Seed for the banyan tree was sown on this day: on Rukmini Devi

Remembering the path-breaking December 30 performance of Rukmini Devi

Updated - December 28, 2017 08:55 pm IST

Published - December 28, 2017 04:04 pm IST



The day, December 30, 1935 changed the fortunes of a form, forever. What happened that day was a turning point in the history of performing arts.

The venue was the headquarters of the Theosophical Society in Adyar, Madras, and it was the first appearance of a girl who had no real background in sadir dance . It was unheard of that a brahmin girl would publicly dance the art of the devadasis. Kalanidhi Narayanan had preceded this event by three months in September (proof lies in a rare photo dated then in the Mohan Khokar Dance Collection) but it was a low key affair, not publicised.

On December 30, 1935, however, over a thousand aficionados assembled for the event, more out of curiosity than real interest and all sat glued. A handful of hardliners, bent on boycotting the event, sneaked in to damn the dancer, Rukmini Devi.

Thus Rukmini Devi (Arundale) arrived in the world of Bharatanatyam on December 30. She was born on a rare, leap year day February 29 in 1904, the sixth child of Sanskrit scholar and retired government engineer Nilakanta Sastry. The Sastrys had left their native Pudukottai to seek fortunes in Madras, took up quarters in 1912 and life changed for this family. Particularly so for Rukmini, who showed a zest for much she saw around her.

There were many foreigners at the Theosophical Society and young Rukmini got attached to an English lady Eleanor Elder, who had studied dancing with Margaret Morris in London and was now directing her attention to reviving the ancient Greek dance as set by the redoubtable Isadora and brother Raymond Duncan. To conduct her experiment, Elder roped in some of the European and American residents at the Theosophical Society. Elder put up shows from time to time. In one of these, a Tamil version of Tagore's Malini , Rukmini appeared briefly and sang a song! This was 1918.

But the performance on December 30proved to be a turning point for many: for Rukmini herself and also Bharatanatyam because it led to the birth of the mother of all institutions for teaching Bharatanatyam — the Kalakshetra on January 6, 1936.

Family bonding

Kalakshetra had been conceived as an integrated community. The residential cottage, the classrooms, the rehearsal hall, mess and administrative block were all cheek by jowl and there was energy in the air. There was western discipline all right, but after classes, old timers recall how they could freely assemble and make small talk and bond as a family.

At the Annual Convention of the Theosophical Society in 1940, George Arundale, its president, declared: “Today it is a humble cottage, this Kalakshetra, but in due course we shall have buildings, beautiful, simple structures created by our own hands, the temple to India’s glory. It is a cottage today; it will be a community tomorrow.”

Rukmini married George Arundale and it was the meeting of the East and the West at its best. Kalakshetra was at Adyar and both were interlinked. For the first thirteen years, the institution was on Theosophical Society’s land at Adyar. In 1948, Kalakshetra received an eviction notice from the Theosophical Society. This was a shock to say the least! The reason ascribed in the notice (a copy of which is in the Mohan Khokar Dance Collection given by Rukmini Devi herself) was that the dance and music activities were alien to the tenets of Theosophical Society and thus they could not house the institution.

Kalakshetra had been formed when George Arundale was president of the Theosophical Society. Rukmini Devi was appointed president of Kalakshetra and James Cousins vice-president, George Arundale and C Jinarajadasa were patrons.

After George Arundale died in August of 1945, Jinarajadasa became president of the Society. He and his colleagues started having second thoughts about Kalakshetra. They felt that its pursuits were not quite consistent with the objectives of the Society. The showdown came in 1949 when Kalakshetra was directed to quit the Adyar campus by the middle of 1953.

It would seem that Rukmini Devi, as early as 1945, had some lurking feeling or premonition. For, in that year, anticipating that in the coming years Kalakshetra might expand and the Theosophical Society might not be able to provide additional space, she started buying pockets of land nearby. The place chosen was a neighbouring village called Tiruvanmiyur. Land was cheap, around ₹ 300 an acre, and over the years a great deal came to be acquired, though only in patches, when available. The institution we all see today and have in the last 60 years, stands on a part of that patch.

In 1952, came another surprise turn! Jinarajadasa’s term finished and in his place came to be elected N. Sri Ram, brother of Rukmini, who wished Kalakshetra returned to its original setting and moorings in Adyar and agreed to extend lease for 15 years but Rukmini Devi rightly refused. Such was the strength of this great woman. Kalakshetra and Kalamandalam were born about the same time of nationalistic resurgence and became models for other institutions that came up post-Independence like the Kathak Kendra in Delhi.

Distinguished pupils

Many of the students distinguished themselves over the last 75 years of its existence such as Janardhan, Balagopal, V.P. Dhananjayan, C.V. Chandrasekhar, Yamini Krishnamurthy... Its alumni are a legion. Many major dance (loosely called ‘ballet’) productions came out of this august institution and it has contributed significantly to the understanding of Indian arts and aesthetics. Among these ‘Rama Pattabishekam,’ ‘Rukmini Kalyanam,’ ‘Kutrala Kuravanji’ and ‘Sabari Moksham’ remain milestones. No less than Tiger Varadachariar composed music and many distinguished aesthetes served as directors and this included Sankara Menon and Rajaram.

Rukmini Devi rose to become a cultural icon of the country, once even considered for the Presidency. She became a rallying point for the reformation of Bharatanatyam. History gave her that role and she did her part well. She was also a champion of animal rights, vegetarianism and theosophy. She passed away on February 24, 1986. The institution she created still stands.

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