Overdoing anything often results in several consequences. Among other things, the grand dignity of Brutus will suddenly resemble the character of the idiot full of sound and fury signifying nothing. The latest exhibit: Mallika Sarabhai’s on-stage antics in the recently-concluded TED India event hosted at Mysore.
I admire the work TED is doing. It has hosted some excellent thinkers like Alain De Botton and others whose names I can’t recall but was impressed. Like many attendees who shared their feedback, the TED session at Mysore kind of marked its ebb but this is not the place—and neither do I know enough to make an informed assessment.
However, it does hint at something if of all people, Mallika Sarabhai was given a platform to do what she did. As a backgrounder it helps to remember these general observations, all my own:
- of all the TED videos I’ve watched, not one has a marked political or racial bias.
- most if not all speakers have a sense of humour.
- almost every speaker has something to give as a takeaway to the audience—in terms of food for thought, a new idea, an alternative way of thinking about something, and so on.
- most if not all speakers have distinguished themselves in terms of their contribution in their respective fields.
If you rate Mallika Sarabhai’s talk on just these parameters, she still fails miserably.
Mallika Sarabhai’s CV says she’s an accomplished Kuchipudi and Bharatnatyam danseuse. However, I’m not sure just how firmly her fame she rests on these two classical dance forms. Even a cursory reading of the Wikipedia entry on her shows that she has “accomplished” far more in other areas than classical dance. In reality, she has distinguished herself as an aggressive feminist, a social worker, and a tireless champion against violence in society. And she has proclaimed—through Darpana, her art/theatre institute—she has chosen theatre and/or dance forms to push her message. Her TED talk is woven around the same theme—art as an enabler and/or medium of bringing about social change.
Her TED speech is characterized with a certain kind of crude loudness that instantly repulses you. Perhaps for effect. Sure. But it would’ve been effective had her talk contained substance. But it was, in two words: empty hollering.
She begins with an incredible story about a Brahmin’s wife, a female ascetic who is meditating under a tree. That sets the stage for her to begin bashing the Brahmin and the God Indra, who rapes her. For enhanced effect, she even demonstrates the rape by briefly fornicating the floor of the podium. And then embarks on a mini-discourse about justice for the woman.
The rest of her talk is about how art forms can be effectively employed to bring about social change. But mostly, it’s self-glorification: how her Mother impressed Nehru with one of such “social-change” performances, how her own plays/performances have made a positive impact, and similar self-back-patting antics. She yells at the audience instead of engaging it.
Like most artists (and writers) of her ilk, she is afflicted with the same malaise of ill-understood feminism. But that’s mildly forgivable compared to the generous amount of India-bashing she does. Needless, conditions apply*: third world country, rapes every second, unreported rapes, no justice for women, dowry harassment, unsafe drinking water, communal violence, MNCs are evil… For good measure, she also says that the oppressed in all countries across the world are routinely put in jail. To quote,
“…if you are in Australia, it is mostly the Aborigines [who’re put in jail], if you’re in India, it’s the Muslims and the Adivasis, the tribals/Naxalites, and if you are in America, it’s mostly the blacks.”
Doesn’t this immediately light up a passionate blaze of righteous anger in your heart? And what’s the solution? Spreading awareness and changing this dreary situation by staging plays and dance performances across India. Or in her words, through the “power of art.”
Mallika Sarabhai epitomizes the phenomenon of taking proverbs and sayings literally. In reality, the pen is not mightier than the sword. And the only aim of all art is to merely entertain not to preach or cause revolutions and sweeping social changes. Nobody in the Eastern or Western classical tradition ever proclaimed that social change is the goal of art. At best, a common refrain as to the goal of art even in the time of Dryden was to “entertain and provide moral instruction.” This changed when political science and sociology was injected into literature. A measure of the prevalence of this virus is available in our universities where literature department is full of folks who try to detect anthropology, sociology, and politics instead of the actual literary worth of a work. Does the White Tiger sound familiar? This virus has also spread to mainstream cinema: Black Friday, Parzania, Mumbai Meri Jaan, etc. I don’t argue that works of art should be devoid of “social messages (sic)” but these messages should merely be incidental and essentially subservient to the overall story/theme.
But no, a tireless social activist is compelled to shove grotesque perversity into time-honoured epics like the Ramayana just so she can advertise her own brand of depraved feminism. A couple of years ago, this selfsame Mallika Sarabhai, the TED Fellow choreographed a vile dance-drama entitled, Surpanakha’s daughters. As this superb dissection puts it, Sarabhai wants Indian women to discard their traditional role models of women of exemplary character in favour of a woman “who relentlessly pursued a married man who showed no interest whatsoever in her!” Can we conclude that this is the change she wants to bring about in the society through her “art? “
In reality, our intellectually-vacuous thinkers imported the worst of Western feminism into India and superimposed it on to the Indian society. Western feminism arose out of a genuine need in those societies—for example, women were denied voting rights till the 1960s, about 50 years ere now. Also, oppression of women in those societies was also one of the outcomes of the industrial revolution, which in its early days, spawned a ruthless form of exploitative capitalism. However, India was a victim of the industrial revolution. Indian women suffered no such oppression. Besides, the status of Indian women as worship-worthy was still secure, and was handed down over a few thousand years. Indian women had such models as Gargi, Maitreyi, Arundhati, and Draupadi to look up to while their Western sisters had none. A poor Joan of Arc or a Hypatia who were put to death. Today, a Mata Amritanandamayi is worshipped by men and women with equal devotion. When I last heard, she didn’t go about preaching Mallika Sarabhai-brand of female equality.
Mallika Sarabhai’s opening lines, which launch a frontal attack on Brahmins is without doubt, racist. On the one hand, her caring heart weeps tears of blood for the oppressed, who she defines in terms of colour (black) and ethnic/racial origins (aborigines, adivasis) and on the other, she gleefully ridicules people of a specific caste. The indirect import is inescapable: Brahmins are always and at all times unjust and evil oppressors and they invent their Gods to justify their evil deeds.
Mallika Sarabhai’s mission of changing the society through art is but a mere sham notwithstanding whatever she says because we’re yet to see her record in social service and such other good stuff. As a classical danseuse, the least she could’ve spoken about was aesthetics, and/or the Rasa theory and her contribution to it.
The crucial question is: what message does Mallika’s antics send out to the global audience present at the TED event? What did the audience really take away from her session? These are questions that the wise people at TED need to dwell more deeply upon.