The traditions of the Indian performing arts are like flowing rivers that often replenish themselves at the font of inspiration and innovation.
While many gurus (or Masters) provided Indian classical dance (and music) forms with concept, content and context, a few also proved to be path-breaking women leaders whose example inspired others and made them take such narratives further. Indian classical dance forms were the preserve of traditional gurus, whose art was almost hereditary. Though not castes in themselves, these artistes were a class in society with distinct attributes of lineage, role and a place in the temple milieu, where these art forms mostly flourished, or in the royal courts (Curtiss, 1974).
Consequently, in the case of Rukmini Devi Arundale, the first major context was the caste system itself. In this case, it worked in reverse. Traditionally, while Brahmins retained and promoted scriptural knowledge (in the fields of astronomy, astrology, vedic or non-vedic rituals), in the context of Indian classical dances, until the 1930s, teaching and dancing were the preserve mostly of a class (not caste) of total or ‘complete’ artistes (so-called, as they were well-versed in literature, music and dance in totality, and not piecemeal, as we see practised today), called variously as the devadasis on the south coast, the maharis in the east, the mohints on the west coast, or the vilasinis on the upper-east coast. These arts were transmitted orally, as in Brahminical traditions, from guru to shishya—a master to a ward.
Each class of dancer—including court dancers, often called Rajdasis or Rajnartakis—had an assigned role in the power and patronage structures of Indian temples, where these traditional forms were manifested. While all classical dancing in India can be attributed to divine origins and sources, its setting too was bound by religious moorings, i.e. within the temple precincts (Khokar, 1979).
While classical dance forms—forms which have a structured or codified grammar, a fixed mode of musical language and a bedrock of literary texts derived from historical or mythological treatises—such as Bharatanatyam, Kathakali, Orissi, Kuchipudi, among others—thus survived centuries, mass forms such as community dancing—loosely termed as folk, tribal or even ritual-carried on without much evident organised patronage, as these dances were done by, and for, an agrarian collective.
Centuries of traditions, based on codified grammar and language, made Indian temple-related dances, classical. These were backed by treatises and texts ranging from 2nd BCE-2nd ace, ascribed Natyashastra and Abhinaya Darpana. In each age or era (such as the Sangam Age; 500 BCE-500 ade), a significant work was added that referred to dancing and music techniques, as in Silappadikaram and Manimekhalai.
It was not just the southern kingdoms that promoted dance and music, but various kings from Kashmir and poets such as Kalhan (1149 ade) who wrote Rajataranigini, wherein he described dancing girls and patrons; or Damodargupta (9 ade), who wrote Kuttanimata, on the life of courtesans; to Somedeva’s Kathasaritasagara (1063-1091 ade), give us proof of this important activity in daily lives. This clearly established the adage that, Kashmir to Kanyakumari, dancing and music did connect and bind India even before the idea of India was born!
The very definition of the long colonial rule from the 16th century onwards that lasted till 1947 meant a certain State strategy to divide and rule, and to marginalise local cultures and learning processes. As a consequence, many traditional Indian value systems in education and the arts were delinked from one another, making for a mixed palette of cultural conundrum. A good example is yoga and its practice. Or Sanskrit. Both these traditional Indian cultural and spiritual pillars were marginalised under Lord Macaulay’s educational thrust, which delinked Indian language and cultural moorings from school or college-level educational systems. Its decline today can directly be traced to this measure and delinking.
In order to revive our classical arts, they must be brought back into the school curriculum.
The advent of the 20th century and world explorations and experiences of ideas, both in science and in society, led to an Industrial Revolution in England which ushered in many ripple effects that could be seen in its colonies and Empire. Naturally, gradually, these advances helped connect people and trends, ideas and machines, and soon a slow desire for independence from foreign rule emerged. Into this scenario was born our protagonist, Rukmini Devi.
Born on 29 February 1904, in Madurai, to Sanskrit scholar and retired government engineer Nilakantan Sastry, Rukmini Devi was his sixth child. Her upbringing was traditional, as was the vogue those days, and there was nothing uncommon, except perhaps, a latent fact that soon, to seek a better livelihood, Nilakantan Sastry left his native Pudukottai and came to Madras in 1912.
