Rukmini Devi Arundale (b.1904, d.1986)
Indian classical dancer and theosophist, Rukmini Devi Arundale is known for reviving and popularising Bharatanatyam across India and transforming global perceptions of the dance form. She also founded the Kalakshetra Foundation in Chennai.
Arundale was born in Pudukkottai, Madurai, and relocated to Chennai in 1912 with her family, where she came in contact with British dancer Eleanor Elder, who was working towards reviving ancient Greek dance. Arundale’s father was closely associated with the Theosophical Society, and its spiritual ideologies had a significant impact on her. She was also influenced by the work of Annie Besant, who was the co-founder and president of the Society. In 1920, Arundale married British educator and theosophist Geroge Arundale, and in 1934, she set up the Besant Theosophical High School and the Besant Arundale Senior Secondary School in memory of Annie Besant.
Arundale travelled extensively on various missions of the Society and was introduced to classical dance forms such as ballet. At the behest of Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, she began studying Bharatanatyam, uprooting the social stigma associated with the dance form that arose from it being traditionally performed by devadasis (temple dancers) as well as the anti-nautch movement of the nineteenth century. Arundale began training under Pandanallur Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai and made her public debut in 1935 at the Theosophical Society; this displacing of the dance form from the temple courtyard to the stage was instrumental in changing the way Bharatanatyam was perceived, setting the stage for the form to gain greater acceptance and practitioners across class divisions.
In 1936, she founded the Kalakshetra Foundation in Adyar, Chennai, with the aim of institutionalising dance forms to transmit knowledge, improve access and encourage experimentation with regional variants and other classical dance forms. Here, Arundale added to the reforms of dancers from the devadasi community, such as T Balasaraswati, and attempted to assimilate an organised curriculum for the dance form. She introduced changes to performances by stationing the musicians on the side of the stage, unlike the earlier practice of them following the performer. This arrangement allowed visual prominence to the performer and steady sound for the audience. She also modified the traditional erotic elements of the dance (shringara) and incorporated more puritan elements of devotion (bhakti), as well as introducing dance-drama performances featuring stagecraft, costumes, jewellery and lighting. Arundale also composed and choreographed dance pieces, notably a series of six pieces based on the Hindu epic Ramayana. She frequently drew ideas from the Bhagavatamela dance-dramas and Kathakali techniques, and was central to the publication of the first quarterly journal of Kalakshetra in 1977.
Arundale was actively involved in the revival of traditional crafts and practices, especially traditional handloom sarees, and established the Weaving Centre at Kalakshetra in 1937. The centre produced traditional textiles, such as Kanchipuram sarees, featuring older, pre-colonial designs and motifs. The centre is also renowned for its Kalakshetra sarees, which featured elaborate, detailed borders and bright colours.
She received the Padma Bhushan in 1956 and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1957. In addition to her work in the arts, Arundale was an animal rights activist and the first Chairperson of The Animal Welfare Board of India (1962).
Arundale died in 1986 in Chennai.
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Deol, Taran. “Rukmini Devi: Legendary Bharatanatyam Dancer Who Could Have Been President.” The Print, February 29, 2020. https://theprint.in/theprint-profile/rukmini-devi-legendary-bharatanatyam-dancer-who-could-have-been-president/372134/.
Devika, VR. “Remembering Rukmini Devi Arundale, Whose Contested Reforms Shaped Modern-day Bharatanatyam.” First Post, February 26, 2021. https://www.firstpost.com/art-and-culture/remembering-rukmini-devi-arundale-whose-contested-reforms-shaped-modern-day-bharatanatyam-9346311.html.
Pillai, Manu S. “Reinvention of Bharatanatyam.” Live Mint, February 24, 2018. https://www.livemint.com/Leisure/1y3EA1cpOU9eOW5TAMCtTJ/The-reinvention-of-Bharatanatyam.html.
The Times of India. “Rukmini Devi’s Aesthetic That Was a World of Its Own,” 25 February, 2021. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/chennai/rukmini-devis-aesthetic-that-was-a-world-of-its-own/articleshow/81197516.cms.
Vishwanathan, Lakshmi. “Rukmini Devi — A Visionary Artiste (February 29, 1904–February 24, 1986).” The Hindu, February 27, 2020. https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/rukmini-devi-a-visionary-artiste/article30930580.ece.