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Updated: April 13, 2010 12:51 IST

A priceless diamond

PREMA NANDAKUMAR
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A gliding swan as a newly married girl, a vivacious presence as a dancer, and a determined authority as a builder. Rukmini Devi's life is a dream-subject for a biography. Leela Samson has everything in her sachet: an enviable closeness with the founder of Kalakshetra, plenty of recorded material and innumerable narrators of ancient times including Sankara Menon and Padmasani. If the magic of the heroine's aura is missing in Rukmini Devi, one cannot blame Leela. If you live at the foothills of the Himalayas, you would never realise its grandeur!

Many facets

But even the mundane recital of facts concerning Rukmini Devi is enough to keep one absorbed. Her childhood and girlhood; the Theosophical background; the conservative Brahmin teenager marrying a greying foreigner; the cultural dynamo retrieving music and dance drama from oblivion; the lover of animal life; an engaging traveller; the dignified widow striving to turn her husband's dreams into reality; the innovator; and the lover of humanity.

There were many inspiring facets to this priceless diamond and not the least was Rukmini Devi's lambent conviction in the Masters of the Theosophical faith. Even the manner in which she bore “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” had the heroic touch. A rich life, in every way. Unfortunately in a plan where every word is precious and must remain focussed on her subject, Leela has tended to get in a crowd of expendable details. For example: the making of Holkar College, Pudukkottai's history, Annie Besant's career and Theosophical Society controversies not relevant to Rukmini.

For the rest, this is a welcome record of events spanning the whole of the 20th century. Rukmini Devi seems to have been a Savitri when she refused to change her decision to marry Dr. Arundale. Vyasa's Savitri had said that even if Satyavan had but one year to live, she would not choose another. Rukmini said something akin to that: “I would rather be happy for a short time with someone I like, than be married to a young man and lead a long joyless life.”

These flashes chosen by Leela reveal the reserves of courage which would be needed later on when Rukmini had to face the fury of the orthodox for her revival of Bharatanatyam; and antagonism from the officials of the Theosophical Society after Dr. Arundale's passing when she was forced to move her institutions to Tiruvanmiyur after the ‘Dissociation Policy' came into vogue. Salutations to Rukmini Devi for her dream and fortitude to make the vision come true.

Visuals

In an ashrama-atmosphere at Tiruvanmiyur, ancient epics like the Ramayana and Kumarasambava had a perfect backdrop. Leela's recreation of this space in Rukmini Devi's life has come out very well. The sheaf of excellent photographs eloquently recaptures her presence: the self-possessed smile of a happy wife; the perfect execution of a Bharatanatyam pose; the concentration with which she is looking at construction plans; and the Madonna figurine she treasured.

The work is also welcome for an important quote that ought to be heard today by our leaders when India's educational system is in a shambles. As the minister of education in the princely state of Indore, Dr. Arundale studied the prevalent system and said in 1923: “If education were for living and not merely for livelihood; if education were for joy and happiness and not merely for temporal success… if education were as much for wisdom and truth as it is for so-called facts; if education were for as much for the soul as it is supposed to be for the mind; then indeed would the younger generation be well-equipped for life.”

Dr. Arundale was a lucky teacher. He had at least one student whom he could shape to perfection on these lines. He did and gave the world Rukmini Devi.

RUKMINI DEVI: Leela Samson; Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd, 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110017. Rs. 550.

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