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How Rukmini Devi reinvented Bharatanatyam
Kalakshetra, an important landmark in the city’s cultural scene, is now recognised as an institution of national importance in India.
“We have had our own suspicions about Adyar…”, read a leading Madras newspaper editorial on a 1920 marriage, though it was wholly a private affair. In a matrimonial mystery, a 16-year-old Brahmin girl married a 42-year-old European and that had sent the Madras orthodoxy into a spin.
The newly married couple found it stifling to live in Madras and decided to stay away. Arundale and Rukmini Devi set sail on an ocean cruise in which a co-passenger was the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova. By the time they reached Australia, Rukmini had decided dance would be the pole star in her life.
A few years later, Arundale became the president of the Theosophical Society and Rukmini, as the first lady, used her clout to add her interests. She found the traditional dance ‘Sadir’ still in the clutches of the Devadasi community and in a move often condemned even today, she decided to ‘sanitise’ it.
Rukmini learned the dance from a Devadasi in Mylapore temple and not only did she perform to an audience (unthinkable for an upper caste those days) but also started teaching. There were accusations that she appropriated the inherited legacy of the Devadasis. While her excuse was that, “the art form thirsted for reinvention”. She seriously worked on having Sadir’s sensuousness obliterated with religious zeal taking its place instead to bolster dance with decorum. Sadir was transformed to Bharatanatyam, teeming with Brahmanical cleanliness.
Theosophical Society insiders were very angry that their resources were frittered away to the public, who were not sympathetic to their cause. But since her husband was the powerful president, they didn’t utter a word. When she renamed the society as Kalakshetra — the arena of arts, Tagore, reportedly, said, “If I had thought of this name first, I would have named Shanthiniketan this.”
The Society functionaries were infuriated as the couple had started a trust with themselves at the helm and diverted potential donations meant for the society. (The case of an Englishwoman, Josephine Chambers, whose bequest to Dr George Arundale, to allow him to continue doing charitable work on behalf of the Theosophical Society was resolved after 61 years in an out-of-court settlement. The value of the dispute was 1,80,000 pounds).
A number of antagonists were building up and when Arundale died, the new president refused outsiders to come into the Theosophical Society to learn or watch Bharatanatyam. Rukmini decided it was time to move out. She did make one last try to gain the helm of the Theosophical Society and contested the presidential election but lost to her brother.
Funds did not seem a problem to acquire the 99 acres of beach land in Thiruvanmiyur — the land of Valmiki (it was the largest piece of land purchased in Madras in a few decades). The neighbouring compound housed the tomb of Saint Pamban Swamigal and the students actually danced before his samadhi.
A beach like a desert dune was so different from the tropical riverside forest Rukmini had lived in. She even brought a sapling of the banyan from the Theosophical Society and on New Year’s Day of 1951, there was a ceremonial planting in the new campus. Patrons from different parts of the world brought soil from their own countries.
Earlier, the campus was a four-room cottage with an L-shaped studio. Rukmini said that she had a great feeling of benign presence and with sheer perseverance, her sand dunes became a verdant forest. Birds built their nests and the branches rustled in the sea breeze. Along with the sound of waves, it added merit to a locality where dance was taught as an organic form. A proud Kalakshetra even brought out a book describing the hundreds of species of flora and fauna which now thrive there.
Kalakshetra soon became the frontrunner in Bharatanatyam dance and even thrives today as an important landmark of Chennai’s cultural scene. Honours came Rukmini’s way and there was also an unsubstantiated piece of news (but widely circulated) that Morarji Desai offered her the Presidency of India in 1977 which she politely declined.
After Rukmini’s regime, the institution had its own share of politics and government interference. Kalakshetra is now recognised as an “Institution of National Importance” in India.
— The writer is a historian and an author