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Mallika Sarabhai: Dance to change the world

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One day a one-eyed monkey came into the forest. Under a tree she saw a woman meditating furiously. The one-eyed monkey recognized the woman, a Sekhri. She was the wife of an even more famous Brahmin. To watch her better, the one-eyed monkey climbed onto the tree. Just then, with a loud bang, the heavens opened. (Claps) And the god Indra jumped into the clearing. Indra saw the woman, a Sekhri. Ah-hah. The woman paid him no heed. So, Indra, attracted, threw her onto the floor, and proceeded to rape her. Then Indra disappeared. (Clap! Clap!) And the woman's husband, the Brahmin, appeared. He realized at once what had happened. So, he petitioned the higher gods so that he may have justice. So, the god Vishnu arrived.

"Are there any witnesses?"

"Just a one-eyed monkey," said the Brahmin.

Now, the one-eyed monkey really wanted for the woman, a Sekhri, to get justice, so she retold events exactly as they had happened. Vishnu gave his judgment.

"The god Indra has sinned, in that he has sinned against ... a Brahmin. May he be called to wash away his sins."

So, Indra arrived, and performed the sacrifice of the horse. And so it transpired that a horse was killed, a god was made sin-free, a Brahmin's ego was appeased, a woman ... was ruined, and a one-eyed monkey was left ... very confused at what we humans call justice.

In India there is a rape every three minutes. In India, only 25 percent of rapes come to a police station, and of these 25 percent that come to a police station, convictions are only in four percent of the cases. That's a lot of women who don't get justice.

And it's not only about women. Look around you, look at your own countries. There is a certain pattern in who gets charged with crimes. If you're in Australia, it's mostly aboriginals who are in jail. If you're in India, it's either Muslims or Adivasis, our tribals, the Naxalites. If you're in the U.S., it's mostly the blacks. There is a trend here. And the Brahmins and the gods, like in my story, always get to tell their truth as The Truth. So, have we all become one-eyed -- two-eyed instead of one-eyed -- monkeys? Have we stopped seeing injustice?

Good morning. (Applause) You know, I have told this story close to 550 times, in audiences in 40 countries, to school students, to black-tie dinners at the Smithsonian, and so on and so forth, and every time it hits something. Now, if I were to go into the same crowd and say, "I want to lecture you about justice and injustice," they would say, "Thank you very much, we have other things to do." And that is the astonishing power of art.

Art can go through where other things can't. You can't have barriers, because it breaks through your prejudices, breaks through everything that you have as your mask, that says, "I am this, I am that, I am that." No. It breaks through those. And it reaches somewhere where other things don't. And in a world where attitudes are so difficult to change, we need a language that reaches through.

Hitler knew it; he used Wagner to make all the Nazis feel wonderful and Aryan. And Mr. Berlusconi knows it, as he sits atop this huge empire of media and television and so on and so forth. And all of the wonderful creative minds who are in all the advertising agencies, and who help corporate sell us things we absolutely don't require, they also know the power of the arts.

For me it came very early. When I was a young child, my mother, who was a choreographer, came upon a phenomenon that worried her. It was a phenomenon where young brides were committing suicide in rural Gujarat, because they were being forced to bring more and more money for their in-laws' families. And she created a dance piece which then Prime Minister Nehru saw. He came to talk to her and said, "What is this about?" She told him and he set out the first inquiry into what today we call Dowry Dance. Imagine a dance piece for the first inquiry into something that even today kills thousands of women.

Many years later, when I was working with the director Peter Brook in "The Mahabharata" playing this feisty feminine feminist called Draupadi, I had similar experiences. Big fat black mamas in the Bronx used to come and say, "Hey girl, that's it!" And then these trendy young things in the Sorbonne would say, "Madame Draupadi, on n'est pas feministe, mais ça? Ça!" And then aboriginal women in Africa would come and say, "This is it!" And I thought, "This is what we need, as a language."

We had somebody from public health. And Devdutt also mentioned public health. Well, millions of people around the world die of waterborne disease every year. And that's because there is no clean water to drink, or in countries like India, people don't know that they need to soap their hands before defecation. So, what do they do? They drink the water they know is dirty, they get cholera, they get diarrhea, they get jaundice and they die. And governments have not been able to provide clean water. They try and build it. They try and build pipelines; it doesn't happen. And the MNCs give them machines that they cannot afford. So what do you do? Do you let them die?

Well, somebody had a great idea. And it was a simple idea. It was an idea that could not profit anybody but would help health in every field. Most houses in Asia and India have a cotton garment. And it was discovered, and WHO endorses this, that a clean cotton garment folded eight times over, can reduce bacteria up to 80 percent from water sieved through. So, why aren't governments blaring this on television? Why isn't it on every poster across the third world? Because there is no profit in it. Because nobody can get a kickback. But it still needs to get to people. And here is one of the ways we get it to people.

[Video] Woman: Then get me one of those fancy water purifiers.

Man: You know how expensive those are. I have a solution that requires neither machine, nor wood, nor cooking gas.

Woman: What solution?

Man: Listen, go fetch that cotton sari you have.

Boy: Grand-dad, tell me the solution please.

Man: I will tell all of you. Just wait.

Woman: Here father. (Man: Is it clean?) Woman: Yes, of course.

Man: Then do as I tell you. Fold the sari into eight folds.

