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Rukmini Devi Arundale: Reviving Bharata Natyam and Cultivating Indian Culture


Rukmini Devi/ Luxe Magazine

Rukmini Devi Arundale, born on February 29, 1904, in Madura, Madras Presidency, British India (now Madurai, Tamil Nadu, India), and passed away on February 24, 1986, in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, was an eminent Indian classical dancer and a devoted follower of theosophy. She is renowned for her pivotal role in revitalizing the bharata natyam dance form and establishing the esteemed Kalakshetra Foundation in Madras, which is now known as Chennai. The foundation was dedicated to preserving and popularizing bharata-natyam and other Indian artistic traditions, while also disseminating the ideals of theosophy.

Rukmini Devi/ Luxe Magazine

Arundale was born into an affluent Brahman family in Adyar, a suburb of Madras, to K.A. Nilakanta Sastri, a distinguished South Indian Sanskrit scholar and historian, and his wife Seshammal. Her father was closely associated with the Theosophical Society, a spiritual organization founded in New York City and headquartered in Madras, known for its monistic philosophy that emphasized unity in the diversity of all phenomena. As a young woman, Arundale was deeply influenced not only by her father but also by Annie Besant, a British co-founder and president of the Theosophical Society from 1907 to 1933, as well as by George Arundale, a British educator and theosophist, whom she married in 1920. Arundale traveled extensively with her husband and Besant on various theosophical missions, immersing herself in the ideology of the society. During her travels, she developed a profound fascination with classical dance. Initially drawn to Western ballet, she had the opportunity to study under Cleo Nordi, a student of the renowned Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, who had arranged the opportunity for her. Pavlova also advised Arundale to seek inspiration from traditional Indian arts.

Taking Pavlova's advice to heart, Arundale embarked on a mission to study and promote bharata natyam, a form of South Indian classical dance traditionally performed in Hindu temples.

Rukmini Devi/ Luxe Magazine

Her objective was two-fold: to revive this declining Indian art form and to challenge the negative social stereotypes associated with its female practitioners, known as devadasis. Devadasis, who served the temple deities, were often subjected to the stigma of prostitution. Arundale received formal training under the guidance of Pandanallur Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai, a respected male bharata natyam director, and showcased her talents publicly for the first time in 1935 at the Theosophical Society. This performance was noteworthy not only for Arundale's exceptional artistry but also because it took place on a public stage, breaking the tradition of it being exclusively performed in temples. It set a precedent for upper-class women to engage in an art form historically associated with a marginalized lower-class community.

Rukmini Devi/ Luxe Magazine

In 1934, following Besant's passing, Arundale established the Besant Theosophical High School and the Besant Arundale Senior Secondary School to provide education based on theosophical and traditional Hindu values. In 1936, she expanded her efforts by founding Kalakshetra, an academy dedicated to Indian arts with a particular focus on bharata natyam. Together, the high school, senior secondary school, and arts academy formed the Kalakshetra Foundation. Drawing upon the work of T. Balasaraswati and other dancers from the devadasi community who had also strived to bring bharata natyam beyond temple confines, Arundale took steps to broaden the dance's appeal as she developed the Kalakshetra curriculum. She worked to remove the erotic aspects of bharata natyam (shringara) and infused it with a sense of devotion (bhakti). Additionally, she introduced aesthetically designed costumes, jewelry, and stage scenarios. To infuse contemporary sophistication into the performances, she adopted a dance-drama format. Arundale conceived and choreographed numerous bharata natyam pieces in this new style, including six dances inspired by the ancient Hindu epic Ramayana, which remain among her most celebrated works.

Arundale's contributions were instrumental in the revival of bharata natyam and the elevation of its status, both as a tradition and for its practitioners. The integration of stagecraft, lighting, costumes, music, and choreography transformed the devotional experience into an art form that could be appreciated on a global platform. By institutionalizing the dance form through the Kalakshetra Foundation, Arundale ensured its transmission to future generations. In recognition of her immense contributions to Indian culture, Arundale was honored with the prestigious Padma Bhushan, one of India's highest civilian awards, in 1956. She also received the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1957 from the national academy of music, arts, and dance in India. In 1993, the Indian parliament declared her foundation an institution of national importance.

Rukmini Devi/ Luxe Magazine

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