First Light

Embodies the spirit of Kalakshetra style of Bharatanatyam in content, style and visual appeal
Rukmini Devi: A Life
By Leela Samson
Penguin/Viking | 256 pages | Rs 550

The extraordinary contribution of Indian women in preserving and enhancing India’s heritage gets lost in the din of political discourse of a coarser nature. Their contributions are often softer, more philosophical, intangible, yet immensely important.

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Leela Samson, well-known dancer, writer and now director of Rukmini Devi Arundale’s Kalakshetra in Chennai, gently unfolds the vast talents of her guru. Rukmini was a young Tamil Brahmin woman who challenged society by marrying an Englishman, George Sydney Arundale. He was 25 years older than her. Rukmini also became an ardent disciple of Annie Besant. She explored and gave new life to Sadir, a dance form then dedicated to the temple and performed only by Devdasis. This came to be known as Bharatanatyam. She drew upon Sadir’s purest ideas of spirituality and infused it with a highly aesthetic sensibility. She persuaded the best composers,  Sanskrit scholars and practitioners of classical music to enrich the dance form. It was a task requiring courage, energy, vision and passion. She performed her new composition for the first time in a temple, creating ripples within the closed society of Tamil Nadu. Significantly, every time Rukmini Devi took such pioneering steps, it was the quality of her work that won the day, proving that true rasikas are never narrow-minded.

Kalakshetra, one of India’s finest institutions, was built by Rukmini Devi under extremely difficult conditions. Unknown to many, it took superhuman endurance and effort to bring to life an environment that embodies discipline, spirituality, creative expression and excellence. Today it stands as a tribute to nature, and to elevated principles of dance, music, the fine arts and the best traditions of Montessori schooling.

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The problems faced by Rukmini—pioneer in dance, institution-builder, legislator—throws light on a sad Indian reality.

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.

The Kalakshetra style of Bharatanatyam is controlled, understated, lyrically graceful and presented in an aesthetic superior to what one commonly sees. The content, style and visual appeal of Leela’s biography embodies this spirit.

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