A Legacy Lives On
Avantika Bhuyan
RUKMINI DEVI ARUNDALE: ARTS REVIVALIST AND INSTITUTION BUILDER by By V.R. Devika Paper Missile, an imprint of Niyogi Books, Pioneers of Modern India Series, 2024, 228 pp., INR 299.00
July 2024, volume 48, No 7

One knows of Rukmini Devi Arundale by many descriptors—a theosophist, dancer, revivalist—and yet very few books in the past have offered a glimpse of those sparks and glimmers of avant-garde thinking that shaped her personality. VR Devika’s monograph offers a course correction and reads like a vibrant behind-the-scenes account.

You see the various influences on Rukmini Devi Arundale’s life—from her father Neelakantha Shastri, a scholar and engineer with the Public Works Department in Tamil Nadu, mother Seshammal, who instilled a lifelong love for music in her children, to Annie Besant of the Theosophical Society, and her husband George Arundale.

Devika describes the great storm created by the orthodox society of Madras protesting the marriage of a 16-year-old Brahmin girl with an English Christian man 26 years older than her. This was one of the many controversies that would follow Rukmini Devi Arundale in her life. ‘As a teenager, Rukmini was living in history-making times in India.[/ihc-hide-content] Just as she was herself on the verge of creating history. The jathi (rhythm) of her life was soon to meet the swara (melody) note of George Sydney Arundale and a dance of joy and a revolution in art was about to be choreographed’, writes the author. The way she weathered the storm and stood steadfast are only some of the earliest instances of Rukmini Devi Arundale’s calm courage, which shone through her life.

Devika has, with great ingenuity, titled the chapters to coincide with the Margam, or a graded Bharatanatyam performance, starting from Mallari and ending with Thillana and Mangalam. In a way, you journey through Rukmini Devi Arundale’s life in the same pace and rhythm that you would progress through the performance of a dance form that became her life’s work. Her marriage to George Arundale brought her in close proximity to Annie Besant, and the latter’s multidimensional approach to life became a huge inspiration for Rukmini Devi Arundale. This, in a way, shaped her work on traditional craft and art revival as well, led by the belief that art and humanity were not inseparable—to aid the service of one was to help the other.

This was the vision with which she also approached the role of the World Mother proposed by the Theosophical Society in 1925. She was only 24 years of age at the time, when on 25 May 1928, Annie Besant declared her as ready for the initiation and consecration ceremony. ‘If I stand before you as an Arhat [a person who has overcome the three root kleshas—impurities of moha (delusion), raga (attachment) and dwesha (ill will)], it is not that you may feel any difference between us. It is that you may feel the nearness to me and to all and to the being of God himself’, she had said to the audience after the initiation. Later, even though she decided to walk a different path from the World Mother, the affix ‘Devi’ given to her by Besant continued to stay on.

Devika highlights throughout the book Rukmini Devi Arundale’s ability to see the beautiful and artistic in everything, including in her approach to education. On Besant’s death, when Rukmini Devi and George Arundale decided to set up the Besant Memorial Schools, the idea was to look at each child as an artist, and thus find teachers who must be alive in a particular field to spark a sense of wonder and curiosity in the kids. This approach to ‘cosmic discovery’ and her close association with Maria Montessori continued to inform her approach to educational initiative, including at Kalakshetra, which she founded with George as an academy for music and dance in 1936.

One pores over the book with a sense of wonder. You finish the first half with no specific mention of Rukmini Devi Arundale’s interest in dance. Up till now, her life has been a symphony of music, public service, education and philosophy. So, how did her enduring legacy in the form of Kalakshetra come into being? In the chapter, Varnam, Devika elaborates on how dance finally found Rukmini Devi Arundale, with Anna Pavlova’s ballet acting as the trigger. In 1924, she was in London when she watched the performance and woke up to the wonders of dance.

Devika writes that as Pavlova and the Arundales travelled to Europe on the same ship, they came to know each other well. ‘Suddenly one day Pavlova said, “Rukmini, you must learn to dance.” Rukmini Devi was stunned and delighted but feebly protested that she was too old and could not move as gracefully. Pavlova told Rukmini Devi, “Even if you just walk across the stage, people will come to watch you”,’ narrates the author. And thus began her classes in ballet. At some point, she also recalled Pavlova waxing eloquent about the beauty of traditional dance forms in India, and Rukmini Devi promising her that she would explore their underlying richness. And this led to a lifelong tryst with Bharatanatyam, or Sadir as it was then called, performed by women of the Devadasi or the Melakkara community.

When she approached the renowned nattuvanar Meenakshisundaram Pillai to learn from him, he was shocked. ‘She was not of the right caste; no Brahmin girl had ever approached him till then’, writes Devika. And yet he relented and agreed to teach her. This decision by Rukmini Devi Arundale whipped up a storm yet again—a 29-year-old married woman was going to learn to dance, and was not even from the community that had practised the dance form until then.

This marked the beginning of the many efforts by Rukmini Devi Arundale to democratize the art form, making it accessible to people across class, caste and gender. ‘She is a prime example of sustaining tradition by conscious modifications, adjustments, recreations and adaptations to remain relevant to the people and the society it serves, for tradition to remain “living”,’ writes Devika.

However, the author does not shy away from addressing criticisms that Rukmini Devi Arundale faced later in life, about whether she stayed true to the art form or not, and whether she sanitized Bharatanatyam. ‘In the performances of Shantha Rao, Radha Sriram, Mrinalini Sarabhai and Ramgopal, all trained by Rukmini Devi’s guru, the great nattuvanar Meenakshisundaram Pillai, who also designed the curriculum at Kalakshetra, one notices movements that were even sharper than Kalakshetra’, writes Devika. In contrast, she cites the examples of successful graduates of Kalakshetra like Shantha and Dhananjayan, Neela and Satyalingam, CV Chandrasekhar, Anjali Mehr and Leela Samson, ‘who have created their own ways of dancing, taking off from the framework and strict training they received in Kalakshetra. Standardization and sanitization allegations seem baseless today,’ she adds.

As the book ends, you leave with a sense of quiet joy, of having witnessed the journey that led to Rukmini Devi Arundale becoming an institution builder. To view her life solely through the lens of dance would be a disservice. And Devika is very careful to steer clear of that. She evokes the multidisciplinary approach that Rukmini Devi Arundale had to art and education—in the way she revived textiles, musical traditions and built institutions, where humanity and art could revitalize themselves over and over again.

Avantika Bhuyan is a national features editor at the Mint Lounge. With nearly 18 years of experience, she has been writing about the impact of technology on child development, and the intersections of art, culture with gender, history and sexuality.[/ihc-hide-content]