Rukmini Devi's Arangetram 
Photos: Mohan Khokar 
December 30, 2008  

December 30, 1935: It was some performance! The venue was the headquarters of the Theosophical Society in Adyar and it was the first appearance of a girl who had no real background (or business) in dance of the dasis. It was unheard of that a Brahmin girl would publicly dance the art of the devadasis.  Over a thousand aficionados assembled for the event, more out of curiosity than real interest and all sat glued. A handful of die-hard bent on boycotting the event sneaked in to damnify the dancer, Rukmini Devi. 

Thus Rukmini Devi (Arundale) was born on 30 December in the dance world of Bharatanatyam. Before that, although she was born on a rare day like 29th Feb (a birthday this writer is proud to share, though many decades later!) in 1904, this sixth child of Sanskrit scholar and retired government engineer Nilakanta Sastry, was reborn on 30 Dec 1935. The Sastrys had left their native Puddukotai to seek fortunes in Madras, took up quarters in 1912 and life changed for this family imperceptibly. Particularly for Rukmini, who showed a zest for much she saw around her.  

After the Sastry family moved to Madras, due to proximity to many foreigners that abound at the Theosophical Society, Rukmini got attached to a young English lady Eleanor Elder, who had studied dancing with Margaret Morris in London and was now directing her attention to reviving the ancient Greek dance as set by the redoubtable Isadora and brother Raymond Duncan. To conduct her experiment and enquiry, Elder roped in some of the European and American residents at the Theosophical Society. Elder put up shows from time to time. In one of these, a Tamil version of Tagore's Malini, Rukmini appeared briefly and sang a song! This was 1918. 

That performance on Dec 30, 1935 proved to be a turning point for many: Rukmini herself, of course, but also, the development of Bharatanatyam and the coming up of the mother of all institutions for teaching Bharatanatyam the Kalakshetra. 

That was Rukmini Devi's first public appearance as a Bharatanatyam dancer. 
Hosannas have been sung to all that she achieved and contributed after that. Here is the story that went into the making of that momentous evening possible. 
The grand success of Dec 30th performance, led to the creation of a unique dance community in 1936 called the Kalakshetra. It had been conceived as an integrated community. It was a family. The residential cottage, the classrooms, the rehearsal hall, mess and administrative block were all cheek by jowl and there was energy in the air. There was western discipline alright, but after classes, old timers recall how they could freely assemble and make small talk and bond as a family.  
At the Annual Convention of the Theosophical Society in 1940, George Arundale, its President, declared: "Today it is a humble cottage, this Kalakshetra, but in due course we shall have buildings, beautiful, simple structures created by our own hands, the Temple to India's glory. It is a cottage today; it will be a community tomorrow." 

Rukmini married George Arundale and it was meeting of east and west at its best. 

Kalakshetra was at Adyar and both were interlinked. For the first thirteen years, the institution was on Theosophical Society's land at Adyar, but in 1948, Kalakshetra received an eviction notice from the Theosophical Society. This was a shock (!) to say the least. The reason ascribed in the notice (a copy of which is in the Mohan Khokar Dance Archives given by Rukmini Devi herself) was that the dance and music activities were alien to the tenets of Theosophical Society and thus they could not host the institution. 

Kalakshetra had been formed when George Arundale was President of the Theosophical Society.  Rukmini Devi was appointed the President of Kalakshetra and James Cousins as Vice President, George Arundale and C Jinarajadasa as Patrons. At the inauguration, among those who spoke was Jinarajadasa who said, "Today we are starting an organisation for the arts. It is surely a logical development of our work. Indeed this is a lovely event today, that in this Theosophical Society we have realised so fully the need of art. I hope the academy (Kalakshetra) will give us the inspiration we all need, so that we will understand better our work and better our ideals of Theosophy." 

Why then did the Theosophical Society so unceremoniously and suddenly evict Kalakshetra? After George Arundale died in August of 1945, C.Jinarajadasa came to be elected President of the Society. He and his confreres soon started having second thoughts about Kalakshetra. The feeling was born, and nursed, that its pursuits were not quite consistent with the objectives of the Society. The showdown came towards 1949 when Kalakshetra was directed to quit the Adyar campus by the middle of 1953. 

It would seem Rukmini Devi, as early as 1945, had some lurking feelings or premonition of the contretemps. For, in that year, fearing that in coming years Kalakshetra may expand and the Theosophical Society may not be able to provide additional space, she started buying pockets of land nearby. The place chosen was a neighbouring village called Thiruvanmiyur. Land was cheap, around Rs.300 per acre and over the years a great deal came to be acquired, though only in patches, when available. The institution we all see today and have in the last 60 years, stands on part of that patch.  

In 1952, came another surprise turn! C Jinarajadasa's term finished and in his place came to be elected N Sri Ram, a brother of Rukmini, who wished Kalakshetra returned to its original setting and moorings in Adyar and agreed to extend lease for 15 years but Rukmini Devi rightly refused. Such was the strength and suffering of this great woman, whom many worship today. December 30 has another interesting twist: Mohan Khokar, Kalakshetra's first male student, Rukmini Devi's pet, and not only my illustrious father but father-figure of Indian dance heritage and history, was born that day. 

Ashish Mohan Khokar is a qualified dance historian, who majored in History (merit-lister, Delhi University). With over 30 books to his credit, his is a very valued voice in the dance field backed with solid, sincere work. His yearbook attendance - serves as study material and reference guide to many dancers, connoisseurs, institutions, libraries and Ph.D candidates. The UNESCO Dance Council has hailed it as a model dance journal. He is uniquely placed to further the cause of dance history, having inherited India's largest dance archives created by his father.