Rukmini Devi's masterpiece

Dance drama

Rukmini Devi's masterpiece


When the latter went to his village in Kerala, he identified two young boys. He hesitated to recommend his own talented son, Janardhanan, fearing the maestro’s reaction. When he brought back Dhananjayan and Balagopalan, the two eminent dancers who reached great heights later, Rukmini Devi saw them walking up the garden of Kalakshetra, and cried out: “Here come my Rama and Lakshmana!”

One may conclude that the Ramayanam opera was born at that moment. Although the actual production of this masterpiece came eight years later, with the two teenaged boys playing the roles for which they were earmarked for several years afterwards.

Rukmini Devi’s inspiration to produce this epic could not have been accidental. Although the incidents leading up to it were sheer coincidence. She had been thinking about it, but dare not undertake the stupendous work unless she was sure it would be a perfect production. Valmiki’s text was there for her. She only had to choose the slokas. And the great composer, Tiger Varadachariar, who was the backbone of Kalakshetra, would set them to music.

Everything was in place, when tragedy struck. The musical giant died suddenly leaving an unsurmountable gap. Undeterred, Rukmini Devi turned to the Mysore palace where the asthaana vidwan, Vasudevacharya, had made history. She invited him to Kalakshetra to compose the music for her ballet. It was a momentous meeting of two sparkling minds. The 90-year-old vaggeyakara from Mysore had at last found his niche from where he would create his final masterpiece. For Rukmini Devi, it would be her magnum opus that would recreate the surreal world of Valmiki. 

When Rajaram related these incidents in the shade of the huge banyan tree in Kalakshetra, it was a dreamlike experience to be seated in the very place where these extraordinary human beings walked, sang and danced.

He waved his hand in the direction of a small thatched hut where the great maestro transformed Valmiki’s immortal slokas for posterity. He had only one requirement. He asked Rukmini Devi to get his grandson to come and assist him. “That is how I came here and stayed on for more than five decades,” laughed Rajaram. It proved a blessing in more ways than one. Not only did he assist the most eminent of teachers, he learnt all the nuances of dance music. When Vasudevacharya died 10 years later, the mantle naturally fell on him. Rukmini Devi had planned the dance drama in six parts spanning the entire Ramayana. Vasudevacharya had completed just the three introductory episodes of Sita Swayamvaram, Rama Vanagamanam and Paduka Pattabhishekam.

There was much more to be choreographed. When Rajaram protested, she calmly told him, “You can and will do it, Raju.” There were times when he surpassed his mentor with his unusual melakartha raagas. Being a mridangam player gave him an edge to compose many beautiful swaras to suit the mood of the story. He used 10 beats whenever Ravana entered to symbolise the 10-headed rakshasa!

When Sita innocently introduces herself to her captor as the daughter of Janaka, he cleverly used the evocative kaapi. Again, he rendered Rama’s eloquent pleading with Lakshmana to identify Sita’s jewels, “Pasyaa Lakshmana Vydehya” in the moving Sindhubhairavi. The composer’s genius is stamped on every verse and lyric. Rukmini Devi was thrilled and choreographed the scenes with equal skill.

In Rama Vanagamanam, which is considered the saddest of all the episodes, we see the close relationship between father and son in the parting scene where Rama takes leave of Dasaratha. We also see Rama’s consideration for Sita when he steps in to rescue her from embarrassment as she ties the bark around her waist before departing for the forest. These subtle gestures invest the dance drama with humanity.

Rukmini is said to have enacted each and every role herself before teaching it to the others. She was a choreographer par excellence who kept all stage props and accessories to the minimum so that the dancer’s skills stand out. She was also steeped in emotion. Unwilling to let the audience see Rama depart to the forest, she insisted that this particular dance drama should always be followed by Paduka Pattabhiskam where Bharatha instals Rama’s padukas on the throne.

Her take on sensitive issues in the epic was also unusual. She felt that Sita stood for peace which cannot be wrested through force. All of Ravana’s efforts to possess her came to nothing, whereas Hanuman was the blessed one whom she chose for her benedictions. She believed that all the trials of Sita were only to gain Sabari her moksham. Again, she treated the controversial agnipravesha scene with great sensitivity because a maryada purusha like Rama cannot appear in a poor light. She switches over to Kambar Ramayanam here to preserve the authenticity of the story.   

All this go to show the magnitude of Rukmini Devi Arundale’s choreographic skills. Perhaps, the colossal Ramayanam opera is the finest example of an artist’s talent. A talent that enriches the story without disturbing its genuineness. It will certainly go down as one of the great works of art by a great dancer. Kalakshetra will stage Sri Rama Vanagamanam and Sabari Moksham on November 28 and 29 at the Iskcon Temple in Bangalore.

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