India is a country with amazing people of diverse talents and in every age and generation, there must have someone to dazzle the world. In the time past, one such person who fascinated the world was Rukmini Devi Arundale. She was an Indian dancer, choreographer, and theosophist who contributed in no small measure to the revival of the Indian classical dance. Though she is long gone, the events of Rukmini’s life and her achievements thereof still resonates among the living today. She is one whose legacies should be emulated by the younger generation.
Rukmini Devi Arundale – Bio
The dancer was born on the 24th of February 1904 in Madurai, Madras Presidency, British India to Neelakanta Sastri (a scholar, engineer, an employee in the public works department) and Seshammal who was a music enthusiast. Rukmini’s family was best described as a traditional upper-class Brahmin family.
As a result of her father’s job, their family frequently moved around a lot; it was at during one of such relocations and resettlement that her father got introduced to the esoteric religious movement Theosophy (Blavatskian). Neelakanta got deeply involved with the movement through Dr. Annie Besant and it came to shape every other thing that happened in his family including determining the course of Rukmini Devi Arundale’s life.
While visiting the Theosophical Society Adyar where she went to learn about theosophical thoughts and other aspects of culture like theatre, music, and dance, she got to know British theosophist Dr. George Arundale and became friends with him. By 1920, when she was just 16, Devi married Dr. George who was 44 years – much to the shock and disapproval of the society. However, since her father was late at this time, her mother who was already seeing Dr. George as part of her family was in support of her marriage.
She became the first Brahmin lady to marry a foreigner and of course this had her family ostracized by the Brahmin associates. With time and with the help of other theosophists, the then strictly conservative society came to accept the marriage.
Looking back at her life today and what she stood for while she lived, it turns out that it was her marriage to theosophists and her commitment to the movement thereof that brought Devi Arundale to the knowledge of many people. With her husband, she traveled to several parts of the world which gave her the opportunity to meet many like minds whom she made friends with. Seeing her commitment and zeal toward the affairs of the movement, Rukmini Devi Arundale became the President of the All-India Federation of Young Theosophists in 1923 and in 1925 she began serving as President of the World Federation of Young Theosophists.
In the year 1928, she met Anna Pavlova a then famous Russian ballerina who was visiting Bombay at the time, Rukmini Devi Arundale and her partner – Dr. George Arundale went to her performance and afterward happened to be on the same ship with her en route Australia where her next performance was scheduled. Devi exchanged pleasantries with Pavlova and as the journey progressed, the two women became friends.
Devi then began learning dance steps from Cleo Nordi who was one of Anna’s leading solo dancers. However, Anna felt her interest in dance will be a lot more impactful if she focused on traditional Indian dances. This piqued her and marked the beginning of the revival of her native home’s dance forms which at that time was a thing of mockery.
Rukmini Devi Arundale dedicated the rest of her life to the revival of traditional Indian dance forms/Bharatnatyam also known traditionally as Sadir. She started off under the tutelage of Mylapore Gowri Amma, then Pandanallur Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai. After she had mastered the dance form enough, she made her first public performance in 1935 at the Diamond Jubilee Convention of the Theosophical Society.
Part of what she did in her revival of the Indian traditional dance forms involved the introduction of designed costumes and jewelry, musical instruments like violin, set designing with lights and even changing the dance name from Sadhir to Bharatnatyam. The initial form of Sadhir was considered vulgar but Rukmini Devi Arundale modified and made the dance to an acceptable art all over the world.
- She established the Kalakshetra, an academy of dance and music at Adyar, near Chennai.
- In the year 1956, Rukmini Devi Arundale was awarded the Padma Bhushan, which is the third highest civilian award of India. This came to her for her contributions to arts.
- A couple of years later, the theosophist earned the highest award given to practicing artists in India – The Sangeet Natak Akademi Puraskar (Akademi Award) from the Sangeet Natak Akademi which is India’s National Academy of Music, Dance & Drama.
- Being an animal lover/rights activist, The Animal Welfare Board of India gave Rukmini the Prani Mitra award in 1968 in recognition of her contributions to the welfare of animals.
- Some of Devi’s other awards include Queen Victoria Silver Medal, Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, London, Honorary Doctorate, Wayne State University, United States and Scrolls of Honour, County, and the City of Los Angeles.
5 Facts You Need to Know
1. Animal Rights Activist
Aside from her career in the arts, Rukmini Devi Arundale was an animal right activist and humanitarian who cared for all creatures. While she lived, the Animal Welfare Board of India was set up under her stead as chairman in 1962.
From the fact above, the next probable thing about Rukmini Devi Arundale will be her abstinence from animal products and yes she was a vegan. The dancer promoted vegetarianism in India and between 1955 to 1986, she was the Vice President of International Vegetarian Union.
Rukmini Devi Arundale and Dr. George Arundale lived a happy life while they lived. Her husband who was 26 years her senior was a mentor and also encouraged her in the pursuit of her career. Their union, however, didn’t see to the birth of any child.
In the year 1977, Morarji Desai proposed to nominate Devi Arundale for the post of India’s president but she declined.
For everything that has a beginning, there must be an end, Rukmini Devi Arundale breathed her last breath on 24 February 1986, in Chennai, India at the age of 82.