“I was very intuitive from an early age. I responded to people just as I responded to art – through an inner feeling which is difficult to explain. I just felt some things were right and some were not…”
Born in the temple town of Madurai, Tamil Nadu on the 29th of February 1904, Rukmini Devi was one of eight siblings. Her father Neelakantha Sastry was an engineer and the family moved from place to place as his work demanded. She enjoyed a happy childhood as she wrote in a short biographical note, “I have had the fortune of having the most understanding and loving parents. No discipline was imposed on us, but traditional values and correct behavior we learnt automatically by watching them. . . Father was . . . very forward thinking and disliked many of the narrow prejudices, the caste distinctions, animal sacrifices, etc. which were part of our religion in those days”. These values were to leave a deep impression on all their children. It was her father who initiated her along with her siblings into the Theosophical Society. As Rukmini Devi herself said, “He liked the teachings of the Theosophists which freed religion from superstition. . .” And after he retired, Neelakantha Sastry bought land next to the Theosophical Society estate in Adyar and moved there with his family .
Her childhood was spent in the environment of the Theosophical Society, growing under the influence of inspiring people like Dr. Annie Besant, Dr. George Sydney Arundale, C W Leadbeater and other thinkers and theosophists of the time. After the death of her father, the family grew close to Dr. George Arundale, a distinguished Theosophist and an associate of Dr.Annie Besant. But when Dr. Arundale, her senior by 24 years, proposed marriage to the stunningly beautiful and charismatic 16 year old Rukmini, the orthodoxy of Madras was shocked and vehement in their protest. It was to be the first of many storms in this courageous woman’s life – all of which she would weather with conviction and strength.
In 1920 she married Dr. Arundale with the blessings of Dr. Annie Besant and with the approval and support of her mother and brothers. Though they faced a great deal of opposition from a conservative society in Madras, they stayed firm in their resolve. In the years that followed, they worked together closely in education and the arts, inspiring and complementing each other in a manner that made their marriage seem ordained by a higher purpose.
Being with Dr. Arundale changed Rukmini Devi’s life. She began to travel widely with her husband on Theosophical work. She also became very close to Dr. Annie Besant and helped her with her work. Although she was very young at that time, she observed and absorbed a great deal of the values and the concerns of those who worked with Dr.Besant for the freedom of India and for the revival of India’s cultural heritage. (Dr. Arundale went on to become the President of the Theosophical Society after Dr. Besant’s passing and Rukmini Devi herself was an active member of the Theosophical movement).
It was on one of her travels that Rukmini Devi met the famed ballerina, Anna Pavlova, at Covent Gardens, London. What she experienced that evening was to transform the course of the young woman’s life. She saw Pavlova perform again in Bombay, the East Indies and Australia. But it was her chance meeting with the ballerina on a ship to Australia that was to initiate her into this “fascinating world of movement and expression” as she would write later.
Pavlova introduced Rukmini Devi to ballet and had her disciple, Cleo Nordi, give the young woman lessons while on board the ship. Dr. Arundale believed that after this experience, Rukmini Devi was “a changed person.” While Pavlova encouraged Rukmini Devi to learn ballet, she insisted that as an Indian, she should learn the dance of her own country. Thus it came to be that Rukmini Dev followed the guidance of Pavlova in word and spirit.
Of Pavlova, Rukmini Devi wrote, “She was not beautiful in the ordinary sense but had a great presence on stage and an almost divine grace. That was what made her great. I can never forget her, for she showed me the great possibilities in dance as an art form.”
At the Theosophical Society in Adyar, Rukmini Devi often took part in theatrical productions, and later began to create dances and plays. But it seemed a if there was a growing restlessness within her, when she wrote, “I felt dissatisfied and wanted very much to learn Bharata Natya based on the classical music which I loved, and to do something more serious.” She began attend dance performances and sought out practitioners of the art ,and In 1927, Rukmini Devi’s brothers, Yagneswaran and N Sriram took her to see a sadir performance by two sisters. Rukmini Devi believed that through this performance she was “ushered into a new world of rhythmic beauty and meaning.” She resolved to learn the art from these specialists. Pandanallur Meenakshisundaram Pillai was her guru though it has been mentioned that she was initiated into bharatanatyam by Mylapore Gowriammal. Transcending orthodoxy ( that believed that girls of “upper caste families must not learn the art of temple harlots”) Rukmini Devi, already in her early thirties, worked tirelessly and with great enthusiasm to understand for herself the artistic spirituality of Indian dance, to learn it in its purest form.
