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Rukmini Devi Arundale - A catalyst to change

Rukmini Devi blazed a new trail in dance by creating the concept of dance-dramas based on the epics. In the centenary year of her birth, LAKSHMI VISWANATHAN recounts how she developed the idea to its fruition.

EVENTS, individuals, circumstances and situations are catalysts for transformations in culture. But to speak of an individual as a catalyst does not necessarily imply that the person acted in isolation or was not part of a larger cultural context.

Rukmini Devi has to be seen both as a catalyst and a Guru. She was the first "Guru" of the Renaissance, and her influence was both phenomenal and vital. Born in an orthodox Brahmin family, she was greatly influenced by the Theosophical Movement, Annie Besant and the swadeshi movement.

The first prepared her for a meticulous reverence toward sacred texts and Carnatic music. The second not only gave her the Western perspective on ancient Indian art and philosophy, both fertile grounding for modern Indian performing arts, but also a fresh approach to spirituality without the trappings of ritualistic dogma. The third gave her a mission with a purpose. She symbolised a new liberation that Indian women had not experienced before.

Sanskrit scholarship and classical music were the soul of her work. Without them, she would have been lost in the unexplored genre of the temple/court/boudoir dance. Just learning the rudiments, like adavus, or short pieces like the sabdam, padam, thillana would not have been enough foundation for her creative contribution to Bharatanatayam.

She needed material to involve groups of dancers and musicians. With the founding of Kalakshetra, she became the Dame Ninette De Valois (the person behind the Royal Ballet in England) of India. She approached scholars to help her with the scripts for her dance-dramas and persuaded great musicians like Mysore Vasudevacharya, Papanasam Sivan, and others to compose music for her productions.

Rukmini Devi established a new tradition in the Ramayana series. There was no tradition of dance-drama in South India to emulate. No manuscripts were available as in the Bhagavatha Mela plays. No musical compositions were prevalent for a dance-drama based on the Ramayana although there were some compositions like Arunachala Kavi's "Rama Natakam".

She had travelled in South East Asia and seen their Ramayanas. That, according to my perception, was her first inspiration. It stayed in her mind for more than three decades. It was a co-incidence that , Rukmini Devi experienced the beauty of Pavlova's dance and the South East Asian Ramayana plays almost simultaneously. What remained with her after seeing the Rama plays was the ethnic stagecraft of South East Asia. The man who helped her with the subdued lighting technique, was Paul Storm, from Holland. An actor and director with more than two decades of experience in theatre in Holland and France, he was born in Indonesia. Showcasing traditional arts and crafts to a national and international audience came naturally to her because of her early Theosophical activities which opened the world to her.

Rukmini Devi took Valmiki's text for most of her adaptation. With an approach similar to a sacred journey, she researched the texts with scholars. With the care of a surgeon, she edited a scene. Thus she laid the foundation for building up a dramatic story, or a character. Mysore Vasudevacharya began the task of composing music for "Sita Swayamvaram", which was first staged in Kalakshetra. This dance drama was the beginning of a new tradition in Bharatanatyam. Soon, "Sri Rama Vanagamanam" and "Paduka Pattabhishekam" followed. She invested each dance drama with her own creative impulses. For example in "Sabari Moksham", which deals with the abduction of Sita, Rukmini Devi brings a specially sensitive angle to Surpanaka. Valmiki does not mention her transformation in order to attract Rama. "My interpretation is that Surpanaka was able to understand beauty only in terms of herself. This I think must have been Valmiki's idea." A profound comment on human vanity.

The very fact that Rukmini Devi took it upon herself to explain her thought processes and her act of editing the sacred text was a departure from any known convention in Bharatanatyam. Her "Maha Pattabhishekam" afforded an opportunity to share her thoughts, which in more modern times would have been labelled `a glimpse of Rukmini Devi the feminist'. She writes: "Perhaps the unhappiest scene for me to produce has been the Agnipravesam of Sita. To me, it seems strange and out of tune with Rama's noble character to show such cruelty to Sita in a way that even ordinary humans would not do. I am convinced that what Dr. Annie Besant, Rajaji and others have said is true that many interpolations have been introduced in the story at various times." Her choreography of the scene is sensitive, considering she had no tradition to follow in the matter. Perhaps what she saw in South East Asia stayed in her mind. That touch of delicacy is reflected in her work.

Vasudevacharya died after composing music for "Sita Swayamvaram", "Rama Vangamanam", "Paduka Pattabhishekam", and "Sabari Moksham". On the cards were "Choodamani Pradhanam" and "Mahapattabhishekam". Within months, she called the young Rajaram, grandson of Vasudevacharya and motivated him to complete the series. Rukmini Devi established an approach to dance-drama based on the tenets of the "Natya Sastra". This was completely new to the genre of Bharatanataym.

Whether it was crossing the Ganga or Ravana carrying Sita on a flying machine, she portrayed them in suggestive movements.

Who else but Rukmini Devi would have introduced in her cast the following: birds, swan, lotus, creepers, devas. She knew the power of imagination and went beyond Sanskrit theatre in her unfolding of the Ramayana, through Bharatanatayam. Where vigorous action was required, she adapted the Kathakali technique. She also took from Kathakali the technique of describing Nature. In the final "Yuddha Kandam" of the Ramayana, she found the best challenges to her inventiveness. With so many varied characters ranging from heroes and villains to apsaras and rakshasis, monkeys, and monsters, she had to work hard on costumes.

Perhaps her best effort in creative design was her costumes. The fabrics she chose had never been seen on the stage before her except, perhaps, in the ancient folk theatre of South India. Guards in Ravana's palace were made to look like the Kondepalli hand-crafted dolls from Andhra. Her magic touches on small details, décor and make - up was remarkable. Even the crowns worn by Rama or Ravana were crafted with care, taking inspiration from Krishnattam and the trance dancers of Bali.

Ultimately one can say that Rukmini Devi's lasting gift to Bharatanatyam, and to the art of India, is her Ramayana series.

Kalakshetra Foundation celebrates the Centenary year of Rukmini Devi's birth from February 28, till her birthday on February 29, 2004.

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