a young Rukmini Devi "Kalakshetra" and Rukmini Devi

Aranthai Manian

Who today can imagine that the dance form of Bharatanatyam would have gone the way of a condemned social evil?

Yet, that is just where the dance would have remained, but for the efforts of one lady Smt. Rukmini Devi Arundale.

Rukmini Devi was born on 29th february 1904. Her father was a renowned Sanskrit scholar Shri A .Nilakanta Sastri of Thiruvisai Nallur, an important centre of Sanskrit learning in those days. Her mother Seshammal was from Thiruvaiyaru, a great centre of music.

As a girl of seven, Rukmini Devi came into contact with the Theosophical Society in which her father took an active interest. It was here that she met Dr. G.S.Arundale, a dedicated educationist and former principal of the Central Hindu College in Varanasi. She shocked the conservative Brahmin community when she married in 1920 Dr. Arundale, much her senior in age and a foreigner.

"She was a fighter alright. She didnt go by what the majority thought of as right "said Shri K. Sankara Menon, a long time associate of the Arundales and the Director of Kalakshetra, the centre for the arts founded by Rukmini Devi.

Dr. Padmasini, another associate of Rukmini Devi, lets her memory take her back to her days in the Theosophical Society when a young and dynamic Rukmini Devi would gather all the young people together (Dr. Padmasini and Shri Sankara Menon among them) and put up plays. The first such play to be staged was the American -Indian play "Hiawatha" in 1930.

Even at that time Rukmini Devi would meticulously research the costumes and direction. In this way they staged Night of Asia" and Bhishma in which she took part. And for the children, Rukmini Devi would choose appropriate plays with fairies and elfs. But those were only an indication of the great things to come.

It was after her marriage at the age of 16, that she began to travel. In all her travels, she took a keen interest in whatever art she came into contact with. One of the many contacts she made was with Anna Pavlova, the famous Russian Ballerina, whose dancing fascinated her.

In 1928, Anna Pavlova came to india. She was dancing in Bombay. Dr. and Mrs. Arundale were in Varanasi for the convention of the Theosophical Society. They left one day before the convention ended, to be able to go to Bombay and see Pavlova dance.The plan was that they would sail from Bombay to Australia.

Rukmini devi mimes playing the flute In what is possibly the most fortunate coincidence for Bharathanatyam, it so happened that the ballerina was on the same ship, also destined for Australia. Rukmini Devi, then 24, got to know Pavlova well on the journey and was invited to see her perform during a stop- over in Indonesia. Once again in Sydney, Australia, Pavlova invited Rukmini Devi to learn dancing, saying that she had a good figure for dance. And so it was that a young dancer from India dance. she found her first steps of ballet from no less a teacher than one of the greatest ballerinas of all time Anna Pavlova. Later on, Pavlova arranged for Rukmini Devi to be trained by one of her leading solo dancers, Cleo Nordi. It is indeed interesting to hear today that Rukmini Devis first steps wore in ballet and not in Indian dance.

It was Pavlova who suggested to Rukmini Devi that she learn Indian dancing. Unfortunately in India at that time, Bharathanatyam had degenerated to disrepute, and good performances were hard to come by.

In 1933, at the Music Academy's Annual Conference, Rukmini Devi saw a performance of the dance form known as Sadhir for the first time. The dancers were the Pandanallur sisters Rajeswari and Jeevaratnam. Pandanallur Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai conducted the performance, assisted by his son in law Chokkalingam pillai. Rukmini Devi was enchanted by the dance and wanted to learn it. But as she herself explained in her last published interview, "it (the dance) was almost extinct, I should say, and there was discouragement from almost all quarters. It was difficult to find ever a good teacher.The dancers had no status or recognition.They were poor and nobody in particular encouraged them.

Eventually, Rukmini Devi started to learn the dance from Mylapore Gowri Ammal an expert in 'Abhinaya'.

