On a Political Note

Amidst all celebrations marking Tagore’s 150th anniversary, Mallika Sarabhai brings an unorthodox portrait of Tagore in the play With Love, highlighting the bard’s relationship with Victoria Ocampo. In this interview, Sarabhai talks on Tagore, Modi’s Gujarat and where Anna Hazare failed.


You’ve packed in so much in ‘With love’… Tagore’s ideas on universality, caste system, education, his relationships. Each could merit separate performances. So take us through the process of creating this play?

For me the fascinating thing is always to break the boundaries. Tagore has always been several things to several people but never all of it. If you talk to musicians, they only talk of Rabindra Sangeet. I have never met a musician, who talks about how a painting was inspired by a particular tune. These are the cross connections that makes a creative person. For me also, what was interesting was the person. In India, we have this habit of white-washing our heroes. You mustn’t talk about their weaknesses. To me, these weaknesses are important. Because they have these weaknesses like all of us do and still they use them to create the wonders that they do, is interesting. I have always wondered, behind all of this, underneath all of this, who was he? And that’s what the search was. And the obvious search became through the women he loved. And then I discovered Ocampo. That was the most enduring of his loves. It lasted from the age of 63 till he died. So… 1923 till 1948. It was a very different kind of love. It was a very deep love but neither of them wanted to live together. Neither of them thought it was possible to live together. Neither of them wanted to get married. Yet it was a love that was so deep that it permeated and set a whole new range of creativity. He started painting then and in those last 20 years of his life, he created 2000 paintings. So what was it? What were the hidden things? Then I started reading him, I found about the piece he had written in his diary, about loneliness. And about suddenly feeling, he couldn’t  create… And yet these are not the aspects that come up. I wanted to mix time and mix concerns and I wanted to get to know the person.


So when did you conceive this, before or after the 150th year celebrations?

When the 150th year thing was announced, I knew I wanted to dedicate our year to Tagore. And I knew I wanted to do something very different. So we have actually done three productions. Tagorenama has three productions. One is just based on his wife’s letter called Street of Voices. Because we think there is a wife like that behind every door today who isn’t able to say what this wife said.  We have interspersed real life stories with what the wife is writing. It’s again a very different interpretation. And there are interviews with real women, there are voices of real women in five different languages going through the story of Bindu. Ok, so that’s that.

And then I said if Tagore was alive today what he would be listening to on his Ipod? Who would he have collaborated with? Maybe the Manganiyars. Maybe some rock bands. So I took two very very different musicians and I said that I want to create a contemporary dance piece. I want to select Tagore songs related to the seasons and I want you to re-interpret them. They still have to be recognisably Tagore. But you can change the rhythm. You can change the interpretation. You can change the feel of it. You do what you want to. So that became a contemporary dance piece, Ritu Chakra. Which is also again very whacky, very different. But people love it.  So three comprise it. But the whole academy was only reading about Tagore that year. Everyone was banned from reading anything else that year. Every Saturday we would meet, including accountants, administrators. And everybody would share what they read. There was a huge chart. And we wrote, so and an so wrote this on him… then I started culling materials. The next step was you take one of these things and you improvise. Improvisational theatre, music…Everybody immersing themselves in it….they would run upto me and tell…‘Didi didi, look what we found. Can you imagine this was written by Gurudev.’ It was a wonderful thing for the whole academy.


Presenting Tagore in such an unorthodox way… do you not run the risk of facing the ire of puritans? On a different note, political art is endangered. Few days back Tamasha, a play depicting Tagore’s engagement with Gandhi, was banned in Bhopal…

I have done it since 1990. I have been at peril not only because of Gujarat but pre-Gujarat, with the VHP. I have had RSS and VHP storm the stage. I have had them try to ban my performances. But hey, that’s a part of it. I’m a political artist. For me everything is politics. The fact that I’m talking to you just now is politics. The way I eat is politics. The car I use is politics.


