Renown Bharatnatyam exponent and founder of Kalakshetra, Rukmini Devi Arundale catalysed a renaissance in Indian classical dance forms. However, few know that she could have been India’s first female president had she accepted the offer.
On the occasion of International Women’s Day 2017, Google paid a tribute to 13 remarkable women across the world who broke new ground in their field of expertise. The search engine’s latest doodle is a creative slideshow that showcases the accomplishments of these female pioneers.
The only Indian who made it to this list is the legendary Bharatnatyam exponent, theosophist and founder of Kalakshetra, Rukmini Devi Arundale.
Honoured with the Padma Bhushan in 1956, Rukmini is best known for her visionary work in the fields of dance, culture, and education that catalysed a renaissance in Indian classical dance forms. However, few know that this charismatic lady could have been India’s first female president had she accepted an offer by the then-prime minister in 1977.
Born on February 29, 1904, into a Brahmin family in Madurai, Rukmini was one of eight children of Nilakanta Sastri and Seshammal. Her father, a Sanskrit scholar and historian, was an ardent follower and close associate of the Madras-based Theosophical Society.
As such, Rukmini grew up listening to the humanist ideals of the Theosophy. She was greatly influenced not just by her father but also by Annie Besant, supporter of the Indian nationalist movement, women’s rights activist, and Theosophical Society’s co-founder and president (1907–33).
When she was 16, Rukmini met and fell in love with educator, theosophist and Annie Besant’s trusted lieutenant, George Arundale, whom she married in 1920. After her marriage, she accompanied her husband and Besant when they travelled to different countries on theosophical missions.
It was during this time that Rukmini became enamoured with classical dance. She met the legendary ballerina Anna Pavlova on a ship to Australia and was enthralled by her stunning performances. It was on Pavlova’s request that she began learning ballet. Pavlova had also advised Rukmini to encourage the dancer within her by seeking inspiration in classical Indian dance forms.
Taking this advice to heart, Rukmini embarked on a campaign to learn, practice and promote Bharatanatyam. She didn’t just want to revive a dying Indian dance form, she wanted to reverse the negative social stereotypes associated with it. At the time, Bharatanatyam was forbidden for most Indian girls as traditionally, its female practitioners had only been devadasis (women ritually “dedicated” to service of a temple for the rest of their lives).
After completing her formal training under Bharatnatyam maestro Pandanallur Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai, Rukmini gave her first public performance on stage at the Theosophical Society in 1935, setting a precedent for Indian women to practice and perform the dance form that had been traditionally restricted only to the devadasi community.
In January 1936, Rukmini and her husband established an academy of dance and music called Kalakshetra at Adyar (near Chennai).
Based on the principles of the ancient Indian Gurukul system, the Kalakshetra Foundation included a high school, a senior secondary school, and an arts academy where music and dance were often taught under sprawling trees.
Other than conceiving and choreographing numerous bharatanatyam pieces, Rukmini developed a unique curriculum to broaden the dance’s appeal, that included aesthetically designed jewellery, costumes and stage scenarios. She also set up a weaving and vegetable-dyeing centre for Indian saris where traditional patterns were sourced, woven and worn.
In the following decades, Rukmini went on to become one of India’s most celebrated dancers as well as the foremost revivalist of Indian classical forms. In 1956, she was awarded the Padma Bhushan and in 1967, received the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award. An animal lover, she was also the first Chairperson of the Animal Welfare Board and played a key role in passing the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act in 1952.
In 1977, President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed passed away before completing his term in office. The then-prime minister, Morarji Desai, asked Rukmini Devi if she would be president. The legend goes that she replied with the question, “President of what?” “President of India”, answered the prime minister.
Wary of the pomp and trappings of office, Rukmini gracefully declined the offer, choosing to continue her much-cherished work at Kalakshetra.
Interestingly, had she agreed, India would have had a political combination that was unthinkable at that time — a woman president and a woman prime minister (Indira Gandhi was sworn in as prime minister of India for the third time in January 1980)!
In 2013, during the inaugural Rukmini Devi Memorial Lecture at Kalakshetra, President Pranab Mukherjee recounted the incident in his speech.
“I was a Congress MP at the time and Morarji Desai proposed that Rukmini Devi fill the vacancy caused by the death of President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed. The choice was very widely appreciated and if she agreed, she would have been elected unanimously. But her refusal spoke volumes of her character, wisdom and sagacity and exemplified the values of renunciation and sacrifice that India has traditionally inculcated.”
After a lifetime spent working for the revival of traditional Indian art forms, Rukmini Devi Arundale passed away on February 24, 1986, at the ripe old age of 82. The versatile lady may have chosen not to be president of India, however, she will be remembered for all that she chose to do, and with such elan.