Accepted Paper:

Mrinali Sarabhai, nationalism, and cosmopolitan aesthetic  


Andree Grau (University of Roehampton)

Paper short abstract:

The paper examines the artistic cosmopolitanism of dancer-choreographer Mrinalini Sarabhai and her engagement with social movements in India prior to and after independence. It shows how with her husband the scientist Vikram Sarabhai they promoted a new India marrying modernity and tradition.

Paper long abstract:

Mrinalini Sarabhai, née Swaminathan, (1918- ) came from a highly educated, multi-lingual, well travelled, and wealthy background. Members of her family engaged in politics and were freedom fighters. She studied with Rabindranath Tagore and was deeply influenced by his cosmopolitanism. In 1942 she married Vikram Sarabhai and joined one of the wealthiest and influential families at the time in India. Whilst the marriage crossed geographical and linguistic boundaries, it was endogamous in terms of social, political, and intellectual class. Her dance education was eclectic: she trained with canonical gurus but she thought many traditional dancers were rather coarse and slightly vulgar, not having the grace, beauty, and taste she was looking for. Others saw her as an innovator and India celebrated her for her "creative" dance, yet felt she engaged with a "pure" classical tradition, while choreographing works dealing with social injustices. Being wealthy she was able to control her creative work, have her own theatre, dancers and musicians, and tour the world with her company largely in her own terms, rather than following governmental agendas. She was accepted on an equal footing with the greatest western artists, dancing on revered dance stages in Europe, usually to great acclaim. The paper will engage with Sarabhai's "elite" cosmopolitan aesthetics examining the pre- and post-independence works she created at a time dance was being questioned in India and the "classical" heritage was contested territory. It will examine in what ways her work fitted the nationalist agenda and when she departed from it.

Panel P44
Cosmopolitanism, politics, and the (performing) arts