Rukmini Devi Arundale was an Indian classical dancer who led the renaissance of the ‘Bharatnatyam’ dance form and founded the Kalakshetra Foundation in Madras (now Chennai). She was also a theosophist who was greatly inspired by Annie Besant, the Theosophical Society’s British cofounder and president. Born into an upper class Brahmin family in India, she grew up in an environment where she was exposed to dance, music and culture. Her father was involved with the theosophical society and soon the young girl too followed suit. Eventually her interest in theosophy led her to marry a fellow theosophist, the British Dr. George Arundale, much to the shock of the traditional society she grew up in. Along with her husband she traveled all around the world meeting other theosophists and sharing ideas. Deeply involved in theosophical activities, she became the President of the All-India Federation of Young Theosophists. It was her meeting with the famous Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova which kindled in her a profound interest in the art form. Inspired by the Russian, she decided to discover traditional Indian dance forms and began learning Bharatnatyam and eventually founded an academy of dance and music. She played a vital role in revitalizing Bharatnatyam and popularizing it all over the world.
Childhood & Early Life
She was born on 29 February 1904 in Madurai, India. Her father Neelakanta Sastri was an engineer and a scholar while her mother Seshammal was a music enthusiast. Theirs was a traditional upper class Brahmin family.
Her father was deeply involved with the theosophical society and thus the young Rukmini was exposed to theosophy from an early age. Because of the society she also became acquainted with new ideas on culture, music, dance and theatre.
She met Dr. George Arundale, a British theosophist and a close associate of Annie Besant and developed a relationship with him. They got married in 1920 when she was just 16 years old.
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Following her marriage she traveled all over the world and met many inspiring people like educator Maria Montessori and the poet James Cousins.
She became the President of the All-India Federation of Young Theosophists in 1923 and the President of the World Federation of Young Theosophists in 1925.
She met the famous Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova in 1928 when she was in Bombay for a performance. Then they also traveled on the same ship to Australia and the two women forged a friendship over the course of the journey.
Inspired by Pavlova, Rukmini decided to learn ballet and for a while trained under the dancer Cleo Nordi. Later on Pavlova advised Rukmini to focus on discovering traditional Indian dance forms, and thus Rukmini turned towards Bharatnatyam.
She began learning the dance form, first from 'Mylapore Gowri Amma’, and later from 'Pandanallur Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai'. She was almost 30 when she started learning dance but was a very dedicated learner.
She gave her first public performance at the 'Diamond Jubilee Convention of the Theosophical Society’ in 1935. Within a year, she collaborated with her husband to establish Kalakshetra, an academy of dance and music at Adyar, near Chennai.
Originally the dance form Bharatnatyam was known as ‘sadhir’ and was considered vulgar. Rukmini played an instrumental role in modifying the dance form, giving it a new name, and popularizing it all over the world as a respectable art form.
She introduced musical instruments like violin, designed costumes and jewelery, and established set and lighting design elements, thereby completely revamping the dance form into its modern avatar.
She collaborated with noted dancers, classical musicians, and scholars to develop dance-dramas based on Indian epics and mythology like 'Sita Swayamvaram', 'Sri Rama Vanagamanam', 'Paduka Pattabhishekam' and 'Sabari Moksham'.
She was also an animal rights activist who deeply cared for all creatures. She was involved with several humanitarian organizations and also served as a member of the Rajya Sabha. The Animal Welfare Board of India was set up under her chairmanship in 1962.
Being an animal lover she followed a strict vegetarian diet and was involved in promoting vegetarianism in the country. She served as the Vice President of International Vegetarian Union from 1955 to 1986.
Awards & Achievements
She was honored with the Padma Bhushan, the third highest civilian award of India, in 1956, for her contribution to arts.
The Sangeet Natak Akademi Puraskar (Akademi Award), the highest Indian recognition given to practicing artists, was bestowed upon her in 1967 by the Sangeet Natak Akademi, India's National Academy of Music, Dance & Drama.
The Animal Welfare Board of India presented her with ‘Prani Mitra’ award in 1968 for her work as an animal rights activist.
Personal Life & Legacy
She met Dr. George Arundale when she was just a young girl. Arundale, 26 years her senior, immediately fell in love with her. Her family vehemently opposed the match due to the age difference and also because Arundale was British.
She went against the conservative society and married him in 1920. Their marriage was a happy one and her husband acted as a mentor to her and encouraged her professional ambitions. They couple did not have any children.
She died on 24 February 1986 in Chennai, at the age of 82.