Woman: All right, father.

Man: And you, you count that she does it right. (Boy: All right, grand-dad.)

Man: One, two, three, four folds we make. All the germs from the water we take.

Chorus: One, two, three, four folds we make. All the germs from the water we take. Five, six, seven, eight folds we make. Our drinking water safe we make. Five, six, seven, eight folds we make. Our drinking water safe we make.

Woman: Here, father, your eight-times folded cotton sari.

Man: So this is the cotton sari. And through this we will have clean water.


I think it's safe to say that all of us here are deeply concerned about the escalating violence in our daily lives. While universities are trying to devise courses in conflict resolution, and governments are trying to stop skirmishes at borders, we are surrounded by violence, whether it's road rage, or whether it's domestic violence, whether it's a teacher beating up a student and killing her because she hasn't done her homework, it's everywhere. So, why are we not doing something to actually attend that problem on a day to day basis?

What are we doing to try and make children and young people realize that violence is something that we indulge in, that we can stop, and that there are other ways of actually taking violence, taking anger, taking frustrations into different things that do not harm other people. Well, here is one such way.

(Video) (Laughs) You are peaceful people. Your parents were peaceful people. Your grandparents were peaceful people. So much peace in one place? How could it be otherwise?


But, what if ... Yes. What if ... One little gene in you has been trying to get through? From your beginnings in Africa, through each generation, may be passed on to you, in your creation. It's a secret urge, hiding deep in you. And if it's in you, then it's in me too. Oh, dear.

It's what made you smack your baby brother, stamp on a cockroach, scratch your mother. It's the feeling that wells up from deep inside, when your husband comes home drunk and you wanna tan his hide. Want to kill that cyclist on the way to work, and string up your cousin 'cause she's such a jerk. Oh, dear. And as for outsiders, white, black or brown, tar and feather them, and whip them out of town.

It's that little gene. It's small and it's mean. Too small for detection, it's your built-in protection. Adrenaline, kill. It'll give you the will. Yes, you'd better face it 'cause you can't displace it. You're V-I-O-L-E-N-T. Cause you're either a victim, or on top, like me.

Goodbye, Abraham Lincoln. Goodbye, Mahatma Gandhi. Goodbye, Martin Luther King. Hello, gangs from this neighborhood killing gangs from that neighborhood. Hello governments of rich countries selling arms to governments of poor countries who can't even afford to give them food. Hello civilization. Hello, 21st century. Look what we've ... look what they've done. (Applause)

Mainstream art, cinema, has been used across the world to talk about social issues. A few years ago we had a film called Rang De Basanti, which suddenly spawned thousands of young people wanting to volunteer for social change. In Venezuela, one of the most popular soap operas has a heroine called Crystal. And when, onscreen, Crystal got breast cancer, 75,000 more young women went to have mammographies done. And of course, "The Vagina Monologues" we know about. And there are stand-up comics who are talking about racial issues, about ethnic issues.

So, why is it, that if we think that we all agree that we need a better world, we need a more just world, why is it that we are not using the one language that has consistently showed us that we can break down barriers, that we can reach people? What I need to say to the planners of the world, the governments, the strategists is, "You have treated the arts as the cherry on the cake. It needs to be the yeast." Because, any future planning, if 2048 is when we want to get there, unless the arts are put with the scientists, with the economists, with all those who prepare for the future, badly, we're not going to get there. And unless this is actually internalized, it won't happen.

So, what is it that we require? What is it that we need? We need to break down our vision of what planners are, of what the correct way of a path is. And to say all these years of trying to make a better world, and we have failed. There are more people being raped. There are more wars. There are more people dying of simple things. So, something has got to give. And that is what I want. Can I have my last audio track please?

Once there was a princess who whistled beautifully. (Whistling) Her father the king said, "Don't whistle." Her mother the queen said, "Hai, don't whistle." But the princess continued whistling. (Whistling)

The years went by and the princess grew up into a beautiful young woman, who whistled even more beautifully. (Whistling) Her father the king said, "Who will marry a whistling princess?" Her mother the queen said, "Who will marry a whistling princess?"

But the king had an idea. He announced a Swayamvara. He invited all the princes to come and defeat his daughter at whistling. "Whoever defeats my daughter shall have half my kingdom and her hand in marriage!" Soon the palace filled with princes whistling. (Whistling) Some whistled badly. Some whistled well. But nobody could defeat the princess.

"Now what shall we do?" said the king. "Now what shall we do?" said the queen. But the princess said, "Father, Mother, don't worry. I have an idea. I am going to go to each of these young men and I am going to ask them if they defeated correctly. And if somebody answers, that shall be my wish."

So she went up to each and said, "Do you accept that I have defeated you?" And they said, "Me? Defeated by a woman? No way, that's impossible! No no no no no! That's not possible." Till finally one prince said, "Princess, I accept, you have defeated me." "Uh-huh ..." she said. "Father, mother, this man shall be my wife." (Whistling)

Thank you. (Applause)

Video Details

Duration: 16 minutes and 31 seconds
Country: United States
Language: English
Genre: None
Producer: TEDTalks
Views: 375
Posted by: tedtalks on Nov 24, 2009

At TEDIndia, Mallika Sarabhai, a dancer/actor/politician, tells a transformative story in dance -- and argues that the arts may be the most powerful way to effect change, whether political, social or personal.

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