The Bharata Kalakshetra Auditorium, a high-ceilinged structure, a Kerala Koothambalam-inspired design with natural ventilation — without fans or air-conditioners — was a dream performance space for dance-dramas built by the Kalakshetra founder-visionary Rukmini Devi Arundale in 1982. It fell into disrepair and the re-built auditorium was recently inaugurated on the eve of her 115th birth anniversary during the annual ‘Remembering Rukmini Devi Festival 2019.’ The concluding programmes of the festival, two gems from her Ramayana series of dance-dramas ‘Choodamani Pradanam’ and ‘Maha Pattabhishekam’ were staged there subsequently.
It was homecoming for the Kalakshetra artistes and rasikas. Many were nostalgic about the ‘golden years’ when ‘Athai’ was there. Ambika Buch, one of Rukmini Devi’s yesteryear heroines, recalled an instance: “During ‘Maha Pattabhishekam’, there is a scene when Lakshmana falls unconscious on the battlefield and Rama rushes to his side and sees his brother’s arm fall to the side lifelessly. Bhagavatula Seetarama Sarma would break down while singing Rama’s lament, ‘Nahi yudhena…’ (Sivaranjani) and everyone else would be crying. It was so powerful.” She agreed that it was the template of each production, the music specifically, that ensured its success every time, irrespective of the artistes. Such was Athai’s genius.
The founder had spoken about this on the occasion of the completion of the Ramayana series of dance-dramas, when ‘Maha Pattabhishekam,’ her 16th production, was presented in December 1968. “This represents 24 years of perseverance, research and hard work. It has been worth all the labour, for each production has made history, not only as dance-dramas but as masterpieces of musical genius which Kalakshetra can preserve for all time. While so many of the great composers have gone, their art remains and I hope that what I have tried to do will remain as yet another landmark of our nation’s offering to the timeless spiritual splendour for which alone India has been known in the past,” she said.
If ‘Sita Swayamvaram,’ choreographed by her in 1955 with music by the famed composer Mysore Vasudevacharya, continues to attract houseful audiences 63 years later, as did the other five of the Ramayana series — ‘Sri Rama Vanagamanam,’ ‘Paduka Pattabhishekam,’ ‘Sabari Moksham,’ ‘Choodamani Pradanam’ and ‘Maha Pattabhishekam’ — during the December 2018 season, it validated Rukmini Devi’s prophecy: the dance-dramas made history, living long after the artistes had gone.
Preservation is key. Since her passing in 1986, Rukmini Devi’s contemporaries, faculty and students in Kalakshetra, took on the mantle of custodians of the legacy. With Sankara Menon as the charioteer, the other luminaries included S. Rajaram, S. Sarada (Periya Sarada Teacher), Kamalarani, Seetarama Sarma, Sarada Hoffman, Krishnaveni Lakshmanan, N.S. Jayalakshmi, Pushpa Shankar, Shantha Dhananjayan, Ambika Buch, Kala Ramesh, Prof. A. Janardhanan, Kunhiraman, C.K. Balagopal, V.P. Dhananjayan and others.
Prof. Janardhanan, who came into Kalakshetra in 1958 to join his father, Kathakali expert T.K. Chandu Panikkar, is the only link to ‘Athai,’ today. He says, “We had helped Athai in the dance-dramas, so we knew exactly what she wanted. She would give the final touch. And once set, we cannot change it. She composed with the direct and indirect (intended) meanings, with inputs from scholars. We are not dependent on the videos, it is all in the head. We have documented all the dance-dramas including the music notation.
“She loved the Ramayana series. She instructed us that for any major festival, it should conclude with two productions from the Ramayana series, the last being ‘Maha Pattabhishekam.’ Athai once said with tears in her eyes — Krishnaveni was also there — after ‘Maha Pattabhishekam: ‘I am completely happy… I may not be there whenever you perform but I will be there in my invisible form.’ We are conscious of that. It is a homage to her every time we perform.
“She had faith that we will preserve this tradition and pass it on to the next generation. In December 2018, I recreated ‘Shakuntalam,’ all from memory. For us, the voice of Athai is the life of the dance-drama. I have been blessed with memory power. I have no right to lay my hands on any original. I have only to impart Athai’s message to the next generation of Kalakshetra students. I have to help them understand her imagination, her rapport as a mother. I can say the productions of Kalakshetra today are about 99 per cent of what they used to be when Athai was there.
“She had so many rules regarding aesthetics in presentation. For example, one artiste cannot cross another on stage just like that. ‘They have to make a curve to go past, just like a gamakam,’” she would say.
‘Art without vulgarity’ was her philosophy. Athai wanted everything to be simple; she did not want to visually distract people by say showing a palace full of grandeur, etc. Rajaji, the statesman who wrote the abridged Ramayana, said that Rukmini Devi had transported him back to the period of Rama and Sita.
Choosing verses from original Valmiki Ramayana was taken care of by S. Sarada, Adinarayana Sharma and Venkatachala Sastry. They were also responsible for ensuring no grammatical errors occurred during the music composition and rendering.
Rukmini Devi was able to get the best out of the best musicians, whether they knew dance or not. She inspired greats such as Tiger Varadacharya, Veena Krishnamacharya, Mysore Vasudevacharya, Papanasam Sivan and others to compose for Kalakshetra and enjoyed their individual styles. A unique format combining text, mood and melody of the raga was however necessary; each verse was usually rendered at a slow to medium pace, repeated in a faster tempo with thattumettu added on, or otherwise elongated with swara passages or passages with sollus set to rhythm. The verses were either narrative in nature or were part of dialogue, and their treatment differed accordingly. Each verse, there were perhaps 250 in a production (e.g. ‘Choodamani Pradanam’), was tuned in a different raga, though ragas could be repeated.
