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Tribute to Rukmini Devi

R.K
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Tribute Alumni of Kalakshetra recall their association with her

It's gratifying to note that way into the 21{+s}{+t}century, we are able to look back at all those sublime souls that vested this country with a cultural identity and venerate them in our own way. Rukmini Devi Arundale is not a persona confined to the Bharatanatyam realm of south India. She literally ushered in a renaissance of sorts in the ancient dance system prevalent in the temples of south India which was threatened with total annihilation. She re-christened it as Bharatanatyam, bestowed it with a dignity and brought it to the threshold of the elite and established it on a firm footing by promoting and propagating it. No wonder then, that one of the great composers of her times, Veena Krishnamachariar penned and dedicated a tillana in Nata Bhairavi in Rukmini Devi's name! It was an onerous task, but her grit and determination combined with conducive circumstances, despite public protest, egged her to take up the dance herself, and make it presentable to a morally-ridden society. Kalakshetra was born as a wholesome entity for all performing arts to thrive and progress.

The alumni of Kalakshetra, presently teaching and performing in the city, celebrated Rukmini Devi's 108{+t}{+h}birth anniversary (February 29) recently on two consecutive days. First, it was Guru Pasumarthy Ramalinga Sastri, associate professor of dance at University of Hyderabad and then well-known dance exponent Padmasri Ananda Shankar Jayanth. “ Attai (aunt), we called her, as her first student who was her own niece addressed her so.

She was an epitome of grace. What struck you first about her were her looming large eyes, her exquisite looks, her demeanour and above all her affection. She was a disciplinarian as a dance guru, a cordial co-dancer, a caring mother in trouble and a counselor at all times. Once we had to stage a show abroad and I was to share her room. We stood in awe of her since we were after all her disciples . Despite running a temperature, I danced to the best of my ability and fell on my bed the moment my show was over. Much later, Rukmini Devi must have entered the room. I felt my feet being gently held and when I opened my eyes, to my utter surprise I saw her pressing my feet, saying that my fever and the dance must have brought ache to my legs!” Narrating this, Shantha chokes with emotion and could speak no further except to mutter an apology! That is the feeling Rukmini Devi evokes, decades later, among those who had been with her!

Pasumarthy Ramalinga Sastry could not control his tears either, when his gurus at Kalakshetra, the Dhananjayans wished to felicitate him for undertaking such a wonderful tribute to their universal attai . Veteran dance critic and author of dance books, Sunil Kothari brought out another little known facet of Rukmini Devi's personality. “She was fiercely independent, sensitive and never one to compromise on artistic or aesthetic quality. She was temperamental — she would shower her love on you but if she finds you doing something that went against her principles or beliefs, she wouldn't hesitate to chide you and be done with you. The fact that she refused the offer to become the President of India and instead chose to be the head of art and culture in her own temple called Kalakshetra speaks volumes of her character. Her last years of suffering with cancer were also borne out with dignity. She was never worried, like anyone of us, about a successor to run Kalakshetra. She was confident that her 60 years toil would not wither away — her teachers and disciples would take care of it! This was attai .”

“I entered Kalakshetra at the age of 11 . I had to undergo a sudden change in upbringing from a convent school girl to a typical TamBram with a huge bottu , oiled hair, half-sari, etc. which was the dress code of Kalakshetra. I remember the guru of this institution come out of her office to meet my mother and me. She took an instant liking to me and there I was, a student living out my mother's dream. It was tough as I had to pursue school and appear for my higher academics through correspondence as Kalakshetra involves a full time course where regular studies had to be done part-time. Attai got me the Eton scholarship and here I got to see the incredible synergy of someone who spotted a talent and readily invested,” interprets Ananda Shankar Jayanth about her early days with Rukmini Devi. To carve a niche in the hearts of those who come across us as a human being of extraordinary kindness, centuries later was only possible for a Rukmini Devi Arundale!

R.K

The fact that she refused the offer to become the President of India speaks volumes of her character.


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