There’s more to George than being Rukmini Arundale’s husband
In this series, we take a trip down memory lane, back to the Madras of the 1900s, as we unravel tales and secrets of the city through its most iconic personalities and episodes.
THE year was 1917 and the scene in Madras orthodox to the core. It was then that a young Tamil Brahmin girl who had just entered her teens fell in love with an Englishman 26 years her senior. What most might have brushed off as a juvenile infatuation proved not to be. The love would change Rukmini’s life and also how her husband George Arundale is remembered today. But sadly, George Arundale has enough achievements to reminisce in his own right other than as the husband of the danseuse Rukmini.
The Theosophical Society added an international flavour to the city of Madras perhaps next only to the East India Company. George was the son of a preacher and when his mother died in childbirth he was adopted by a wealthy aunt (but carried his mother’s surname as his own). George had what was called a gentleman’s education on mainland Europe, Australia and finishing it off in Cambridge. It was then that he heard a speech by Annie Besant and felt an awakening and packed his bags to Madras to join the Theosophical Society.
In April 1920, Arundale married 16-year-old Rukmini Devi, daughter of Pandit Nilakanta Sastri (marriage was held in Bombay, to avoid heated scenes in Madras). The orthodox society was aghast and the leading newspaper of Madras even wrote an editorial on how it always had suspicions of Theosophical Society.
The couple fled for an extended honeymoon camouflaged as a tour of Europe to further the cause of Theosophy and on the ship, Rukmini met the ballerina Anna Pavlova. This meeting is regarded as the point at which rejuvenation of the traditional dance scene in India commenced. However, though Pavlova provided the spark, it was Arundale who mentored Rukmini and encouraged her to develop her interests amidst raging controversies.
Arundale was active on the political and educational scene already and would continue to be so. He had already been arrested for demanding home rule for India (much ahead of the millions of Indians who would go to jail for the cause and one of the handfuls of Europeans interned for India’s cause). He spent the internment in a cottage in Ooty with Annie Besant. The defiant internees had insisted on a home rule flag to be hoisted in the cottage’s garden.
Ambitious Arundale found many institutions in his career. The short-lived National University under the banyan tree of Adyar with Rabindranath Tagore as the first chancellor was one of them which failed.
The Indian Boy Scouts’ Association in 1913 he co-founded thrives even today. In 1935, Arundale delivered an address on the Madras Corporation Radio, describing the paybacks of the Scout Society to India. “If India needs to be a potent force for peace and international comradeship, she must have good citizens — boys and girls, men and women; for citizenship begins at birth, first with rights, but soon with duties.” Not stopping with words, the Theosophical Society carved out a portion of its Adyar campus to set up a campground for scouts.
It was Arundale who identified Maria Montessori as a path-breaking pioneer in education and brought her to Madras where she spent almost a decade. When the government wanted to arrest her as an alien, it was Arundale’s influence that stopped it. (Her son Mario spent the war days in the Pallavaram internment camp). During her stay in Adyar, Maria trained teachers in the well-known Montessori method of child education.
Just before 1930, around the 50th anniversary of its founding, the Theosophical Society faced a big tremor. Jiddu Krishnamurthy had been identified as a vehicle for Maitreya, the future world teacher. Arundale was selected as one of Krishnamurthi private tutors. (AE Wodehouse, a brother of the humourist PGW, was another).
When Jiddu was having doubts about his own messianic status, the Society had already played all its hopes on the acceptance of him as the world leader. New patrons and funds had flowed in. Jiddu broke away and made a confession of his very mortal status. “The moment you follow someone you cease to follow the truth”.
This could have been the death knell of the Society. Annie Besant died of a broken heart and the Society was in shambles. It was then when Arundale was elected the president of the Society. It was he who revigorated the Society that still goes strong almost a century thereafter but there were whispers that his young wife was clouding his decisions. Rukmini founding a dance academy and later her dancing in the Society functions was not relished by other theosophists that included Sriram, Rukmini’s brother.
The Society was requisitioned by the Royal Air Force during the World War and this disturbed Arundale a lot. His last years were sickly but he lived to see the return of the Adyar campus. Ironically, the Englishman, who had been arrested for fighting for India’s freedom, would not live to see it. His funeral pyre at the Garden of Remembrance near Adyar Beach was lit by his wife Rukmini.
—The author is a historian