Rukmini Devi Arundale (1904-1986) started Kalakshetra in 1936 as a cultural academy that would preserve South Indian dance and music in the atmosphere of a gurukulam, where a traditional style of learning was imparted by a revered teacher, or guru, who would act both as guardian and mentor. The classes are often held under the spreading branches of a banyan tree, and there are small signs that proclaim, “God lives in every place”.
Rukmini Devi Arundale belonged to a well-known family of theosophists. She defied convention by marrying Dr George S. Arundale, a theosophist and educationist who was much older to her. Travelling by ship to Australia, the couple met Anna Pavlova, who was so struck by Rukmini Devi’s charm and slim body that she agreed to teach her ballet while on the ship. Her lead dancer, Cleo Nordi, taught Rukmini Devi ballet.
Rukmini Devi was in her late 20s when she decided that she must learn her own dance traditions. As she wrote: “It (the dance) was almost extinct, I should say, and there was discouragement from almost all quarters. It was difficult to find even a gifted teacher. The dancers had no status, or recognition. They were poor and nobody particularly encouraged them.” In 1933, she met P. Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai and knew that she had found the teacher that she needed. There were many more hurdles to be overcome before she could persuade him to teach her. In l935, when the first public performance took place at the diamond jubilee celebrations of the Theosophical Society, there were more than 2,000 people in the audience. Rukmini Devi had stormed the bastion as much by her beauty as with her ability to resurrect an ancient dance form.
After Rukmini Devi’s death, the inevitable struggle for control over her legacy caused deep divisions within the community. Some felt that the essential character of the school would be destroyed when it became known as the Kalakshetra Foundation, with the status of a deemed university under government control. The free spirit, so vital to the survival of any kind of artistic activity, was the first casualty. Despite this, the intense commitment of the original band of teachers kept the fire burning as the dance ballets inspired by Rukmini Devi were performed to great acclaim every season at the famous Kalakshetra Festival.
Rukmini Devi’s insistence that the lighting of a lamp would be enough to convey a spirit of reverence to the earth came to be replaced by more sectarian practices. The recent attack on the director arose when a group of Vinayaka (Ganesh) images that had been kept on the path close to a dining room and worshipped in a more overt manner were removed and placed on pedestals close to where the students lived. This was seen as an anti-Hindu plot. Leela Samson has wisely refused to comment on such allegations, only saying that Ganesha himself would laugh at the baseness of such a mindset.