Rukmini Devi, the Revival of Southern Classical Dance

Rukmini Devi (1904–1986), a dancer, choreographer and revivalist, married an Englishman. They were both active in the theosophical movement, which had its headquarters in India. Rukmini Devi was very interested in Western ballet, but after she had had discussions with the period’s most famous Russian ballerina, Anna Pavlova, who was visiting India, she concentrated her energies on reviving the classical dance style of southern India.

At that time, Indian dance was seen by the educated classes as something vulgar and degenerated. This was partly because of the decline of the devadasi system and partly because of the despising attitudes of the colonial administrators. Thus it was a great shock for many when a highly educated Brahman lady started to study “temple dance” and to perform it publicly on a theatre stage.

Despite strong public protests, Rukmini Devi and her husband founded a centre for dance and music, Kalakshetra, in Chennai (Madras) in 1936. Its main aim was to revive the southern Indian dance tradition.

In this process Rukmini Devi somewhat reformulated the whole style according to the tastes and moral codes of the period. The erotic aspect was, to a great extent, wiped out, the present type of dance costume was created, a violin was added to the orchestra, and the dance style was renamed bharatanatyam, or “Bharata’s dance”, in order to legitimise its ancient origins.

Rukmini Devi made many experiments. She introduced modern stage lighting to her performances and choreographed large dance-dramas employing bharatantyam. Nothing of this would, of course, have been possible had she not had first-class teachers at her new institute.