Mallika Sarabhai was one of India’s leading classical dancers and choreographers. A truly multifaceted personality, she was also an acclaimed actress and a prominent social and political activist. Born as the daughter of renowned Indian classical dancer Mrinalini Sarabhai and the legendary space scientist, Vikram Sarabhai, she grew up in an artistically and intellectually stimulating environment. Taking after her mother she began learning dance quite early on in life and started performing when she was just a teenager. She has acted in several Gujarati and Hindi films and has received much acclaim for her dancing and acting skills. A very independent person from a young age, she worked hard to create an identity of her own and refused to be overshadowed by the brilliance of her famous parents who were both highly accomplished in their own chosen fields. She managed to not only emerge as a successful professional in her own right, but also took forward the legacy of her illustrious parents by getting involved in social activism. Trained in the Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi dance forms, she helps her mother in running the dance academy ‘Darpana’, and has also created her own unique style of choreography in contemporary dance forms. She has been honored with several awards for her contribution to dance and the society.
Childhood & Early Life
She was born on 9 May 1954 in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India, to the renowned space scientist, Vikram Sarabhai and his wife, the classical dancer, Mrinalini Sarabhai. Both her parents were very famous and accomplished professionals in their respective fields.
From a young age she was exposed to different cultural and artistic elements. Being the daughter of a physicist, she was raised in an intellectually stimulating environment. Her mother ensured that she learned different dance forms from a young age and thus Mallika was trained in Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi dance forms.
She earned a B.A. in economics with honours from St. Xavier’s College, Ahmedabad, in 1972. Then she enrolled at the Indian Institute of Management—one of the most prestigious management institutions in India—from where she completed her M.B.A. in 1974. She received her Doctorate in Organizational Behaviour from the Gujarat University in 1976.
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She began performing while still in her teens and started acting in parallel cinema when she was 15. She portrayed the role of Draupadi in British director Peter Brook’s ‘The Mahabharata’ for five years. Making her debut in the French version, she reprised this role in the English version too, performing all over France, America Australia, Japan, and Scotland.
She appeared in many Hindi and Gujarati language films and won acclaim for her acting skills. Some of her most popular film roles include the ones she played in ‘Mutthi Bhar Chawal’ (1975), ‘Himalay Se Ooncha’ (1975), ‘Mena Gurjari’ (1975), ‘Maniyaro’ (1980), and ‘Katha’ (1983). Along with working in films she also became active in television.
She once again collaborated with Peter Brook with whom she had performed in the initial years of her career and reprised the role of Draupadi in his film version of the epic ‘The Mahabharata’.
As a dancer and choreographer she worked closely with her mother Mrinalini to manage the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts located at Ahmedabad. She also continued performing as a soloist and created both classical and contemporary works.
An independent minded woman with a strong social conscience, she was an active champion for education and woman’s empowerment. In 1989, she created her solo theatrical work, ‘Shakti: The Power of Women’ which was critically appreciated for its impactful presentation.
Well trained in classical dance forms, she began exploring contemporary dance forms in earnest during the 1990s, and developed her own unique choreography styles. She went on to create many productions that dealt with social issues and advocated change. She has choreographed short dance pieces, entire evenings of work, dance-theatre and total performance work
Her works have been presented all over India and in several other countries. She has performed with companies such as the National Dance Institute and Battery Dance Company in New York, Pan Project in London and as part of festivals in Perth, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, Israel, and Egypt.
She is also a prolific writer who has written columns on issues of human rights, women empowerment, caste, law and order, corruption, and other topics of social relevance.
She co-directed ‘Women with Broken Wings’ along with film maker Yadavan Chandran and Swiss pianist Elizabeth Sombert in 2012, as an ode to the female victims of violence all over the world.
Awards & Achievements
She won the Best Film Actress Award for, ‘Mena Gurjari’, a Gujarati film, by the Government of Gujarat in 1975.
She was bestowed with the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for Creative Dance, in 2000.
The Indian Merchants' Chamber (IMC) named her the Woman of the Year in 2003.
She became the proud recipient of the Theatre Pasta Theatre Award in 2007.
She was honored by the Government of India with the Padma Bhushan, the third highest civilian award in India, in 2010 in recognition of her invaluable contribution to the arts.
Personal Life & Legacy
She met Bipin Shah while she was in college and developed a relationship with him. The couple lived together for a few years before getting married. They were blessed with two children. The marriage, however, was short-lived and ended in a divorce.