It was 1935 and the hall at the headquarters of the Theosophical Society in Adyar, in what was then Madras, was filled with people who are there more out of curiosity than any interest in Bharatanatyam, as Rukmini Devi Arundale performed a dance recital.
It was unheard of for a Brahmin girl to perform the dance that finds its roots in the Devadasi culture, but Rukmini Devi was not the first one to do so. Her performance was preceded by that of Kalanidhi Narayanan by just three months, but since Narayanan’s recital was hardly publicised, Devi became the ‘saviour’ of India’s oldest art form.
Sadir, the name Bharatanatyam was originally known by, was going through a tumultuous time. The anti-nautch movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries aimed to abolish the tradition of Indian dancing girls. With diminishing patronage, devadasis moved to prostitution to make a living. What was, in their heads, a move to be independent, in reality, tainted their reputation.
Rukmini Devi’s contribution to the art form’s revival can be summarised in three points: “Her sense of aesthetics to enhance the beauty of dance presentation; replacing tawdry dance-wear with exquisitely designed costumes and jewellery and presenting the dance in beautiful settings.”
Sadir was put under the microscope for its eroticism, but with the help of Rukmini Devi, it was given a makeover from a sensuous art form to a more spiritual and devotional form.
Born on a rare, leap year day on 29 February in 1904, Rukmini Devi’s legacy lives on long after her death. Her contribution to the performing arts industry is unmatchable and one cannot ignore the shackles of caste and community she broke with it. The institute she founded, Kalakshetra, has gained international recognition and become synonymous with all things “classical” in India.
Renowned Bharatanatyam dancer and a disciple of Rukmini Devi, Leela Samson once said in an interview, “[Rukmini Devi[ adored the devadasis. All these ugly words that have been used about her – that she ‘sanitised’ dance; ‘Sanskritised’ it…that she was an antithesis to the devadasis – are inaccurate.”
Her tryst with Bharatanatyam was by chance and can, in part, be credited to her husband and her father’s intellectual leanings. She came from a family of theosophists and broke social norms by marrying an English theosophist, George Arundale, when she was just 16. She accompanied her husband on tours, theosophical missions, around the world. It was on one such tour that she met renowned ballet dancer, Anna Pavlova, who introduced her to the Western classical form way before Bharatanatyam ever came into the picture.
On Pavlova’s insistence, Devi sought the Indian classical dance to awaken the inner dancer in her. She felt the need to “disseminate this beautiful and profound art that had been restricted to a few specialists”.
So in 1936, she and her husband set up Kalakshetra, a dance and music institution built around the ancient Indian Gurukul system. She wanted Kalakshetra to have everything — the music, the dance, the story. But most importantly, she wanted it to be pure and classical. The academy “provided an institutional setting for the students of music and dance”.
Rukmini Devi “retained the positive aspects of the system and persuaded outstanding musicians and dance gurus to join the faculty and created for them an ambiance devoid of commercial considerations”.
Today, the prestigious academy has given the world legendary dancers such as Radha Burnier, Sarada Hoffman and Yamini Krishnamurthy among others.
Samson, herself a former director of Kalakshetra, while describing Devi’s classes, said, “We were tutored in inexplicable ways: what it meant to wear cotton, to tie your hair, [the[ aesthetics on stage, the colour combinations; she’d adorn you with the most beautiful of colours.”
Devi, a Padma Bhushan awardee, even dabbled in the world of politics, but only to remain true to her cause of fighting for animal rights. Samson once said, “She wasn’t training us just to be dancers. Time and again she would tell us to be good citizens; good human beings.”
As a Member of Parliament, she played a key role in the passage of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act (1960) as a Central Act. Following this, a statutory body was set up in 1962 under the Animal Welfare Board of India.
While Kalakshetra was a major landmark in her career as a dancer, her years as an MP were just as fruitful as she made sure Act 51 (G) of the Constitution of India was included under Part IV, making it the fundamental duty of every citizen to show kindness and compassion to all living beings.
Such was her charisma that Prime Minister Morarji Desai offered to nominate her for the post of President of India, which she politely declined. On this, President Pranab Mukherjee once said, “The choice was very widely appreciated and if she agreed, she would have been elected unanimously. But her refusal spoke volumes of her character, wisdom and sagacity and exemplified the values of renunciation and sacrifice that India has traditionally inculcated.”
Nobel Laureate C.V. Raman, who was present at Diamond Jubilee celebrations of the Theosophical Society in 1935 where Rukmini Devi performed in public for the first time, once said, “Some of you, I hope – for your sakes all of you – must have been thrilled by what you just witnessed… grace brought down from the heights of the Himalayas and put on the earth of this platform.”