She gave her first performance at the Diamond Jubilee celebrations of the Theosophical Society in 1935. Once more in her life she was to face vehement public ridicule as the orthodoxy of Madras threatened to boycott the event. Once more, she weathered the storm with the commitment and resolve she was then becoming known for.
Those who were present in the open air Adyar Theatre (of the Theosophical Society) on that day in 1935, were mesmerized by the spiritual quality of her dance. A Bishop who attended the performance wrote that he felt as if he had been “present at a benediction ceremony”, and Sir C V Raman, the Nobel Laureate said, “some of you, I hope – for your sakes all of you – must have been thrilled by what you just witnessed…….. grace brought down from the heights of the Himalayas and put on the earth of this platform”. On the occasion, Dr. Arundale, her strongest supporter, introduced the performance and spoke of the spiritual nature of this Indian dance. His speeches between the dances were said to be equally fascinating.
What perhaps was not immediately apparent was the fact that on that day, through her performance Rukmini Devi was creating history – something that would completely change the course of this art. Other than the fact that she had broken shackles of caste and community, it was the first time a dance programme was being presented as a stage performance. Also, earlier the accompanying musicians would follow the dancer on stage, moving back and forth with her. For the first time, Rukmini Devi made them sit on the side of the stage and there was a plain back drop that would enhance the dance being performed (features that we have come to take for granted in a dance performance today). The prevalent seductive costumes and jewelry were changed into aesthetically beautiful ones, inspired by those found in ancient sculpture. She was ushering in a period of renaissance in this art.
But to her, it was not enough that she danced herself, she wanted to find young people who would dedicate themselves along her, to its revival. She was determined to, in her words, “disseminate this beautiful and profound art that had been restricted to a few specialists.” And at a time when Dr. Besant and Dr. Arundale were working for the political freedom of India. Rukmini Devi believed that a cultural renaissance would be equally meaningful – that a country which was losing its identity would be best served by a revival of its traditional arts.
Kalakshetra was born of these energies.
She wrote, “When I think about the events that led to the formation of Kalakshetra, I am more and more convinced that there is a divine destiny which shapes our lives. Many people have said many things about my being a pioneer. I can only say that I did not consciously go after the dance. It was the dance that found me.”
Rukmini Devi was to devote the rest of her life to the institution that she created, funding it through her own resources and through the donations of friends and well-wishers. Dr.Arundale stood firmly by her side, actively working with her as she built her institution with vision and commitment, nurturing the academy through many difficulties. Her innate conviction and grace drew many people from different places and different walks of life to give up what they were doing and join her in her work. Sankara Menon, her most trusted friend, philosopher and guide, educationist Chintamani Trilokekar and his wife kamala Trilokekar, D Padmasisni and her brother M D Mani, scholars like Subramania Sastry, P S Krishnaswamy who deeply believed in Theosophical Education, younger people of that time like A Sarada, S sarada, Nachiappan, Peter Hoffman and many others were deeply attracted to her spirit and dedicated their whole life to her works. Other stalwarts of society like K Chandrasekaran, James Cousins and his wife, Sir C V Raman, Narayana Menon, and others supported her in various ways. The list is endless. Her mother Seshammal, sisters Sivakamu and Visalakshi and brothers Yagneswaran and Sriram also gave her their whole hearted support.
