by Sunil Kothari
August 7, 2004
Rukmini Devi was born at the turn of the century on 29 February 1904 in an upper class Brahmin family in Madurai. Her father Neelakanta Sastri was an engineer; mother Seshammal was fond of music. Deeply interested in Indian philosophy and culture, Neelakanta Sastri equally was a scholar. He had come under the influence of theosophy and moved after retirement to Chennai to be close to the Theosophical Society and its leader Annie Besant. He built a house near the headquarters of the society at Adyar.
Of his eight children, it was Rukmini Devi who had from early childhood displayed an interest in the occult and the fine arts. In those years it seems that while there was no objection to young girls learning classical music, dance was taboo, considered an art fit only for 'women of ill-fame'. Women were not even allowed to watch it. Rukmini Devi in her wildest dreams could never have thought that one day she would help revive the dance of the devadasis, both performing and subsequently establishing a centre to teach it. She was not even conscious of the role she was destined to play in the 'building up of the nation' activities in various fields, including
education and the revival of crafts.
Often there were performances of music and plays at the annual international conventions of the Theosophical Society. Young Rukmini Devi would roam freely among the international theosophists and take part in tableaux-like presentations. She even studied Greek dancing under the guidance of the Elder Sisters who had come from London. She also participated in Malini, a play by Rabindranath Tagore and sang a song, which her father liked very much. He encouraged her to learn music.
Young Rukmini Devi came to the notice of Annie Besant, who saw in her the possible making of a World Mother, just as in J. Krishnamurti she had seen a World Teacher. She took both of them under her wings. Around 1917, George Sydney Arundale came from England at the invitation of Annie Besant to help with the educational programmes and other activities. His aunt Francesca, who had brought him up from an early age after his mother's death, was close to the Theosophical Society.
At a tea party hosted by her at her residence she invited Rukmini Devi. Though George Arundale was much senior in age to young Rukmini Devi, both were drawn to each other. And in 1920, when Rukmini Devi was only sixteen, with the consent of Annie Besant, they got married. Not surprisingly, this created a storm in conservative Chennai. It was an unheard of thing.
How dare an upper class Brahmin girl marry out of caste and that too to an Englishman? They had to leave Chennai and go to Mumbai where they had a civil marriage. To avoid the wrath of society, they left for a tour of Europe and other countries to further the cause of theosophy. Annie Besant made Rukmini Devi the President of the All India Federation of Young Theosophists in 1923 and in 1925, President of the World Federation of Young Theosophists.
Travelling with George Arundale, Rukmini Devi was exposed to the finest of the arts - theatre, music, painting, sculpture, opera and ballet. Vastly gifted with an innate sense of beauty and aesthetics, she responded to the various art forms. Given a natural inclination for the performing arts, she decided to learn, of all things, classical western ballet and that too from the legendary Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova. In a ballet costume she looked stunningly beautiful. Looking back at those times of the early thirties, a young Tamilian Brahmin woman's forays into these art forms appear quite amazing.
Studying ballet was a result of a chance meeting with Anna Pavlova during her tours abroad to Australia. They happened to be travelling on the same ship and over time a friendship developed. Rukmini Devi took further lessons in ballet from Pavlova's soloist, Cleo Nordi. It was Pavlova who persuaded her to study Indian classical dance. Rukmini Devi had till then never even seen a performance of Bharata Natyam. It was a dance form practiced by women of the devadasi class, who were considered prostitutes, as they had fallen on evil days and were exploited by the priests and landlords. Therefore, a stigma was attached to their art.
In 1933 E Krishna Iyer, a lawyer and freedom fighter, sponsored a performance of two brilliant devadasi dancers at The Music Academy. He invited Rukmini Devi to watch it. The die was cast. Rukmini Devi was completely charmed by what she saw and expressed a desire to study the dance, which again created a storm and protest from conservative group of people. How dare a Brahmin girl study dance from a devadasi? At the time an anti-nautch movement was on against the revival of Sadir, as Bharata Natyam was then called. Muthulakshmi Reddy had even piloted a Bill to ban the practice of dance in the temples.
However, captivated by the beauty of the dance form, Rukmini Devi was determined and started learning privately from Mylapore Gowri Amma, a well-known devadasi of the period. She received full support from Arundale and her brothers, as also her mother. The Theosophical Society, of which George Arundale was by then President after the demise of Annie Besant, also supported Rukmini Devi's efforts. Not only did Rukmini Devi learn from a devadasi and the great master Pandanallur Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai, but she also had the courage to present it in public during the Diamond Jubilee Convention of The Theosophical Society in December 1935. Many people had come out of curiosity to watch her, but she won them over. Among them were Sir C P Ramaswami Iyer and other leaders of the society and international theosophists, who found her presentation and performance beautiful, aesthetic and spiritual.
Rukmini Devi's greatest contribution was to make dance acceptable as an art form to society. For that she had to veer the content of the 'lurid' songs towards a devotional aspect, bhakti, as was the need of the time. Not that she was opposed to shringara, the erotic content of the songs, but preferred to underplay it and emphasize its sublime quality and raise the level of the art. Her critics often accused her of sanitizing the art, but this is not correct. Her focus was on introducing the highest aesthetics and elevating the dance form.
