Aesthetics of Rukmini devi-2

This is a continuation of the previous article February 2022.
Read Part-1


She was often criticised for having sanskritised the Barathanatyam, or being very Brahminical in her outlook etc. Nothing could be far from it as could be seen from the following observations.

  • Morning Prayer vibrates with religious tolerance and extends to appreciation of nature and the pancha bhutas.
  • Students and teachers from all walks of life both male and female, are accepted in Kalakshetra foundation - only requirement being sensitivity and commitment to Fine Arts
  • Her shift from solo presentations to dance dramas facilitated more participants, paving way for reaching out to more people, making everyone feel part of the Great Temple
  • Removing the veil between the teacher and the taught by allowing them to learn nattuvangam precipitated wholesomeness in performance.
  • Her choice of themes was as different as could be dynamic and exploded into such perfect productions, creating a vibrant, Kalakshetra style.

Jatiswaram - Kuttrala Kuravanchi 1946
Pan – Indian Dance forms like visual Art forms are based on the natya and chithra sutras of the yester years. It is like kadambam , a garland of mixed flowers, each flower symbolising each art form, strung together by common sutras. If it is Bharata Natyam in Tamilnadu, could be Odissi in Odisha, Manipuri in Manipur and so on depending on the environment and the agrarian practices of the area.’ It is at the same time the confluence of the stage, drama, music, poetry, colour and rhythm. It could sometime be based on folk or classical or a medley of both.

The very first dance drama produced by her was Kuttrala Kuravanchi based on the Tamil lyrics of the Thirukuda Rasappa Kavirayar, lending itself to gypsy costumes and concept, reached out to common man. He could understand, relate and enjoy the production interspersed with manipravala nerrations in local Tamil and the lively rhythm adding to the mood. Choreographed and presented in 11 days marks the beginning of the outpouring of her genius in visualisation. It defies the stigma that her productions are for the elitist only. It was the first dance drama to be based on Tamil poetry.

Later kuravanjis produced were Kannappar Kuravanji based on the lyrics of Markand Navathur of Thozhuvur written in 1880 and Krishnamari Kutravanji written by Sri. Karumari Dasar of Temple of Thiruverkadu.

Sabdam - Kumarasambavam 1947
The next production was Kumarasambavam based on Kalidasa’s Poetry. As different as could be from Kuravanji is a mile stone to showcase Athai’s versatility. For the first time she used kathakali with pure dance, without mixing up the two. Kathakali was used for dramatic scenarios only. Siva Thandava vigour was portrayed through Kathakali while the softness of pure dance enhanced the opening scene. Admired By Gandhi, she was asked to present the same at the First Republic Day celeberations in New Delhi.

The poetry is so descriptive that the whole drama can unfold into a visual presentation. Damming it up and bringing it down to the Dance format is her speciality.

For example when Manmatha shoots the arrow at Shiva , ice melts, spring sets forth new flora, love is in the air. The birds frolic, while the male elephant feeds water through a lotus stalk to the female. Nandhi asks the ganas to be silent. The pregnant moment is awaited.

Other Dance drama productions based on Sanskrit Poetry were
I - Shakuntalam (1969) of Kalidasa
II - Geeta Govinda of Jayadeva
III - Matsyavatara-Kurmavatara (1974) based onSrlmad Bhagvatha
IV - Kuchelopkhyanam (1974) of Swati Tirunal

Research and reaching out to the sources, precipitated the introduction of fading out dance dramas from temples to the urban audience. Documentation and choreographing to fit in with the Kalakshetra Bani added newer dimension and appeal. Bhakti was eulogised. While Kuravanjis were based on Saivism, the Bhagavata Mala Nataka and Kuchipudi focused on Vaishnavism.

Renaissance of Hinduism under the aegis of Vijayanagara Rulers brought about a wide spread cult of Bhakti in different forms- Keerthans, Harihathas, Kalakshepams, Bhagavata Mala Nataka and Kuchipudi including the Bajanai Mandali in the Maratha period. Kuchipudi drew inspiration from Gita Govindam. Tirta Narayana Yati and Sidyendra Swamii Yogi believed that Bhakti could be expressed through music, dance and drama and precipitated the Baghavata Mala Nataka based on the Bhagavata purana.Bajanai mandali focused on Krishna and Vittoba concepts.

She produced four dance dramas in Bhagavat Mala Nataka style Usha Parinayam, Rukmangada Charithram, Rukmini kalyanam and Dhruva Charithram. ( Dhruva charithram – 1971 taught by Balu Bhagavathar of Bhagvat Mela) using Kuchupidi, Bharata Natyam and Kathakali.

Introduction of Guduguduppondi in Rukmini Kalyanam to predict the marriage of Rukmini with Krishna continued the presence of Sutradar to narrate. With a touch of folk, more of classical spiced up with Kathakali, she created Dance dramas each one with a different dialect.

Padam - Kuchelopkhyanam 1974
With this production , the tempo changes befitting the story line. Having been composed by Swati Thirunal of Travancore has a lot of kathakli impact but was modified later with slokas from Srimad Bhagavatam. Set to music by Semmangudi Sreenivasaa Iyer and choreographed by Rukmini Devi the dance drama blossomed into beautiful ballet highlighting the Sakhya bhava of Krishna with his childhood friend Krishna. Interspersed with dances of sakhis and the emotional conflicts has carved out a niche for itself. Another bouquet to Athai for her innovations.

- Ramayana Series – The Magnum Opus based on Valmiki Ramayana
- Sita Swayamvaram (1955)
- Rama Vangamanam (1960)
- Paduka Pattabhishekam (1961)
- Choodamani Pradanam (1968)
- Sabari Moksham (1969)
- Mahapattabhishekam (1970)

This series is her magnum opus.

In her own words "I have produced the story of Ramayana beginning with the marriage of Rama and Sita and ending with their coronation in Ayodhya. I produced "Sita Swayamvaram”in 1954. The sixth, and the final, which I have called the "Maha Pattabhishekam", signifying the great coronation, was presented fourteen years after the first. In the "Maha Pattabhishekam", Sri Rama returns after fourteen years of exile to his own kingdom, Ayodhya.It is a strange coincidence, that it took fourteen years to bring my Rama back to His kingdom”. "The spirit of tragedy in the Ayodhya Kandam, invests the whole of the epic with its mantle and sets the the tone of the entire story. …..Perhaps the unhappiest scene for me to produce has been the Agni pravesam of Sita. …. To me Sita represents humanity, the Jivatma, which in order to become one with the Paramatma ( Rama), must go through the fire of sorrow to come out purified and wisee, finally the two becoming one."

Her involvement is total, becoming part and parcel of the episodes, which she expects from her dancers. Every one becomes the character they portray and the feeling encompasses the musicians and others. Lighting , stage décor, costumes and the whole Aharya is focused towards this finale. Subtility is the norm as can be seen in her productions.

Swan song.
"Every art programme under her aegis can convince an observer of how much apparent effortlessness marks the entire production” while the nuances she enjoyed, anxieties experienced and the sleepless vigil she kept on every little bit of her work for the harmony of every programme are withheld with a sense of subdued expectation.

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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