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When the audience sat spellbound

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doyenne For more than two hours Rukmini Devi danced, with scarcely a pause, and the 1,000 that enraptured.

Absorbing: Rukmani Devi, presenting a dance programme on October 6, 1940. File Photo
Absorbing: Rukmani Devi, presenting a dance programme on October 6, 1940. File Photo

T he Theosophical Society was celebrating its diamond jubilee in December 1935. Delegates from all over the world were in attendance at the sylvan campus by the Adyar. The newspapers, including The Hindu, reported the proceedings in detail. But in all the excitement, one event appeared to have missed making it to the columns of the daily and that was the maiden dance performance of Rukmini Devi Arundale.

Perhaps the Press was not invited to witness it. After all, there was plenty of opposition. Eminent citizens of Madras had decided to boycott it. Even the guru, Meenakshisundaram Pillai had refused to give permission and when convinced to give in had chosen not to be present, sending a substitute for the nattuvangam. The dancer had been nervous and had to be encouraged to go ahead by her husband, Dr G.S. Arundale. But all these were behind the scenes and the 1,000 people who watched were enraptured.

The Theosophist noted that Rukmini Devi “sprang to life, arms outstretched, eyes flashing, her little head with white jasmine flowers among its shining black coils sliding from side to side in the traditional movements. So strange to the Western eyes, so right to those of the East. For more than two hours she danced with scarcely a pause, and all the time the audience sat spellbound, absorbed by the beauty of the movement…”

While the dancer herself shrugged the performance off with a statement that “she had done her best,” others around her such as G.S. Arundale and the art-loving couple James and Margaret Cousins, were ecstatic. It was the Cousins who mooted the idea of starting an organisation to promote the art. It rapidly took shape and the Adyar Academy of Arts was inaugurated on January 6, 1936, 75 years ago.

The Hindu reported the event and said that the Academy would “foster Art activity and appreciation by providing the best possible teaching for the young both as vocation and accomplishment in association with the Besant Memorial School. The Academy will also provide a meeting place for the lovers of the Art and will have both permanent collections and hold periodical exhibitions of the arts of the various countries of the world. It was also proposed to build a theatre and an exhibition hall.”

This was a time when the debate on Devadasis and their art was raging and so eyebrows must have been raised. Rukmini Devi appears to have anticipated this, for, five days prior to the formation of the Academy, she, in her address to the Theosophical Convention, dwelt at length on the subject. The Hindu reported her speech in full and a paragraph spelt out her views: “We have our own form of dancing, unique and wonderful. Some of the finest dancing is done in temples by those whose lives we may disapprove. To disapprove is not kindly, because we have made such a situation for those girls and therefore we must disapprove rather of ourselves, of our own character, for having allowed such unhappiness to exist at all in our country. It is not the art with which we have to find fault. All the art those girls express is entirely beautiful, for in their praise of the Deity, their art is one with religion. All their numerous gestures and songs are devotional offerings to the Deity. Can you imagine any idea more wonderful than the idea that people should devote their art entirely to the Deity because it is too good for ordinary life? That is the most beautiful and inspiring of all arts.”

Delicately aesthetic

The Hindu noted that Rukmini Devi was the inspiring personality behind the Academy. At the inauguration, she invoked on the Academy the blessings of the divine being. Her contribution consisted of hymns to Ganesha and Nataraja, the Lord of Dance, also a phase of the Radha-and-Krishna dance in which the dancer combined song and motion in a delicately aesthetic interpretation. The inauguration coincided with Tiruvadirai, the day sacred to Nataraja. James Cousins read passages from Kalidasa's ‘Abhijnana Shakuntalam.' The same play was enacted by Rangachari of Besant Memorial School. The programme concluded with a lantern lecture by James Cousins on Hindu and Buddhist art.

In her speech Rukmini Devi hoped that “Adyar would attract great artists so that some day it would be the meeting place of the creative artists of the world. If the greatest artists will not come here, then we will make the greatest artists in our school." The last words indicated the grit and determination of the great lady. The Adyar Academy would become the International Academy and then in 1940, Kalakshetra. The rest is history and happily for the arts, the good work continues.

(The author can be contacted at srirambts@gmail.com)

If the greatest artists will not come here, then we will make the greatest artists in our school. Rukmini Devi

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