However, right from the beginning she understood the centrality of music to the dance. Her deep commitment to pure art and sensitivity to fine nuance drew great musicians like Tiger Varadachariar and his brother, Krishnamachariar, Mysore Vasudevachariar, Budalur Krishnamurthy Sastri, Papanasam Sivan, Veena Sambasiva Iyer along with great dancers like Ambu Panikar, Chandu Pannikar , Mylapore Gowriamal and many others to Kalakshetra. Veena Krishnamacharya captures this sentiment so beautifully in the sahithya of his Natabhairavi thillana (known as Kalakshetra’s trade mark thillana) where he pours his heart out in gratitude to Rukmini Devi “who with great fire and conviction established and nurtured this kshetra for the arts, a tribute to the beauty of Indian aesthetics….. There is no one more compassionate (than you)…. as you have created a haven to protect the beauty of the art and the dignity of the artist”.
At Kalakshetra, she put into practice all the values and instincts for beauty that she had absorbed in her life. Each classroom, each tree that was planted was the measure of her determination to make her institution grow, in the face of many difficulties. After the death of Dr. Arundale in 1945, she went through very hard times, but her strength of will and purposefulness helped her to overcome all the troubles that she faced. Kalakshetra moved to its present location in the 1960s. Despite an acute shortage of funds, Rukmini Devi managed to build simple classrooms and hostels to continue her life’s work.
Such was her dedication and clarity that when, in 1977, the then Prime Minister Moraji Desai, nominated her to become the President of India, she immediately declined the offer. Her response was simple and clear. If she were to become President it would take her away from her work, from Kalakshetra and she could not let that happen as she believed that the art and the institution needed her complete attention.
Kalakshetra was central to Rukmini Devi’s life, but she was absorbed in many other activities as well. She was a highly accomplished orator and travelled the world speaking on art, philosophy and animal welfare.
Deeply sensitive to all life, she was a true champion for the cause of animals. She felt, “the whole animal world is sending out one cry for help which very few human beings are answering. We may not be able to do much but ability comes from desire (to act). We will find the energy and the means if we know how to feel”. As a member of the Rajya Sabha she was instrumental in passing the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. And in 1957 the first World Vegetarian Congress was held in India under her Presidentship. “Animals are my friends and I do not eat my friends” was a line she often repeated, once even at the dinner table of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. As Chairman of the Animal Welfare Board, she remained involved with its activities, signing papers and working to the very end. She inspired a whole generation of young people around her to give up products tested on animals like shampoos and cosmetics. But her most beautiful message however was in her own life – when she chose not to take medicines for her fatal illness, because many of the drugs used in its treatment were either tested or researched. She bore the pain with the strength of right action and met her end with equanimity. For a lady who was most fond of the two qualities of compassion and beauty, her life was as much a reflection of these qualities as was her passing.
Involved in the revival of crafts, along with the legendary Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Rukmini Devi had a passion for traditional South Indian handloom sarees. She was always quick to notice a beautiful saree and equally quick to admonish a student or anyone else who chose to wear something that did not meet her exacting aesthetic! She established the weaving centre in Kalakshetra to help bring back traditional designs, colours and motifs along with traditional weaving practices. Whether it was the six yards of fabric or the 100 acres of land, she was a master architect who designed with the belief that beauty was in the detail, which had to be in tune with the composite (she preferred to use the phrase “in shruti”).
Perhaps the greatest monument to Rukmini Devi is the manner in which the dance she brought out of the shadows has flourished and grown. The rhythms of Bharatanatyam in the Kalakshetra style may be heard on almost every continent on the earth. Equally or sometimes better known are her dance dramas (she composed more than 30 of them) which are still performed with reverence and strict adherence to her choreography. They have, each one of them, retained their freshness and beauty, even sixty years after some of them were created. They are still being performed and retain the power to entrance audiences and to create a sense of the temple on the stage, which was her intention. She brought alive mythology and lore through the finest sensibilities in art – be it in costumes, music, and stagecraft and of course in the dance itself.
Known for her excellent sense of humour (she would laugh till tears rolled down her cheeks!) and deeply affectionate ways, she will be remembered always for her regal, authoritative manner when it came to values of art and life. Theosophists hailed her as the World Mother, to her family in Kalaksherta she is Athai (paternal aunt). But for those who knew her and loved her, one word that could perhaps best capture her spirit is ‘grace’.