A legend lives on...

In the dappled light of a leafy morning three generations of disciples gather at the Kalakshetra campus to celebrate the birth centenary of their guru Rukmini Devi Arundale (Feb 29). Many of them are dance and music gurus themselves, with their own institutions. V. P. Dhananjayan blows the conch. C. V. Chandrasekhar sounds the cymbals. The sruti box, violin, mridangam and kanjira are ready for action. Crack goes the ritual coconut. Senior musician D. Pasupati begins the chant in his temple bell voice, along with yesteryear classmates S. R. Janakiraman, Adyar K. Lakshmanan, Rama Rao and Satyalingam.

What follows could be a scene from Rukmini Devi's own productions. Carrying a flower-fringed portrait of Rukmini Devi under a festooned umbrella, the singing procession makes its way to the banyan tree `prayer hall'. At the head are the early students of Kalakshetra, some from other cities and countries. Vasanta Vedam, Rama Ravi, Thangamani, Anandhi Ramachandran, Pushpa Shankar, Savitri Jagannath Rao, Uma Sundaram, Pushpa Shinde, Savitri Nair, Krishnaveni Lakshmanan, Shanta Dhananjayan, Kala Ramesh Rao... They have grown up with the dance, music and poetry of the epic characters they had played in their guru's dance dramas. Their handloom saris remind us that for the founder of Kalakshetra, the traditional crafts were part of any renaissance of the arts. The singing ends with a tribute to all the gurus of the past — Tiger Varadachariar, Papanasam Sivan, Meenakshisundaram Pillai, Chockalingam Pillai, Budalur Krishnamurti Sastrigal, Mysore Vasudevachar, Sankara Menon, and to Padmasini, who turned the bare sandy acres into groves and gardens.

For the students of today the old timers paint a more idealistic time of uncompromising dedication. `Chinna' Sarada explains that Rukmini Devi sought to develop the potential of every student to enrich the nation. Rajeswari speaks of Rukmini Devi's compassion, Savitri Nair recalls her sense of humour, Satyalingam and S. R. Janakiraman get emotional as they describe the care she lavished on every student, both in and out of the classroom. Sumitra Gautama says that the Kalakshetra grooming shaped discipline and attitude through life, even if the student did not pursue a career in dance or music.

A special ambience is evoked when songs taught by eminent musicians in Kalakshetra are sung by the old guard, with little anecdotes making the stalwarts come alive. Verses from Kalidasa and Kutrala Kuravanji, set to music by Tiger Varadachariar and his redoubtable brother Krishnamachariar are rendered by the same Pasupati who had sung them for Rukmini Devi's own performances. That is when dance gurus Sarada Hoffman, Adyar Lakshmanan, Dhananjayan and Chandrasekhar join the singers. Rama Ravi moves in for the Vasudevachar songs. We see how the students of Rukmini Devi form a close-knit community even today. Surprisingly, the city's artiste community is conspicuously absent, except for empathetic participants T. K. Govinda Rao, T. V. Gopalakrishnan, Chitra Visweshwaran and Visweshwaran.

A legend lives on...

The evening sees the Kalakshetra theatre packed to capacity. Old student Amala Akkineni highlights Rukmini Devi's campaigns against cruelty to animals in vivisecting labs, zoos and circuses. She had catalysed the passing of an Animal Welfare Act in Parliament, making India the only nation in the world to have such legislature. Later, Dhananjayan performs in Kathakali the episode of the pregnant deer's escape from hazards, a favourite of his `Prani mitra' guru.

Dance and music by the students of the Besant Arundale School, of Kalakshetra, and some old alumni include the folk kummi, and the kulavalam of the hill dwellers. No generation gap in the orchestra conducted by Savitri Jagannath Rao (nattuvangam). Adyar Lakshmanan is one of the singers with son Babaprasad on the mridangam. Adyar Balu (son of the late Vitthala Iyer of Kalakshetra) also plays the drum, with son Muthukumar on the flute. The varnam (Rupamu juchi,Todi) choreographed by Rukmini Devi (Pushpa Shinde, Mythili Raghavan and Yasoda) becomes a reminder of traditional tirmanams, strung with precision and epigrammatic sparkle. Ambika Buch, Shanta Dhananjayan and Kala Ramesh Rao perform a padam, their long-bordered silks bearing the influence of their guru as much as the restraint in bhava. Thunder greets the appearance of their teacher Sarada Hoffman — isn't she part of the legend of Kalakshetra? In tandem with Pasupati's singing, her sloka shapes a delicate finale.

Through the nostalgia we glimpse the discipline, camaraderie and team spirit of the old timers. C. V. Chandrasekhar opts to stage manage the show rather than perform, danseuse Krishnaveni Lakshmanan sings for her yesteryear classmates. The day-long event is designed, not as entertainment, but as an offering to something higher than the self.

That is why, on that day, though the Kalakshetra repertory was celebrating Rukmini Devi's centenary in New Delhi, the Kalakshetra spirit lit up the Chennai theatre that its founder had built long ago, as part of her work in striving for a world of beauty and truth.