The reinvention of Bharatanatyam (24 February 2018)

(My column in Mint Lounge, February 24 2018)

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Rukmini Devi Arundale was nine years old when she met her future husband at a gathering in Madras (now Chennai). The year was 1913 and George Arundale had been, till recently, a college principal in Varanasi, a position he vacated to serve the Theosophical Society on a permanent basis. Already in his mid-30s at the time of their maiden encounter, the Englishman could not have expected that in only seven years’ time he would provoke a colossal uproar in quiet, respectable Madras. For, in 1920, the Theosophist proposed marriage to the Brahmin girl he knew as a child. For two and a half decades, they were together, both of them celebrated figures of their time. But by the eve of his demise in 1945, it was already patent to many that between husband and wife, it was the former Miss Shastri whose legacy was destined to endure and shine. Theosophy brought them together, but Rukmini Devi’s work had evolved well beyond that universe, taking form in an institution celebrated to this day in a name synonymous with all Indian arts deemed “classical”: Kalakshetra.

Rukmini Devi, whose death anniversary it is today, could have led a very different life. Had it not been for her father’s intellectual leanings, she might have married a fellow Brahmin and settled into a life featuring not theosophy but domesticity. Had she not, after her marriage, met the ballerina Anna Pavlova on a boat to Australia, she might never have received the advice that motivated her to step on to the dance stage back in India. The Theosophists, meanwhile, imagined her as their “World Mother”, the female counterpart to the role envisioned for Jiddu Krishnamurti. Later in life, prime minister Morarji Desai offered her a chance to serve as president, an opportunity she politely declined. Her life revolved, instead, around dance, and of her commitment to revitalizing India’s artistic heritage there can be no doubt. There remain, however, concerns about the shape in which old traditions were reincarnated, though, for every critic of her cause, there are also those who believe Rukmini Devi “rescued” a portion of our heritage just before it was fully destroyed.

The 1920s and 1930s were a period of transformation for traditional dance in the south, and what we today call Bharatanatyam, with its “classical” connotations, was the inherited legacy of the Devadasis and their matrilineal communities. Victorian officials described them as nautch girls, and the collapse of patronage at courts such as Tanjore (annexed by the British) plunged many of these women into the very depths of poverty. Some descended into prostitution, their stigma tarnishing the community as a whole, as well as its creative pursuits. Muthulakshmi Reddy, the daughter of a Devadasi, exemplified one kind of reform—she obtained a modern education, a “proper” marriage, and, becoming a legislator, argued that art “at the expense of good morals and health of the race” was pointless: The Devadasi order had to be abolished. Others, like E. Krishna Iyer, were more sympathetic. “Should the art be penalized for a defect of society?” he asked. “Is it really the arts that lead to concubinage?” The Devadasis themselves made an effort to articulate their interests in one voice. But it was too late—their dance had to be “saved”. From them.

Rukmini Devi played the leading role here. She was not insensitive to the Devadasis (“The corruption that killed them was…of society in general,” she said) but also felt that sadir, as the dance was known, thirsted for reinvention. As one authority put it, “She was not delinking a tradition or sounding its death-knell, but merely taking on an existing tradition and moving it into a more public domain.” This meant innovation—the melam ensemble that accompanied the performance was parked on the side, preserving the limelight solely for the dancer. The costumes (“very untidy” with “poor” colours) were modified, the stage itself lit up in modern light, with props, backgrounds, and, most interestingly, the image of Nataraja, till then never propitiated in this fashion. The “bad associations” Rukmini Devi saw were expunged—sensuousness was prohibited, bhakti or devotion taking its place to cement dance with respectability. Where there was once sadir with its “fallen” Devadasis, there was now Bharatanatyam, bursting with Sanskritic purity.

In 1935, despite objections from her guru that one year of learning was inadequate, Rukmini Devi performed on stage, becoming one of the first non-Devadasis to dance in public. As one critic notes, “Once Rukmini Devi demonstrated that the emerging middle class was willing to accept her…the field was open…. The legitimacy that she claimed was based on her level of social acceptance.” In 1936, she founded what would become Kalakshetra, recognized now as an “institution of national importance” in India. The venture suffered trials of its own—after her husband died, she had to vacate the Theosophical Society premises and, as decades passed, Kalakshetra saw its own politics and feuds. There also remained voices that criticized the institutionalization of a dance form and the standardization it engendered. But for all this, Kalakshetra became the pre-eminent nursery of “revived” Bharatanatyam, students arriving from all over the world to embrace this “ancient” Indian dance as well as the woman who had helped give it its contemporary form.

When Rukmini Devi died in 1986, many were the glowing obituaries that followed, but there was also an evaluation of all that she had achieved. As the editor of the influential Sruti magazine argued, “Her unique contribution was to destroy what was crude and vulgar in the inherited traditions of dance and to replace them with sophisticated and refined taste.” In this, the dance form received a new lease of life, going on to earn international approval, even if the dancers who had preserved it for centuries were left by the wayside, their sustained devotion reduced to words like “vulgar”. There was injustice in all this, and yet Rukmini Devi was important—as someone once said, it was thanks to her that sadir could live on as Bharatanatyam. If, in the 1930s, there had been nobody to pick up the pieces as they fell, would the dance have survived at all?

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