In Rukmini Devi’s footsteps
(Excerpted from the Sruti archives)
“Every Kalakshetra alumnus claims he or she was taught by Rukmini Devi. While that may be true in a broad sense, most of us were Sarada Teacher’s students.” Quite a few senior dancers, from Janardhanan and Balagopalan to Krishnaveni Lakshman and Leela Samson have said this on different occasions. “She taught generations of students the best way of performing Bharatanatyam,” Balagopalan once told this writer, “she was a perfectionist who spared no one until we got every step, every expression, every time. Without her dedication, where would we all be?”
Recipient of the central Sangeet Natak Akademi award, and the Rukmini Devi Award for Excellence by the Centre for Contemporary Culture, Kolkata, Sarada Hoffman was the Madras Music Academy’s choice for the honour of Sangita Kala Acharya in the just concluded season.
All Kalakshetra students between 1945 and 1996 came under the influence of Sarada Hoffman. She is the one teacher said to have imbibed in fullest measure all that Kalakshetra founder Rukmini Devi Arundale knew in Bharatanatyam and passed it on to her students. For over fifty years, soft-spoken but strong-willed Chinna Sarada Teacher served her guru’s cause with self-effacing dedication.
“I was a third generation theosophist. My grandfather, Mahadeva Sastri, had been the head of the library department at the Adyar Library during Annie Besant’s time and my father, M. Krishnan was the first Indian headmaster of the Olcott Memorial School, then called the Olcott Harijan School, much beloved of the children and their parents,” Sarada once reminisced.
“I had been awestruck by Athai’s dance even as a girl of six,” she continued, “when I witnessed her first public performance at the Adyar Theatre inside the Society. She danced beautifully, no doubt under divine influence. I had earlier seen her do the swan dance and straightaway wanted to learn dance. I had even taken part as a five-year old in her production of Light of Asia. Now all of six years old, I asked her to teach me.”
“You are too young,” Rukmini Devi had told Sarada then, promising to start teaching her once she turned ten. “And promptly, on my tenth birthday, in 1939, she sent word for me and started Bharatanatyam lessons for me.”
Rukmini Devi was a fine teacher and great storyteller who had a way with children. Sarada remembers listening to her stories of rishi-s, seated in the Buddhist shrine inside the Theosophical Society. “I was so happy to be with her, and often missed school to watch her learn dance from Meenakshisundaram Pillai. My parents did not object.”
Sarada was barely 14 when she had her arangetram. Unfortunately, Meenakshisundaram Pillai decided to leave Kalakshetra, and Chockalingam Pillai – who taught Sarada and other students – left along with him, very sad to miss Sarada’s arangetram.
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