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Rukmini Devi, the visionary

RUKMINI DEVI was a pioneering woman dancer of the 1930s, and a visionary institutionalist who built a public cultural and educational centre known as Kalakshetra in 1938. For her multi- faceted work, in the fields of dance, culture, and education, Rukmini Devi was honoured with numerous national, international and state awards, including the Padma Bhushan (1956), Sangeet Natak Akademi (1957), Desikothama (1972), Kalidasa Samman (1984) and many others. She served as a Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha) for two terms, was Chairman of the Animal Welfare Board, and moved a Bill for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in the 1960s. She also received the Prani Mitra award in 1968.

One of the eight children of Nilakanta Sastri and Seshammal, Rukmini was born on February 29, 1904, in Madurai. Brought up in the traditional set up, Rukmini Devi was trained in Indian music by some great musicians. But dance in which field she was to make her mark later was absolutely forbidden to young Rukmini. The only women permitted to dance at that time were the ritually dedicated women known as devadasis in South India.

Rukmini's father, who was a Sanskrit scholar and an ardent Theosophist, enlarged the intellectual dimensions of his orthodox family by exposing them to the humanist ideals of Theosophy. In one of the Theosophical Society parties, young Rukmini met George Arundale, close associate of Dr. Annie-Besant. Arundale fell in love with young Rukmini who was then barely 16 years of age. He proposed marriage. They were married in 1920 earning the disapproval of her community.

Rukmini Arundale travelled abroad and became involved in promoting the goals of Theosophy. She was made President of the All India Federation of Young Theosophists in 1923, and President of the World Federation of Young Theosophists in 1925. On one of her travels abroad, Rukmini witnessed the dance of the great ballerina, Anna Pavlova, followed her for three years, and finally expressed her deepest desire to be instructed in the intricacies of ballet Cleo Nordi taught Rukmini whose dream of learning under Parlora was never fulfilled as the ballerina died soon thereafter. Rukmini however, never forgot Pavlova's rendition of the `Dying Swan,' preserved that memory in her mind's eyes, and claimed that Pavlova was really her `spiritual teacher,' and source of inspiration. The first ten years of her marriage were really preparatory years as Rukmini experimented with eclectic artistic forms and dabbled in what was then called Oriental dancing.

Dr. Annie Besant provided Rukmini with her ideal vision and life's mission in 1928. In public announcements, both in India and abroad, Annie Besant declared that young Rukmini had been chosen and ritually prepared to lead the World Mother movement, started as a parallel movement to the World Teacher movement led by J. Krishnamurti. While Krishna murti publicly repudiated his role as World Teacher, and disbanded the Order of the Star and everything that Theosophy had stood for in the 1930s, Rukmini Devi-Arundale stayed within the umbrella of Theosophy. Yet she too, like Krishnamurti, articulated a new and unique cultural, aesthetic, and educational vision that could be confined within the structural goals of Theosophy. It is uncanny, however, that both proteges of Annie Besant, who followed their own individual destinies, died in the same week of February 1986, one after another.

Upon her return to India in 1928, Rukmini found that cultural renaissance was gathering momentum and that the revival of the devadasi dance then known as sadir, forbidden in the 1890s, was already under way in Madras city. But dance was still performed by devadasis, and the public were still not favourably disposed towards the art form.

On one momentous day, E. Krishna Iyer, who was working tirelessly for the revival of dance, invited Rukmini Devi to attend a recital, presented by two devadasi dancers, featured in the Madras Music Academy. Rukmini Devi went, she saw the `ideal' vision in her mind's eye. Through her ballet training, she idealised and projected the sadir dance on to a `temple stage' that she was to envision in her own life time. To realise her vision, she began by learning the forbidden dance, and gave her debut performance in the international Theosophical Convention, in Adyar, in 1935. The orthodoxy was up in arms against Rukmini Devi for a second time.

Rukmini Devi's Bharatanatyam recital, however, was a great success. It not only opened the eyes of the resisting public but also launched Rukmini Devi on a new career, one in which she could synthesise her childhood love of art, with her new role as Devi or World Mother, and fit both into the structural goals of Theosophy as Beauty re-articulated by George Arundale, president of the Theosophical Society.

Rukmini-Devi-Arundale established the International Academy for the Arts in 1936, renamed as Kalakshetra in 1938 (kala refers to the arts, and kshetra to a field or sanctuary).

Creatively imagining her work from within two large narratives of Theosophy and anti-colonial nationalism expounded by Mahatma Gandhi in the 1930s, Rukmini-Devi-Arundale emerged as the new, Indian woman who would oppose colonial modernisation by reviving, reforming, and transforming Indian cultural traditions, their histories and practices in radically new ways.


Academic and Artistic Director Centre for Contemporary Culture New Delhi

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