Tuesday, March 23, 2010

REVIEW: Rukmini Devi

Rukmini Devi: A Life
Leela Samson
Penguin India / Viking
Rs 550
Pp 256
ISBN: 9780670082643

On 30 December 1935, thirty-one year old Rukmini Devi created history with her performance of Sadir, later known as Bharata Natyam, which had until then been confined to temple precincts and was the preserve of devadasis. A celebrated artiste and dancer, she was also a Theosophist, a composer of acclaimed dance-dramas, an educationist, an animal welfare and child rights activist, and a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha. This rich biography illuminates her many lives.

Rukmini’s early life was in the districts of Madras presidency where her father, an engineer, was posted, and it took many dramatic turns: her marriage in 1920 to George Arundale, a Theosophist and family friend, caused public outrage, particularly among the Madras brahmins. She was closely associated with Annie Besant, who became her mentor, and her meeting with Anna Pavlova inspired her to learn dance. Rukmini went on to establish Kalakshetra, an academy of arts, in 1936, which grew and flourished, and is renowned to this day for its classicism in dance training and performance—a tribute to her skill as an institution builder.

Rukmini revered traditions but did not hesitate to innovate, whenever necessary. She re-interpreted traditional natakas for some of her dance-dramas; she introduced women to nattuvangam, traditionally a male preserve, and adapted the traditional Kerala theatre, the kootambalam, to modern needs of performance at Kalakshetra. Her liberalism was not confined to the arts. Believing in oneness of all living creatures, she successfully piloted a bill which became the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act in 1960. She was also president of the Indian Vegetarian Congress in 1957.

Leela Samson draws on the oral evidence of Rukmini’s family, friends, associates and stalwarts of dance and music, the reminiscences of such luminaries as Annie Besant, J. Krishnamurti, C.W. Leadbeater, Maria Montessori, C. Rajagopalachari, Tagore, Pandit Nehru and the Dalai Lama, as well as hitherto unseen personal correspondence and photographs. The book offers an intimate and rounded portrait of an extraordinary woman and Indian, whose life embodied a vision of a modern India, while also celebrating its rich civilization.

Portrait of a revolutionary New Indian Express

Rukmini Devi always stood out: as a child who spoke up against corporal punishment, a large-eyed girl with a long line of admirers, and as somebody who silently def ied social conventions. Leela Samson’s biography of the dancer and soc ial activist brings out her radical side as well.

Rukmini’s childhood was shaped by her father who disapproved of crudity and lewdness, a Brahmin attracted to Buddhism, a traditionalist who sympathised with women who suffered from Hindu orthodoxy. He pledged his support to social reform and that led to his association with the Theosophical Society.

Samson revisits this period gracefully in Rukmini Devi: A Life, pointing out not just the highlights of the Society, but also telling the reader about the controversies that the fledging movement had to face on foreign soil. The social activism and intervention of the Theosophists — in diverse ways, such as taking up the cause of labour unions and textile workers or providing education to the depressed classes — is brought out diligently. Likewise, she takes pains to tell in parallel the story of J Krishnamurthy — his indoctrination, involvement and later estrangement from the Theosophists.


First Light Outlook
Leela Samson worked on this biography over several years, salvaging old letters and talking to Rukmini’s colleagues, friends and family. Her book is a portrait of Rukmini’s patriotism and theosophical beliefs, her creative impulses and compassion for animals. Leela covers vast ground in the life of a woman who did not stop working till illness claimed her at the age of eighty-two. She was deeply involved with the work of Annie Besant, Bishop C.W. Leadbeater, George Arundale, J. Krishnamurti, Maria Montessori, C. Rajagopalachari and others—all stalwarts in their respective fields.

The personal relationship between Rukmini Devi and her husband is delicately handled, including the controversies it created. The problems faced by Rukmini, who performed admirably as a parliamentarian even while pursuing institution-building and choreographing pioneering works in dance and music are typical of what exceptionally talented women in India have to live with. There are far too many mean-spirited individuals who try to denigrate them and undermine their work. Their greatness lies in never giving up. Delving deeper into such controversies would have helped us gain a better understanding of this sadly negative condition. India can never rise to its full potential if such influences are allowed to flourish.


Dancer & visionary 

Rukmini Devi, the first woman from a ‘respectable’ family to perform Sadir, the dance of the devadasis, was instrumental in transforming it into today’s Bharatanatyam. This biography offers an intimate portrait of an extraordinary woman.

At a seminar last year in Mumbai, Leela Samson, dancer and the current head of Kalakshetra, wasasked about the future of classical dances. It may seem bleak in a city like Mumbai, she countered, but come to Chennai and you’ll find that the demand forBharatanatyam teachers exceeds the supply. 

But Chennai was a very different city in 1935 when her guru Rukmini Devi (1904-1986) first took the stage at the Theosophical Society in Adyar. She was the first woman from a ‘respectable’ — and that too Brahmin — family to ever perform the dance of the devadasis in public.

A lithe dancer with steely resolve Asian Age
To the reader what emerges is that despite a traditional Brahmin upbringing, Rukmini Devi defied conventions at every stage of her life: first, to marry a foreigner 24 years her senior and then to undertake study of dance at the age of 31. She was bold to redesign, re-draft and re-arrange various elements of dance constituents, be it the seating of musicians who till then followed the dancer, or revisiting temple sculptures and the Natyashastra and incorporating new gestures and elements into the dance form or re-designing the costume with the help and guidance of an Italian friend. She was successful in combining Western ideals, organisation and education with Indian spirit and ethos. She synthesised Kathakali and Bharatanatyam to make powerful presentations. Her passionate interest in animal welfare, handloom and handicrafts as well as the cause of vegetarianism has been dwelt upon at length. The book does well in throwing light on her contributions as a parliamentarian as well.

The book tries to delve into the recesses of her mind, her steel determination. Through her marriage and family connections, Rukmini had been catapulted into a position where she could have chosen either to be a content housewife or taken the opportunity to carve a niche for herself. She chose the latter. And what’s important is that she was fearless in treading the untrodden path and was eventually instrumental in changing the mindset not only of her community but of the whole nation.

Just as valuable information is made available on the works, politics and power struggles within the Theosophical Society, in the same vein one wishes that more light could have been thrown in the book on the entire process of renaming the dance form “Sadir” to “Bharatanatyam” and Rukmini Devi’s role in this far-reaching mindset-changing process.

Rukmini Devi breached gender barriers through Bharatanatyam Sify
Rukmini Devi believed that 'women have everything to do with bringing culture into everyday life' with the expression of it, with the helping and influencing of a nation, not only because they are mothers but also because they are an example as individuals,' Samson writes.

'Thousands of women are not really free... There is a place for women in the new age. Do not let us ask for it. No one has to give you what is rightfully yours. Merely take it and you shall have it. The three things I should like to see as an expression of culture that kindness should become a part of the the lives of all, women should have a real voice in every department of the nation and that we should be truly Indian in heart - mind and soul,' Rukmini Devi said about the role of Indian women in culture.

The idea to set up Kalakshetra at Adyar, the headquarters of the International Theosophical Society, came about after one of Rukmini Devi's early Bharatanatyam performance in Chennai, says Samson.

A small group of friends pressed upon Rukmini Devi the 'desirability of creating such an academy'. On Jan 6, 1936, Rukmini Devi established the International Academy of Arts in Adyar. The founding members were united 'by their common enthusiasm for the cause of India's art which they were convinced was a treasure that belonged not only to India but to the world'.

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