Friday, 3 October 2014



The world celebrates the Birth Centenary Year of Rukmini Devi Arundale from 2003-2004. A Brahmin who was taught dance by a devadasi, she transformed the status of dance and dancers.

It was a cool winter evening in December 1955. Nearly a thousand people sat under the spreading branches of the giant banyan tree in Adyar, Madras. They waited with bated breath to witness an event, the announcement of which shook the very foundations of the orthodox Brahmin community. The cream of the intellectual and political elite of Madras had threatened to boycott the function, but some of them were also present that evening. The suspense was electrifying. The lights dimmed, the curtains parted and for two hours a beautiful Brahmin lady kept them all enthralled. Thunderous applause greeted the end of the performance, which many have hailed as a spiritually elevating experience. And a legend was born. Belonging to a traditional, conservative but unorthodox family, Rukmini Devi grew up in an environment of the new values perpetrated by the Theosophical Society spearheaded by Dr. Annie Besant and Colonel Olcott in India.

In 1930, 16-year-old had already scandalized the Brahmin community by marrying Dr. George Arundale, an Australian Theosophist 20 years her senior.Arundale eventually proved to be the guiding force, with whom Rukmini Devi flowered into a multi-faceted personality. As theosophists they traveled extensively meeting many artists, leaders and educationists.
A chance meeting, with the legendary Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova not only inspired Rukmini Devi to learn ballet, but also to explore the rich dance traditions of India.

Dance in South India had come to be associated with the devadasis, the low and the lewd. The British did their bit by banning ‘nautch’ performances in public. Most Brahmin families conformed to the strict taboo on this art. When Rukmini Devi wanted to learn dance, she faced stiff opposition from all quarters. It was a famous devadasi, Mylapore Gowri Ammal, who secretly initiated her into ‘Sadir’ or ‘Dasi Attam’ as the dance was then called. Almost 30 then, Rukmini Devi mastered the art in two years and brought in a wave of change with reformatory zeal. The content, costume and presentation was so transformed that she gave it a new name------Bharata Natyam. Her own performances contributed to unveiling the true beauty and dignity of our rich heritage.

In 1936, Rukmini Devi established an institute where dance, music, Sanskrit and art could be taught--Kalakshetra, the temple of fine art. Under this canopy, great musicians, composers, scholars and dancers came together. The sylvan surroundings of this commune have nurtured artistes, inspired beauteous creations and revived dying art forms ever since.

The Arundale couple expanded their efforts to include other forms of education too. In 1939, they invited their friend Madame Maria Montessori, to establish the first Montessori School in India. A library of rare and precious Tamil manuscripts on palm leaves was gifted to this mushrooming campus. Around the same time, a weaving department was inaugurated to promote Indian silk, handlooms, vegetable dyes and traditional designs.

Rukmini Devi’s sophisticated tastes and innate artistry found expression in creating gorgeous saris. She revived the forgotten Indian motifs like ‘rudraksha’ and ‘gopurams’ and used earthy colour combinations which are considered haute couture even today.

Nestled in the densely wooded, landscaped complex on the sands of the Adyar beach, is the imposing structure of the Bharata Kalakshetram. An auditorium for seating a few hundred, it is aesthetically built according to the tenets laid down in Bharata’s Natya Sastra.  To see the famous dance-dramas choreographed by Rukmini Devi in this setting is an experience of a lifetime.

Classes are conducted in thatched huts arranged with a calculated casualness, giving it an appearance of an ashram of yore. Rukmini Devi offered refuge to many Buddhist lamas and children who migrated to India from Tibet. Two high schools, a Craft Education & Research Centre and cottages for resident staff also find a place in Kalakshetra. Rukmini Devi’s love for animals often prompted her to say, “Animals are my friends and I don’t eat my friends”.
She was Chairman of India’s Animal Welfare Board, Head of the World Vegetarian Congress and also vice-president of Beauty without Cruelty, a London-based organization. As Member of Parliament in the Rajya Sabha, she piloted the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Bill in 1960.

Rukmini Devi’s queenly beauty, grace, beauty and eloquence charmed audiences the world over. She continued her work undaunted by the death of Dr. Arundale in 1940. Her missionary zeal exalted dance as an art form, restored pride in the hearts of Indians and shattered misguided myths prevailing in society. Kalakshetra gave refuge to artistes who would have otherwise languished unknown in their villages. Her life was a quest for beauty which, she believed is a manifestation of divinity.

‘Atthai’ (aunt) as she was affectionately called, constantly advised her students “Learn to live life beautifully in thought, word and action.” She exhorted them to spread the spiritual message of our arts. Even after her demise on February 24, 1986, Kalakshetra continues to fondly follow these guidelines and students religiously uphold the tradition they have imbibed, wherever they are.

While exceptionally talented dancers like Krishnaveni, Janardan and Balagopal, have dedicated their lives to the institution. Others like Yamini Krishnamurthy, the late, Sanjukta Panigrahi, the Dhananjayan couple and Leela Samson have made their mark as performing artistes.

Rukmini Devi was a recipient of Padma Bhushan and Prani Mitra, awarded by the government. Santiniketan honoured her with the title “Desikottamma’ while the MP government offered her the Kalidas Sanmaan. In what would have been a fitting culmination to a trail-blazing career devoted to the upliftment of her country, Rukmini Devi, was invited to be the President of India in 1977. The offer was graciously declined as Rukmini Devi was content to devote all her attention to the arts.

She became a cult figure and pioneer in fields as varied as art and education, politics and social work, as well as aesthetics and philosophy. Rukmini Devi’s vision, grit and conviction, is all the more amazing when we remember that it was more than a decade before India’s Independence, that her achievements made history.

Published on February 23, 1991, in The Independent Journal of Politics & Business’ Times of India.