After the Sastry family moved to Madras and owing to the proximity to many foreigners who frequented the Theosophical Society, Rukmini Devi became attached to a young English lady, Eleanor Elder, who had studied dance with Margaret Morris in London. Morris was now directing her attention to reviving ancient Greek dance, as set by the redoubtable Isadora Duncan and her brother, Raymond. To conduct her experiment and enquiry, Elder roped in some of the European and American residents at the Theosophical Society. Elder put up shows from time to time and in one of these, a Tamil version of Tagore’s Malini, Rukmini Devi appeared briefly and sang a song! This was in 1918 (Khokar, 1996). Soon, in 1920 (according to her acolyte-biographer Leela Samson), she married George Arundale, her senior by many years, and settled into domestic life in the midst of the growing nation-wide clamour for Independence. She travelled with him far and wide; and it was on one such journey to Australia by sea that her cabin was next to Cleo Nordi, the famed ballerina. To pass the long hours on the journey, Rukmini Devi began studying Western ballet under Nordi. But Nordi, returning from Java and India, chided her for her interest in ballet while not knowing any Indian classical dance form, especially the one closest to her provenance, Bharatanatyan.
As a consequence, upon her return, Rukmini Devi decided to pursue this form of dance. The legendary Mylapore Gowri Animal, a devadasi then attached to the Kapalieshwar temple in Mylapore, Madras, taught her nuances of abhinaya, while Muthukumaran Filial of Kattumanar Koil taught her basic steps and foundation. Subsequently, Pandanallur Meenakshi Sundaram Filial became her main dance guru.
On 30 December 1935, to celebrate the Annual Convention of the Theosophical Society, a short dance performance was planned. The venue was the headquarters of the Society in Adayar, Madras, and it was the first appearance of a woman who had no real background in the dance of the dasis. It was unheard of that a Brahmin woman would publicly dance the art of the devadasis, sullied and shunned by polite society. While the dance form itself was valued, its dancer was not, largely because some of those artistes, who had fallen on bad days, had taken to the world’s oldest profession. Over a thousand aficionados had assembled for the event, more out of curiosity than real interest, and all of them sat transfixed. A handful of die-hards, bent on boycotting the event, sneaked in to condemn the dancer, Rukmini Devi (Khokar, 2000).
Bharatanatyam, an ancient art form, had evolved to become one in which teachers were mostly males, and dancers, females. By convention, a devadasi could keep one patron, or more. Sons born of such alliances took to nattuvangam and daughters took to dance. Nattuvangam is the art of conducting a dance recital by keeping rhythm and reciting syllables, while wielding small cymbals. The nattuvanars were the heads of the clan, or family, and each devadasi was normally attached to a temple. Patronage thus came from the temples, its natural moorings. It was this environment in which the dance form took birth and developed. However, the long years of colonial rule gradually eroded local and district-level patronage and this, in turn, slowly but surely, began affecting the fortunes of the artistes as well.
Polite society shunned devadasis, mistaking the symptom for the disease. One daughter of such a devadasi became a barrister-Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy— and fought for its abolishment. She succeeded in 1947, when India became independent. At the same time, another activist-lawyer-dancer, E. Krishna Iyer, had also espoused the case and cause of the devadasis. Iyer danced dressed as one, and presented them on prestigious platforms such as the citadel of Brahmin culture, the Madras Music Academy The last great devadasi of Madras, Balasaraswati, gave a befitting account of her mastery and art by singing and dancing m the Music Academv yaaruku bhayama (‘Of whom am I afraid? Or, I fear none…’) She also stood her ground and inspired several who did not possess the tools of the English language to hold forth or present their point of view. Balasaraswati, therefore, represented a world that was vanishing and an art form that was gradually becoming a reference point and also undergoing a class metamorphosis (Sundaram, 2000).
At the time, Rukmini Devi herself had no revivalist agenda, or any save-the-dance-from-the-devadasi crusade that, soon after’ became the discourse. She, willy-nilly, became the eye of the storm. In the 1930s, when Rukmini Devi took to the stage, she was not delinking a tradition or sounding its death-knell, but merely taking on an existing tradition and moving it into a more public domain. A traditional classical dance form like Bharatanatyam had already been seen at weddings of important chieftains and local rulers called zamindars (Subramaniam, 2008). Rukmini Devi’s association with, and usage of, a form like Bharatanatyam positioned her in a unique role as a catalyst of change. Did she plan it? Knowing her personally for long and my father, the late Mohan Khokar, being her first male student -from north India, one can authoritatively say, no.
