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Rukmini Devi — a visionary artiste (February 29, 1904-February 24, 1986)

Let me begin by paying my homage to the founder of Kalakshetra, Rukmini Devi Arundale. I knew her, interacted with her, and in my own modest way, helped her with some of her thoughtful ventures like the Kalakshetra Journal. I admired her as a leader of Indian culture, a thinker and a creative artiste. She knew that the arts have to be homogeneously allied to bring out the best in human endeavour. To me she exemplified what the Vishnudharmottara Purana states — all the arts are connected, and to be a good artiste you need to have a sound knowledge of all the arts. :

Rukmini Devi lived her artistic life holding a candle up to this credo. She had a keen sense of observation and understood the arts of India with amazing sensitivity. She observed: “We do not know how to create consciously the beautiful things we once created unconsciously. The simple potter keeps on making beautiful pots. The weaver knows colours and if you ask him to make something modern he will do something ugly. But if you leave him to do his ordinary way, he will make something beautiful unconsciously.”

Rukmini Devi, the Animal lover

Rukmini Devi, the Animal lover  

She felt that we complicate things and lose simplicity. The creation of beauty was part of everyday life. And the spiritual background which is simplicity, she felt, had that high aspiration, a deep love of an ideal, a goal and an unconscious but intelligent impulse to express it in our everyday lives. She believed that the creation of beauty was as much a spiritual expression as worship in a temple. She believed that the arts help in the development of all aspects of life. The presentation of beauty through dance, music, painting, sculpture, etc., which are channels of that beauty, and channels of spiritual thought stimulate the minds and emotions of people. She wrote: “Right emotion is the essence of evolution. It is a very dangerous thing to be brilliant or clever without knowing how to use imagination without knowing how to control emotion, for no matter how clever a man is, he still remains primarily a creature of emotion. Therefore it is necessary that the emotions become stimulated in the right way. There needs to be a fine tuning to see and hear the great and the true. This can be done only through one channel — by attuning ourselves to beauty, to greatness.”

Art as life

It is not surprising that Rukmini Devi pioneered the Renaissance of Art in modern India. To make her ideal work, she started an institution of learning where art dominated the core of education. She said : “We may say Art does not matter, it is religion, it is spirituality that matters. Any body who thinks so is absolutely wrong, because Art is not something apart from life. Just as religion is not merely a temple, a mosque or a church, Art is not mere show but the aspiration of the soul to the Highest. It needs the same devotion, the same great flights of imagination that produces religious feeling. Added to these are the creative spirit which, blossoming out of the artist produces great works of art. Think of some of the great temples and the bronze images of South India. These were not made by sophisticated people… they may not even be able to speak to us about abstract philosophy… nevertheless they were the people who created masterpieces. Such art helped people to appreciate reality.”

As an active Theosophist, Rukmini Devi had travelled widely. Wherever she went, she was conscious of the variety of artistic endeavours by different people. She absorbed ideas, and was inspired to create her own artistic works. In a telling remark she said: “The people who are most ignorant of Indian culture, I am sorry to say, are Indians. This sounds very strange but it is a fact. Abroad many people study our culture. If we really believe in our culture and its value both in national and individual lives we have to make every effort to understand not only the exterior form of that culture but the spirit that gave birth to that form.”

Rukmini Devi with Morarji Desai

Rukmini Devi with Morarji Desai   | Photo Credit: Photos: The Hindu Archives

She believed that discernment and discrimination in matters of beauty should be welcomed. Democracy says anybody can be an artiste. But democracy does not insist that everybody should be perceived as a good artiste. Rukmini Devi observed in a lecture that twenty people voting democratically about the quality of a work of art is not the right way. “We should know how many among the twenty are sensitive and knowledgeable about good art.”

She proved time and again that her roots were firmly planted in India, and in fact she never veered away from a lifestyle which was typically South Indian, which included a strict vegetarian diet, a passion for Carnatic music (a trained singer herself), a taste for authentic handwoven Kanchipuram silk saris, which became her fashion statement, and handcrafted temple jewellery. It is not surprising that for decades she was an active votary of vegetarianism.

She said: “India must be an example to the whole world. Today we are trying to be a bad copy of the West. We have so much we can give the modern world, but in order to give great gifts we must have a true ideal of great refinement, a refinement of the mind, of the soul…”

To quote her again: We should never say that a thing is not modern. The very word MODERN is not Indian. It is an English word, expressing an un-Indian spirit. Our word is ETERNITY not modernism.

