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Kalakshetra: Founder and History

Rukmini_Devi Arundale

Rukmini Devi Arundale

Kalakshetra was established in 1936 after the extraordinary success of Rukmini Devi’s first performance of Bharata Natyam at the Theosophical Society, in Adyar, a suburb of Madras, in the South of India. The founding members, Rukmini Devi, her husband George Arundale, and their associates at the Theosophical Society, were deeply committed to Theosophy and an arts academy was an extension
of this commitment. The academy was also symbolic of the struggle for India’s independence; it was to culturally revive a country that was losing its identity under British rule.

The name Kalakshetra was suggested by Pandit S. Subramania Sastri, a Sanskrit scholar and member of the academy. His granddaughter S. Sarada was one of the first students. She, along with Radha, Rukmini Devi’s niece, Leelavati, A. Sarada, and Anandi, granddaughter of Kalki Krishnamurti, were among the first to join Kalakshetra, then located in the Theosophical Society’s grounds. D. Pashupati, Raman and Lakshmanan began studying music, and soon more students followed.

Rukmini Devi with George Arundale in Finland in 1936

Rukmini Devi and George Arundale, Finland, 1936

Many renowned nattuvanars and dancers of that period taught at the institute. Among them were Meenakshisundaram Pillai, Rukmini Devi’s first teacher, Muthukumara Pillai, and Chokkalingam Pillai. Karaikkal Saradambal Ammal, known for her nritta, polished the technique of the early students. Dandayudapani Pillai later joined the staff, as did Mylapore Gowri Ammal. These early teachers bequeathed many compositions and stylistic inputs to the institute which remain embedded in the Kalakshetra style today. Ambu Pannikar, the great Kathakali ashaan who spent the last six years of his life at Kalakshetra, taught Rukmini Devi several Kathakali movements and set pieces that were used to great effect in her dance dramas. After his death, another doyen – Chandu Pannikar came to the college, bringing along with him young boys, Dhananjayan, Balagopalan, and later, his own son Janardhanan. These three, along with the older Kunhiraman, Ambu Pannikar’s son, became the early male dancers of the institute, participating in the new dramas that Rukmini Devi choreographed. They became known
for their heroic roles in Kalakshetra’s dance dramas.

Rukmini Devi personally trained the early dance students, who then took on the responsibility of teaching new students. She held a special morning class where she taught ballet exercises.

She refined and classified the adavus, the basic steps of the dance, making them efficient and beautiful, and systematized a teaching methodology for the dance form she inherited.

In these early days, the staff at Kalakshetra was motivated by a great spirit of service, and worked tirelessly to bring the vision of Kalakshetra to life. Among them was Sankara Menon, who was the principal of the Besant Theosophical High School. He helped Rukmini Devi in every aspect of administrating the institute, gave talks to students on Hindu philosophy, and later succeeded her as director.

Kalakshetra became the first dance institute to establish a meaningful theoretical syllabus for dancers. Kamala Rani, also one of the early students, established herself as a brilliant nattuvanar, breaking barriers for women in field. S. Sarada researched the texts for Rukmini Devi’s dance dramas, sang for classes and performances, and took detailed notations of Rukmini Devi’s choreography.

Rukmini Devi’s first love was music. To her, the dance simply gave visual shape to the music. She was in a sense, a pioneer in that she was the first dancer to invite, not one, but several great musicians to Kalakshetra. They not only came, but contributed selflessly and very substantially to her work, as much due to the special respect she had for them, as for the wonderful atmosphere that she had created about her in this new ashram for India’s arts. Papanasam Sivan, who taught music at the Besant School, was renowned for his devotional singing. He sang for Rukmini Devi’s
dance performances, helping to break caste barriers for dance accompanists, while she gave legitimacy to a dance form which had lost respect in the society of the time.

Kalakshetra’s reputation rests on its dance dramas, meticulously crafted ensemble pieces choreographed by Rukmini Devi. The music for the dance dramas is the living legacy of the musicians who came to the institute. Rukmini Devi choreographed her first drama Kuttrala Kuravanji, to the music of Veena Krishnamachariar. Its success inspired her to choreograph Kalidasa’s Kumara Sambhavam in 1947, for which Tiger Vardachariar composed the music. Papanasam Sivan scored Andal Charitram, Gita Govindam, Abhignana Shakuntalam, Kannapar Kuravanji and others. Mysore Vasudevachariar came to Kalakshetra in 1953 with his grandson Rajaram. He composed the music for the six- part Valmiki Ramayana until his death, after which Rajaram took over. For Rukmini Devi, these musicians provided the backbone on which she built her productions.

Over the years, encouraged by her husband, Dr. George Arundale, Rukmini Devi had acquired land in the village of Tiruvanmiyur, a short distance away from the Theosophical Society. In 1951, a sapling of the
great banyan tree in the Theosophical Society’s grounds was planted at Tiruvanmiyur. The new campus was consolidated in the years that followed until it covered one hundred acres beside the sea. Gradually, other trees were planted on the sandy stretches of land. Kalakshetra moved to its new  campus in the 1960s. Rukmini Devi and her associates undertook the Herculean task of finding the funds and the energy to build up the institute once again. They built roads, planted trees, found committed architects, engineers and building material during a period of shortages, to create a sylvan oasis of art and education which has provided an inspiring education to all those, fortunate enough to study here. The campus continues to elicit the admiration of all, who come to visit or attend performances here.

Rukmini Devi had long nurtured a dream to build an auditorium for dance and music which would be aesthetic, Indian in spirit, and that would provide an ideal setting for her choreographic work. Her dream was realized when the Bharata Kalakshetra auditorium, built in the Koothambalam style from Kerala, was inaugurated in 1985.

The founder of Kalakshetra, Rukmini Devi died in 1986. After her, Sri K. Sankara Menon became the director. In 1993, Kalakshetra was taken over by the government. In the hope that its groundbreaking work in the revival of the arts in India would continue, the Indian government deemed it an institute of national importance by an act of parliament and has since given the College its support. After Sankara Menon’s death, Sri S. Rajaram took over as director. Since April of 2005, Leela Samson, a leading practitioner of the Kalakshetra style, has been running the institute.