In August 1935, Rukmini Devi along with her husband Dr. George Sydney Arundale and brother Yagneswaran, met with a few friends to discuss a matter of utmost importance to her – the establishing of an arts centre where some of the arts, especially music and dance, could thrive with correct standards under careful guidance. And on 6th January 1936 was born the International Centre for Arts within the campus of the Theosophical Society, Adyar, in Chennai (then Madras). Rukmini Devi herself headed the institution along with the active support of Dr. Arundale and their mentor Dr. Annie Besant. This institution would later come to be known as Kalakshetra. (The name was suggested by Pandit Subramania Sastri when Rukmini Devi was looking for an Indian name to register the institution. It is said that Dr. Arundale approved of it immediately and sometime later, when Rukmini Devi told Rabindranath Tagore of the name, he is supposed to have said, “What a beautiful name….I wish I had thought of it myself”.)
Kalakshetra started under a tree in the Theosophical Society campus, with one student, Radha (Radha Burnier as she was later known, was Rukmini Devi’s niece who went on to become the President of the Theosophical Society). Soon two other students, G Leelavati and A sarada ( Sarada Hoffman ) joined Radha in a single thatched class room with three mirrors ( the famous kannadi kottagai of kalakshetra). And the institution had begun its journey. At this time Dr. Arundale wrote, “It is only a cottage today. It will be a community tomorrow”. This sentiment finds resonance in Rukmini Devi’s writings of that time where she writes, “Someday we shall have established as great a centre as were Tanjore and many other art communities in olden days, where there will be the atmosphere of a true spiritual village ….in all its purity and strength”. This, then, was the spirit of the institute’s founding.
Though it had its genesis in the estate of the Theosophical Society (which formed the bedrock of the institution’s philosophy), by the very nature of the work it was intended for, Kalakshetra moved to its own space – what is now a sprawling, sylvan 99 acre campus by the seashore in Thiruvanmiyur, Chennai. Rukmini Devi along with her trusted aides, faced the challenge of moving campus with the resolve and energy she was so well known for, saying “Even if I have to start with only one acre and gradually add half acre by half acre…we must erect our own buildings, studies, theatres, a hostel…all very simple and yet beautiful.”
Encouraged by her husband, Dr. George Arundale, Rukmini Devi had acquired land in the village of Tiruvanmiyur, a short distance away from the Theosophical Society. In 1951, a sapling of the great banyan tree in the Theosophical Society’s grounds was planted at Tiruvanmiyur. The new campus was consolidated in the years that followed until it covered one hundred acres beside the sea. Gradually, other trees were planted on the sandy stretches of land. Rukmini Devi and her associates undertook the Herculean task of finding the funds and the energy to build up the institute once again. They built roads, planted trees, found committed architects, engineers and building material during a period of shortages, to create a sylvan oasis of art and education. By the year 1962 Kalakshetra had moved into its new home, a campus that reflected (and continues to reflect) its founder’s dream, bringing to the institution its own unique identity.
Conceived at a time when Indian systems of education and aesthetics were eclipsed by British Colonialism, Rukmini Devi believed that it was important to rediscover India’s rich traditions and to create beautiful citizens who would be worthy ambassadors of our inherent culture. Children, she believed, should grow into being beautiful, compassionate and artistic human beings. Both the schools – the Besant Theosophical Higher Secondary School ( founded in 1934,that works with the State Government syllabus) and the Besant Arundale Senior Secondary School (a CBSE school that was started in 1973) were started with these principles at heart. Along with a syllabus of learning that was centred on the principles of Rukmini Devi’s belief that education and art were one and the same. She believed it was important to remember that all arts are related – each a sadhana towards creating beautiful human beings. The learning in the institutions has evolved around this philosophy and both schools have alumni today who have distinguished themselves in society by doing these values proud.
While the weaving centre was set up with the vision to sustain and recreate the magical colours, motifs and designs of South Indian traditional handlooms, the residential facility on campus was meant to inculcate values of simple, aesthetic living into the lives of the students. Vegetarian food and an abstinence from alcohol and smoking on campus are values of ahimsa and self-discipline towards finer living rather than moralistic indoctrination.
The college of Fine Arts, however, is Kalakshetra’s best known unit. Established on the lines of a gurukulam, students who enter its portals are only those with a deep passion for traditional arts and who dedicate their lives to the learning process. The Kalakshetra Repertory has been performing all over the world for many decades, dancers being trained both in the solo format as well as the trade-mark dance drama style. Rukmini Devi’s dance dramas are known for their unique visual, aural and emotional aesthetic.
The campus also housed the Montessori school (Started by Rukmini Devi who invited Maria Montessori to do a teacher’s training course and set up the first Montessori environment in India. The environment has since been merged with the Besant Arundale School) and the ArundaleTeacher’s training Center (which has how been closed down).The Besant Theosophical School, the oldest member of the Kalakshetra family, continued to be located on the Theosophical Society campus until 1974 when it finally shifted to Thiruvanmiyur.
Rukmini Devi had long nurtured a dream to build an auditorium for dance and music which would be aesthetic, Indian in spirit, and that would provide an ideal setting for her choreographic work. Her dream was realized when the Bharata Kalakshetra auditorium, built in the Koothambalam style from Kerala, was inaugurated in 1985. This was designed with a view to complement her choreography and present her work to a discerning audience.
Rukmini Devi’s dream for an arts centre which would reflect an understanding of the arts as an undivided whole was realized before she passed away in 1986, Kalakshetra’s Golden Jubilee year. While she remained at the helm till her passing, her trusted friend, co-worker and long time associate, K. Sankara Menon took on the responsibility after her and became the Director of the Institution. He had been with her and Dr. Arundale since the inception of Kalakshetra. He was succeeded by eminent artistes S. Rajaram and later Leela Samson (an alumni herself) – both close associates of the founder. The Institution is presently headed by danseuse Priyadarshini Govind.
In 1993, the Government of India deemed Kalakshetra an Institute of National Importance by an Act of Parliament. However, Kalakshetra’s challenge today is to preserve the aesthetic essence of its founding while continuing to move ahead and evolve, to usher in modernisation and artistic exploration while adhering to the spirit of its founding. Because, Kalakshetra, to those who have passed through its portals, is far from being just another school or institution. Kalakshetra is a grammar that helps its students not only to be able to perceive the beauty of art, but to carry its fragrance within them through their life. A grammar that is secretly embedded in the green trees and natural ponds, in the handloom fabric and adherence to meticulous hard work….the rationale for walking barefoot on mud paths and learning under the banyan…. an aesthetic hidden in the appropriateness of living, hidden in romancing the sunrise over the ocean….
To borrow from the institution’s motto, raso vai saha….. The experience that is Kalakshetra is in savouring the essence.