Two dance legends and an untold story

revivalist Rukmini Devi Arundale

And this arangetram rescued Bharathanatyam from centuries of neglect. The archives state that it was Anna Pavlova, the great ballerina, who persuaded Rukmini to  revive India’s  classical dance forms.

In the 1920’s,  Rukmini Devi Arundale  chanced upon one of the ballets of  Anna Pavlova in London. Earlier she  had  shocked the orthodox south Indian society by marrying the eminent British, theosophist scholar Dr GS Arundale .

Travelling  to Europe frequently, Rukmini watched Anna’s famous ballet Dying Swan in 1925 and was inspired by the performance but it took a few years for these two great women to meet.

Anna Pavlova  had visited India frequently to learn the nuances of India’s classical dances. But under the British rule, dance had lost its Indian moorings. On her very first visit to India in 1922,  despite her efforts, all that  Anna  could see  was a crude performance in Kolkata.

But Anna  took back lasting memories of  the Ajanta frescoes and back in London, she deputed her staff choreographer Ivan Clustine to create for her, a ballet based on the memories.

 Clustine had never seen the frescoes nor had any idea of Indian dancing so Ajanta Frescoes  received  mixed reviews.

In 1928, Anna Pavlova came to India again and gave a few performances in Mumbai and Dr Arundale and Rukmini made it a point to attend her performance.

Subsequently, the couple was to leave Mumbai for Australia for Theosophical Society’s work and to her great delight, Rukmini found that Anna was also travelling by the same ship.  Both  art enthusiasts spent  hours together. The ballerina  recognised in Rukmini Devi a kindred soul  and their friendship continued even after they reached Australia. In Sydney, the prescient Anna told Rukmini Devi that she should  learn dancing. “You don’t have to dance.  Even if  you just walk across the stage, people will come to watch,” she said. Anna requested one of her leading solo dancers, Cleo Nordi to teach Rukmini Devi the first  lessons in ballet.  But after some days, Anna felt  that Rukmini, with
her theosophical  background, should take up Indian dancing instead. 

Unfortunately in India at that time, Bharathanatyam had degenerated to disrepute.  In 1933, at the Music Academy’s Annual Conference, Rukmini Devi saw a performance of the Bharathanatyam dance form known as Sadhir for the first time. She was enchanted by the dance and wanted to learn it.

But as she herself explained in her last published interview, “it (the dance) was almost extinct, I should say, and there was discouragement from almost all quarters. It was difficult to find ever a good teacher.The dancers had no status or recognition.They were poor and nobody in particular encouraged them.”

Eventually, she started to learn the dance from Mylapore Gowri Ammal, an expert in Abhinaya.  She  also managed to persuade the famous dance maestro Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai to be her guru. In December 1935, Rukmini Devi gave her first public performance at the diamond jubilee convention of the Theosophical Society.  It was a path breaking performance and was applauded by the large gathering of over 2,000 people.

 Among the audience were the elite of  Madras like Srinivasa Sastri, Sir CP Ramaswamy Iyer and Sir P Sivaswamy Iyer. Before the performance, the artiste  had gone personally to meet each of these great men. In her last interview,  in  1986,  she said, “I pleaded with those great men just to come once. After sitting through my dance performance, they told me that  that they had never thought that dance could be such a spiritual expression.”

Thus Bharathanatyam was reborn and India owes a great debt to Anna Pavlova for planting the seeds of  its revival in the heart of Rukmini Devi Arundale who single-handedly brought it back to life.             

Comments (+)