Mrinalini Sarabhai (1918-2016), fondly called ‘Amma,’ was an Indian dancer, choreographer, teacher, and activist, who is known for mastering and preserving the South Indian classical dance forms. She is recognized as the first female dancer of Kathakali. Recipient of Padma Sri and Padma Bhushan, Mrinalini Sarabhai reawakened Bharatanatyam, Kathakali, Mohiniattam, and Kuchipudi to give it a contemporary value. She was the founding director of the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts and is regarded as the ‘High Priestess of Indian Classical Dance.’ Mrinalini was also an author and environmentalist. She died on 21 January 2016 due to complications of a stomach infection.
Mrinalini Sarabhai was born on Saturday, 11 May 1918 (age 97 years; at the time of death) in Madras Presidency (now Chennai), India. Her zodiac sign is Taurus. She grew up in a family of liberal revolutionary fighters, who belonged to the Vadakath Tharavad Family. Her mother and father were independence activists. Mrinalini attended a boarding school at Dalcroze School, Switzerland for 2 years. She was later educated in music and painting by Rabindranath Tagore and Nandlal Bose at Shantiniketan, West Bengal, India. Here, she realized that her true calling was to become a dancer.
She went for dance training at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in the United States and returned to India to get trained in Bharatanatyam by Meenakshisundaram Pillai and Kathakali by Guru Kunchu Kurup.
Height (approx.): 5′ 5″
Hair Colour: Black
Eye Colour: Black
Family & Caste
Mrinalini Sarabhai comes from a Tamil Brahmin and Malayali Nair family. Mrinalini’s mother was her father’s Sambandham partner and later became his wife. Sambandham was an informal marriage custom under the Malabar Marriage Act, of 1896, which allowed a Nair woman to have multiple partners from upper-caste- Brahmin, Kshatriya or Nair family, except the men from the same household. This custom stopped around the 1920s.
Parents & Siblings
Mrinalini Sarabhai’s father, Subbarama Swaminathan, was a noted Indian independence activist and a professional criminal lawyer at Madras High Court. He also served as principal of the Madras Law College. Her mother, Ammu Swaminathan, was a social activist, an Indian independence activist, and a parliamentarian.
She had two siblings. The elder sister, Lakshmi Sahgal, was the commander-in-chief of Azad Hind Fauj’s ‘Rani of Jhansi Regiment.’ She was also a doctor and a politician.
Mrinalini’s brother, Govind Swaminadhan, was a barrister in criminal, constitutional, civil, and company law. He also served as Attorney-General for the Madras state (present-day Tamil Nadu).
Husband & Children
Mrinalini Sarabhai’s husband was Vikram Sarabhai, the famous Indian physicist, to whom she married in 1942. Vikram Sarabhai planted the Indian Space and Research Organisation (ISRO) and Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Ahmedabad, India.
She gave birth to a son and a daughter.
Kartikeya Sarabhai, her son, is a noted environmentalist and educationist. He is the director of the Ahmedabad-based Centre for Environment Education.
Mallika Sarabhai, her daughter, is an Indian dancer, actress, and chancellor of a deemed university, Kerala Kalamandalam.
Her grandson Revanta Sarabhai is an actor, dancer, and choreographer.
Anahita Sarabhai is the granddaughter of Mrinalini Sarabhai, who is a performance artist, educator, consultant, and writer. She is the founding director of QuuerAbad, an online platform for Ahmedabad’s LGBTQIA community.
Ambalal Sarabhai, an Indian industrialist and philanthropist, who supported Mahatma Gandhi, was Mrinalini’s father-in-law.
Dancer & Choreographer
By the 1940s, Mrinalini Sarabhai had become an eminent danseuse, whose Bharatanatyam and Kathakali performances were based on contemporary social issues that had a message for humans to check their actions against the harmful activities that were prevalent in society. She connected spirituality with her dance. She once wrote,
How many lives before
I danced away the passions
Of my heart
How many fires lit my body into nothingness
Releasing again the energies
More real than life
Curled into my very atma
For each new life renewed
And will dance again.”
Some of her most popular dance productions were:
- Manushya (1958) – This was her first popular Kathakali performance with Kavungal Chathunni Panicker; it was the first Kathakali performance by a woman. It was especially praised by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. It was also her first performance that toured internationally.
- Ganga – to sensitize people about polluting the holy water of the river Ganga in the name of religion. This dance ballet depicted how people are as equally polluted as the Ganga, and how they need to be conscious of their actions to become as pure as the Ganga River which was clean of dirt in the past.
- Memory: Ragged Fragment of Eternity – it was on the issue of dowry death.
- Ranmalpur – it voiced out violence against Dalits.
- Aspirations – it was inspired by the movement against the building of the Silent Valley Hydroelectric Project in Kerala.
- Shakuntala – this was created on Western classical music.
She was recognised internationally for her choreography for the Ballet Folklorico of Mexico for which she received a gold medal by the Mexican government.
Instructor & Founder of the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts
In her later years, Mrinalini Sarabhai served as a teacher of Indian classical dances at the dance institute Darpana Academy of Performing Arts, Ahmedabad, which was opened by her in 1948 with the support of her husband, Vikram Sarabhai.
Mrinalini Sarabhai wrote various books on dance, history, and mythology. She wrote an autobiography titled Mrinalini Sarabhai: The Voice of the Heart and was an active blogger.
Mrinalini has also authored, ”The Sacred Dance of India.’
Awards & Honours
- Natya Kala Sikhamani (1960)
- Gold Medal by Mexican Government (1968)
- Gujarat’s first state award for dance (1969)
- Padma Bhushan (1992)
- Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship (1994)
- Padma Shri (1965)
- Veera Shrinkala
- Kerala’s first state award for dance, Nishagandhi Puraskaram (2013)
- She was the first Indian to be graced with a Diploma and medal from the French Archives Internationales de la Danse in 1994.
- She is the first and only woman to be honoured with Veer Shankila for her contributions to Kathakali.
- She was nominated as a member of the International Dance Council’s Executive Committee, Paris, in 1990.
- She was chairperson of the Gujarat State Handicrafts and Handloom Development Corporation Ltd and the Nehru Foundation for Development (NFD).
- She was one of the trustees of the Sarvodaya International Trust, an organization promoting Gandhian ideals.
- Mrinalini Sarabhai’s character can be seen in Rocket Boys, a web series based on the life of Vikram Sarabhai and Homi J. Bhabha. Actress Regina Cassandra portrays her character.
- Google Doodle commemorated her 100th birthday on 11 May 2018.