She was beyond self-projection; she was on another plane and dimension; she was a mere receptor and preceptor. Rukmini Devi was destined to make, and rewrite, the history of the dancing arts in south India, although many others had preceded her by a good five to ten years, especially male dancers such as Ram Gopal and Uday Shankar, who were already touring Europe in the 1930s when she made her debut. Her example made many take to Bharatanatyam; thus, indirectly or directly, Rukmini Devi provided a women leadership role and empowered many women. Overnight, new stars such as Baby Kamala (Laxman), Kausalya and Shakuntala were ‘born’ and feted. Films, in which compositions of classical dance were used, became a regular feature and later-day stars like Rajilakshmi, Vyjayanthimala Bali and E.V. Saroja added lustre and celebrity-standing; many gurus such as Vazuvuhor Ramaiah Filial directed sequences for film-makers such as the director Subrahmanyam (father of renowned dancer, Dr Padma Subrahmanyam) , whose dance films gave several dancers in general and Bharatanatyam, in particular, a wider outreach.
However, the grand success of the performance on 30 December 1935 proved to be a turning point for many: for Rukmini herself, of course, but also for the development of Bharatanatyam and the setting up in 1936 of the greatest of all such institutions for teaching Bharatanatyam — the Kalakshetra. This unique dance community had been conceived as an integrated one, a family. The residential cottages, the classrooms, the rehearsal hall, mess and administrative block were all cheek by jowl and there was energy in the air. There was Western discipline, to be sure, but after classes, old-timers recall how they could freely assemble, and converse and bond as a family.
Initially set up as the international Academy of the Arts, in 1939 it was rechristened Kalakshetra, temple of the arts. In June 1940, Kalakshetra was registered as a Society. In the beginning, classes were held only in Bharatanatyam and vocal music, the fee being INR 15 and INR10 per month, respectively. Only two girls joined for dance, and both were from families in the Society estate. Lessons began under a tree! The first two teachers were both giants in the field — Kattumannar Koil Muthukumaran Pillai for Bharatanatyam, and Papanasam Sivam for music. In fact, Muthukumaran Pillai brought his star student M.K. Saroja, then a child of nine, to show Rukmini Devi what his teaching and training standards were. She immediately engaged him and he was appointed as the first dance teacher of Kalakshetra. Within a year, 20 more girls had joined and, by the next year, the number had risen to 40.
Kalakshetra-bani or style is formed by a group of successive gurus beginning with the senior-most Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai, to Muthukumaran Pillai, to Ellapa, Kittapa, and many others who followed. Most traditional nattuvunars taught at Kalakshetra as there was really no other formal institution in Madras then, although a plethora of personal, -individual-run institutions flourished. Many gurus, such as Dandayudhapani Pillai (guru to Mangalore Alva, Vyjayanthimala Bali), Vazuvoor Ramaiah Pillai and Nataraja Shankuntala, became popular outside of Kalakshetra due to their work in films, which ensured that they could survive, even thrive. Films gave them regular exposure and their students multiplied and some of them, such as Kamala, Vyjayanthimala Bali and E.V. Saroja, went to work in the film industry.
In 1948, Kalakshetra received an eviction from the Theosophical Society on the grounds that activities were alien to the tenets of the Society and thus it could not continue to host the institution. Kalakshetra’s unceremonious delinking with the Society meant a certain loss in funds, much m the nature of abruptly severing a teenager from its parents and expecting the child, literally disowned, to fend for itself. Rukmmi Devi’s genius lay in taking up the challenge and creating an institution that has stood the test of time, despite many ups and downs. She realised that, to survive, teaching was the mainstay, and tours. In that, she created corps de students that fed the corps de ballet. Generally, a ballet, or a dance-drama production, needs a group of well-trained dancers. The question was: where was one to get these from, especially when no real fee could be paid?
