Rukmini Devi Arundale (1904-1986), the renowned Bharatnatyam dancer is the person who is credited for the renaissance of Bharatnatyam dance form and more significantly making the dance which was primarily a forte of Devdasis, main stream and respectable in the society.
Daughter of a well-known Sanskrit scholar and a theosophist Nilakant Sastri, Rukmini Devi was born in Madurai. Her mother, a musical enthusiast, came from Thiruvayur, the village famous for its association with the saint poet Thyagaraja. Rukmini Devi’s background was steeped in culture and learning and she aspired to be a musician. After marrying the British theosophist Dr. George Arundale she travelled around the world meeting other theosophists and sharing ideas. She herself went on to become the President of the All-India Federation of Young Theosophists. It was her meeting with the famous Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova in Bombay and her travel to Australia with the Russian Ballerina on the same ship which kindled in her interest in the art of dance. Inspired by the Pavlova, she decided to explore traditional Indian dance forms and began learning Bharatnatyam and eventually founded an academy of dance and music.
On her return to India, Rukmini began learning the dance form, first from ‘Mylapore Gowri Amma’, and later from ‘Pandanallur Meenakshisundaram Pillai’. She gave her first public performance at the ‘Diamond Jubilee Convention of the Theosophical Society’ in 1935. Her performance was a landmark of sorts as it was for the first time a performance such as this was organized on a stage outside a temple premises and performed by a dancer other than a Devdasi. Originally the dance form Bharatnatyam was known as Sadhir, practiced only by Devdasis who with the advent of British Raj very widely maligned in the society. Thus, she not only revived and resurrected the ancient dance form but also went on to reverse the negative stereotypes associated with the female practitioners of Sadhir. By adopting a puritan approach she eliminated the dance form of its shringaar or erotic leanings and magnified the bhakti or devotional aspect, thereby making it more acceptable to the mainstream of the society. She also introduced modern costumes, temple jewelry, set designs, lighting etc which we know of the trademarks of the modern Bharatnatyam performances. Rukmini played an instrumental role in transforming the dance form, giving it a new name, and popularizing it all over the world as a respectable art form.
The very next year, she along with her husband established Kalakshetra, an academy of dance and music, along the lines of ancient Gurukul system, at Adyar, near Chennai. Her own neice Radha Burnier was one of her first students. Besides her own great gurus, Dandayudhapanipillai, Karaikkal Saradambal, and Pandanallur Chokkalingam Pillai joined Kalakshetra to teach Bharatnatyam. She correlated the theory and practice of dance and music. A significant Revivalistic Movement began. Great musicians like Mysore Vasudevachariar, Tiger Varada Chari, Papanasam Sivan, Veena Krishnamachari and Budalur Krishnamoorthy helped her in artistic endeavors by composing music befitting her matchless choreography. Nattuvangam was also taught in Kalakshetra and its students came from all parts of India as well as from abroad. Kalakshetra’s institutionalization of the dance form also helped ensure its continuous diffusion to future generations.
Rukmini Devi choreographed more than twenty five dance-dramas some of which were Kumara Sambhavam, Geet Govind, Kurmavatara, Sita Swayamvaram, Mahapattabhishekam. Rukmini Devi’s work was consistent, continuous, and of very high aesthetic standard, setting a record and guidelines which could be followed by other artistes.
A recipient of many awards and accolades including the Padma Bhushan and the Sahitya Natak Akademi Award, Rukmini Devi was nominated for the Rajya Sabha in 1952 for the first time. Undoubtedly, a great servant of the art, Rukmini Devi did more for Bharatnatyam dance form than any single individual. She indeed succeeded in giving dance and Bharatnatyam a place of pride in India’s national narrative.