At that time she was already 29 years of age. But she was a determined woman. She wanted to learn from Pandanallur Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai. She sent for him saying she wanted him to be here Guru. He, however, did not want to teach her because he felt she would not learn seriously and that it would do the dance no good. She tried to explain her sincere intention to study all aspects of the dance thoroughly. Then too he was unwilling to come, but he sent another son in law of his, Ponniah Pillai, to see what the adamant lady was about. Ponniah Pillai was himself a Sangeetha Kalanidhi having been the Chairman of the Music Academys Conference. He was a disciple of Anantarama Baghavatar, an accomplished musician of the time. Ponniah Pillai had given up dancing and teaching as he felt it would affect his dignity. So he was hardly inclined to go and see Rukmini Devi who was still learning Bharathanatyam from Gowri Ammal. However, he did go to Madras. He liked what he saw and recognised Rukmini Devi as a brilliant student. He advised Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai to go ahead and teach Rukmini Devi. By teaching her, Meenakshi Sundaram Pillais reputation as a teacher would only be enhanced, he felt.

This is how Pandanallur Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai came to teach Rukmini Devi. She was completely intent. She had no other thought during that time. According to Sankara Menon, "Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai was not soft or easy on his students. He made it more and more difficult.' But she absorbed it all as if that was what she was waiting for.'

(Incidentally, Pandanallur Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai and his son in law Ponniha Pillai were both grand sons of the great Ponniah Pillai of the "Tanjore quartet" that thrived in the court of Raja Sarabhoji II of Thanjavur).

In december 1935, Rukmini Devi was in a position to give her first public performance, which she did at the 'Diamond Jubilee Convention of the Theosophical Society. It was a path breaking performance and was applauded by the large gathering of over 2,000 people.

A number of these people had earlier taken an oath never to go to any dance performance. Among them were the great men of Madras like Right Honorable Srinivasa Sastri, Shri C. P. Ramaswamy Iyer and Shri P. Sivaswamy Iyer. Before the performance Rukmini Devi had gone personally to meat each of these great men.

- In her last interview she said "I pleaded with those great men just to come once and if you feel that my dance is the same as what you have seen in the past, then do not come again" and so they all came. As you know Dr. Arundale was a very well known person. That too helped. After sitting through my dance performance, they said that they had never thought that dance will be such a spiritual expression.

Another member of that audience was Dr. James Cousins, a famous Irish poet who had come to India to help Dr. Annie Besant and lived here to do educational work. He was thrilled by Rukmini Devis performance, like everyone else in the audience. But he was moved to such a great extent as to encourage the formation of an organisation where the dance form could be nurtured.

As Rukmini Devi later mentioned "that was how I started with the idea of founding the Kalakshetra. It was originally named as the "International Academy of Arts". I invited a number of eminent people K.S. Ramaswamy Sastri, K. Chandrasekaran, Justice P.V.Rajamannar, K.Narayana Menon, K.Sankara Menon and they all thought it was a good idea but of course, I had a feeling that they all wondered within themselves what I could do, after all. I began in a small way, first by inviting great artistes, people like Tiger Varadachariar, Papanasam Sivan (who was her first music teacher) Mysore Vasudevachar Even then, I had no clear idea of what I was going to do with Kalakshetra. It was yet a dream.

Soon Kalakshetra started teaching dance as well. Rukmini Devis teacher Pandanallur Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai and his son in law Chokkalingam Pillai were the first dance teachers. It too started in a very small way with just three or four students.

The Society's objection to Rukmini Devis efforts continued. Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy who was one of those responsible for the stopping of the Devadasi tradition of temple dancers went to Rukmini Devis mother, who was a friend of hers, and asked her why she had allowed her daughter to learn dance. Seshammal had only this to say her children would do what they wished to and would not listen to her. But, after seeing the dance as performed by Rukmini Devi, Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy realised that it was completely different from the kind of dance form she had strived to remove from the temples. So she sent her students from the Avvai home to study dance in the Kalakshetra.

Dr. Padmasini remembers well the time she and Kamalarani used to sing for Rukmini Devis solo recitals. They would go door to door with handbills advertising the programme and selling tickets. People would look at the handbill and refuse to buy the tickets. But slowly these attitudes changed.

Rukmini Devis goal, according to Shri Sankara Menon, was" To remove those parts of the dance that had been made objectionable so that people could practice the dance. These elements had been put into the dance to please the people who saw it. If these elements were removed, what remained would be purely spiritual."

