Dancer, Actor, and Activist
Mallika was born in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India to classical dancer Mrinalini Sarabhai and space scientist Vikram Sarabhai. At an early age, Mallika learned from her mother Mrinalini to communicate through art about oppression and cruelty to the larger public that may choose not to see these issues.
One of these issues is religion. Since India’s independence from England in1947, the country has experienced great religious tensions and oppression among various people. Since the late 1980s, there has been a strong increase among the right wing in all religions. In particular, Hindu and Islamic religious leaders restrict free speech in any form because in their view such speech is not morally appropriate. Fundamentalist leaders target artists, especially writers, book publishers, and painters for this reason. The governments allow these fringe groups to continue their efforts without punishment. As a result these right-wing religious groups are able to increase their power base and proliferate, making life more difficult for artists and others who do not conform to their rules of morality. Religion is not the only oppressive force among people in India. Many people discriminate others because of class, gender, and race.
Gender inequality is a dominant issue for women in India, so much so that their health, education, and economic well being are threatened. Women are often victims of human trafficking, domestic violence, honor killings, and rape. They are so undervalued in Indian society that sex selective abortion is a common practice, resulting in a serious decline of females in the population, a phenomenon known as “India’s Missing Women”. India’s laws forbid these practices of discrimination but enforcing them is a great challenge because of systemic conditioning within the society.
Ostracized by society, the Dalits (meaning broken pieces), also known as the “untouchables”, are considered the lowest of the caste system. The Dalits make up nearly one quarter of India’s 1.2 billion people. While the government officially forbids any person to be treated differently because of their class, the Dalits are stigmatized. No one wants to touch them for fear that their impurity will rub off on them.
Mallika’s work through the years combines her art and social activism. She now identifies herself as an “artivist”. She is the founder for the Centre of Non-Violence through the Arts in India, where artists from around the world come together to use art as a tool to examine societal problems. She uses dance not just to examine societal problems but as a way to overcome societal ills. Mallika established arts programs in the ghettos of India that use theater and dance as a way to educate children and youth about cultural biases and helps them overcome these societal problems.
For over 30 years, Mallika is the co-director and solo performer of the prestigious Darpana Academy of Performing Arts, which her mother founded in 1949. She is also one of India’s leading choreographers and dancers, performing both classical Bharata Natyam and Kuchipudi styles and contemporary works and is an actor in Hindi and Gujarati films. She has created extraordinary works of dance and theater that bring difficult topics such as rape, abuse, and class issues to the forefront of the audience. Integrated into her performances, she relies on humor to encourage audiences to laugh at their imperfections and examine prejudices that might otherwise remain unexamined.
Credited with many honors, Mallika and her mother were two of the 1000 women who were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize (2005). Other awards received include the Padma Bhushan, third highest civilian award in India (2010) and the Knight of the Order of Arts & Letters, French Government (2002). Engagements include Sadlers Wells in London and the Festival des Champs Elysees in Paris as well as performing with companies such as the National Dance Institute and Battery Dance Company in New York, Pan Project in London. She has also participated in festivals in Perth, Adelaide, Paris, Brussels, Durban, Accra, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, Israel, Egypt and, all major festivals in India. Her most recent theatre production is Broken Wings’ (2012) that pays homage to the millions of women who are victims of violence.
Mallika holds an MBA (1974) and a doctorate in organizational behavior (1975). Some of her other efforts include working on projects for programs with USAID, UNICEF, the Johns Hopkins University Center for Communication Program, and UNESCO.