On her birth anniversary, a relook at the dancer-choreographer's monumental vision for dance
Had 2021 been a leap year, February 29th would have marked the 117th birth anniversary of Rukmini Devi Arundale. In the discourse around dance, its history and current understanding, her name constantly resurfaces. Rukmini Devi Arundale is not a forgotten figure in history. And nor should she be. But given the nature of these discourses, I wonder if Rukmini Devi is adequately understood and remembered.
Many practitioners, scholars and admirers have recently appealed for Rukmini Devi's legacy to be left alone — saying that she does not need to be feted or critiqued further. While no public figure can escape scrutiny, I wholly sympathise with the frustration of those who knew and understood her. The constant references, both positive and negative, made to Rukmini Devi in the midst of discussions lack nuance, complexity and empathy.
However, I don't agree that it is time to stop talking about Rukmini Devi. It is possibly more crucial now than ever before to talk about her. And to do so with a renewed understanding that involves a fine and much-needed balance between acknowledging her contributions to what is now called Bharatanatyam and ‘Indian classical dance' as a whole, and critiquing what in retrospect are deemed as shortcomings in her monumental vision for dance.
Much has been discussed recently about how her vision, wittingly or unwittingly, contributed to the disenfranchisement of the hereditary dance communities. In my view, this tragic disenfranchisement is way more complex and layered than can be attributed to one person, especially since its beginnings, in the form of the anti-nautch campaign, preceded her time. For this reason alone, it is absurd to condemn Rukmini Devi alone for deliberately snatching away an art form from a community of hereditary artistes. However, this furiously polarising discussion is not the focus of this article. Instead, I briefly highlight an aspect of Rukmini Devi's contribution that is increasingly forgotten in current debates and discussions on dance.
One of the most transformative contributions that Rukmini Devi made to dance is to do with its pedagogy. By creating an institution, ‘Kalakshetra', around it, she literally remoulded the way Bharatanatyam and Indian ‘classical' dance is learnt, taught and performed all over India and the world.
Before the ‘institutionalisation' of dance, the transmission of knowledge was largely oral, and dependent on the one-on-one relationship between the nattuvanar (or guru) and the dancer (or shishya). While the guru-shishya parampara persists in a modern and somewhat fragmented way, the concept of a classroom full of students from various backgrounds who learn dance from different teachers in one institution is something that Rukmini Devi spearheaded with the launch of Kalakshetra. This model, and variants of it, are now accepted across dance classrooms where many students learn from a teacher or, as is the case with ‘dance schools' and ‘dance academies', students learn from many teachers. It is applied across different banis or styles of Bharatanatyam, and is also applicable to other ‘classical' Indian dance classrooms in India and within the diaspora. In my view, we don't pause and think enough about how transformative this was for the scope of learning Indian dance. I say Indian dance and not Bharatanatyam because her pedagogic approach actually impacted more than one Indian dance form.
In a conversation with me on the reconstruction of Odissi, Aadya Kaktikar said that the Kalakshetra model became the blueprint for the classicisation of other dance forms in India — however problematic such classicisation might be. Aadya explained that the ‘prototypical format' of Bharatanatyam teaching and performance at Kalakshetra was used by many regional dance forms to upgrade their status to ‘classical'.
Referring to the reconstruction of Odissi and its swift classification into a ‘classical' dance form, she suggested that many of the Odissi revivalists like Guru Mayadhar Raut and Sanjukta Panigrahi trained at Kalakshetra and were exposed to and influenced by its pedagogy and presentation. Examples of Kalakshetra's influence on Odissi are the use of texts like the Natyashashtra and Abhinayadarpana and the replacement of regional names for hand gestures such as ‘dhwaja mudra' with Sanskrit names from these texts like ‘pataka hasta'.
Kaktikar further pointed out that the Kalakshetra style margam facilitated the expansion of the Odissi repertoire from 20-25 minutes into a structured five-piece repertoire. Following Kalakshetra, teachers like Mayadhar Raut also choreographed dance dramas. Even the modern-day re-creation of the Odissi costume is influenced by Rukmini Devi's Kalakshetra aesthetic. All these modifications played a pivotal role in Odissi achieving ‘classical' status in 1964.
The term ‘classical' is, as mentioned, deeply problematic. On what basis are some dance forms given this status while others not. This needs further study and investigation, and our generation of dancers certainly must question these terms and attempt to understand the cost at which classicisation has been achieved for dance forms in India and at whose expense this has taken place. But that is a topic for another day. Today, it is undeniable that dance forms cling to their ‘classical' status and others aspire to achieve it — in the hope of patronage and recognition, both nationally and internationally.
In that sense, Rukmini Devi's ‘blueprint' has enabled Bharatanatyam and other dance forms that attained ‘classical' status to become accessible to a huge number of people in India and across the world.
Equally, it is undoubtedly true that the entire process of reconstruction/ revival of dance forms has involved marginalisation and exclusion of hereditary dance communities. This cannot be ignored and the discussions on how to make reparations for these injustices must continue. One could argue that such modern reconstructions paved the way for these dance forms to be studied, practised and performed globally, thus making them inclusive in a different way, though that may well be scarce consolation to the hereditary custodians.
If Rukmini Devi's vision for Kalakshetra is indeed seen as a transformative ‘blueprint' for classical Indian dance, then this in itself is no small contribution to the Indian and global dance world. The moral and aesthetic complexity that surrounds her role in the history of dance need not be reduced to something simplistic and one-sided.
How to approach and understand the ambiguous nature of the transformation of traditional dances and Rukmini Devi's place in that discourse is one of the central challenges of our time. In the midst of the debates around Rukmini Devi's commissions and omissions, it is nevertheless important to remember that it is because of her vision that many, many of us all over the world can dance today.
The writer is dancer, choreographer and founder-director of the Bangalore-based Bharatanatyam