Aesthetics of Rukmini devi
The minute one enters the portal of Kalakshetra - The Temple of Fine Arts - a new awakening stirs the soul. Sensitivity transcends time. Athai’s aesthetics is everywhere unfolding a new aura every-day!

  • The chirping of birds, rustling of the leaves and the gurgling of water setting the sruti,
  • the rhythmic reverberations of mridangam and symbols guiding the thumping cadence
  • the melodious flute evoking the presence of omnipresence
  • the musical notes flying in ecstasy
  • the brush strokes lending soft integration
  • the chiselling augmenting the rhythm
  • The prayer begins in all earnest awakening the prayers to the panchabhutas.


Ashtavadanis or Dasavadanis of yester-years should bow down to the multi-talented Athai as she was fondly called by all of us. She could even be imagined to be the living version of Omnipresent Shakthi, an embodiment of Gnana sakthi ( Wisdom ), Iccha Sakthi ( Dream ), and Kriya Sakthi ( Creative expressions )

Born and brought up near Thiruvaiyaru, music became her breath. Theosophical commitment of her father opened up newer vistas. After the sudden demise of her father, she accepted the proposal of Dr. Arundale, married him. She became” the daughter, pupil and helper to Dr. Besant, as well as life’s companion to and assistant to Dr. Arundale” She blossomed in the Movement to be praised by Annie Besant, as a messenger of Rishi Agastya .When she was chosen to become World Mother she travelled extensively to Europe, U.S.A., Australia and South East spreading India’s message of beauty. She was acclaimed that despite her young age she was old in her wisdom and power.

To her to be “truly Indian one has to be truly international, exhorting them to honour the best in all civilisations and to live it in their daily lives”. Meeting with Anna Pavlov and learning Ballet kindled her to resuscitate all that is in India’s traditional art and culture. Steeped in tradition, taking it to the next generation was her dream. The aesthetic vision exploded like cotton ball sending out seeds in all directions and her art form received due accolades. Illuminating the odyssey of traditional values - heritage and fine arts –The legacy – became her way of life.

She learnt from Gowri ammal. She learnt from Pandanainallur Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai. Imitation and repetition were not her forte. Innovation was her mantra. Kalakshetra Bani evovled.

From North to south, East to West, same iconographic codes and same great epics prevail with such diverse interpretations. Creative freedom within the guidelines offers such diverse visualisation possible that to” Fly like Jonathan’s Seagull” became the motto for all Fine arts.

Is it Aesthetics of Rukmini Devi or Athai – an Embodiment of Aesthetics.
She was an artist par excellence, simple but strong, rooted to heritage and traditional values but willing to explore and explode, elevating Sadir from the clutches of age old curse – that only the devdasis could perform with an underlying stigma of prostituition - to Bharatanatyam – coining the name with due respects to Bharatha, the composer of Natya Sastra and pranams to the guru – Nataraja the Cosmic dancer. She literally let the butterfly come out of the chrysalis in flying colours.

The transformation was a Miracle.

Her very first programme in Theosophical society –heralded her commitment laced with knowledge of scriptures and the natyam, her reverence to gurus, and the continuation of the undying legacy of total submission to the presiding deity – “Adavallanukku Adiyan”. The stage was set in semi darkness with the musicians and guru sitting on onside and men entering from the other side chanting invocative verses extolling the virtues of Siva – Nataraja in Sanskrit. She entered the stage dressed in white and gold as though a sculpture had come alive. This has probably set the trend for emphatic Ranga Pravesas.

(One could relate to StellaKramrish – “As you admire the Ajanthan murals every panel seem to be enacting a drama” - Visualisation at its best. Focus) She used a temple in the backdrop, and the front curtain had Nandhi – The Vahana of Shiva Nataraja.

She placed a Nataraja on the right side of the stage, With the invocation dramatising pranams to god, guru, and the stage, the journey begun is still resonating with vibrations wherever the rhythm flows, more so in Kalakshetra. Her presence is felt , honoured and revered, commitment enhanced, and the understanding that Art, Science and literature has to be studied together to enhance the totality in performance, almost akin to the 3 point stage presence she had envisioned - contemporary, traditional and classical aesthetics –

  • by sanctifying Sadir,
  • by emphasising bhakthi over shringara in Bhava and
  • by stage decor and presentation.

Almost like the Banyan sapling from theosophical society which she planted in the Temple of Fine arts – Kalakshetra, her vision has taken roots, sending out aerial roots to anchor, and the ever growing green canopy warmed by the sun, the much needed nourishment. It is the most revered open air temple in the whole campus. Every morning the prayers are held there. The seat where athai used to sit remains unoccupied!!

All important mile stones happen here. Whether it is honouring a visiting dignitary or offering a prayer of thanks to all the gurus and well wishers it all happens here.

The resonance of the bell is same as you hear in temples.
  • The total silence before the commencement of prayers – humility
  • Short and sweet prayer encompassing all religions and nature is her “Message of Beauty to Civilisation.”
  • The colours in the uniforms of the students - reds, greens, ochre’s and blues – the earth colours –a fitting accolade to her sensitivity to nature.

The concept of this open air temple
  • a silent communion with Pancha Bhutas
  • or an expression of Oneness of God is the essence of Vedas
  • emanating continuous vibrations from zero to infinity, form to formless attributes pouring into dance, music and visual arts
Thus enhancing a continuous progression of her thought, action and feeling loaded with the support of all the gurus and especially Sri Sankara Menon. His teaching of the Great Epics is still vitalising the fountainhead of eternal thirst for knowledge.

In a nut shell, she was like a Queen Bee attracting scholars to Kalakshetra to work in unison to create the Legacy, each one a specialist in their chosen field contributing to the yagna.

I have borrowed these words (from Illustrated Weekly, India, July 1949 Taken from Rukmini Devi Baratha Natya, Kalakshetra Publications) to sum up the magic of Rukmini Devi’s Touch.

“For everything creative or of imagination Rukmini Devi is responsible....her main object is to make life more beautiful and more intense than the usual mechanical routine will allow. From the art-designs on festoons made with coconut leaves to the make- up of artists participating in the dance-dramas, her magic touch is visible in the smallest details. There is a charm born of subdued colours and mellow lighting in all the scenic and stage decorations. The total effect, very wholesome and pleasing to the eye, is traceable to her inborn desire to spread harmony everywhere around and in everything.”

Her choice of themes for the dance dramas are pregnant with different undertones as varied and as stimulating it can be to perform.

This article will continue in the next issue with Rukminidevi's choice of themes in various aspects like Alarippu, Jatiswaram, Sabdam, Varnam, Padam, Thillana.

The authour Lakshmi Krishnamurthy is a freelance research scholar, restorer, artist and guru to many seekers of Traditional Painting, she is the past Head of the Visual Arts Department, Rukmini Devi College of Fine Arts, Kalakshetra Foundation in Chennai. Studio Paramparyam is the physical and creative space in which Lakshmi spends her days and nights creating masterful works of art, inspired by various traditional art forms.

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