She took culture to the masses
by Shalini Rawat
Rukmini Devi Arundale (1904-1986): A Visionary Architect of Indian Culture and the Performing Arts ed. Dr Avanthi Meduri. Motilal Banarsidass. Pages 258. Rs 450.

FOR someone who refused the candidature for the office of the President of India, Rukmini Devi Arundale clearly knew what she wanted from life. As for her story, she was crusading for a dying dance form, involved in reviving theatre arts, crafts and literature, actively disseminating the message of theosophy, fighting for animal rights and in whatever little space was left on life’s margins, she was creating, always.

Allegations, the bane of all constructive people, poured thick and fast. She was primarily accused of "sanskritising" the dying dance form of "sadir" (later rechristening it bharatnatyam) and virtually finishing off its traditional practitioners—the Devadasis and the Nattu-vanars.

What is however, being conveniently forgotten is that in the swell of censure against the Devadasis in the nationalist struggle for freedom in the 1920’s and 1930’s, she saved the baby from being thrown out with the bath water. Under the guidance of E. Krishna Iyer, she was perhaps the only student of Guru Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai to learn the dance outside of the Devadasi fold and urge her guru to come to Madras and popularise the dance worldwide.

Breaking the closed door one-to-one teaching format of Sadir, she institutionalised the guru-shishya tradition by establishing Kalakshetra—a gurukul for the performing arts. This attracted upper-caste disciples and erased the association of its tainted Devadasi heritage. She managed to attract the best musicians and teachers of bharatnatyam and kathakali, at the same time standing firm against charges of appropriating the dance from its practicing community.

Also, her little flourishes, new musical scores, edition of sequences, designing dresses and pioneering stage lighting designs made the dance more accessible and acceptable. She is said to have introduced the concept of neatly seating musicians on one side of the stage rather than adopting the traditional practice of \ musicians following the dancer on stage. She also emphasised the devotional element by bringing the temple (Nataraja statue) on the stage, while sublimating the shringara element, to minimise the person in the performer.

Sanskritisation was, thus, not her goal. Rather she intellectualised, aestheticised and institutionalised a dying dance form, adding to it a codified geometry all her own, to make it a dance for the masses.

Apart from presenting some well-researched papers, the book raises questions like whether Rukmini’s feminist democratisation of bharatnatyam hasn’t yet again been appropriated and masculanised by the government or the patrons. Whether bharatnatyam is as "pure" today and its dancers as disciplined as in its renaissance phase? Whether the texts/contexts have not been watered down to serve non-indigenous audience? Has Rukmini’s vision of the dance survived, or has it been reduced to a mere pre-marital activity by its exponents?

With the view of bharatnatyam being increasingly challenged in discourse as well as practice, the words of Vena Ramphal, who refuses to be drawn into the "contemporary versus the traditional" debate, ring true. "In dance," she says, "I would like to have my cake and `85 have my cake." We are sure Rukmini relished her cake, too.