Kalakshetra is a unique model that has functioned without monies, or very little monies. It is interesting to note that, until two decades ago, its faculty was still drawing monthly salaries in the hundreds, not thousands. The average salary of a teacher and staff was only INR 400, until its 50th anniversary! Kalakshetra was so staunchly unprofessional where money matters were concerned that it returned unutilised a grant of INR 25 lakh from the Ford Foundation on the grounds that, never having been a wealthy institution, it was at a loss as to how best to utilise the funds (Peria Sarada, 2008). This is not an incident from its inception, but one that took place in the late 1980s. Kalakshetra’s creed was to do with art, not the business of art, as has now become common with most dance institutions.
Carnatic music also remained a pillar of the institution with Tiger Varadachariar, Vasudevachariar, Karaikudi Veena Sambasiva Iyer and Papanasam Sivan, themselves lending their musical services, when required, often without charging any fee. Rukmini Devi’s generosity was such that she always compensated the artistes. Kalakshetra benefited immensely with fine inputs from many musical giants and geniuses and a list of its staff speaks for such alliances. Every eminent doyen of Carnatic music was associate with this institution for decades.
With such musicians and dance inputs, and as a daughter of a great Sanskrit scholar, it was only natural that Rukmini Devi focussed on the revival of Kuruvanjis (temple dance-dramas) and when Kutral Kuruvanjis (temple-drama) was first produced by her in 1944, the audiences were amazed. Sri Krishnamachariar, brother of Tiger Varadachariar, provided the necessary varnamettus (song-patterns) and Rukmini herself devised the dance-patterns. Bhishma was amongst the first; it was followed by Kalidasa’s Kumar Sambhava in 1947 that was produced under such circumstances, as were many others, which are performed till date.
Sita Swayamvaram in 1955; Usha Pariyanam in 1959; the list is endless. In all, about 25 major dance-dramas, some as varied as the last one, Meera of Mewar (1984), and one based on martial arts (Meenakshi Vijayam, 1977) were made. These are full-length productions, with many sets and characters and costumes.
Rukmini Devi is remembered for creating and sustaining Kalakshetra with her untiring and dedicated efforts; but dance was not her sole passion, although it took up the major part of her time. She was a champion of both animal welfare and of vegetarianism, with both these causes dear to her, and, had she had her way, she could have well made animal welfare her life’s mission. Her life has been many dimensional, though dance and Kalakshetra remained the red thread, the connecting link. She served on many boards and committees and was twice nominated to Parliament.
In 1977, a peculiar situation occurred when the then Prime Minister, Morarji Desai, promoted and proposed her for the position of the President of India. Had she accepted, she would have been the first woman President of India. This was the first time a dancer was being offered the highest post in the land but Rukmini Devi, with characteristic integrity and on principled grounds, declined, saying that unless all parties support my candidature, there is no point in holding this august office.
Rukmini Devi Arundale was a very quiet, reticent person and in the few biographies on her, one by her colleague S. Sarada, and one more recently by Leela Samson (2010), she comes across as a philosopher. She often thought long and hard before taking any action and some aver she thought too much. Sensitive to the point of becoming withdrawn, if the situation did not suit her, Rukmini Devi fought many battles and weathered many storms with dignity.
When a group of artistes within Kalakshetra led by Dhananjayans (‘Malyalee union-bazi’; Peria, Sarada, 1986) went on strike for better and higher salaries, she took affront to this approach. Sadly, in her own lifetime, Kalakshetra became divisive and fractured into many factions.
Sankara Menon, her right-hand man, friend and associate remained a constant support. Menon, the brother of the equally illustrious musicologist Narayan Menon, ensured that Rukmini Devi was provided the atmosphere and environment to run the institution as she deemed fit. He was her first line of defence and protected her from many ugly battles, taking upon himself the role of her protector. It is entirely to his credit that the institution continued to function years after she passed away on 24 February 1986. As she wrote in a letter to Mohan Khokar, The only treasure we have in India is Art. Otherwise this is not a happy country. . . .’ (Khokar, 2011)
R. Venkatraman, a former President of India, was Kalakshetra’s Chairman for a long spell and he provided continuity in troubled times. As a veteran politician, he brought in his abundant experience in statecraft to bear on this troubled institution of art. The fact that Kalakshetra possessed hundreds of acres of land in a metropolis like Madras made it a sitting target for many sharks, and it was only a skilled politician, with cultural leanings and moorings, who could have provided some direction.
