What the Mallika Sarabhai Bird Conference has to say about the right to love and mental health

As she has done for every election in Gujarat, except for the five years she spent working with legendary theater director Peter Brook in France, Mallika Sarabhai went to a voting booth in Ahmedabad vote in the afternoon. “That’s when the queue is shortest,” says the dancer-actor-director, who has been performing professionally since 1977. This time there was greater urgency. Sarabhai rehearsed from morning until late after midnight for a new production, The Conference of the Birds, directed by his longtime collaborator Yadavan Chandran and adapted from a 1970s text by Brook and Jean-Claude Carriere. The play started at the Natarani Auditorium in Ahmedabad on December 8 and today is the last day. Another race is scheduled from January 26 in Ahmedabad.

The conference of the Birds This is the first time the formidable entertainer will be on stage after being appointed by the Kerala government as Chancellor of Kerala Kalamandalam which is reputed to be a college of arts and culture. “I’m overwhelmed and thrilled, and I hope I can contribute to this great institution,” says sarabhai69, who directs the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts, in Ahmedabad, founded by his parents, the pioneer dancer Mrinalini Sarabhai and Vikram Sarabhai, the father of the Indian space program, in 1949.

Mallika Sarabhai (Courtesy of Darpana Academy of Performing Arts)

The Conference of the Birds is based on a 12th century poem, Mantiq-ut-Tair, by the Sufi saint Farid ud-Din Attar, who was Rumi’s teacher. It revolves around birds of different species who go on an epic journey in search of their king, Simurgh. At a deeper level, the quest is one of self-realization. The performers want to reach out to children and young adults, who have been made vulnerable by the pandemic. “Everywhere, from social media and newspapers to doctors, parents and teachers, I keep hearing about children going into the Depression. The number of young people complaining of mental disorders has increased dangerously. We have become a sick society because we are so far from the true meaning of life,” Sarabhai says.

Composed of several stories, the production features characters that reflect today’s dilemmas — the parrot who prefers the comfort of a golden cage, the falcon who is proud to be the pet of a king and the duck who is wary of foreign waters, among others. The aim is to inspire young audiences to think about issues ranging from racism and power to academic pressures, the right to love and their own mental well-being.

Sarabhai herself is one of the strongest voices in the country on the rights of struggling communities. During the online presentation of Professor Ram Bapat’s Ninth Memorial Lecture in July, she spoke of her personal transformation between 1984 and 1990, while working with Brook on the play, mahabharata, in which she played Draupadi. “These five years have been crucial in bringing together my strong feelings for justice and human rights, my still nascent political beliefs and ideology, my ethical framework and my ability as an artist, to reach out people and talking about things that matter,” she said.

She created Shakti: The Power of Women, in 1989 and followed it up with works that addressed the pressing socio-political concerns of the time. Unsuni, based on Harsh Mander’s book Unheard Voices (2001), engaged students in elite schools to discuss manual reclamation and tribal land rights, while Dear Judge Sahib (2021) was about activist Pinjra Tod Natasha Narwal and her father.

Artistic Director of Darpana, Yadavan Chandran (Courtesy of Darpana Academy of Performing Arts)

In 2009 Sarabhai fought Lok Sabha elections against LK Advani and lost. Over the decades, she has seen politics and society change. “There are times when you can be conflicted and there are times when you have to find another Language talk about the same things. I think it’s one of those times where you can’t be confrontational because the almighty are so much more powerful today,” she says. “Even with young audiences, if high tech is what’s needed to keep them engaged, then high tech is what we’ll use, even though we’re telling the same stories about human struggles,” she adds.

The challenge with La Conférence des Oiseaux was to divert children’s attention from social media for 85 minutes. According to Yadavan, young people live in a time “where we have become egocentric. We’ve become insular and don’t care about anyone else. Yet connection and empathy is what humanity is,” he says, “We tried to bring a new element into the room every three minutes – a sound, a visual, a punchline or a gag, so the production doesn’t drag on. The Conference of the Birds offers immersive multimedia effects with theatre, storytelling, dance and music. Darpana’s artistic director, Yadavan, has directed several pieces, including Kadak Badshaahi his ode to Ahmedabad, as well as films such as Mrinalini Sarabhai: The Artist and Her Art (2013) and Dance Unlocked (2020).

Sarabhai, was chosen as the hoopoe, the bird that initiates the journey in The Conference of Birds. “As we speak of the owl as being very wise in Hinduism, the hoopoe represents wisdom in Sufism. This text is supposed to be the first treatise on the path of Sufism since Islam. Although the hoopoe seems to motivate the “Action is also a bird in conflict, which we only find out at the end. It’s a common bird but the hoopoe is wise,” says Sarabhai.

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