When Guru Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai accepted Rukmini Devi Arundale as a disciple, despite his reservations, even he did not realise what an epoch-making decision he had taken. Rukmini Devi’s thrust lay in integrating dance with education. In 1936, the International Academy of Arts, which later became Kalakshetra, was established to rejuvenate the priceless art traditions of India.
For Rukmini Devi, dance never existed in a vacuum. She wanted every aspect of an evolving human being, mental, spiritual, emotional and physical, to be nourished. She institutionalised Bharatnatyam teaching in a contemporary setting which accommodated the benefits of the Guru-Shishya Parampara. Her abiding respect for the traditional arts and admiration for the dance of some of the many devadasis, whose performance she had witnessed, did not lessen her innovation to try out new ideas. For her Institution, she procured the best of traditional Gurus like Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai to Muttukumar Pillai, Chokkalingam Pillai, Gowri Ammal, Saradambal and Ambu Panikkar. Extensively exposed to ballet through Anna Pavlova, Rukmini preferred the well-centred, open bodily stance, with full arm and leg stretches, emphasizing the linear dimensions of the Bharatnatyam technique with the body geometry and lines it wove in space. Such conscious attention to the movement profile and its extension in group presentations was her contribution to Bharatnatyam.
Music, an essential component, formed Rukmini’s entry point into the dance, her musical insight, perhaps inherited from her maternal grandfather who learnt music from Tyagaraja Swami himself. At that time top concert musicians were not known to associate themselves with dance. But she procured the best names in Carnatic music to compose the music for her dance drama compositions. From Tiger Varadachariar to Mysore Vasudevachar, Veena Krishnamachari, Budaloor Krishnamurthy Shastrigal, Papanasam Sivan, Kalidasa Nellakantha Iyer, the musicians who associated with Kalakshetra were of very high calibre.
With her innovative genius, Rukmini Devi’s greatest contribution to Bharatnatyam was a treasure trove of Dance dramas from Kalakshetra. She began with the Kuravanji, a post 18th Century creation in literature. Unimpressed by the “Sarabhoji Bhupala Kuravanji” dedicated to the Kings rather than the deity, presented in Tanjore’s Brihadeeswara Temple, her creative urges quickened when she came across the “Tirukutrala Kuravanji” written by Thirukuda Rajappa Kavirayar. With Veena Krishnamachari setting the selected verses to music, this dance drama was presented with tasteful costumes designed by Rukmini Devi and took the art world by storm. In 1947, “Kumar Sambhavam” staged for the Besant Centenary Celebrations, with the grandeur of Tiger K. Varadachariar’s music as its take-off point won plaudits from the art world. Her magnum opus, comprising the Ramayana in six episodes, represented the zenith of her creative genius in narrating this epic through the undiluted technique of two forms – Bharatnatyam and Kathakali. K. Chandrasekharan, a Sanskrit scholar closely associated with Kalakshetra for many years said, “Only she could have created this feeling of poetry and dance being a match for each other.” This first of the series, Sita Swayamvaram was followed by the others, and when Mysore Vasudevachar passed away in 1961, Kalakshetra’s silver jubilee year, his grandson Rajaram, who later became Director of Kalakshetra, took over the musical part in a seamless fashion. He composed spontaneously without adhering to strict grammatical music rules. Thus, the raga Chittabhramari highlighting Dasaratha’s despair at Kaikeyi’s behaviour and Gangalahari used when Ram and Sita crossed the river Ganga, and other new creations were added by the composer.
From costuming to stage setting, characterisation, and choreography, the dance drama genre emerged in its most sophisticated version in Rukmini Devi’s presentations. After Sita Swayamvaram, Rama Vanagamanam, Paduka Pattabhishekam, Sabari Moksham, Choodamani Pradaanam, Mahapattabhishekam followed in intervals, each seemingly better than the one before, showing Rukmini Devi’s skill in translating sensitive poetry into dance. Attracted by the Bhagavatamela tradition in Mellatur and Nallur in the Thanjavur district, she refashioned traditional plays starting from the original script in Telugu suitably adapted for the Bharatnatyam idiom. She was assisted by Krishna Iyer, veteran Guru Balu Bhagwatar, and his sister Kalyani Ammal. “Rukmangada Charitam” and “Usha Parinayam” were other works from the same Bhagawatamela tradition- highly successful, and drawing public awareness to the parent tradition, badly in need of support.
