Rukmini Devi Arundale, A Theosophist best known for her contributions towards the revival of Indian Classical Dance form ‘Bharatanatyam’, was born in Madurai on 29th February 1904 to Neelakanta Sastri, an engineer at the Public Works Department and Seshammal, a music enthusiast. Her father was deeply influenced by the teachings of the Theosophical movement. After retirement, he chose to settle in Adyar and built his home close to the headquarters of the Theosophical Society. It was during this period that she was introduced to ideas on music, culture, arts and dance in addition to Theosophical thought. With this started her tryst with Adyar.
She met British Theosophist Dr. George Arundale, a close associate of Annie Besant, at the society. A close bond between the two culminated in marriage in 1920. The marriage created ripples in the conservative society of Madras as it was a taboo in those days for a girl from Brahmin community to marry a foreigner. After marriage she started touring all over the world interacting with fellow Theosophists. She became the president of the All India Federation of Young Theosophists and also held the mantle at the Federation of Young Theosophists. It was at this time that she developed friendly relations with Maria Montessori, who was to be later invited by her husband to start Montessori classes at the Besant Memorial School.
When the famous Russian ballet dancer Anna Pavlova visited Chennai, Rukmini went to watch her performance. When she was travelling to Australia, even Anna happened to travel by the same ship. Their friendship grew, and soon Rukmini started learning Ballet Dancing from Cleo Nordi, one of Anna Pavlova’s foremost associates. Later Anna advised her to take up traditional Indian dance forms and Rukmini dedicated her entire life to their revival.
In 1933 at the Madras Music Academy she encountered for the first time, a dance form called ‘Sadhir’. She learnt this art initially form Mylapore Gowri Amma and later from E.Krishna Iyer. She gave her first performance in 1935 at the Theosophical Society. The art was until then considered a Devadasi art and a Brahmin girl performing the art was unheard of. Sadhir was later re-christened as Bharathanatyam by removing those elements that were thought to be influenced by the Devadasi legacy. Rukmini Devi and Krishna Iyer were the people behind this transformation of Sadhir into Bharatanatyam.
In 1936, Along with her husband, Rukmini Devi established Kalakshetra, a school for dance and music at Adyar based on the ancient Gurukul system. All along Dr. Arundale wanted Kalakshetra to be built with its own identity and it should not be influenced by Theosophical teachings and its works. The initial set of students and disciples were all related to the society. Later on Rukmini carefully drew up a curriculum in which a student would learn dance, music, painting and other arts.
In the same year, the Besant Memorial School established in 1934 by Dr. Arundale soon after he became the president of the Theosophical Society, came close to being shut down due to lack of funds. Arundale was unhappy that, the school started in the name of Annie Besant was folding up. It was then that at a meeting he declared “Rukmini Devi will take over the reins at the school and she will be given a free hand to manage it.” She was more than willing to take up the responsibility as she had great respect for Annie Besant and felt that school should not be shut down. Rukmini Devi now had the dual responsibility of heading the school as well as Kalakshetra.
For the first thirteen years since its inception, Kalakshetra was located on Theosophical Society’s land. Kalakshetra evolved gradually and Adyar had the right ambience for it. But in 1948, they received an unceremonious eviction notice. The reason given was that the dance and music activities were alien to the tenets and teachings of the Theosophical Society. By the middle of 1953, Kalakshetra was moved to a 60 acre campus in Tiruvanmiyur. Thatched roofs sheltered the classrooms in an area surrounded groves of banyan. Teachers were recruited to teach dance and music and some of them who served Kalakshetra included the doyens of Carnatic Classical Music like Tiger Varadachar, M D Ramanathan and Papanasam Sivan. Kathkali masters too were brought in to teach at the school.
Rukmini Devi quit dancing after two decades and apart from running Kalakshetra, she became involved in various activities of public life. She worked with various humanitarian organizations and was instrumental in setting up of the Animal Welfare Board of India. A Kalamkari Center was also set up within the Kalakshetra campus to revive the ancient Indian art of textile printing. Even in the last years she worked tirelessly for the organization. She died on 24th February 1986 at Chennai.
Rukmini Devi will forever be remembered for changing the very face of Bharatanatyam and bringing it to the global attention. She raised it to the status of a puritan art form. A motivator par excellence and a great teacher, Rukmini Devi’s legacy in the world of Indian performing arts might forever remain unsurpassed.
- Sudarshan N