Mallika Sarabhai: Playing Truth or Dare with the Mahatma


Mallika Sarabhai in SVA Kranti: The Revolution Within at Footscray Community Arts Centre for Asia TOPA, February 28 & 29. Tickets here.

‘Street of Voices’, Dr. Mallika Sarabhai. Photo: Darpana Archives.

Mahatma Gandhi’s principles of Ahimsa (peace) and Satyagraha (non-violence) were guiding forces in India’s freedom struggle against the British rule. Gandhi, like all characters in history, must also be remembered in his totality—flaws and all—but his vision for a total transformation of India has never been more urgent. In SVA KRANTI: The Revolution Within, artist-activist Mallika Sarabhai is seen in conversation with Gandhi – sharing, recounting and lamenting the many injustices faced by women in contemporary India. Women are not only othered on the basis of gender, but also on the basis of religion, caste, class, sexual orientation, ability and tradition. As is said: violence against women in India spans the entire lifecycle, from the womb to the tomb.

In SVA KRANTI: The Revolution Within, Sarabhai uses dance, theatre, storytelling and multimedia to challenge the implications of Gandhi’s teachings to the experiences of women in 21st century India. When Sarabhai and I were in talks curating this work for Asia TOPA, we couldn’t have imagined the urgency with which this work needs to be seen.

Right now, in India, pro and anti-CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act), NRC (National Register of Citizens) and NPR (National Population Register) protests are spreading like wildfire. These protests are either in support for or opposition of legislation that fundamentally denies the democratic rights of marginalised Indians. In Shaheen Bagh, it is the women who have garnered global attention for their peaceful, non-violent, 24/7 anti-CAA sit-in on a highway in Delhi’s unforgiving winter. They recite the slogans of India’s freedom struggle, defending their ‘haq’, their ‘adhikar’, their right – all in the name of our tricolour flag and our self-determined ‘azaadi’, our collective freedom. Gender roles are completely subverted in this space. Sarabhai remains one of the foremost advocates for the secular fabric of India. In 2002, she filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court against the then-Chief Minister of her state in the wake of the Godhra riots.

Sarabhai’s feminist work spans from playing the fiery and feisty Draupadi in Peter Brook’s Mahabharata, to her solo and ensemble works Shakti: The Power of Woman, Sitas Daughters, Devi Mahatmaya: The Journey Inward, Unsuni: Unheard Voices, The Bird in My Ceiling, amongst others. Her performance worlds carve a niche where the woman is never the passive object, but always the active subject. At a time when classical Indian dance both in the subcontinent and the diaspora is slammed for its indifference toward civic injustice, Sarabhai’s work remains a breath of fresh air: her performances are inseparable from her politics.

Although this approach has won her fans the world over, that is not to say that any of it has been a smooth journey. In the post-show conversation, Sarabhai will candidly share what it means to have gone from being the darling daughter of the nation to the enemy of the state, as well as what is at stake for women in India today.


Mallika Sarabhai in SVA Kranti: The Revolution Within at Footscray Community Arts Centre for Asia TOPA, February 28 & 29. Tickets here.

Other engagements:

Dancing Democracy // Choreographing Protest movement workshop at Temperance Hall for Asia TOPA. Tickets here.

Re-imagining Dance: Brown Bodies on the Global Stage panel at Information and Cultural Exchange, Parramatta. Tickets here.


Nithya Nagarajan

Author: Nithya Nagarajan

Nithya Nagarajan is an interdisciplinary performance maker, creative producer and cultural researcher. Having a background in Indian neo-classical dance and allied movement traditions, her live art works embody a decolonised feminism and are characterised by a strong physical vocabulary. Recent performance credits include: Our Songs – Sydney Kabuki Project for the 21st Biennale of Sydney 2018, a completely unified theory of you (me) for This is Not Art 2017 and Outwitted! for Happenstance Fest 2017. Nithya’s approach to performance making is increasingly informed by her field research on her award-winning PhD titled ‘Beyond Bharatanatyam: Re-visions, Ruptures and Resistance in the Feminist Choreographies of Anita Ratnam and Mallika Sarabhai’. Nithya is passionate about building community for dialogue, discourse and democracy in the arts. In her current role as Manager – Community and Participation at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA), Nithya co-authors and co-presents inclusive initiatives like NIDAnights, NIDA Launchpad, Seize the Space! and commissions special projects. Other curatorial highlights include: Asian Arts: Long Pasts and Possible Futures for AsiaTOPA 2017 and Light Night for Leeds City Council 2011. Having extensively trained in the Indian neo-classical dance form of Bharatanatyam, Indian folk traditions from Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Gujarat and South Asian contemporary choreographic practices, Nithya currently creates experimental performance work derived from muscle memory and lived experiences. Her PhD thesis titled, ‘Beyond Bharatanatyam: Re-visions, Ruptures and Resistance in the Feminist Choreographies of Anita Ratnam and Mallika Sarabhai’ won the Vice-Chancellor’s award for Best Outgoing Thesis at Flinders University in 2017. Her recent performance credits include a completely unified theory of you (me) with Vidya Rajan at This Is Not Art 2017, Outwitted with Jason Cheetham at Happenstance Fest 2017 and BodyMine with Shamita Sivabalan at Small and Loud 2016. Her first adult job was as a Creative Producer for the Leeds City Council where she was instrumental in programming and growing White Night for the UK Government.

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