The curtain call is the same. The actors are different. As the lights dim on the final scene for the closing benediction, the Kalakshetra artistes arrange themselves in a semi-circle and take a bow.
I remember Rukminidevi Arundale going up on the stage, year after year, glowing in the aftermath of a performance she had carefully put together. Perhaps thinking of the long hours she had spent on every detail — the story line, research, music , choreography, training, costume, jewellery — and that carefully rehearsed final bow. Her husband George Arundale wrote of her “engaging in every possible effort to ensure absolute perfection in tradition and in every detail of presentation.”
The tradition carries on, albeit with glitches here and there.
Rukminidevi Arundale looked at tradition not just as a resource, but also as a form of enquiry, an adventure, an unplanned but rigorous effort constantly tested and revised against the reality of the prevalent time. She was able to leverage the privilege of the position of being the wife of a bright star of the Theosophical Society, to steer the traditional dance she had learnt into a new movement. Everything that took place at her 117th birth anniversary celebrations (‘Remembering Rukminidevi,’ February 25 to March 7) at Kalakshetra was as she had planned, but younger artistes brought a different outlook to the performances. This year, three of the dance dramas she had produced in three different languages were presented, Meenakshi Vijayam in Tamil, Rukmini Kalyanam in Telugu and Paduka Pattabhisekham in Sanskrit, choreographed in 1977, 1964 and 1960, respectively.
The three dance dramas threw up three new stars for the repertory (the Kalakshetra repertory was formalised by the current director of Kalakshetra, Revathi Ramachandran, in 2019 and consists of professionals, senior members of the faculty and some of the institute’s post-graduate students). Among the new stars is former student Janet, who showed how much she had internalised the two main roles of Meenakshi in Meenakshi Vijayam and Rukmini in Rukmini Kalyanam. In the former, she was all strength and confidence, in the latter she was the lovelorn nayika. There was Srinath who was all anger and arrogance as Rukmini’s brother and all surrender as Rama’s brother Lakshmana in Paduka Pattabhisekham. K.P. Rakesh and Girish Madhu exchanged places as Rama and the nattuvangam conductor in Rukmini Kalyanam. Rakesh, known for his calm and sedate dancing, showed nuances of romance and bravery as Rama, encountering a life in the forest with Sita. The other superstars of Kalakshetra like Haripadman, Jaikrishnan, Suryanarayana Murthy and Shaly Vijayan gave good performances. The others in the repertory, particularly part-time student Sahana playing baby Meenakshi, were equally competent.
A talk on Bharatanatyam
Avanti Medhuri gave a talk on Bharatanatyam as a world form today with practitioners and academicians organising international conferences. She also spoke of scholars who have called Kalakshetra a regional, local, traditional and national institution. “Yet, Kalakshetra exceeds or falls short of all these definitions because of its historical association with the syncretic, transnational vision of the Theosophical Society,” she said.
Rukminidevi wove together ideas from traditions as diverse as Kuravanji natakams and the Bhagavatha Mela, presenting them with the modern techniques of the ballet. Being a musician and a veena player, she centred her dance dramas heavily on music, and they were rendered in the same style today by Saishankar, Hariprasad and Mithu Madhusoodan.
The pace of the dance dramas and its style may be slow going by today’s standards, but one can see the continuum between the ancient and the contemporary, with the present becoming a new setting for productions that were first created at a time when nothing like this had been seen before.
The writer is a cultural activist and Gandhian scholar.