S.Rajam’s (Music Appreciation notes)

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

108 flowers at her feet

By Tulsi Badrinath

Meenakshisundaram Pillai, custodian of his traditional art, was initially reluctant to teach Rukmini Devi, because she was a brahmin. It took her months to persuade him. When he did agree to teach her, he gave freely of his art. In his teaching her Sadir and her learning it from him, both Guru and student simultaneously broke a taboo. Neither of them could have foreseen the far reaching consequences of this act.

Rukmini Devi’s arangetram took place in 1935 on the grounds of the Theosophical Society. Soon after, Kalakshetra was formed. At a time when no students were forthcoming to learn the dance, Rukmini Devi had to begin with her own niece, Radha, and Leelavati. Many students came from outside Madras— Kunhiraman, Mohan Khokar, Balagopal, V.P.Dhananjayan, A. Janardhan, and from outside India as well— Shanta Dhananjayan and Nala Najan, to name a few. They were neither Tamil, nor brahmins.

The main criterion she sought in her students was the willingness to learn. She had to negotiate “the double bind and the paradox of disassociating an art from its immediate context with its sociological background, but retaining the content of dance outside the sociological religious milieu in which it was nurtured, that was the challenge; a challenge of the deepest kind,” as Kapila Vatsyayan puts it. It was as simple and as difficult as that.

From 1935 to 1986 when she passed away, Rukmini Devi used all her creative energies to meet this challenge. In those fifty years, she established Kalakshetra as a centre of excellence in the performing arts, created an environment that integrated art and aesthetics with a way of living, produced as many as 26 brain-children, her dance-dramas, and broke many other taboos— women took up nattuvangam, men danced Bharatanatyam that was Sadir and girls across varied social strata began to learn dance.

As a dancer, I know this avenue of self-expression was made possible for me by her, by the tremendous scale of her vision. On her 108th birth anniversary, I offer her a hundred and eight lotus flowers with all my heart.

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