Today the art of Bharatanatyam enjoys global recognition and is being learnt with reverence. What is now being considered as a divine art had for several centuries been thrown askance at as mere breadwinner for the women of courtesan danseuse community (Devadasis).
Who or what brought Bharatanatyam from dusk to dawn then? It was Mrs. Rukmini Devi Arundale. Rukmini was born into an orthodox Tamil Brahmin family on 29th February 1904. Her father, Neelakanda Shastri, was an ardent patron of Annie Besant’s Theosophical Society, which is headquartered at Chennai. Rukmini was naturally drawn to the Theosophical Society, which consequently made her to marry forty-two year old George Sydney Arundale, a close associate of Annie Besant, when she was barely sixteen.
Once when the Arundales, Rukmini and George, had been sailing to Australia, they had Anna Pavlova, a Russian dancer, as their fellow passenger. The friendship between Rukmini and Anna made Rukmini to nurse immense interest in Russian dance. Anna suggested Rukmini to start working on traditional Indian dance forms.
Anna’s words drove the Arundales to perform profound research on traditional Indian dance forms. They were appalled to learn the disregard that was bestowed on Bharatanatyam (literally ‘Dance of India’) by the society. The Arundales strove to work for the revival of Bharatanatyam. At the threshold, they wanted to obliterate from the minds of the masses the misconception on Bharatanatyam.
At the age of 28, under the shades of a banyan tree, at Thiruvanmiyur, Chennai, Mrs. Arundale started mastering the art from Guru Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai. Soon she started performing on the stages. She profoundly instilled in the minds of the people that Bharatanatyam was actually an art to be mastered. She also brought some changes in the art, like, designing new attire for Bharatanatyam, new stage design, new dance style etc.
Rukmini established a dance school, called Kalakshetra (literally ‘Place of Art’), exactly where she started learning it. It now stands as a university. Today Kalakshetra draws students from all over the world. Apart from Bharatanatyam, other traditional Indian dance forms like Manipuri, Odissi, Kathakali, Kathak and Kuchipudi are also being taught there.
Before the reforms made by Mrs. Arundale, even the very idea of learning the art of Bharatanatyam was considered as belittling oneself and one’s family. Now, children, especially girls are being made to learn the art with reverence, when they are barely five years old.
Until her death in 1986, Rukmini devoted her whole life for propagating Bhartanatyam and vegetarianism. One of the former Prime Ministers of India, Moraji Desai, offered her to become the President of India but she fervently turned down the offer. She also features in India Today’s list of ‘100 People Who Shaped Up India’.