When the then prime minister Morarji Desai offered the
chair of the President of India to Rukmini Devi Arundale
in 1977 she politely declined. She decided she could
do without the trappings of the state that a stint in
Rashtrapati Bhavan brought with it. But she was not
a stranger to fame or power. She had occupied a niche
in the arena of Indian culture long before that. Her
powerful personality, her contribution to the renaissance
of Bharatanatyam and her creation of Kalakshetra, the
world-renowned temple of arts in Chennai, earned for
her great admiration. Less widely known is her work
for animal welfare and vegetarianism long before either
of these causes became fashionable.
Devi had grown up under the shade of the famous banyan
tree in the sprawling Adyar campus of the Theosophical
Society of which her father was an important functionary.
In her 20s, the theosophists proclaimed her the Mother
Goddess -- the Devi -- embodying the great spiritual
values of Hindustan, even as they identified J. Krishnamurti
as the new messiah. JK refused the mantle and went his
own way; Rukmini did not, but the attempt to promote
her as Mother Goddess fizzled out. Nonetheless, the
concept behind the move influenced her perception of
Indian culture in spiritual terms and of the arts as
the embodiment of that culture.
after her controversial marriage to George Arundale
when she was 16, it was western ballet that first caught
Rukmini's fancy. She turned to Indian dance only when
the ballerina Anna Pavlova advised her to look at the
"native arts" of India for inspiration.
was introduced to Bharatnatyam by E. Krishna Iyer, founder-secretary
of the Madras Music Academy. During the 1930s Iyer fought
a successful battle to save the dance which seemed likely
to be buried along with the disfavoured devadasi system.
It has been a shibboleth among the legion of Rukmini
Devi's admirers that it was she who saved Bharatnatyam
from oblivion. Recent research has revealed that this
was not entirely true. The credit for that belongs jointly
to Iyer and the band of outstanding dancers of the devadasi
community, like T. Balasaraswati and Kumbakonam K. Bhanumati.
The dance had been revived and most of the dark clouds
of social prejudice had been blown away by the time
Rukmini Devi gave her first dance performance at the
very end of 1935.
her upper-class Brahmin background, Iyer had rightly
anticipated that Rukmini Devi's entry into Bharatnatyam
would further dilute social ostracism of the community
of dancers and performers. Historically these arts had
been the preserve of the Isai Velalar community which
had nurtured them for about 150 years, if not longer.
Rukmini Devi herself gave credence to the view that
she had "reconstructed" the dance of the devadasis by
making it respectable. She did sanitise it by virtually
eliminating the sringara (erotic) element and enveloping
it in bhakti.
she herself had become interested in the dance not because
she wanted to cleanse it but because when she first
saw a performance by devadasi girls, she found it to
be utterly beautiful. As far as popularising of Bharatanatyam
goes it was perhaps neither Rukmini Devi's embrace of
the dance, nor the demonstration of its beauty by devadasi
dancers that led thousands of girls to learn Bharatnatyam.
The real role model was provided by Kamala, a child
prodigy and a star dancer in films as a youngster who
later emerged as Kamala Lakshman, a great dancer.
Rukmini Devi should be remembered for three major contributions
she made to the presentation and propagation of Bharatnatyam.
She used her sense of aesthetics to enhance the beauty
of dance presentation; she replaced tawdry dance-wear
with exquisitely designed costumes and jewellery and
presented the dance in beautiful settings.
tackled the problem of the transference of the art from
one generation to the next. At a time when the teaching-learning
process was still anchored in the guru-sishya system,
she set up Kalakshetra which provided an institutional
setting for the students of music and dance. Here she
retained the positive aspects of the system and persuaded
outstanding musicians and dance gurus to join the faculty
and created for them an ambience devoid of commercial
of students found in it a haven of opportunity to learn
the traditional arts. Lastly, she pioneered the use
of the dance-drama format for presenting Bharatanatyam
and sophisticated versions of folk and devotional dances.
Devi's forceful personality was an asset. She dominated
Kalakshetra as a queen who brooked no disagreement or
even individuality. She once told me that her creative
faculties were so unique that Kalakshetra probably could
not survive after her. Perhaps, perhaps not. Two groups
began an internal battle for the control of the institution
-- and in the midst of it Rukmini Devi passed away.
In the event, the central government took over Kalakshetra
which has since become a deemed university. It is a
moot-point whether Rukmini Devi's foreboding about the
future of Kalakshetra will turn true or false.
Narayana menon (1878-1958):
When this poet refused a a literary award from the Imperial
Crown in 1923, he was termed an "audacious vernacular".
But it never deterred him. He went about singing the
many facets of the freedom movement, emphasising that
India's future could only be woven with "the golden
thread of its past".
apart, he made a mark with his efforts to revive the
dance forms of Kathakali and Mohiniattam at a time when
they were derided as a mute drama, fit only for the
history books. He set up the Kerala Kalamandalam, a
training ground for dancers of Kathakali and Mohiniattam.
He also travelled extensively, both within and outside
India, propagating these dance forms.
retired as professor of modern Indian languages, Delhi
University. He has authored several books on classical
arts and literary criticism in Malayalam.