What is the positive force of rebellion? In the words of renaissance humanist Rukmini Devi Arundale, it can assume two forms. One is the positive battling to change the existing norms of being and seeing. The other is a negative energy of being a rebel for its own self indulgent sake.
Was Rukmini Devi a rebel? In her lifetime she was many things and perhaps a rebel the most. As her 106th birth anniversary arrives on the invisible February 29, Atthai (as she was widely known to her students and friends) had many ‘avatars’. Theosophist, animal welfare activist, dancer and politician (Rajya Sabha nominee twice and candidate for President of India). Known best for her founding the magnificent Bharatanatyam institution Kalakshetra in Chennai, dance history records her many achievements. Like Sri Aurobindo’s Mahashakti, she shattered many obstacles and paved new pathways for generations of men and women to access classical dance and music. I perused old photos of her riding the pyramids, walking the corn fields of the USA wearing saris, pants and hats with élan, conversing with European men and women with confidence and ease. This was in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, when a new India was being birthed and an entire generation was filled with the ambivalence of hope and uncertainty.
Accused today of ‘sanitizing’ Bharatantyam by removing the overt eroticism in the traditional repertoire, Rukmini Devi’s recognized the potential of classical dance to be the symbol of India’s cultural and spiritual regeneration. Schools, weaving centres, organic farming, painting, music and dance were all complementary activities in her master plan for the development of an artiste.
Marrying a foreigner many years older to her was the source of societal outrage but she did not wilt. Neither did she flinch when faced with a recalcitrant nattuvanar(dance conductor) at the last moment. She vowed and accomplished the feat of training and establishing the first female nattuvanar for Bharatanatyam- the late Kamalarani. The dance orchestra being seated to the right of the dancer rather than walking all around the stage was also her conscious design to present classical dance to the new generation of modern Indians.
My years at Kalakshetra in the mid seventies were eventful with Atthai walking by occasionally and causing a flutter with her regal presence. Being the tallest in my class (as always) I was suddenly asked to play the part of Kausalya in Rama Vanagamanam, the second in the Ramayana series. Playing Sumitra was Preetha Reddy of Apollo Hospitals. Imagine the two of us, playing mothers to senior dancers like Janardhan Sir and Venkatachalapathy. The rehearsals were stressful since I could never sit in deep enough araimandi to satisfy Atthai. Rukmini Devi also suggested to my mother that since I had the makings of a very fine dancer, that I should not perform often while studying at Kalskshetra. My mother refused outright saying that the life of a performer was very short and while I was capable of studying and performing, she would continue to plan my dance outings. Aah! Those were the days!
Men in dance, theatre designs for the performing arts, costuming, group choreography and of course her seminal Ramayana series are only some of Rukmini Devi’s achievements. Like most pioneers, Atthai was sad and isolated in her final days, distraught over the bitter tussle for control over her precious dream, Kalakshetra. Like another radical thinker Osho, who died alone and dispirited, Rukmini Devi’s dream seemed in jeopardy. Thankfully, the storm has passed and a new vibrancy has returned to Kalakshetra, The Osho ashram in Pune is now a swanky spa and holistic retreat far removed from the original aims of its brilliant founder. Kalakshetra remains a centre for alternate thinking, creativity and training. This rebel did indeed have a valid cause.