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Rukmini Devi Arundale was a dancer and dance theorist. She gave Bharatanatyam its present form. Before her, this dance style was considered the province of devadasis, literally servants of god; women who had been dedicated to temples in their childhood and who practised a form of sacred prostitution. As the twentieth century progressed there was a gathering middle class ‘reform’ movement to abolish the devadasi tradition and ‘clean up’ the temples. Revealingly, this campaign was known as the ‘anti-nautch’ movement, and like many similar movements tended to stigmatise the dance along with the less savoury aspects of the devadasi tradition. In 1947, the Madras Prevention of Dedication of Devadasis Act made the institution illegal. Afraid that the dance form would be abolished along with the devadasis, Rukmini set out to rid it of its associations with prostitution and give it a new respectability, though others closer to the old tradition, like T. Balasaraswati (q.v.), regarded this as sacrilege.

Rukmini Devi was born into an orthodox Brahmin family on 29 February 1904. Her father Nilakantha Sastri was a scholar who shocked his community by joining the Theosophical Society. Annie Besant (q.v.) was one of Rukmini’s mentors, and Rukmini married the Englishman George Sydney Arundale, a teacher at the Central Hindu College, Varanasi who succeeded Besant as president of the Society. Rukmini learnt to dance when she was nearly 30, and proceeded to rescue the dance from the fringes of society and make it something that respectable people would be willing to teach their daughters. She and her husband toured the world, acting as ambassadors for their version of the art form. In addition, George promoted the cause of national education with roots in Indian culture. In 1935 with the help of E. Krishna Iyer, Rukmini persuaded Chokkalingam Pillai, son-in-law of the famous guru Pandanallur Meenakshisundaram Pillai, to teach her. Other students of the guru also taught at her institute.

With the birth of a new elite class of amateur performers, Rukmini Devi set up her own centre for the development of the form. This was Kalakshetra, established at Adyar, the Theosophical Society’s headquarters. She looked for musicians outside the traditional pool of families that supplied these skills, and began to experiment with choreography.

The roster of musicians who served Kalakshetra includes Tiger Varadachari, Papanasam Sivan, Budalur Krishnamurthy Sastrigal, and M.D. Ramanathan, to mention only a few. In the general management of the centre and of her extensive foreign tours, theosophists like Peter Hoffman helped her. She reworked traditional gestures and costumes and changed the lyrics of songs to conform to definitions of what was acceptable. She replaced the bagpipe and clarinet with the veena and flute and began the tradition of dancing on stage before an image of Nataraja, the dancing avatar of Shiva. Her radical changes, made hardly fifty years ago, are now regarded as part of tradition. Beginning with a dance season each winter to coincide with the Theosophical Society’s annual conference, the work of Kalakshetra under Rukmini Devi’s guidance soon began to diversify.

She extended the form from an exposition of classical movements to a discipline through which dance dramas could be presented, and she borrowed elements from Kathakali and related forms to create a more vigorous mode for characters like Hanuman and Ram. Soon Kalakshetra was a residential campus offering a full five-year course in the classical Indian performing arts. After the first two decades, Rukmini Devi retired from dance and dedicated herself wholly to managing the centre. Her vision to build a theatre modelled on the Kerala Koothambalam had been fulfilled.

She was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1956, and Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship in 1967.
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