With time and the spreading of the greatness of Rukmini Devis regeneration of the dance, traditional prejudices against this art form began to break down. More and more people came forward to learn. Meanwhile, at Kalakshetra, Rukmini Devi was forced to stop teaching by the traditional dance teachers, the Nattuvanars, not because she disapproved of their teaching methods but because of their interest purely in monetary gain.

She took over the teaching and began to train her own students to be teachers Sharada Hoffman, Krishnaveni Lakshmanan, Professor C.V.Chandrasekaran, Leela Samson, they were all like lamps hit by an inspired soul.

Rukmini Devi always wanted Kalakshetra to be as much a centre for education as a centre for arts. Today it is just that- The College of Fine Arts, The Besant Theosophical High School, The Maria Montessori School for Children, the Craft Education and Research Centre and the incomparable U.V.Swaminatha Iyer library also known as the Adyar Library (1).

In fact, the Besant Theosophical School actually pre-dates the founding of Kalashetra. It was Anni Besant's dying wish that a School should be established in the precincts of the Theosophical School with a very young and inexperienced Shankara Menon as its first head-master.

Dr. Padmasini remembers how Dr. Arundale and Rukmini Devi were on the look out for a capable headmaster. One day, as they were sitting in the verandah of their house, Sankara Menon then still a College Student, walked in. "Here comes the headmaster"said Dr. Arundale and there ended their search.

The students of Kalakshetra between the age of 8 and 15 attend either the Besant Theosophical School or the Besant Arundale Higher Secondary School. After school hours they have their dance and music lessons. At the age of 15, they have to decide whether they want to concentrate on their music or dance or to continue with their formal education. Those who choose the former, move to the College of fine arts.

The Annual Kalakshetra Festival of dance dramas and music concerts always remain an important part of the cultural calendar. And now Kalakshetra can justly be proud of its magnificent theatre the Koottambalam built to the specification of Bharatas Natya Sastra. The repertoire include the six part Valmiki Ramayanam, Bhagavata Mela dances, Kuravanjis (traditional gypsy dances of South India) Sakuntalam, Kumarasambhavam, Jayadevas Geetha Govindham, Andal Charitram, Tagores Shyama, Buddha Avatharam, Matsya Koorma Avatharam, Damayanti Swayamvaram, Kuchelopakhyanam, and Meenakshi Vijayam. Kathakali, folk dances, vocal and instrumental programmes are also conducted.

The spectacle of a Kalakshetra Dance Drama cannot exactly be explained. Each of these dance dramas have been choreographed by Rukmini Devi herself in minute detail. The completeness with which the dancers use the space almost seems to elevate the dance to a spiritual level.

Rukmini Devi was also very particular about the authenticity of the art. The determination to maintain the purity of art has perhaps led to some critics labeling Kalakshetra as a closed environment. The environment is not closed. It is open to new ideas, so long as the ideas are purified through the medium of art.

Rukmini Devi believed art is also life and compassion is the highest form of art. Unless one is inherently good, one can not create beauty. A great lover of animals and a staunch vegetarian, this one lady inspired so many people and will no doubt continue to do so. For all that she gave the world and people around her, she was that much richer.

Rukmini Devi Arundale In her passing away in February 1986, at the age of 82, she has left behind a legacy that she ensured would continue through the many lamps she had lit - her students.

Kalakshetra is as much a tribute to Smt. Rukmini Devi as it is a valuable repository of the arts to be handed down to generations to come.

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Gone from the original website. Found on April 8th 2006 on the Internet Archives.
De first picture is from the Wikipedia article on Rukmini Devi (found November 2006).
Original URL: www.chennaionline.com/artsandculture/culture/kalakshetra.asp

Footnote added by editor Eclectic Theosophical History (april 2006)

1) The Adyar Library was in fact founded by Colonel Olcott in 1886. See http://ts-adyar.org/library.html. Rukmini Devi was a very talented woman and she may well have contributed to the other services mentioned here. I strongly suspect that most of them were started by other associates of Annie Besant's though.