Mrinalini Sarabhai passed away. When I first heard the news, I immediately went to confirm it. Frankly, I am still reeling from the shock. She died at the age of 97. She dedicated her life to dance such that she was one with dance. World has lost one of its finest gems and it’s already feeling the loss.
I think the classical dance form, Bharatnatyam, was always meant for me. My mom used to watch Doordarshan in those days and one of Amma’s shows was on. Obviously my mom told me this, I don’t remember any of it. I just started copying some of the movements and I felt I was dancing. I wasn’t copying her to the T maybe, but I was dancing. And then I just started copying dance from many songs and such. My mom sometimes used to joke that I learnt to dance before I started walking.
I started to train for dance at the age of 4. No, my parents didn’t send me to classes against my will. Nor did I have to drag them there. We had attended one of the shows of my cousin’s and that confirmed it – that I wanted to learn dance. I met my cousin’s guru, eventually mine too, there. She told me she accepted students from the age of 6. But even then, I still used to go and sit in the corner, watching the elder girls dance. Then after a few weeks, my guru taught me the Namaskar to keep me busy. I went home and perfected it, making my parents sit on the sofa. And then step by step, day after day, I started learning dance.
Of course, it was not always music and rhythm. I sometimes feel grateful to my mother that even when I was feeling down and didn’t want to go to class, she’d leave me there at the gates of the class, still crying and throwing a tantrum. I didn’t realise it then, but I learnt that dance accepted you in all your forms just like you embrace all the forms of dance. I wouldn’t have known Bharatnatyam and met such wonderful people, if Amma hadn’t brought the dance form to the people of Gujarat and taught it to us.
She was living legend. For me, she was always a curiosity. We read about her in history books even as we followed her in the activities column in the newspaper. How many people you could say the same thing about?
I met her when she was 92. Just that once. It was my Arangetram and she was going to be there. Everyone was so excited. My guru, Smt. Kashmira Trivedi, and many of her senior and the junior disciples, were so excited and were equally worried. They worked my partner and I extra hard just to ensure that we didn’t make any mistakes and that our movements were as effortless and flawless as possible.
It is still one of those days in my mind where it feels like it was all a dream and it was the highest reality. She was supposed to be there for just the opening ceremony and stay for maybe half an hour. She ended up staying till the interval and gave a heartfelt speech, appreciating both of my working parents and how they managed to send me to classes regularly to let me fulfil my passion.
Afterwards, she came to meet us in the green room and we talked. Her first comment on seeing me there was, “Oh my, you are tall!” I was in 8th and I was already 5’7″ back then. People I met couldn’t believe me when I said I was just in 8th. And she had that very same reaction. At that moment, I realised, she was just like you and I, like us. We shared our love for dance, but while we choose to run after success and what brings the most money, she followed her heart and made success run after her.
Even with all the popularity she had earned, she was down to earth. She met with all of my senior didis and congratulated them on the job well done in helping me train. My teacher, I remember her in one of those very few instances, had tears in her eyes. She was proud of having us, me and my partner, as her students and she was overwhelmed by meeting Amma in person.
Even when we met her she was so full of energy you wouldn’t even know that she was above 70-75. She walked faster than any of us, her eyes were so full of focus and expressive. It was like she was communicating with you solely when her eyes swept over the room.
This was the only instance where I encountered Amma in person, and it will stay with me forever. There are thousands of other people who were lucky to be taught under her tutelage and have more experiences to share.
I have no more words to say about her except, may you rest in peace, Amma, you will be missed sorely. But now you can finally dance away without the mortal constraints.