So how does Darpana survive despite the anti-state stands that you take?

Very difficult. Darpana is in great difficulty financially. We have never been dependant on the government. We have been dependant on my performances, what I earn, the projects we do and corporate sponsorships. Since, 2002, Mr. Narendra Modi has seen we get no corporate sponsorships whatsoever. This year, especially with the slowdown in the world markets, things are becoming very difficult but we will tighten our belt.


In one part of her open letter to Arnab Goswami, Madhu Kishwar writes that though what Modi did in Gujarat in 2002 was deplorable; she has no qualms admitting Modi’s performance in developing the state. So there is this whole development discourse…

There is no discourse. There is brain washing and if Madhu Kishwar, who is a friend of mine, would come to Gujarat, I would show her. And if that is what she means by development, then all I can do is Jai Ho. Lots of people think rich getting richer is development. Then finally there’ll be a trickle down effect and by that time, that is if the poor is still alive, it will be trickled. But that is not my idea of development. If globalisation is your idea of development, which is Montek Singh Ahluwalia’s and Manmohan Singh’s… Industry, industry,industry. To hell with the poor. My idea of development is it has to go from the bottom up. It’s not a one way process. Of course it has to come down. But you can’t have an industrialisation which is top down, so by the time the bottom starts rising, it is devastated. There is no land, there is no clean water, and there is no clean air. There is nothing to eat. People are unhealthy. People have no education. No hospitals. You’ve left a completely devastated land. Yes, if that is Madhu Kishwar’s idea of development, Modi is doing a fantastic job. Incidentally, I don’t know if you’ve heard it but, Nano and the Gujarat government are at loggerheads. Because Nano is claiming the Gujarat government isn’t giving them as much as they promised and Gujarat claims that Nano isn’t doing as much as promised. So 30,000 crores which was given to them as a deal at the cost of taxpayer’s money, it was apparently not enough.


With the Gujarat elections round the corner, it seems like Modi is set to come back…

Who told you that?


At least that’s the narrative on ground…

Narrative on the surface is spun by the PR people. And the PR people he employs are some of the best PR people in the world.


Do you have plans jumping into the electoral fray again?

I don’t want to jump into the electoral for the simple reason that I don’t believe that being independent counts these days. And I don’t think either of the parties is worth joining. Gujarat has a bipartisan system but I’ll completely throw my weight behind anybody who wants Modi and BJP’s ouster. I will be campaigning and help create performances and awareness. My volunteers are telling voters that they must look at the person they are voting for and not the party. And you know, it’s very funny that the PR machinery is so powerful that people forget when in the last assembly elections when Modi won, there was a swing of 40 seats and in all 40 seats he won by a margin of less than 1000 votes. Had the Congress been slightly more efficient, they would have won. Some of the seats he just won by 300 votes.


There is a so called secular government at the Centre…

There is no called secular government. There is no government in centre. There is no government in most states. There are a bunch of self serving, greedy, manipulative people on the guard.


My question was, even with Congress at the Centre, the prosecution rate in Gujarat is so low (with some exceptions)…will the victims ever get justice?

You know I’m not somebody who can predict the future. I’m somebody who can go on trying. If all of us go on trying to make the world a better place, more just place, more equitable space where dictators have no space, where chors who loot the country have no space. Then at least we can be happy in the fact that we are trying to achieve something that is worth achieving.


You were one of the early supporters of Anna Hazare. What’s your take on the way the movement petered out?

Too many rogues. It became too big. I think in many ways… It was a pity because at core it was a wonderful movement at the beginning. Then it started to get hijacked by different people for different agendas. The core issue went away. For me, the parting moment was when in the Hisar elections, they decided to target one of three candidates, the Congress one, but all three were dishonest. They could have told the people not to vote for any of them and throw in a blank ballot paper. But why did they go after one party when BJP is as corrupt… Mayawati is as corrupt? All are corrupt.

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