Attai – The Source of Inspiration

Born in the temple town of Madurai, Tamil Nadu on the 29th of February 1904, Rukmini Devi (fondly remembered by her disciples as Attai) was one of eight siblings. Her father Neelakantha Sastry was an engineer and the family moved from place to place as his work demanded. She enjoyed a happy childhood and it was her father who initiated her along with her siblings into the Theosophical Society.

Her childhood was spent in the environment of the Theosophical Society, growing under the influence of inspiring people like Dr. Annie Besant, Dr. George Sydney Arundale, C W Leadbeater and other thinkers and theosophists of the time. After the death of her father, the family grew close to Dr. George Arundale, a distinguished Theosophist and an associate of Dr.Annie Besant. In 1920 she married Dr. Arundale with the blessings of Dr. Annie Besant and with the approval and support of her mother and brothers. Though they faced a great deal of opposition from a conservative society in Madras, they stayed firm in their resolve.

It was on one of her travels that Attai met the famed ballerina, Anna Pavlova, at Covent Gardens, London. Pavlova introduced Attai to ballet and had her disciple, Cleo Nordi, give the young woman lessons while on board the ship. While Pavlova encouraged Attai to learn ballet, she insisted that as an Indian, she should learn the dance of her own country. Thus it came to be that Attai followed the guidance of Pavlova in word and spirit.

Of Pavlova, Attai wrote, “I can never forget her, for she showed me the great possibilities in dance as an art form.” At the Theosophical Society in Adyar, she often took part in theatrical productions, and later began to create dances and plays. But it seemed as if there was a growing restlessness within her, when she wrote, “I felt dissatisfied and wanted very much to learn Bharata Natya based on the classical music which I loved, and to do something more serious.” She began attending dance performances and sought out practitioners of the art, and in 1927, her brothers Yagneswaran and N Sriram took her to see a sadir performance by two sisters. Attai believed that through this performance she was “ushered into a new world of rhythmic beauty and meaning.” She resolved to learn the art from these specialists. Pandanallur Meenakshisundaram Pillai was her guru though it has been mentioned that she was initiated into bharatanatyam by Mylapore Gowriammal. Transcending orthodoxy ( that believed that girls of “upper caste families must not learn the art of temple harlots”) Attai, already in her early thirties, worked tirelessly and with great enthusiasm to understand for herself the artistic spirituality of Indian dance, to learn it in its purest form.

She gave her first performance at the Diamond Jubilee celebrations of the Theosophical Society in 1935. Those who were present in the open air Adyar Theatre (of the Theosophical Society) on that day in 1935, were mesmerized by the spiritual quality of her dance. Sir C V Raman, the Nobel Laureate said, “some of you, I hope – for your sakes all of you – must have been thrilled by what you just witnessed… grace brought down from the heights of the Himalayas and put on the earth of this platform”. This was the first time a dance programme was being presented as a stage performance. Also, earlier the accompanying musicians would follow the dancer on stage, moving back and forth with her. For the first time, Rukmini Devi made them sit on the side of the stage and there was a plain back drop that would enhance the dance being performed (features that we have come to take for granted in a dance performance today). The prevalent seductive costumes and jewelry were changed into aesthetically beautiful ones, inspired by those found in ancient sculpture. She was ushering in a period of renaissance in this art.

However, to Attai, it was not enough that she danced herself, she wanted to find young people who would, in her words, “disseminate this beautiful and profound art that had been restricted to a few specialists.” And at a time when Dr. Besant and Dr. Arundale were working for the political freedom of India, Attai believed that a cultural renaissance would be equally meaningful – that a country which was losing its identity would be best served by a revival of its traditional arts.

This gave rise to what we now know as the Kalakshetra Foundation.

She wrote, “When I think about the events that led to the formation of Kalakshetra, I am more and more convinced that there is a divine destiny which shapes our lives. Many people have said many things about my being a pioneer. I can only say that I did not consciously go after the dance. It was the dance that found me.”

Attai devoted the rest of her life to the institution that she created, funding it through her own resources and through the donations of friends and well-wishers. At Kalakshetra, she put into practice all the values and instincts for beauty that she had absorbed in her life. Each classroom, each tree that was planted was the measure of her determination to make her institution grow, in the face of many difficulties. After the death of Dr. Arundale in 1945, she went through very hard times, but her strength of will and purposefulness helped her to overcome all the troubles that she faced. Kalakshetra moved to its present location in the 1960s. Despite an acute shortage of funds, Attai managed to build simple classrooms and hostels to continue her life’s work.

Though Kalakshetra was central to Attai’s life, she was absorbed in many other activities as well. She was a highly accomplished orator and travelled the world speaking on art, philosophy and animal welfare. Deeply sensitive to all life, she was a true champion for the cause of animals. She felt, “the whole animal world is sending out one cry for help which very few human beings are answering. We may not be able to do much but ability comes from desire (to act). We will find the energy and the means if we know how to feel”. As a member of the Rajya Sabha she was instrumental in passing the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. And in 1957 the first World Vegetarian Congress was held in India under her Presidentship. As Chairman of the Animal Welfare Board, she remained involved with its activities, signing papers and working to the very end.