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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Mallika Sarabhai

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-10-12

Mallika Sarabhai is an uebercontinental woman.

"I feel at ease almost anywhere in the world," Ms. Sarabhai, who's arguably India's most famous classical danseuse, said yesterday. "I've performed in almost every major city around the world. But New York is really my pulse beat. No other city has the kind of excitement that I feel whenever I'm here."

She's here this time for dance recitals starting today that she and her troupe, Darpana, will give for three days at the Citicorp Theater of the Alvin Ailey Studio in Manhattan under the sponsorship of Aroon Shivdasani's Indo-American Arts Council.

But Ms. Sarabhai, who lives in the commercial Indian city of Ahmedabad where her family founded the equivalent of Harvard Business School, isn't simply visiting America as a choreographer and performer.

As someone who obtained an MBA at 19 and a doctorate in management at 21 - she studied, among other places, at Harvard - Ms. Sarabhai sees herself as a spokesperson for women's economic empowerment in India's vast but languishing rural areas. She points out that a majority of the country's 1.2 billion people live in some 565,000 villages, most of which have yet to benefit from the rapid economic growth that's being registered in urban areas.

"Everybody is taken with globalization," Ms. Sarabhai said. "And of course it's a good thing that India is finally taking its rightful place among the big economic players - like America. But advances in information technology and industrial production haven't helped our villagers. I spend my time with them, my colleagues and I train villagers - particularly women - to become economically self-reliant. If India is to become an economic superpower, it cannot afford to leave its villagers behind."

"And I'm not shy about using my celebrity to draw attention to human rights issues, environmental security, the continuing curse of the dowry system, the despicable communal riots," Ms. Sarabhai said. "Securing social justice and economic opportunities for women is entirely consistent with the best values of globalization. My art and visibility is the strongest language that I can employ to generate change."

"What I tell women in rural areas is that the first step in generating change is education - and the resolve in one's mind to work for change in one's life," Ms. Sarabhai said. "Then you give yourself the ability to use your hands at work by learning a trade."

A scion of one of India's leading business families, she knows that when she speaks out on poverty alleviation and good governance issues, corporate tycoons listen to her, not only India but in America and elsewhere. Part of the reason she elicits respect is the regard with which her late father, Vikram Sarabhai, is still held here and in many other countries. Sarabhai, who died in 1971, was a Cambridge-educated physicist, and generally acknowledged to be the "father" of India's space program, and also the man who introduced television in the country.

"I sometimes think that corporate types in America listen to me more thoughtfully that their counterparts in India," Ms. Sarabhai said. "I guess India's businessmen often see me as an inconvenient voice. What I say is that it's all right to make money, but economic growth should be equitable and balanced, particularly in a developing nation like India."

When a provincial newspaper in her native state of Gujarat bitterly criticized her social activism and accused her of being a dilettante, Ms. Sarabhai confronted its editor and said, "Does my sexiness upset you? Do I have to be ugly to speak out?"

She inherited such forthrightness from her mother and father. It wasn't just her father's professional accomplishments that motivated Ms. Sarabhai from childhood. Her mother, Mrinalini, was a noted practitioner of the classical dance forms of Bharata Natyam and Kathak, and also an activist for women's rights. Mallika's forebears were not only pioneering industrialists but also closely associated with Mohandas K. Gandhi - the Mahatma - during India's struggle for independence from the British colonialists.

The fact that India's biggest industrialists could join hands with political figures in pushing not only for sovereignty but also economic development, persuaded Ms. Sarabhai that she, too, could play a significant role in nation building. She decided she would devote her life to the arts, largely leaving the family's industrial interests in the hands of relatives.

"I learned early in life from my family that the greatest thing you could do was to earn wealth in order to give it away," Ms. Sarabhai said.

In short order, she began producing films, television shows, and, of course, hugely successful choreography. She played the female lead in Peter Brooks' "Mahabharata" in Paris and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. She ventured into regional theater in India's 29 states and 7 federal territories.

The fact that she spoke eight languages was an asset in a country of 15 officially recognized language and 875 dialects.

And although she leads the uebercontinental lifestyle in pursuit of her art and social causes, Ms. Sarabhai is hardly one to indulge in ostentatiousness.

When a reporter noticed that she wore no elaborate jewelry in the traditional manner of Indian women of a certain class, Ms. Sarabhai said:

"I've never worn such jewelry. My mother, in fact, was once asked why she possessed no diamonds, although she certainly could have afforded all the diamonds she wanted. She pointed to her dance group and said, 'These are my diamonds.' I take great pleasure in my art form - and the fact that I'm in a position to speak out about economic and social change on behalf of the voiceless. I can't think of another way of living. I love the life I lead because I try and make a difference."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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