Celebrating the life of Rukmini Devi Arundale

Theosophist and creative genius Rukmini Devi Arundale would have turned 120 this February 29. Tracing her extraordinary life on the eve of the publication of a monograph

February 23, 2024 09:00 am | Updated February 24, 2024 07:20 pm IST

Rukmini Devi Arundale 

Rukmini Devi Arundale  | Photo Credit: The Hindu Photo Archives

The courage displayed by Rukmini Devi Arundale (February 29, 1904 – February 24, 1986) in turning down the proposal of becoming the first woman President of India in 1977 is well-known. What’s lesser known is that the theosophist, celebrated dancer and choreographer, founder of Chennai’s Kalakshetra, also walked away from the role of World Mother that her husband George Arundale (1878-1945) wanted to bestow on her.

‘The Arundales’

‘The Arundales’ | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

He believed Rukmini had an extraordinary aura and could become Jagadamba as the female version of Maithreya planned for J. Krishnamurti by the Theosophical Society. Rukmini was made to undergo several spiritual initiations to prepare for the role. On May 25, 1928, in the Netherlands, Rukmini had received a consecration as ‘the world mother’, and Devi was suffixed to Rukmini’s name. But Rukmini did not claim to be the ‘world mother’ or an ‘Arhat’ or anything in fact. She knew that people including her husband whom she adored were disappointed in her because she rejected the role. “I have had revelations and could be more spiritual than I try to appear. I do not like to talk about these deep things within me,” she said in an interview later.

Rukmini Devi and J. Krishnamurti chose to walk different paths, standing up to a mighty institution like the Theosophical Society. It is but a strange coincidence that the two breathed their last within a week of each other — J. Krishnamurti on February 17, and Rukmini Devi on February 24, both in 1986. Rukmini’s nephew Padmanabhan Krishna immersed Rukmini and J. Krishnamurti’s ashes in the Ganga at Varanasi.

Rukmini Devi Arundale

Rukmini Devi Arundale | Photo Credit: The Hindu Photo Archives

A life immersed in dance

It must have taken enormous courage to find and learn Bharatanatyam which was not open to women of her community. She was 29 and married. There was consternation among theosophists who were shocked that the wife of the president of the society was learning dance that many of them had taken a pledge to not even witness. She went ahead with her maiden performance of Bharatanatyam even when her guru, Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai, was anxious whether she was ready for the stage. He went away to his village on the day but left his son-in-law Chokkalingam Pillai to conduct the Nattuvangam. He came back when he heard the performance was a great success and helped Rukmini Devi craft the curriculum for Kalakshetra.

‘Rukmini with mother Seshammal and guru Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai’.

‘Rukmini with mother Seshammal and guru Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai’. | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

The first dance drama Rukmini Devi produced was ‘Kutrala Kuravanji’ in Tamil. She believed this production was the biggest adventure she had ever undertaken and wondered where she got the courage to do it. It was this production that gave her the title of ‘reviver’. She went on to produce 25 major dance dramas in Tamil, Telugu, Sanskrit, Hindi and also Bengali.

Rukmini Devi (centre) at the foundation laying ceremony for Kalakshetra’s new buildings, in Chennai.

Rukmini Devi (centre) at the foundation laying ceremony for Kalakshetra’s new buildings, in Chennai. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Photo Archives

The recriminations

Four decades after she founded Kalakshetra and set up her two schools, handloom and handicraft institutes, the U.Ve. Swaminatha Iyer library and the fine arts college, academics from outside the milieu began to target her.

Students at the Kalakshetra Foundation, Chennai.

Students at the Kalakshetra Foundation, Chennai. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

The reason for their ire? “Rukmini Sanskritised dance and textualised it.” Historically, dance has always had an association with Sanskrit as shown in the verses from the Natya Shastra inscribed on the walls of the 10th century Brihadisvara temple in Thanjavur built by King Raja Raja Chola. The walls of Nataraja temple in Chidambaram also have Sanskrit verses.

Rukmini Devi

Rukmini Devi | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Rukmini Devi’s guru, Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai, was well-versed in Sanskrit and gave her the idea of teaching ‘Abhinaya Darpana’ as a text in Kalakshetra. When Chokkalingam Pillai left Kalakshetra for better prospects just before the debut performance of A. Sharada, Rukmini Devi learnt Nattuvangam and conducted it herself, becoming the first woman from outside the community to wield the cymbals. Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai had gifted her a pair of bronze and iron cymbals.

Kalakshetra struggled to find students. Inspired by the film dances of Kumari Kamala (later Kamala Lakshman Lakshminarayanan), girls studying in convent schools from upper class families began learning Bharatanatyam in their spare time with traditional Nattuvanars, who changed many things in the compositions to suit the times.

‘Rukmini at 16’.

‘Rukmini at 16’. | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

The Kalakshetra principle

Rukmini Devi Arundale also said no to a proposal to get a deemed university status for Kalakshetra. At a meeting, she listened carefully to UGC committee members, and then gave her view, “I appreciate your concern and liberality to make Kalakshetra toe the line of UGC. But unfortunately, your rules and guidelines are diametrically opposed to the ideals of Kalakshetra. In the name of modernisation, I do not want to lose my soul. You may keep your offer and rules to yourself. I would like to run this institution in our own traditional methods, suited to our genius.”

Rukmini Devi with G.S. Arundale.

Rukmini Devi with G.S. Arundale. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Photo Archives

“You are going to come under tremendous attack. Are you prepared for that? Are you brave?” Annie Besant had asked the 16-year-old Rukmini when she accepted the marriage proposal from the 42-year-old Arundale. “Yes I am,” Rukmini had replied. She surmounted the strong opposition from the Society against her marriage. She went ahead and courageously set up Kalakshetra on the hot sands of Thiruvanmiyur beach converting it into a green heaven when the Theosophical Society asked Kalakshetra to move out.

Thanks to that courage, the joy of Bharatanatyam became available to all, irrespective of caste, language and nationality.

The writer is the author of the soon to be released monograph ‘Rukmini Devi Arundale: Arts Revivalist and Institution Builder’, published by Niyogi Books in the series ‘Pioneers of Modern India’.

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