Excerpts from a tribute to Rukmini Devi Arundale by former President of India, R. Venkataraman
Ninety years ago, a star appeared on the Indian firmament who revolutionised the cultural and social life of our country. Like her date of birth. February 29, Rukmini Devi [1904-86] was uncommon. She became a legendary figure in her lifetime. She was regarded as the patron saint of Indian arts and culture and a creative artist who introduced modernity without sacrificing tradition and synthesised both. Hers was a life of multi-faceted achievements and multi-splendoured glory. A dedicated being, a true and fine artist, a great educationist, and above all a loving humanist, Rukmini Devi was more than a great personality: she was a phenomenon. There was in her an inner strength and a still centre from which radiated several streams of inspiration and several useful activities. Some of us of her generation remember Rukmini Devi as a person of extraordinary grace, extraordinary talent and extraordinary courage. We saw her life taking shape like an exquisite tapestry, strand by strand, section by section.
Rukmini Devi's career was indeed a rare tapestry, made of many colours, holding many designs. Each different segment was self-contained in itself and arrested one's attention. Some of the hues and motifs on this tapestry were drawn from the time tested reservoirs of our heritage: some were altogether new. Originality could be seen on the canvas, as well as conformity; modernity as well as tradition. But in its totality, the tapestry united into a composite picture: a picture of rare balance and beauty. Each state of Rukmini Devi's career seemed to proceed from the previous and merge into the next with the grace and inevitability of pre-destination. There was an internal consistency in her career which could be the envy of yogis.
Rukmini Devi's was a free and enquiring mind, unafraid to reject a custom if she found it abhorrent to human dignity and equally unafraid to uphold it, if she found it congruent with human dignity. For her, what mattered was not orthodoxy or heterodoxy, but right or wrong. And Rukmini Devi had the courage of conviction and the strength of conscience to discern right from wrong. Consequently, she became one of the most emancipated women of modern times. Emancipated, not in the lesser and permissive sense in which the word is often used, but in the best and highest sense of that word.
Rukmini Devi saw life as something that can either be lived crudely, violently, devoid of any higher impulse or something that can be lived beautifully, creatively and in harmony with nature and its Divine Maker. Rukmini Devi was one of those few persons born at the beginning of this century whom destiny used as its instrument for progress. It was given to Rukmini Devi to bring music, literature and dance out of the tawdry half-lights of decay and decadence into the fresh air and sunshine of the theatre arts. In doing this, Rukmini Devi was doubtless the instrument of destiny and her founding of Kalakshetra at the age of 32 marked the turning point. It brought to fruition all her inspirations, eastern and western. The influences of Anna Pavlova and Meenakshisundaram Pillai mingled to produce a new approach to dance as did those of Madame Montessori and Mahatma Gandhi, to produce a new approach to education.