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'She was Amma to all of us'

January 27, 2016 11:34 IST

'Mrinalini Sarabhai was gracious, well-read, liberal, very secular, and very well informed,' recalls film historian S Theodore Baskaran of the celebrated dancer who passed into the ages last week.

It was when S Theodore Baskaran, the well known film historian and wildlife conservationist, was the postmaster general in Ahmedabad from 1993 to 1996 that he and his wife Thilaka became quite close to Mrinalini Sarabhai.

In this exclusive interview, Baskaran, image, left, speaks to Shobha Warrier/ about the many lunches, dinners and art and culture meetings he had at the Sarabhai home.

I had just come to Ahmedabad as the postmaster general and we were planning a philately exhibition there. I thought it would be fitting to invite Mrinalini Sarabhai to inaugurate the exhibition. I was not keen on inviting any politician, and the obvious choice was she.

I went to her house to invite her and in the first meeting itself, I felt she was a very positive, cheerful and a sparkling personality. She must have been in her early seventies then, but looked so energetic and full of life.

It was like age forgot to catch up with her. If you remember, the three generations of Sarabhais -- Mrinalini, Mallika and her daughter -- had danced together during that time.

She was curious to know more about me and my interests when we met first and we started talking about films. Though she was interested in films, she knew only about Hindi films and I was more knowledgeable about Tamil films, so we spoke a lot about Malayalam and Tamil films.

Later I came to know that she was a good friend of (Hollywood actor, The King And I, The Magnificent Seven) Yul Brynner. I didn't know much about classical arts, but I was very much interested in folk deities and we talked a lot about that too.

It was her mother Ammu Swaminadhan who had started the first film society in India in Madras in 1952, and when I mentioned that, she said she knew about it, but she was very happy that I was aware of it.

Another common interest we had was conservation and though she was not into wildlife conservation, she was basically a conservationist. As I was a wildlife conservationist, she told me about the nearby Thol lake in Ahmedabad where many rare birds used to come.

After that, in the three years I was there, whenever I had time, Thol lake became a favourite destination for me and my wife Thilaka. We used to drive to the lake, watch birds on weekends.

She inaugurated the exhibition and then spoke about stamps. I have to say she was a very gracious guest.

After my wife joined me, she started inviting us for lunch and dinner quite regularly. I still remember the first time she invited me for dinner, I went in a veshti and they were so excited and they started exclaiming happily, 'mundu, mundu'! I considered it an honour to be at her place when she had special guests.

When my children came, she invited all the four of us for dinner and when Thilaka's brother and family came, she invited us for dinner. She used to invite us whenever she invited visiting dignitaries. Food was always an excuse for people to meet and talk at her home.

There was only vegetarian food at Mrinalini's house and it was very delicious. There would be Gujarati, south Indian, north Indian, in fact, all kinds of vegetarian delicacies would be there. The lunch and dinner meetings had lively sessions where people spoke about art, culture, dance, music, books, etc. Of course, political and social issues also dominated the dinner table, but nothing about god, religion or spirituality came in our discussions.

I think I used to visit her at least two times a month in those three years. I like to believe that she liked us and our company. We also invited her and Mallika to our home for dinner and she always admired Thilaka's cooking. She used to love the aappam and vegetable stew made by her. We were Bhaskaran and Thilaka to her while she was Amma to all of us.

I got to know Mallika as her house was next to her mother's. I still remember our first meeting with her. My wife and I were invited for dinner at Mrinalini's home and it was Mallika who opened the door. She said, 'Welcome home. I am Mallika, the daughter of the house.' We could sense the great bonding the mother and daughter had.

They had Darpana theatre in their house complex, and the auditorium was on the banks of the river Sabarmati and we used to go there for all their programmes. The auditorium was built in such a way that we were actually sitting on the banks of the river and watching all the programmes. It was an amazing setting.

Gandhi Samarak Nidhi meetings also happened at her home and I used to go for the dinner. It was at one such dinner that I met Rajmohan Gandhi (both Mahatma Gandhi and C Rajagopalachari's grandson). I also met a young Australian who had left his job and country to become a Gandhian after watching the film, Gandhi!

Sometimes, Mrinalini would invite me for lunch at very short notice. When Mulk Raj Anand visited her for a few hours, she arranged a lunch, and invited me. She called me in the morning on a working day and asked, "Can you come for lunch today? Mulk Raj Anand will be here." I had been an admirer of his and one reason was he had written a book on the Indian post office.

So when I went for lunch, I carried the book covered in a brown paper to get it autographed. Interestingly, though it was covered, Mulk Raj Anand immediately recognised his book and said, 'I see you have my book'!

He signed the book and told me the story behind writing the book -- that it was Nehru who asked him to write a book on the Indian post office. I remember we had a very interesting conversation about the Indian postal service.

After we left Ahmedabad, we used to write friendly letters to each other and I cherish those letters from her. We left Madras in 2005 and moved to Bangalore and we were not really in touch after that.

The last time I met her was in 2004 when she was passing through Chennai from Ahmedabad to Palghat. She was at her ancestral home at Nungambakkom and called us from there. We went and met her, and that was the last time I met her in person.

Most of the conversation we had that day was about what was happening in Ahmedabad then as she was very concerned about the communal riots that had rocked the state.

She was a person from the Nehruvian era -- gracious, well-read, liberal, very secular, and very well informed on traditional arts. One adjective I would like to use for Mrinalini Sarabhai is she was very cerebral.

IMAGE: Thilaka Baskaran, left, with Mrinalini and Mallika Sarabhai and a guest at the Baskarans' hoMe. Photograph: Kind courtesy Theodore Basakaran
Theodore Basakaran's photograph: Anton

Shobha Warrier in Chennai