Dancing Her Convictions

Imagine a bird entombed inside a cemented ceiling, unable to escape, unable to fly free. Now imagine this metaphor for women’s rights translated into dance and you have a taste of Mallika Sarabhai’s powerful new production of contemporary Indian dance, “Hot Talas, Cool Rasas,” which is traveling nationally in several cities. The Darpana Academy of Performing Arts features dancers turning traditional dance on its head with their merger of classical with modern and martial arts, and yet conveying the beauty of movement.


Sarabhai, who had been reportedly harassed by the Narender Modi government in Gujarat for her outspoken criticism of the communal riots, has been through some rough times. She says the government accused her of an illegal immigration racket to the United States, issued a warrant for her arrest and she ended up losing many sponsors of her dance company.

Yet there’s a sparkle to her face and a flash to her eyes as she continues to stand up for what she believes to be right. Through dance workshops in schools and colleges she shows students dance can be as much about activism as marching in a protest rally. Dance, Mallika Sarabhai shows, can be a powerful agent for change.

Bird in My Ceiling is a dance dramatically and darkly choreographed to Deepti Naval’s poem inspired by the Hindu-Muslim riots. In “I Rise,” a poem by Maya Angelou, Sarabhai turns powerful words to powerful movement in a dance choreographed with Jonathan Hollander.

Indian dance performances in the United States are few and far-between because Indian audiences seem to favor Bollywood fare. Sarabhai’s performances were held at the Ailey Studios, which attracted many non Indians, including dance icon Jacques D’Amboise.

Sarabhai, of course, is an international star – dancer, choreographer and actress – and audiences remember her strong performance as Draupadi in Peter Brooks *Mahabharata.* In fact, she believes Draupadi is the perfect role model for women, and looking at her on the stage, standing in tunic and pants, her eyes flashing, her hair shorn short, so unlike a classical Indian dancer, she does evoke a modern day avenging angel, with all the power of dance within her, the anger, the energy and the strength to stand for what she believes in.  

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