Raman in 100 people who shaped India in the 20th Century
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.
Rukmini 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.
Interestingly, 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.
Rukmini 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.
Given 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.
However, 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.
Nonetheless, 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.
She 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 considerations.
Hundreds 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.
Rukmini 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.