Formerly the devadsis' costumes consisted of a saree worn over baggy pyjamas though the traditional ornaments were exquisite. The accompanying musicians would follow the dancer on stage during the performance. The musical instruments consisted of a clarinet and bagpipes. All this looked uncouth and unaesthetic.
Rukmini Devi altered all this. She made the musicians sit on one side of the stage. Taking inspiration from traditional sculpture and with the help of an Italian seamstress, Madame Cazan, she designed new and artistic costumes. She had a fine sense of lighting and with the help of Conrad Woldringh, Alex and Mary Elmore, theatre artists who were also theosophists, she created an excellent impression. The backdrops were changed so that the proscenium stage looked the right setting for the dance. These were some of the changes Rukmini Devi introduced and to this day, barring minor variations, most Bharata Natyam dancers follow her lead in costumes and other areas of presentation. She literally revolutionised the dance scene.
This was not enough for Rukmini Devi. She wanted Bharata Natyam to spread in society and for others to learn it. Towards this end, she established a dance academy, Kalakshetra, formerly called The International Academy of Arts and invited the greatest musicians and dance gurus to teach there. Her first student was her brother Sri Ram's daughter Radha Burnier, now the president of The Theosophical Society. Kalakshetra with thatched roof studios, an atmosphere reminiscent of a tapovan (penance grove) and classes conducted under trees in open air, soon grew and young girls from middle class families began to learn Bharata Natyam, the name Rukmini Devi gave to the Sadir, the dance of the devadasis. She institutionalized the art form and the transmission of its technique in a systematic manner.
There were other areas too, where she made a mark. Inspired by traditional temple dance-dramas, she started choreographing her own dance-dramas, enlisting support from a galaxy of legendary figures in the world of Indian music who composed for the performances. Of the 25 dance dramas she choreographed, the six-part series based on the Ramayana remains outstanding. She even built a special theatre for staging the dance-dramas with the available state-of-art facilities. She had infallible
taste and a modern mind.
Rukmini Devi's interest in indigenous crafts was deep and genuine. With help of a grant from the Ministry of Labour and Industry in 1937, she established a weaving centre, setting the age-old looms humming, reviving several of the majestic designs and alluring colours with a variety of motifs. Kalakshetra sarees are works of beauty and to possess one is considered a hallmark of high taste. With support from her contemporary, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, she helped revive the vegetable dyes and the art of Kalamkari. The Crafts Education and Research Centre at Kalakshetra is one great legacy that she has left behind.
Concurrent with these activities was her interest in education. She and George Arundale invited Maria Montessori to the Besant Theosophical High School to start Montessori courses. Rukmini Devi introduced music as a subject and got the diploma course recognised by the Madras University. Her vision was clear and insights advanced.
From childhood she was fond of animals. Therefore, when Prime Minister Nehru nominated her to the Rajya Sabha, she used her position to plead for the cause of animal welfare. She piloted a private member's bill for the prevention of cruelty towards animals, which Parliament subsequently passed as an act. She also became the first chairperson of the Animal Welfare Board, doing remarkable work at the international level. Closely connected with the cause of animal welfare was her involvement with the vegetarian movement and the World Vegetarian Congress. She stopped performing after joining the Rajya Sabha as increasing demands were made on her as an ambassador of culture and the role she had to play after India became independent.
In 1977 Prime Minister Morarji Desai invited her to be the official candidate for the post of President of India. After careful consideration, she declined the offer. One is not aware of any other instance where the highest office of the land was just passed by; instead she chose to devote her life to art and her institution Kalakshetra. Numerous honours and awards were bestowed upon her including Padmabhushan, Fellow of Sangeet Natak Akademi, Prani Mitra Award, Desikottam award from Santiniketan, Kalidas Samman and many more, which she richly deserved.
Rukmini Devi lived a rich life. No flag-waving, slogan-shouting feminist, but in her times she was quite a rebel. Till her final days she was a theosophist and believed in the ancient wisdom of Indian culture. An outstanding woman, she stands out as an icon. Her life symbolizes the heights women can scale and the role they can play in the life of a nation. Rukmini Devi will be remembered as a renaissance woman, one who enriched the nation with the highest artistic traditions and values of life.
After her demise on 24 February 1986, Kalakshetra was declared as an institution of national importance by an Act of Parliament - The Kalakshetra Foundation Act 1993. Kalakshetra at Tiruvanmiyur in Chennai is today recognised as one of the best academies of Indian dance and music and 'a way of life'. Her students are legion. Wherever they may be, they are spreading the culture of Kalakshetra, through their activities in the field of arts and education.
Rukmini Devi was an institution builder. None of the activities initiated by her has been discontinued. Bharata Kalakshetra Auditorium on its sprawling campus is one of the best auditoriums and to witness her dance-dramas there is an aesthetic experience. The Rukmini Devi College of Fine Arts, The Besant Theosophical High School, The Besant Arundale Higher Secondary School, The Besant Cultural Centre Hostel, the open-air theatre, the weaving centre and Kalamkari unit of the Crafts Education and Research Centre and the Rukmini Devi Museum housing her art collection, mirror the multiple activities of Kalakshetra. They stand as a tribute to this multifaceted woman, a beacon for generations to come.
Dr. Sunil Kothari is based in New Delhi, India and is a Visiting Professor (Dance), School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He received the Lifetime Achievement Award conferred by Kalanidhi Fine Arts of Canada, Toronto, during their 7th International Dance Conference in March 2004.