Her Geet Govindam production composed by Papanasam Sivan expressed her attitude to what is regarded as highly erotic poetry of Jayadev. For her, this immortal love poem was meditative, Radha’s yearning for Krishna a metaphor for the individual identity yearning for its cosmic identity. This emphasis of pure spirit over physicality in the treatment of sringara, with subtle lighting creating a mystic aura around the forest setting was far from the general understanding of the text. This hinges on how she regarded the body in dance. The woman’s physique associated in male perception with carnal love was changed into a vehicle of expression detached from the dancer’s persona. With the help of expert musicians like Kalidasa Neelkantha Iyer, she changed varnams addressed to Kings by rededicating them to Divine figures.
Rukmini Devi designed aesthetic costumes, allowing for unhindered movement, substituting the pajama, velvet blouse and half saree costume the devadasis sported.
Another revolutionary trend she introduced was in inducing persons like Kamala Rani to learn nattuvanagam for conducting recitals. Nattuvanaars who guarded their own turf were not given to teaching devadasis Nattuvangam skills. She wanted women to be allowed into arena denied to them. This trend has had far reaching consequences by diminishing the dependence on the Guru during performances, with freelancing nattuvangam specialists now available for recitals.
Yet another trend ushered in by Rukmini Devi, was the introduction of the male dancer in his own right in a female oriented Bharatnatyam tradition. The Kalakshetra tradition with its dance drama productions needed male dancers who were taught kathakali to give them the right stance and manly bearing, as Bharatnatyam gurus made the male students follow what the female students did in class leading to the boys developing effeminate styles. She chose Ambu Panikkar, Chandu Panikkar and Krishnan Nair to train these boys.
Though the training given to each Bharatnatyam aspirant was really exacting in Kalakshetra, Rukmini Devi was faulted for not projecting solo dance vigorously. But her vision in creating awe-inspiring group presentations can never be overlooked. Foreign critics criticised her for “appropriating” the art form of the devadasis while diluting its erotic nature. But her wariness in dealing with the erotic was governed as much by the derogatory association these love songs had acquired in public imagination as by her own inclination for less earthly portrayal of erotic lyrics.
In conclusion, Rukmini Devi Arundale’s contribution to Bharatnatyam is nothing short of remarkable. Her journey began with her initiation into the world of dance by Guru Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai, and from there, she embarked on a transformative mission to elevate Bharatnatyam to new heights.
Rukmini Devi’s vision was not limited to dance alone; she aimed to integrate dance with education and holistic human development. This vision gave birth to the International Academy of Arts, later known as Kalakshetra, in 1936. She carefully selected the best traditional Gurus, combining their expertise with her innovative approach. Her preference for a well-centred, open bodily stance and full arm and leg stretches added a new dimension to Bharatnatyam technique.
Music was an integral part of Rukmini Devi’s dance, and she collaborated with renowned Carnatic musicians to compose music for her dance dramas. Her creation of dance dramas at Kalakshetra, including the groundbreaking “Sita Swayamvaram” and the epic “Ramayana” in six episodes, showcased her genius in storytelling through dance.
Rukmini Devi’s contributions extended to costume design, stage setting, character portrayal, and choreography, refining the dance drama genre. She also reshaped traditional plays and introduced nattuvangam training for women, breaking gender barriers. Her inclusion of male dancers and her emphasis on group presentations demonstrated her commitment to innovation.
Despite criticism and controversy, Rukmini Devi Arundale’s legacy endures as a visionary who transformed Bharatnatyam into a holistic art form, blending tradition with innovation, spirituality with aesthetics, and individual expression with group dynamics. Her enduring impact on Bharatnatyam and the broader world of dance cannot be overstated.