Remembering Rukmini Devi Arundale: Fond memories of 'athai' who gave us Kalakshetra

Rukmini Devi Arundale’s beloved student and a close associate recount their years with the stalwart
Remembering Rukmini Devi Arundale: Fond memories of 'athai' who gave us Kalakshetra
Remembering Rukmini Devi Arundale: Fond memories of 'athai' who gave us Kalakshetra
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“Walking through Kalakshetra after 7 years of being away from it, I truly felt connected with athai. She was in every performance and every little thing at the institution. It was like she never left,” Janardhanan says, recalling Rukmini Devi’s generosity and commanding presence. 

Professor Janardhanan is one of the most celebrated products of the institution, formerly principal of the Arundale College of Arts and now choreographs major dance dramas.

His life in Kalakshetra began as a young boy playing at the erstwhile campus where the Krishnamurti Foundation school now functions. After she observed him learning Kathakali under his father, famed exponent Asan Panikkar, she asked for him to be taken under her wing.

 “And that is when I was truly home - I was taken care of, fed, respected and given a world of mine to live in and flourish creatively, like all her students in her time,” he shares, confessing that he always falls short of finding words to describe his early years.

On the occasion of Rukmini Devi Arundale’s birthday, the airy, almost ethereal campus is buzzing. Performances lined up for the festival, craft exhibitions, and the students gracefully zipping through rehearsals, exhausted but not weary from the movement - Arundale’s space is theirs to adorn.

Fondly known as ‘athai’ among students and staff in Kalakshetra, Janardhanan believes she is akin to a mother and brought him up. “She was never an angry teacher, very compassionate. She knew everyone by name, you know? We knew her far more intimately than “Founder” or “President” or “Padmashri Awardee.”

Dancers longed to be appreciated by Athai. “When she said 'good' it was monumentally satisfying for us, and her criticism was, well, dreaded. But she was always constructive with it.” For her, Janardhanan says, every part of life was meant to be fully experienced and appreciated and she did not want to deny the same to animals. “She would always tell young students never to look at animals with pity, but treat them well and as they deserve.” 

To those who worked with, studied under or simply observed her, she possessed an otherworldly sense of harmony that featured in every part of her life. “She always knew if something was amiss, and she caught on. If something was wrong, she could tell I had issues with money or meeting my expenses, she would know without me telling her and slip and envelope of whatever I needed to cover it.” 

And her sense of harmony extended to culinary pursuits. “She loved good food,” Janardhanan recalls, “She would make rounds at the kitchen before lunch, and see if her express instructions to the cooks were followed. The moment spice, or salt was less, she would feel that the food is directly proportional to the energy and effort her students would put in.” What was her favourite? “Gongura chutney. She was one for spice.” 

The Craft Education and Research Centre (CERC) is a muted jewel that's often lost in the artistry of the Kalakshetra arrangement where the performing arts is the centrepiece. Just about a year younger than the academy across the road, CERC was established in 1937 by dancer Rukmini Devi Arundale to harbour the handloom and preserve traditional south Indian sari weaves and designs.

Shanta Guhan, who worked with and helped start the Craft Education and Research Centre (CERC)  in Kalakshetra under Arundale’s tutelage in the ‘70s, interacted with her and observed her eye for design on a daily basis. “She could be intimidating if she wanted to,” she says, chuckling while trying to recount instances. The story goes that she started the centre after she heard someone suggest that a HMV motif of a dog cocking its ear to the gramophone trumpet be printed across the whole length of a handloom saree’s pallu. “She didn’t have any of it. For Rukmini, nothing jarred. In her costume design, in the signature Kalakshetra prints the weavers would dole out.”

Guhan recounts her strong sense of aesthetics. “Once when I was a at a weaving centre when she visited and saw the order book. She saw a saree ordered in pink and pastel blues. She asked for a pen and struck it right off the page. She was not one to compromise.” 

“She had an eye for color. In fact, she had an eye for everything,” she says. For stage decoration, a simple stool was transformed to a throne under her artistic direction, maintaining simplicity and elegance in everything. “In angikam, vachikam, aharyam and abhinayam, whatever applied in daily life, how to speak and behave, extended to the stage,” she says. 

“According to her, the learning and refinement starts in daily personal life, which gets converted onto stage persona. Know yourself first and you can transform yourself. She wanted everyone to be an ambassador of Kalakshetra, to be a sincere citizen,” says Janardhanan. Memories of being around Arundale are almost utopian for Janardhanan, as he says being with her meant no one failed in what they wanted to pursue.

Before she passed away I can never forget her telling me, “I am not leaving you in a lurch. I will live through Kalakshetra,” Janardhanan says with a knowing smile. 


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