You are Tamil? You must know the Bharatanatyam?” This is a lazy man’s way to start a conversation, but it reinforces the cliché that a young girl from a middle-class family from Chennai would surely have learnt Bharatanatyam. “A south Madras chick, then it must be Kalakshetra?” Yeah, right!
As students in Chennai, we had no sense of the history of Kalakshetra and were ignorant of the cultural politics of the place. Kalakshetra was the school that stood by the whispering waves, a sylvan spot whose silence was broken by the thump of drums or strings of a violin to an old note. It was the benchmark for the mushrooming practice of young girls to learn dance after a fashion to imbibe “cultured hobbies and manners” that included tailoring, cooking and music that Mrs Beeton would have so approved of in the 1940s. Isabella Mary Beeton, a cookery writer, was the author of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management.
Rukmini Devi--A Life: Penguin, 243 pages, Rs550.
My memories of Rukmini Devi, the founder of Kalakshetra, was of a handsome woman in her late 70s who carried herself with remarkable elegance beyond her years.
There were many dancers, gender activists and sociologists who challenged Kalakshetra and Rukmini Devi’s genre of dance called Bharatanatyam. She was criticized for sanitizing dance in the name of being pristine; it did away with the original rasa, the frisson, to replace it with Victorian prudery. Dravidian activists held it up as another example of how indigenous Tamil culture had been usurped as high art by the elite community of the times, surpassing native culture.
Setting aside the criticisms, it is remarkable how Rukmini Devi, from an orthodox family milieu, defied social stigma to learn a performing art at 30, beseech elder Devadasi women such as Mylapore Gowri Ammal and other gurus to teach her to dance, then endeavoured to make it socially acceptable. She also founded an institution for it, making Tamil dance a renowned art. Rukmini Devi—A Life by Leela Samson is a truthful tribute to one of India’s leading artistic minds, whose legacy continues to have an impact on many hearts and minds, not just on the performing and fine arts, but on education and philosophy.
Samson’s biography is a veritable trove of information on the early 1900s, especially the social and cultural history of the 1920s and 1930s. Chennai was the headquarters of the Theosophical Society; the freedom movement had gathered much momentum—spirited thinkers were active in challenging social norms and charting new courses in social, economic and creative channels.
The biography records in unsparing detail the many challenges and tribulations, and controversies of the Theosophical leaders and Rukmini Devi, whose family and journey into the arts was woven into that of the Theosophists.
Rukmini Devi hailed from a traditional Tamil Brahmin family. Her father’s sense of propriety and spartan sense of style had a lifelong effect on her. But greater was the impact of her association with Theosophists Annie Besant and George Arundale, who shaped her life and opened her to experiences beyond the confines of domesticity, and Anna Pavlova, who drew her to dance as a form of creative expression. Rukmini Devi was 16 and Arundale 41 when they decided to marry.
Rukmini Devi’s journey from a quiet life of domesticity to one that embraced dance and the arts is detailed, written in a language that is simple, unaffected and elegant—a book Rukmini Devi would have liked.
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