A dancer's Dancer

Leela Samson, a dancer of repute, is the present Director of Kalakshetra, Chennai. As a student, she spent several months over many years at Kalakshetra, where she came to know Rukmini Devi, her art, life, and philosophy. Her biography, Rukmini Devi: A life, from Viking Penguin, is a documentation and (mainly) an appreciation of the extraordinary life of Rukmini Devi Arundale.

On 30 December 1935, thirty-one year old Rukmini Devi created history with her performance of Sadir, later known as Bharata Natyam, which had until then been confined to temple precincts and was the preserve of devadasis. A celebrated artiste and dancer, she was also a Theosophist, a composer of acclaimed dance-dramas, an educationist, an animal welfare and child rights activist, and a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha. This rich biography illuminates her many lives.

Rukmini’s early life was in the districts of Madras presidency where her father, an engineer, was posted, and it took many dramatic turns: her marriage in 1920 to George Arundale, a Theosophist and family friend, caused public outrage, particularly among the Madras brahmins. She was closely associated with Annie Besant, who became her mentor, and her meeting with Anna Pavlova inspired her to learn dance. Rukmini went on to establish Kalakshetra, an academy of arts, in 1936, which grew and flourished, and is renowned to this day for its classicism in dance training and performance—a tribute to her skill as an institution builder.

Rukmini revered traditions but did not hesitate to innovate, whenever necessary. She re-interpreted traditional natakas for some of her dance-dramas; she introduced women to nattuvangam, traditionally a male preserve, and adapted the traditional Kerala theatre, the kootambalam, to modern needs of performance at Kalakshetra. Her liberalism was not confined to the arts. Believing in oneness of all living creatures, she successfully piloted a bill which became the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act in 1960. She was also president of the Indian Vegetarian Congress in 1957.

Leela Samson draws on the oral evidence of Rukmini’s family, friends, associates and stalwarts of dance and music, the reminiscences of such luminaries as Annie Besant, J. Krishnamurti, C. W. Leadbeater, Maria Montessori, C. Rajagopalachari, Tagore, Pandit Nehru and the Dalai Lama, as well as hitherto unseen personal correspondence and photographs. The book offers an intimate and rounded portrait of an extraordinary woman and Indian, whose life embodied a vision of a modern India, while also celebrating its rich civilization.

The story of Rukmini Devi is more than just the story of a dancer, though she was that in great part. She was a renaissance woman in her own right, from the life she chose, the marriage she made, the arts she revived, the crafts she encouraged, and the institutions she built and nurtured. And Leela Samson is in many ways an appropriate biographer for such a life, following, as she has in Rukmini Devi's footsteps in more ways than one.

In our Biography section, in hardcover, 256 pages, Rs 550, ISBN: 9780670082643

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