Interview: Artist, Mallika Sarabhai

Editors Note: One of the best things about running Gaysi is the opportunity to connect with some amazing people – from the other team members, to authors, activists, directors, lawyers, journalists and now … someone who I’ve admired for many years, someone that has lived life just like I want to and hope to – with courage and pride and honesty – Ms. Mallika Sarabhai.
The idea to interview her came when MJ saw an interview in the TOI that touched on the subject of Ms. Sarabhai’s daughter being a lesbian. My first thought was, ‘Maybe my mother will read this and become more accepting of me.’ When I emailed Ms. Sarabhai asking for an interview, I just assumed that it was very unlikely that she’d take the time to interview with us – little  did I know! Within an hour she had sent me a response and agreed to answer our questions. Multi-award winning actress, dancer, activist and a wonderful human being, ladies and gentlemen, I am so honoured to present our interview with Ms. Mallika Sarabhai.

What was it like when your daughter came out to you? Was it completely out of the blue or was it something you suspected all along?

While I have had gay friends over the years, it was not an issue that I thought consciously of. When Anahita started not having boy friends I thought it was a phase. She didn’t actually tell me. Friends told me that she had put it on Facebook. I wasn’t shocked or surprised or dismayed. I felt when she wanted to talk to me about it she would. Then there was a panic because a local newspaper picked it off Facebook and called me, in the middle of finishing a performance for a comment.  I said that sexuality was not an issue with me and whatever she wanted was fine.
What is the pain point (in your opinion) about the acceptance of diversity in Indian families? Is it the sex, or the social stigma or the loss of lineage or all of it or something else?
We are such hypocrites about everything. There might be incest or sexual abuse in the family but as long as we don’t let on, it somehow goes away. Our myths are full of homosexuality. So are our sculptures. Why is wife beating acceptable and not this? The pain point is “Hai Hai what will the world say?”
Artistic expressions have always been in the forefront to display one’s emotions. Do you think a larger representation and more mainstream attention of classical dances depicting Indian stories of diversity could make a difference in driving home the point? Do you incorporate them in your dances and in your teachings?
I have to tell you truthfully that while I fight for acceptance of all diversity, fighting particularly for gays is not on my agenda. There are many more marginalized peoples – whether they are Dalits or women! Or Muslims if you are in Gujarat. The numbers are much much larger and the fight will be a much longer and harder one. So, no, I do not yet think its on my list of priorities to incorporate this in my work. And yes perhaps opening up people’s mind towards all choices would help all around and the arts could be useful.
Did being an artist and an activist help you in understanding and accepting what your daughter went through?
I am not sure. She hasn’t really talked to me at length about it. She always has other gay women to share it with I suppose. But I am pro-choice as long as it doesn’t violate others’ rights so I have no problem in accepting it at all.
Do you see yourself more of an activist now that your daughter has come out? And how has your extended family reacted or is it for the most part, a non-event?
No I am not influenced in any way by her being gay. I have always fought for the rights of the wronged. Gays are part of that. The family has accepted but my mother is of a generation where she isn’t quite sure!
What is your advice to friends & families of  Queer people about accepting their loved ones?
I can’t advice. All I can say is that bringing up children is hard anyway, even if done with complete honesty and openness. There is a phase of childhood when you resent your parents whatever. If you are lucky and have been loved enough through this, you will realize the stupidity of that position. As a mother, even being constantly available and accepting, I feel the hostility. I see that my daughter is fighting her own demons, real and imagined, and that my role as the mature one is to continue being available and to show her how much I care – and that this is unconditional. Understand that there is going to be lots of pain. Accept that. And then try and do whatever with dignity, without hurting those who love you but may not understand or may not have the courage to face societal consequences.
The younger generation is more at ease in talking about sex (a historically taboo topic) and accepting, or at least tolerating, the diversity amongst their peers? How do you think the x, y and z generation can help the older ones?
I am not sure I agree with you. Talking and pretending you are open is often a defence against insecurity, a put on face to be accepted and hip. But yes, because of the media and the internet much more discussion is possible. I think a lot of people ( myself included sometimes) get put off when gays are aggressively in your face. I understand your point of view – that you have been ridiculed so often that you are on the offensive even when you don’t have to be- but sometimes it defeats the purpose. I get put off with hetro couples doing the same as well. The “look we are together and we can’t stop kissing and necking”. Fine but why do it in front of me? What are you proving? What reaction do you want of the other? It would help if  time is taken over broaching a subject which most people haven’t ever thought about, let alone have a view about. Remember the unknown is always feared and to introduce it with the band playing loudly might not be the  best way forward.
In India the main worry every parent has when it comes to daughters is ‘Who will take care of her after us (companionship, financially, etc)? Do you find yourself getting bogged down by the same question?
No one takes care of me and since I became an adult no has. If one gives one’s child the wherewithal to stand on her feet, marriage is hardly the safe place to put people!
In a society where being a parent of a divorced or unmarried daughter is tough enough, did peer pressure ever get to you, especially with your decision of entering politics, where Homosexuality is considered nothing but a black spot on so called Indian cultural values?
I have personally done everything considered black spots in our society. Live in relationships, pre-marital sex, being separated when pregnant, living alone, single mother, relationships and live ins after separation, being in a relationship with a younger man. I have no peers that I consider worthy of listening to. And I don’t respect this fraud and conniving thing we call samaj. Luckily, thankfully, my family has always trusted that I would do the right thing and have always been there when I get my nose bloodied. I try and do the same for the children.
Your advise to those struggling to come out to their parents.
Be true in this and everything else. It is tough, but that is the only way to a serene and true life.
What are your thoughts on depiction of homosexuality in Bollywood?
I haven’t seen anything but Fire, so I can’t say.
Decriminalizing of IPC 377 isn’t enough.Many LGBTQ members & supporters believe they should be officially identified as a sexual minority and given appropriate rights. Your thoughts ?
As I said, there is so much that needs amending with our laws that this is just one of the things. When 70% of our population are deprived of their rights routinely every single day of their lives, the issue takes on a different perspective.
What has more influence. Law on society or society on law?
Both equally and both have failed us for we are silent cowards, self serving and greedy.
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