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Rukmini Devi (A Life)

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Item Code: NAL837
Author: Leela Samson
Publisher: Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd.
Language: English
Edition: 2014
ISBN: 9780670082643
Pages: 255 (74 B/W Illustrations)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 9.0 inch X 6.0 inch
Weight 270 gm
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Shipped to 153 countries
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Book Description
About the Book

On 30 December 1935, thirty-one year old Rukmini Devi created history with her performance of Sadir, later known as Bharata Natyam, which had 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 –drams, 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 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 reinterpreted traditional natakas for some of her dance-dramas; she introduced women to nattuvangam, traditionally a male preserve, and adapted the 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 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, friend, associates and stalwarts of dance 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 India, while also celebrating its rich civilization.


About the Author

Leela Samson is a dancer, a teacher, a writer and a choreographer of Bharata Natyam. She has been deeply influenced by the philosophy and the work of Rukmini Devi. In 1995, she formed a dance group called Spanda, to review the traditional vocabulary of Bharata Natyam-both pure dance and interpretive dance –and its finding were seen as path-breaking by the critics. She has been the subject of two documentary films, Sanchari and The Flowering Tree.

She is the recipient of the Sanskriti and the Sangeet Natak Akademi awards and has been honoured with the Padma shri and Nritya Choodamani. In May 2005, Leela took over as director of the Kalakshetra Foundation. She loves music, books and animals.



In the summer of 1992, I took a sabbatical from work in Delhi to spend a years in Madras researching the life of my guru. The experience was unforgettable. I had the unstinted support of a man I dearly loved and admired. K. Sankara Menon had been Rukmini Devi’s right-hand man from the very inception of the Basant Theosophical High School and the Kalakshetra in Chennai. He was her anchor in all she did arguably her greatest confidant. An aristocrat from an affluent family of Kerala, a man of letters, as comfortable with English and Sanskrit as he was with Malayalam, an advaita scholar, an educationalist and authority on the Montessori method of education, a philosopher whose command over Sanskrit was legendary and whose love of the Bhagavad Gita and discourses on it drew pundits from far and near, he was he pillar of the institute. I cannot imagine Kalakshetra achieving what it did without him. While the inspiration came from Athai, there is no doubt that the smooth running of the Academy, handing of staff and students, suggesting curriculum, managing Rukmini Devi’s affair and the crucial business of maintaining standards in the schools and Arts Academy was solely due to his wise counsel. Why, even Rukmini Devi’s old mother was cared for lovingly by him back home, while she was abroad on her long sojourns .

There were others like Dr D. Padmasani and her brother, M.D. Mani, who between them took care of the hostels, the large estate, the engineering needs the theatre and lights, the gardens and the workers in the institutes. They, too, were an extraordinary pair-motivated and utterly devoted. Dr Padmasani, single, was a tall, stern women who looked after the children, the food, the medical needs and the security in the hostels. Soon after graduating from medical collage she began working as a doctor on the premises. Her family lived just outside the Theosophical Society premises in Uroor. Her father was responsible for acquiring the lands down the coast, to which Kalakshetra later moved from Adyar. Yet Padmansani went home but rarely. She helped Rukmini Devi prepare for her shows in the early years, often travelling with her. A good singer, a talent she had inherited from her father and uncle, she also conducted the bhajanai sessions on Friday evening in the hostel. Over the years, ‘Paddu teacher’ became the most versatile and dependable person on campus. Rukmini Devi had several people like this all with a Theosophical background, who admired her and stood by her throughout her life and beyond, till the end of theirs. They never took a salary, but lived on campus and spent every day of their liver in services to the institute.

Kamala Trilokekar was another quiet worker . Small and gentle of build, Kamala teacher, not unlike Rukmini Devi herself, married a man thirty-five years her senior. A disciple of Annie Besant, C.S. Trilokekar was a professor and later principle of the Madanapalle College started by her. Kamala teacher was a student there. She was form, an orthodox brahmin family; he was a confirmed bachelor and wanted no attachments. He was dedicated to his work. ‘I refused to return to my parents after I finished collage. I did not budge until he married me.’ The silent one of the couple, Kamala teacher was not usually given to such confessions. When she admitted this, I was suitably shocked. All these years we knew her, but never guessed. Sadly, Trilokekar sir’s was an untimely demise and after that Kamala teacher went into deep depression. She had no family and stayed on in Adyar to help Rukmini with the work. However, Radha and Padmanabhan, a young couple who she and her husband had almost adopted, became her became her family and once every few years they came with their children –two boys and two girls, to visit her. Kamala teacher looked after the Montessori teachers training programme and Athai’s office. Uncommunicative, most people feared her. An exception was Sankara Menon. He would draw her out her shell. She was efficient and good to the servants and lived quietly at western end of the hundred-acre campus, while Dr Padmasani help up the eastern end, near the beach.

When I asked questions on my return, some quite pertinent, I had the good counsel of all three of these stalwarts. There was little to look forward to in Kalakshetra without them. They lent the campus their particular grace and wisdom. Sankara Menon sir was the one with unerring memory for detail and nuance. He was also ‘unattached’ and was able to view the journey with the clarity to the seer. It was as though he had put it all behind him and could judge Kalakshetra, Athai’s life and theirs, as though he were an outsider to the party. Paddu teacher and Kamala teacher would shy away from anything they saw as being slightly controversial or ‘not for my ears’ and would say , ‘Ask sir. He remembers the details.’ This amused me no end because I always talked to him first. He would look me in the eye and tell me things which were sometimes shocking, often times sad, but did. Although old and beaten, literally and metaphorically-his story will unfold in the pages ahead them all stored in a memory that defies description . He guided me every step of the way.

My notes were drawn from a collection of Rukmini Devi’s own papers speeches, writing, diaries, theosophical journals and books that were housed in Kalakshetra. The papers needed sorting and this I did, in spite of a rattle snake that lived in them! Sankara Menon spoke on tape about the revival of the dance form, impressions of the early days, the early teachers and concerts and the struggle that they endured. Some observations were not for the book and go into my ‘lessons for life’ diary. Those have helped me understand my job and the people associated with the institute, past and present. While my guru may not have been a sure judge of people, his was the eye of a philosopher-compassionate and true.

When I returned to take over the reins of Kalakshetra thirteen years later, every document I had put aside and stored was missing her diaries eaten by ‘white ants’. All, but those that Sir had permitted me to take for the book! This was returned to the institute, what by due hers.




Preface viii
Acknowledgements xi
The Early Years 1
Adyar and Annie Besant 25
Marriage and After 43
Exploring Theosophy and Dance 57
The Rebirth of Sadir 75
An Academy of Arts 95
The Kalakshetera Bani 113
Stirrings Within 129
Thiru Valmiki Oor 151
Between Kalakshetra and Parliament 173
The Spreading Banyan 185
The Last Years 207
Epilogue 229
Glossary 232
List of dance-dramas 234
Bibliographical Note 236
Index 237
Sample Pages

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