A demure, daring girl with dance in her breath and Tagore at the core of her being during formative years, on tying the nuptial knot with a scientist from Gujarat, set foot in this culturally nearly dry city when the country was tiding over a tumultuous time and freedom was round the corner. The trust the young dancer from Kerala had in the scientist having cultivated tastes was not misplaced. Dr Vikram Sarabhai made Mrinalini’s life as much comfortable in the kitchen with the presence of a South Indian culinary expert as, sharing her dream, with the creation of Darpana Academy of Performing Arts to help evolve the artist in her. Darpana Academy today has an iconic existence with seventy years’ work of national and international significance in the sphere of art.
In these seven decades, Darpana gradually elevated classical dance from a status looked down upon by society earlier to a dignified artistic pursuit today. Darpan means a mirror. In it is reflected the beauty that life and art offer as also unwelcome social attitudes and the change in the attitudes dance could and has been able to produce. Darpana’s milestone production Memory is a Ragged Fragment of Eternity (1971) on the evil of dowry comes to mind. So does This Mahabharata (1999) that traced the roots of social injustice and violence to the ancient times. The girl in Chandalika (1995) moved out in the dark fearfully looking around following overlapping sounds of a devotional song and radio news on atrocities on Harijans. Darpana gave an equal number of dance dramas such as Kumarasambhavam (1949) and Geeta-Govindam (1995) and The Adventures of Krishna (1996)
The Bharatanatyam seen in Darpana productions has the defining quality of strong roots in the tradition and rather than remaining confined to the centre it spreads out in all directions and skyward. Its Kathakali is freer, without traditional costumes and make-up. Manushya (1949), which portrayed man’s evolution from birth till death, was admired by Jawaharlal Nehru. Nalakhyan (1957), in the same style, when revived (2001) had Mallika on the Maan. Originality distinguished Darpana productions. The modern Shakuntala questioned Kanva on propriety and values. A Dance of Life was appreciated by the likes of Dr Abdul Kalam. The theme of Tasher Desh was the spirit of freedom-seeking liberation from suffocation and the dance drama was taken to even China!
Darpana Academy had an active Drama Department that held a festival of original Gujarati play in the seventies. It held Bhavai festival as well and kept employing this indigenous folk form of Gujarat in many performances of Darpana for Development to spread messages of social importance. Its Music section has been versatile. The Puppetry section at one time had great visibility. Janavak has delighted viewers with folk dances. Its Friends of the Tree group actively remained environment-friendly. The Centre for Nonviolence is known to promote from time to time the Gandhian thought. And, Darpana has passed on the legacy of classical dance tradition and of aesthetics to two generations of the family and many individuals.
With Mallika Sarabhai at the helm independently now, Darpana Academy does not seem to be at proverbial crossroads. Centrally integral to its traditions and having a clear vision for its future, she is a natural heir to the legacy and is set to take it forward and even add to it to keep it in tune with the changing time. She has been at the heart of a number of productions and pursuits of Darpana. Sampradayam (2008) has been one of the finest specimens of work displaying her rootedness traditionally and Kadak Badshahi (2018), with Yadavan Chandran as the co-director, of a breathtaking contemporary work with a vision. The completely renovated Natarani amphitheatre, which got inaugurated with Mother River the other day, is going to have pride of place for the city of Ahmedabad during the years to come with a window to the happenings in the world of performing arts nationally and internationally.
Image courtesy: Darpana Academy of Performing Arts
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