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Homage bold and different

``Birds of the Banyan Tree" was an innovatively conceived tribute to Rukmini Devi Arundale by Avanthi Meduri. KAUSALYA SANTHANAM writes...

A powerful dialogue. — Pic by S. Thanthoni

BOLD AND experimental, ``Birds of the Banyan Tree" was a devotee's homage to Rukmini Devi Arundale. Authored by dancer-scholar Avanthi Meduri, the theatre production, which endeavours ``to create a symbolic genre of performance that critically examines the place of women's visions in contemporary India," was presented by the Centre for Contemporary Culture, New Delhi, under the aegis of Karthik Fine Arts, at the Museum Theatre. Performed by Avanthi and Rashmi Vaidialingam and directed by Chittaranjan Tripathy, it was an intensely felt (almost frenzied in its passion) and innovatively conceptualised tribute to the many splendoured personality to mark her birth centenary. Through simple, traditional and timeless metaphors such as the lotus and the bird and using clay icons, the production twisted many biographical strands together. It made a fervent plea for the pioneer to be seen as a World Mother, with a global vision for the Indian performing arts and for her to be viewed in a holistic way as an educationist, as a theosophist, as one who revived the crafts and as a humanist and not just as a pioneer of dance and the founder of Kalakshetra.

This was not a chronological narration of a visionary who blazed fresh trails and overcame great barriers to fulfil her dreams. Questions were raised and doubts demolished through the dialogue between two sisters — one (Avanthi) a worshipper of Rukmini and the other (Rashmi), a sceptic. Both the actors gave charged performances though Rashmi's puffs on the cigarette to denote attitude was not quite the thing in today's world. The form provided the space for a number of issues to be covered — the achievements, the controversies, the struggles Rukmini Devi faced and the plight of the devadasi.

But the emotional pitch was so high that it tended to leave you drained and strangely enough, often distance you from the action.

The presentation in Chennai, had a ``putting one's head in a lion's mouth" sort of courage that showed Avanthi's conviction in her ideas as a dance scholar/historian.

``I was really afraid of the reactions," she admits to this correspondent in an interview the morning after the show. Avanthi elaborates on what motivated her to take up the theme, her focus on the devadasis and why she chose to do it in English. Incidentally, the English she speaks, both in the play and during the interview, is refreshing in its Indian intonation. This though she has spent a considerable part of her life in researching and teaching about the Arts and Indian dance in the U.S. The Centre for Contemporary Culture of which is the Acting Academic and Artistic director was set up two years ago. `` `Birds...' grew out of my doctoral thesis. I dealt with Indian nationalism, colonialism and culture and I studied Rukmini Devi along with Balasaraswati, Uday Shankar and other seminal figures in dance. For my Ford scholarship, I focussed on contemporary culture and Rukmini Devi was the central figure in my thesis — for the contemporary aesthetics she created as also the global vision she had. Later, Nachiyappan who was in charge of the Kalakshetra photographs provided 50 of them." Avanthi curated the photo archive creating a travelling exhibition which toured universities round the world.

Is the play a response to the way Rukmini Devi is viewed in the West? ``Dancing Within Walls," a theatre production presented in London recently focussed on how she stripped dance of Sringara and incurred the curse of the devadasis. ``My spin is she refused the curse," says Avanthi. ``I was also disturbed by the way she is viewed by scholars in the West; they pit her against the devadasi and Balasaraswati. She is a heroine here but their references are tongue in cheek — about an elite woman from a Brahmin family who appropriated the dance of the devadasi and left the devadasi desolate. I found she was being caricatured and they had a simplistic understanding about her. We had to revisit her legacy and rethink. `Birds...' is the culmination of this."

But is there not a deification in ``Birds...?" ``Do you think so?" asks Avanthi. ``Undeniably, we have to put our scepticism aside," says she. ``There was a grace and a blessing in her life. Annie Besant and Arundale gave her two wings to fly with. Like J. Krishnamurthi, she was ordained. She symbolically became a world mother.

``Kalakshetra was only one petal in the lotus. The others were the Theosophical High School, the Crafts Centre, the Arundale Teacher's Training College and the U. V. Swaminatha Iyer Library. About the charge that she took away the dance of the devadasis from them, like all great people she was oblivious to anything but what she had to do. The global perspective is provided only through the various metaphors."

Has Avanthi trained with Rukmini Devi? ``I have seen her dance dramas. I have met her only once. But I learnt music from Sitarama Sarma of Kalakshetra. I learnt Bharatanatyam from Adyar Lakshman and Kuchipudi from Vempati Chinnasatyam. About Avanthi not being a Kalakshetra alumnus...

"People who have spoken to Rukmini Devi and knew her are those who are considered qualified to write. Only in the arts do people ask `Did you know her? Did you touch her?' If you are writing a biography on Gandhiji, they ask `Did you see the documents?' True scholarship is not recognised here, the innumerable documents you sifted through, the numerous hours spent in the Theosophical society libraries."

Why is there very little dance in the production?

"It was deliberate because I did not want to speak about her as a dancer but wanted to capture the bigger picture. Dance cannot activise the subject. I needed the written word to portray the complex story... the scholarship on Rukmini Devi has been inadequate to deal with her various facets and the linkages of her dance activity, to education, to the crafts to culture..." says Avanthi.

``If you have to write about Rukmini Devi and know all about her, you have to travel as she did to find the material on her. It is scattered in theosophical societies worldwide." Avanthi has zealously followed the trail and her book on Rukmini Devi will be published soon by Wesleyan University Press, U.S.

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