country.
Unsuni, of course, is only one among the many things Mallika does. Apart from fighting an oppressive Narendra Modi for the past five years, she has been chasing her dream. A dream she started seeing when she was a little girl. "I used to accompany Papa (Vikram Sarabhai) when he used to go to villages and watch them all watch themselves on television," she says adding that right then she knew what a powerful medium TV was. "It's just in me. I know I can make a success of a social change project once I get my channel going. Like I did with Tara Television," she says, her voice echoing conviction and her eyes hopeful. Because getting investors or airtime is proving to be inordinately difficult in Ahmedabad where Mallika has her home. "When Narendra Modi went after me, I knew exactly who my friends were. When things cooled down and people told me they tried to call me but couldn't get through, I had no hesitation in telling them, 'No, you didn't.'" she says.
She goes on to talk about how successful Tara was and how it was brutally shut down one day before the Gujrat riots because it made powers that be questionable to citizens. ''I had such fun working on that. There were times when people faced great tragedies and would call us because they believed we could make a difference," she says.
It's easy to forget Mallika is a dancer -- but, of course, you have to ignore her trim figure and expressive, open face for that. Once you get past that, you discover all that Mallika is, lives in perfect harmony within her. Activist, teacher, boss, daughter, mother, philosopher, child and among many more things, woman ("I think he has a yen for me!" she says with a big grin in a stage whisper when I ask her why the Gujrat chief minister is, well, after her.)
Perhaps it is her wisdom and the lessons she's learnt from life combined with a certain childlike enthusiasm that have brought Mallika as far as this. "I have so much more to do. I'm just waiting for my channel to go up, now. After that I am sure I'll find something else to be equally committed to," she says. She looks thoughtful for a second and says, "Modi is a fool. I was doing his work for him, making it easier for him – making the state a better place – with Tara TV and I can do it with Sat Television. He doesn't see that." Ask her the source of her undying spirit and inspiration, and she is quick to give credit to her privileged upbringing. "I had parents who came from such great socially active families. It would have been criminal for me to not take that forward. To give what I had got," she says.
Speaking about her parents reveals yet another facet of Mallika's multi-dimensional personality. Her close bond with her farther and her tight kinship with her mother are obvious to see. So is the love, admiration and respect. About the time her father died, Mallika recollects, "I wrote my IIM entrance exam the day after I cremated Papa. I don't know what I wrote but I got through," she says. While we're on the subject, I ask Mallika what it was like there, considering who her parents were. "You know, I had people saying that I just got in because I was my father's daughter. I even had a professor who once told me, 'Mallika, because you are Vikram's daughter, I can't give you a 'B', so I am giving you a 'D' so people don't think I am being partial.' So I was damned if I did and damned if I didn't," she says. And there's nothing but bafflement in her voice. Not a single time when she talks about her life do I spot a note of regret or rue. Almost everything Mallika says is spoken with a smile, one that sure looks like it comes from the heart.
Among lot more talk (and a delicious Udipi lunch) Mallika tells me about how her children Revanta, 21, and Anahita, 17, chose to join her company Darpana and help out in their mother's work. So, marriage on the cards, then? "A relationship, may be. But marriage, no way," she says emphatically adding that it is an out-dated institution that people enter into if they need approval or because they are economically dependent. "Bipin (Shah) and I are good friends even today and the children were co-parented, so they didn't miss either of us," she says and grins at her daughter quipping, "Anahita, were you a neglected child?" Mother and daughter dissolve in a huge, warm hug and now the team is packing to get to the venue for their first performance. I know there's more to discover to this woman. But I figure I'll just watch the performance of Unsuni for that.