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Rukmini Arundale: Dancer With A Surprise Second Act

Rukmini Arundale: Dancer With A Surprise Second Act

When Rukmini Arundale died in 1986, India lost a cultural icon and a danseuse extraordinaire. But in her passing, Arundale dedicated her final moments to her animal friends in a way that only an exceptional human being can. While in a hospital in Chennai, the legendary dancer refused to take allopathic medicines because the drugs had been tested on animals. Arundale died a few days later, in death as in life committed to kindness and compassion.

Arundale’s legacy and her contribution to the fabric of modern India is so vast and so deep that it is almost impossible to adequately sum it up. Born in Madurai, in present-day Tamil Nadu, in 1904, Arundale (nee Shastri) was a dancer, a cultural ambassador, an artist, an educator and a theosophist. It was these qualities that eclipsed another, seemingly surprising, facet of this humanist. She was a fierce campaigner for animal rights, and it is to Arundale that we owe that all-important legislation, the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act.

Arundale was a change-maker, all right. She was not only a gifted dancer, she is the most important revivalist of Bharatanatyam. She transformed it from a dance of the devdasis or temple dancers, into an art form sans eroticism and one that is imbued with devotion. 

Despite the sheer outrage she provoked in orthodox Indian society of the 1930s, Arundale took Bharatanatyam out of temple courtyards and onto the stage, presenting it as a performing art that could be practised by girls from “respectable upper-caste families” and celebrated by all.

 

The educator Maria Montessori with her son Mario (on the left) and the theosophist George Arundale with his wife Rukmini Devi (on the right), in India | Wikimedia Commons

Arundale blazed a trail wherever she went. She shocked her conservative community when she married English theosophist George Arundale at age 16; he was considerably older. But she enjoyed the support of heavyweights such as the founder of the Theosophy movement in India, Dr Annie Besant, who took the young Arundale under her wing.

As she grew and blossomed, and fell in love with Indian classical dance, Arundale built a formidable body of work that attracted friends and admirers such as India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, President Dr Rajendra Prasad, world-renowned scientist C V Raman and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore. Among the people who influenced her choices was the famous Russian ballerina, Anna Pavlova, who steered her away from ballet and towards Indian classical dance. Arundale also collaborated with Maria Montessori and opened several schools modelled on the Montessori method of teaching.

But it was the Kalakshetra Foundation that became Arundale’s life’s mission. Founded by the danseuse in Chennai in 1936, it is an academy dedicated to the preservation of traditional values in Indian arts and crafts, with a focus on Bharatanatyam. Adopting the ancient gurukul system, the academy has groomed some of the finest names in Indian dance and music and is today an Institute of National Importance.

Bharatanatyam performance at Kalakshetra, during visit of Hillary Clinton, 2011 | Wikimedia Commons

Batting For Her Animal ‘Friends’

Arundale was no stranger to public life and she served two consecutive terms in the Rajya Sabha. In 1952, she became the first woman in India to be nominated to the Upper House of Parliament and used the platform to campaign for animal welfare. As a child, she had seen goats being sacrificed in temples and the look in their eyes as they were being killed haunted her for the rest of her life. Arundale was so moved by their plight that she used her dance-dramas, decades later, to spread the message of animal rights. In 1953, she introduced the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Bill in Parliament.

The Bill failed on technical grounds, which made Arundale more determined than ever to see it through.

She spent years visiting slaughterhouses, cattle markets, medical research laboratories, vaccine institutes and veterinary hospitals to collect evidence to support the Bill and facilitate its passage. 

When the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act was passed by Parliament in 1960, it was more than a triumph. Arundale felt her beloved animal friends had finally found a voice. Two years later, when the government set up the Animal Welfare Board, Arundale was appointed its first Chairperson.

Stamp issued in honour of Rukmini Arundale by the Govt. of India | Wikimedia Commons

Campaigning for animal rights also meant that Arundale was a staunch vegetarian but, for her, being a vegetarian was not just abstaining from eating meat. In 1957, when she was appointed President of the First World Vegetarian Congress in Delhi, Arundale said that vegetarianism was a well-established way of life followed in India. 

In her speech to the delegates, Arundale explained: “Ancient systems of medicine taught the right diet, and grandmothers of earlier generations had a very good knowledge of food values. Today, we eat food that is not healthy… I know that while a vegetarian is not necessarily a better person, vegetarianism is a better way of life in every possible respect.”

From a danseuse who changed the destiny of a classical dance form, to an educator, an animal rights activist and a vegetarian – how do all the pieces fit? Rukmini Arundale would say it’s simple. When you find the spiritual purity in everything you do, it all ties in perfectly.

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