The Ramayana series has many unusual ragas. Prof. Janardhanan cites an interesting incident during the making of ‘Sri Rama Vanagamanam.’ Vasudevacharya, 93, was asked to compose the music for Kaikeyi when she reminds Dasaratha about the two boons. He created a raga on the spot aptly naming it ‘Chittabrahmari’ meaning a confused state of mind.
Rukmini Devi’s love for beauty was seen in her careful selection of colours for costume and in the beautiful sets. The court scenes had sumptuous full rust or purple thick curtains and the forest scenes had handpainted or spray painted coarse cotton, in front of which another painted gauze curtain was hung to give depth and perspective. Srinivasulu, the artist, helped her create the sets and accessories like the crowns, etc.
Every costume of every character, however minor, was planned meticulously. While the female vanaras wore baggy, knee-length pyjamas under brown or black panelled skirts, the rakshasis wore tribal embroidered skirts from Gujarat. The womenfolk of Ayodhya wore a mix of Bandhini-Madurai Chungadi cotton saris and Gujarati Bandhini odnis. Theosophists Madam Cazan and Mary Elmore helped with Rukmini Devi’s Bharatanatyam costumes and crafts for schools, but the dance-drama costumes were handled by Maragatham, Dr. Padmasini and teachers such as Ambika Buch. Rukmini Devi would try out designs on the dancers themselves.
Rukmini Devi was particular about make-up as well. She insisted on ‘less pancake’ but the Kalakshetra eyebrows had a special outward shape, different for men and women. She was inspired by Kathakali, and she characterised most non-human beings with Kathakali-inspired make up and movements.
The dance style remained classical Bharatanatyam, with the accent on a straight posture and geometry, that maybe the hallmarks of today’s Bharatanatyam, but were alien concepts then. Rukmini Devi took liberties to add unusual steps for the monkeys, for the swan, when occasion demanded it. The abhinaya was coloured by Kathakali, especially for males. Her energising and visualisation skills provided highlight points in every dance-drama, such as Hanuman carrying Rama and Lakshmana to meet Sugriva and the high-energy Sethubandana scene, tuned in a peppy Kadanakuthuhalam. An ingenuous idea, among many others, was the use of apsaras as narrators for the battle between Rama and Ravana.
In what might have been revolutionary at the time, Kalakshetra attracted international lighting experts such as Paul Storm and Karet Munich. Arresting visuals were used to depict Rama, Lakshmana and Sita crossing the Ganga with Guha and Hanuman torching Lanka. Techniques of darkening the stage with sudden spots as in the appearance of Ahalya, etc., were introduced.
It is therefore no surprise that Rukmini Devi’s dance-dramas, especially the Ramayana series, make an impact on rasikas every time they are staged. Clearly Rukmini Devi had immense faith in the Ramayana to see her through.
The birth of renaissance
Rukmini Devi, in her interviews to Shakuntala Ramani, Editor, Rukmini Devi Centenary Publications, says that she was always drawn to music, and remembers ‘sitting in the Pudukottai palace, entranced for hours listening to music without getting bored even though I was only three years old.’ She spent most of her formative years in the Theosophical grounds in Adyar, her father having moved next door, amongst international theosophists. There she discovered a love for visual art and play acting.
Her interest in dance grew later, after marriage, during her travel in the West. “It was only when I saw Pavlova dance that I felt overpowered by the beauty of it all,” she records. It was 1924, and she went on to learn Russian ballet under Anna Pavlova’s main dancer, Cleo Nordi, for some years.
In the Theosophical Society, Adyar, during the annual Theosophical conventions, Rukmini Devi would present dramas that she calls ‘purely impressionistic based on my own imagination.’ Dr. Arundale or even Dr. Annie Besant would read out the poem or the excerpt from a book from behind the scenes and the actors or dancers would act it out.
Rukmini would choreograph suitable dance movements and design costumes with Madam Cazan and Mary Eleanor, who helped in the schools subsequently with costumes and needlework.
She felt a growing desire to compose dances for Indian themes and presented the story of Karaikkal Ammaiyar for the Theosophical Society. But this was not enough.
In 1932, Rukmini watched a Bharatanatyam performance by two girls — Jeevaratnam and Rajalakshmi — at the Madras Music Academy on an invitation from the lawyer-reformist E. Krishna Iyer.
Rukmini Devi said, “…when I saw this performance I was so captivated that I wanted to learn it myself properly… I started taking classes from Mylapore Gauri Amma… I used to have her brought home to learn the dance — it was done very secretly. We used to close all the doors and windows and Padmasini used to stand guard outside on the verandah!” After much persuasion, Rukmini Devi convinced Meenakshisundaram Pillai to teach her.
Rukmini Devi gave a Bharatanatyam performance for the Diamond Jubilee Convention of the Theosophical Society in 1935.
Says the legend: “I did Alarippu, Varnam, Saveri Jatiswaram and two Padams I had learnt from Gauri Amma. The varnam in Yadukula Khambodi (‘Sreekara Sugunakara’)… The programme was a great success and it was a turning point in the history of Bharatanatyam. Many people who had been against the dance became converted… No one was more surprised than me at my success… when I decided to present the Bharatanatyam on stage, I was only thinking of it as a particularly good item different from the usual plays we used to present. It was later, seeing it’s impact on the public, that I began to feel that it could be my vocation. Dr. Besant and Dr. Arundale were working for political freedom for India. I thought that a cultural renaissance would be equally meaningful…’
The rest is history.