The 1920s and 1930s were a period of transformation for traditional dance in the south, and what we today call Bharatanatyam, with its “classical” connotations, was the inherited legacy of the Devadasis and their matrilineal communities. One among those who lead the transformation was Rukmini Devi Arundale who still is being adored by lovers of classical dance.
Rukmini Devi Arundale was a reputed dancer and choreographer of Bharatnatyam, an Indian classical dance form. Her charismatic personality and contribution to the renaissance of Indian Classical music attained her niche in the arena of Indian culture. It is believed that Rukmini Devi had declined the chair of the President of India, once offered by Morarji Desai, the then Prime Minister of India. Rukmini Devi was also known for her efforts towards the protection of animal rights and their welfare.
Rukmini Devi Arundale was born on February 29, 1904, to Neelakanta Sastri and Seshammal. Her father, an engineer with the Public Works Department, was a dedicated member of the Theosophical Society formed by Annie Besant. After his retirement, Neelakanta Sastri shifted to Madras (now, Chennai). The family built their house, near the headquarters of Theosophical Society at Adyar. Her father’s involvement in the Theosophical Society paved the way for Rukmini to come under the umbrella of Annie Besant’s influence, at an early stage.
Rukmini Devi first met Dr George Arundale, in 1917. He was an active member of the Theosophical Society. Arundale was also in-charge of the organization’s paper, “New India”. Fascinated by Rukmini Devi’s love for the mankind and humanity, Dr Arundale, in 1920, married her with the approval and support of her family. The marriage created a huge uproar in the society, especially the conservatives. They couldn’t accept the fact that a Brahmin girl can marry outside the prevailing caste-system.
Though she belonged to the upper-caste, Rukmini Devi advocated the cause of Bharatnatyam, considered as a low and vulgar art during that period. She began to learn dance performances from Mylapore Gauri Ammal. She also convinced proficient Meenakshisundaram Pillai to come to Madras to teach her. Rukmini Devi gave her first performance at the Diamond Jubilee celebrations of the Theosophical Society in 1935.
Within a year after her first performance at the Theosophical Society, Rukmini Devi and Dr George Arundale formed the Kalakshetra. The name was decided by Pandit S. Subramania Sastri, a Sanskrit scholar and member of the academy. All the members were deeply committed to the Theosophical society and as well as Kalakshetra. S. Sarada, Radha, Leelavati (Rukmini’s niece) were among the first to join Kalakshetra. Many renowned dancers including Meenakshisundaram Pillai, Muthukumara Pillai and Karaikkal Saradambal Ammal joined the Kalakshetra as its teachers.
After her marriage, Rukmini Devi met the legendary ballerina, Anna Pavlova on a ship to Australia. Rukmini Devi was enthralled by the great artiste. Ever since, she began to attend different performances of Pavlova’s in Australia. It was on Pavlova’s request that Rukmini Devi learnt “ballet”.
Rukmini Devi was against the custom of killing and sacrificing of animals. She also acted as the Vice President of International Vegetarian Union for 31 years, until her death in 1986.
In 1956, Rukmini Devi was awarded the Padma Bhushan and in 1967, received the “Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship”. She also featured in India Today‘s list of ‘100 People Who Shaped India’.
When Rukmini Devi died in 1986, the editor of the influential Sruti magazine wrote, “Her unique contribution was to destroy what was crude and vulgar in the inherited traditions of dance and to replace them with sophisticated and refined taste.”