She was a freedom fighter, who liberated Bharatanatyam from its ritualistic and casteist trappings. She was a philosopher, who experienced the beauty and truth of life through the arts. She was a humanist whose compassion extended to animals and plants. She was a classicist whose dance was an expression of rich tradition, deep research and unflinching dedication. She was an aestheticist, whose trendsetting and stylistic choreographic works gave a new definition to group dancing. She was futuristic and founded Kalakshetra (that celebrates its 75 year, the world-renowned temple of dance, to promote and preserve classical arts. She was a step ahead…
On Rukmini Devi Arundale's 108th birth anniversary today five of her sishyas talk about what athai (fondly referred to by her disciples) meant to them.
I first saw her perform at the Besant Theosophical Society in 1935. It was awe and admiration at first sight, which grew manifold during my long creative journey with her. It's hard to find someone so loving and caring. She did not teach just dance but the fine art of living. Her disciples understood and imbibed artistic and life values by merely observing her. She believed dance shouldn't stop with practice and performance, its beauty should reflect in one's thought and conduct.
Savitri Jagannatha Rao
With this creative genius, you got what you saw. Straightforward, she always spoke her mind. It was amazing to watch her work on her dance productions along with her diligent team of students and teachers. With her keen eye for detail everything fell in place perfectly — movements, expressions, characters, casting, music, lighting, costume and jewellery. A Nature lover, she avoided taking medicines as they are often tested on animals or may have animal content. I once took my son along to visit her when she was unwell. She enquired what he was doing and when he said B.Sc. Zoology her immediate question was ‘I hope you are not dissecting animals'. She said she was persuading educational institutions to stop dissections and have models instead.
She has been the inspiration for me to do something new or think afresh. The ability as a choreographer to view a piece in its entirety is what we learnt from her. I was overwhelmed when she came to watch ‘Krishna Leela' that I choreographed when I was with the Benaras Hindu University. She asked me if I had seen her ‘Geet Govindam'. I said I couldn't since I had been away in Benaras for a long time. ‘But you have conceived the final scene the way I have done in my production,' she smiled. It's the greatest compliment I have ever received. She encouraged her students to be individualistic and find their footing in the world of art.
From the day I entered the precincts of Kalakshetra she has been the driving spirit and guiding force. What gave her choreographic works a special edge was the impeccable sense of visualisation and her ability to literally think on her feet! A hardcore disciplinarian, it was hard to escape her eyes. As a pupil teacher one day I went wearing a shirt since I had given my kurta to my brother who was also then studying at Kalakshetra. She spotted me during the prayer session and later sent word for me to meet her at her office. I knew what the reason was and immediately ran to my brother and exchanged my shirt for his kurta. She made me sit in her office and then called for my brother. Both of us nervously looked at her and told her we had only one kurta between us. Immediately, she ordered two kurtas for us. She was an extremely warm person. She would be present at 7 a.m. on the dot for rehearsals and expected everyone to be around at that time. She involved her students in every aspect of her working and encouraged them to come up with ideas. She would tell us go into the garden and speak to the plants. The training was wholesome as she taught us life skills too.
Not many people know that athai had a great sense of humour. She could keep you in splits. A keen observer, she was a great mimic too. I learnt valuable lessons on life and art during the four years that I constantly travelled with her. She was a guru, guide, friend, mother…all rolled into one. I remember during a performance in Assam, I did a varnam though I had fever. After we got back to our room, I hit the bed straight away. A little later athai came running to me and wouldn't leave without giving my feet a massage. And I could feel tears rolling down my eyes.
An elegant dresser, she had an amazing collection of saris, stoles and shawls. She also had a taste for unusual international vegetarian cuisine. During our travels abroad she would happily tuck into them while others missed their routine sambar and rasam!