Sankara Menon oversaw the survival of the institution long after Rukmini Devi’s passing, despite many eyeing Kalakshetra’s extensive land assets. Menon and three associates were also assaulted by land sharks, although the attack itself was blamed on local fishermen. Menon orchestrated the smooth transition and its functioning and he ensured that Kalakshetra survived. Rajaram (grandson of Tiger Varadachariar) was appointed intermittently as director for many years until a suitable candidate could be found. The choice ultimately fell on Leela Samson when, in 2005, she was appointed its director. As an alumnus, she had a close bond with her alma mater; to serve it became a life mission. In the last seven years, Samson revived and revitalised a moribund, near-comatose institution. She served it well and saved the institution from certain collapse. Leela Samson can also be called Rukmini Devi’s true follower and has furthered her ideals and cause. The State has, in recent years, given her multiple responsibilities such as the Chairmanship of the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi Chairmanship of the National Film Censor Board, and of several other organisations and bodies. She sits on many important committees and panels.
A totally different talent is that of Mallika Sarabhai. Daughter of the famed scientist, Dr Vikram Sarabhai, and doyenne of dance, Mrinalini Sarabhai, she cut loose from assigned roles of routine dancing and domesticity, and has introduced the feminist discourse to her art of dance-theatre-films. A multi-talented dynamo of dance-theatre, she has actively taken up social and political issues and provided women leadership to art and education, emancipation and women empowerment. Her solo productions, such as Sita’s Daughters, have been path-breaking works, where mythology was re-questioned and in which new nuances provided a platform for women’s rights and women empowerment. She has done many more women-specific productions to highlight her concerns as an activist (‘an activist who uses art for change’) such as An Ideal Named Meera, In Search of the Goddess and Sva Kranti: The Revolution Within. Mallika Sarabhai has maintained the same vision politically, openly taking up causes that concern civil society, including contesting in the general elections against incumbent and presiding State political deities.
Kalakshetra has proved to be the Bolshoi of India because of its rigorous training and demands on the dancer. The idea of a gurukul — where one rises early, stays with dance all day, learns related dance forms such as music, literature and stage presentation — hones a Kalakshetra dancer as a performer. It is indeed a complete education in dance.
Amongst its best-known alumni are all world famous names in Bharatanatyam beginning with the Dhananjayans. ‘Even if we had differences with our alma mater, we see no inner difference with its creator, our guru, atthai (aunt)’ (Dhananjayan, 2011). C.V. Chandrasekhar says, ‘Kalakshetra made me what I’m today. I came to learn music in 1945 but ended up learning dance.’ Krishanveni, Janardahan, Yamini Krishnamurthy, even Orissi divas — Sanjukta Panigrahi and Minati Das — learnt Bharatanatyam at Kalakshetra, as did Orissi guru Mayadhar Raut. Teachers at Kalakshetra such as Perai and Chinna Sarada (Hoffman), Jayalakhmi, Padamasini are all part of the lore of Kalakshetra. Among the next generation were Laskhmi Vishwanathan, Shanta Dhananjayan and Leela Samson. They were followed by younger star students Ananda Shankar Jayant, Anuradha Shridhar and Urmila Satyanarayana.
Jyostsana Jaganathan, Meenakshi Srinivasan and Navia Nataraia are part of the current generation of star-performers.
Did Rukmini Devi empower just women? Is her legacy safe? What did she achieve? Any such assessment is almost subjective unless the entire narrative above is seen in the light of the various turns and twists of her own life and example, showing how she empowered minds and provided women leadership, that helped more women from among polite society to take to an art form.
Victor Dandre, popular Russian ballet master and married to the ballerina Anna Pavlova, lamented in 1922: ‘We came to India to see its famed dances but except for some stray Nautch, we see nothing’ (Haskell, 1947). But by 1942, in 20 short years, Rukmini Devi and many before her, like Uday Shankar (whom Anna Pavlova ‘discovered’ in London and Paris), Ram Gopal (whom American dancer La Meri ‘discovered’ in Bangalore) and Gopinath (whom American dancer Ragini Devi ‘discovered’ in Vallathol’s Kerala Kalamandalam) had helped re-establish the classical Indian arts in a major way (Devi, 2010). This was not true merely in the field of dance but in the allied arts of music, costumes, backdrops, among others.
Thus, in the performing arts, Rukmini Devi remains the most important woman who helped empower not only women, but the arts and society itself. Her, we salute!