Rukmini Devi with Papanasam Sivan, K.K. Shah, Governor of Tamil Nadu, and at the 45th Annual Conference of the Music Academy

Rukmini Devi with Papanasam Sivan, K.K. Shah, Governor of Tamil Nadu, and at the 45th Annual Conference of the Music Academy   | Photo Credit: THE HINDU ARCHIVES (S. KOTHANDARAMAN)

Conceiving her design for living with the arts, Rukmini Devi had a clear perspective. The old campus of Kalakshetra was modelled on our rural architecture, with thatched roof spaces for classes, sylvan surroundings, and a Gurukulam atmosphere where teachers and the taught lived together in harmony. She eventually built a Kerala style theatre for performances, giving credence to the aesthetics of traditional theatre. In-house artistes and craftsmen gave the finishing touches to not only the décor and ambience of the whole campus but also executed, under her watchful eye, costumes and accessories which brought out a visual treat. Stage craft in her hands became an example of visual beauty.

Often Rukmini Devi is described as the one who saved the art of Bharatanatyam dance from extinction. Some scholars also like to think that she appropriated the dance from the hereditary dance community. She voiced her observations clearly: “The art very nearly died as it had become a means for remembering the body rather than of forgetting it. Yet those whom the world denounced as having become corrupt gave themselves up with devotion and sincerity to the art they loved. The art was their very life and they worked and sacrificed their bodies for perfecting the art.”

The fact remains that a deep love for dance inspired her to go to its roots and study it with diligence with gurus at a time when crucial changes were taking place in our society with regard to temple dancers.

Rukmini Devi — a visionary artiste (February 29, 1904-February 24, 1986)

“Whenever there is a decay in civilisation we also see a degradation of the arts as we see in our country today… We have to make every effort to understand not only the exterior form of that Culture but the spirit that gave birth to the form. The essential feature of India’s art is that it is founded on a spiritual outlook,” she said. She often emphasised that “ spirituality” was above religion. “In India there is no religion apart from our daily lives.”

Path-breaking experiments

Such clear thinking moulded her vision for dance and thus was born the institution Kalakshetra. She was the first to understand the value of a school for dance. And she gathered around her not only the expert teachers of dance, but also the great musicians and scholars of her time who could compose the music and select the lyrics for her path-breaking experiment — the adaptation of Valmiki Ramayana for dance dramas. This was her most important contribution to dance and one which brought about the blossoming of all her creative energy. What indeed did this venture showcase? The Ramayana series composed by her over several decades helped her to visualise poetry as dance, make it dramatic, melodic and musically vibrant, and visually appealing.

Daring to innovate, she took ideas from the old Bhagavatamela dance-dramas, and vested them with her own choreographic ideas. Boldly she introduced Kathakali techniques for male characters such as Ravana and Hanuman. Her wide travels to far-eastern countries inspired her stage craft. Her innate good taste guided her designs in costume and accessories. Till today people flock to see the Kalakshetra Ramayana shows as well as other dance-dramas enjoying the old-world charm, the melodies composed by the stalwarts, including Mysore Vasudevachar, his grandson Rajaram, Papanasam Sivan and others.

For her, purana in a creative work was a tool to express the inner self. “We cannot dance the dance of Krishna unless we believe in Sri Krishna, unless at least for the time being, we become one with Krishna. If we do not believe in Him what is the use of dressing up and dancing. The outward form should be a visible sign of the inward grace.”

A view of Bharata Kalakshetra auditorium at the Kalakshetra Foundation Campus at Tiruvanmiyur

A view of Bharata Kalakshetra auditorium at the Kalakshetra Foundation Campus at Tiruvanmiyur   | Photo Credit: M_Karunakaran

Rukmini Devi was the first Chairperson (1962) of The Animal Welfare Board of India. When asked how she became an activist, she said, “I was standing one day on a railway platform, waiting for my train when I felt my sari being tugged by someone. I turned around and it was no ‘someone’ but a monkey, a caged monkey, pulling at my sari to ask me to help it get out of that trap... I felt that the monkey had given me a task, a mission.”

Rukmini Devi declined the position of being the President of India, when it was offered by Prime Minister Morarji Desai. She was nominated for two terms to the Rajya Sabha, where she mustered support for one of her causes — the Animal Welfare Board.

Young readers will be enthused to know that in 2016 Google honoured her on her 112th birthday with a doodle, and repeated it the following year for International Women’s Day.

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Printable version | Apr 17, 2021 6:23:48 PM |

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