Sunday, August 9, 2009

The lady who might have been President

Maybe that's not a very 'Presidential' image in the photograph, but that's what the lady is best remembered for. Like many others, Rukmini Devi was transplanted to Madras when she was a two-year old, her father having been deeply influenced by the Theosophical Society's ideals. Thanks to that influence, Rukmini Devi was spared the experience of being married off even before reaching her teens, as was common practice in early 20th century India. Not that it mattered for too long; she shocked the conservative society of Madras by marrying Dr. George Arundale, twenty six years older than her, when she was just sixteen.

Her childhood years at the Theosophical Society left her with a lifelong love of nature and art; despite not being trained in dance as a child, something in her made the legendary ballerina, Anna Pavlova, suggest that she take up dance; after seven years of training, she gave her first public performance at the Theosophical Society's Diamond Jubilee in 1935. From then, there was no looking back; Kalakshetra, an institution dedicated to resuscitating artistic traditions of India, was established in 1936 (and has since grown to be recognized as an Institution of National Importance, in 1993).

Though she is best known for her dance performances - and her constant re-interpretation of the Bharatanatyam form - she was also an educationist, bringing in Dr. Maria Montessori to help set up the Besant Theosophical School (and setting up other schools later) and a champion of animal rights. She has been credited as being the motive force behind the legislation against animal abuse and the setting up of the Animal Welfare Board of India. That was only to be expected, for when she became a member of the Rajya Sabha in 1952, she reportedly said, "I should like to be the chosen representative of the tiger, the lion, the dog and the deer, the helpless and the voiceless". Maybe that's why when Morarji Desai sounded her out as a candidate for the President of India in 1977, she was lukewarm to the idea. Had she been more enthusiastic, the then Prime Minister might have pressed her case more strongly. But then, she may not have been able to spend as much time with the Kalakshetra Foundation as she did, almost until she passed away on February 23, 1986, just 6 days short of her 82 birthday. She will always be remembered as a unique individual, who bequeathed a unique institution to the city of Madras!

7 comments:

LVISS said...

MY SCHOOL. FOUR OF US STUDIED IN BESANT THEOSOPHICAL HIGH SCHOOL ADYAR. SITTING ON THE FLOOR AND STUDYING, WRITING EXAMS SITTING ON BEACH MUD OUTSIDE SURROUNDED BY MANGO TREES ,WHITE PYJAMA KURTAS AS UNIFORM ,STUDENTS FROM ALL OVER THE COUNTRY AND MANY FROM TIBET. BROUGHT BACK MY SCHOOL DAY MEMORIES.

LVISS said...

SHE USED TO COME VERY OFTEN TO THE SCHOOL AND TALK TO THE STUDENTS FREELY.AFTER SO MANY YEARS IT IS DIFFICULT TO BELIEVE I HAVE SEEN HER SO MANY TIMES.

ramanan said...

what a coincidence that Morarji bhai and Rukmini shared a rare birthday..February 29!
As usual a superb piece

Hilda said...

She sounds like a very great and inspiring woman, worthy of being emulated by other women all over the world. Thank you for telling us about her.

Shantaram said...

@ Lviss: Lovely to hear that... You must have gone to the Damodar Gardens campus, right?

@ Ramana: Thanks! And trust you to come up with that 'connect':)

@ Hilda: She has certainly inspired many who have gone to - and through - Kalakshetra!

Raj said...

I studied in Besant School too (when it was located at damodar gardens) and met Ms Rukmini Devi several times. Athai to all, she remains the most gracious lady I have ever met. And what sense of aesthetics. A simple flower arrangement could magically transform the stage.

Shantaram said...

@ Raj: Thank you for sharing - must have been a great experience!