By Donovan Roebert
(This is my second attempt at writing this essay. In the first I was disposed towards the complete exoneration of Rukmini Devi in her attitude towards the devadasis and the Isaivellalar community to which she owed so much for her own reincarnation of Bharata Natyam. The more information I came across, however, and the more I delved into the matter, the more untenable I began to find my own intended position. What follows, then, though it retains much of what I had previously written, is really only an attempt to answer the question more fairly for myself. I write as someone with a deep admiration for Rukmini Devi’s accomplishments as well as for her complicated – and in many ways inscrutable – character. What follows is an attempt to formulate my own personal understanding of the problem.)
Today, all over the place, online and elsewhere, one comes across overt or oblique attacks on the once esteemed person of Rukmini Devi. Behind these onslaughts there lurk a variety of activist agendas that seek not only to reinterpret and restate the current historical record but also to demand redress for certain ‘historical injustices’. This pattern of academic and ‘social justice’ agitation has by now become an integral part of the postmodern approach to biography and historiography. It wants not only to amend the given narrative but also to destroy the reputations and achievements of individuals who played the major parts. These ventures often stem from a fashionable celebration of a given claim to victimhood and its accompanying clamour for restorative justice.
Rukmini Devi makes for a perfect target in the wide-ranging predatorship of the critical theorists’ jungle. She was a Brahmin married to an eccentric English Theosophist, and decidely part of the pan-Indian cultural-political elite that had come to the fore in a specialized way to conduct both the preliminaries and the actual business of Indian national independence, including its cultural counterpart. She was therefore framed by powerful historical forces within a context that played mightily on her social role as no doubt it also did on her individual personhood : her intellect, spirit, ambition and imagination – and that from a very early age.
In time, as her grasp of her own role was strengthened by her ongoing education in the stream of the renewed national cultural environment, she learnt to use her influence, charm, ability and forcefulness to compass the ends that she had adopted (or, as she always maintained, that had adopted her) : the establishment of a pan-Indian classical dance, enriched by all the other arts, that would take its rightful place in the world community of dance. Her passion for dance, conceived under the influence of Anna Pavlova, became quite naturally conflated with the pervasive force of the Indian independence movement. The growing symbiosis between culture, its specific arts, and the organism of nationalism was as inevitable as it has been in all of history everywhere, and especially in the history of the twentieth century.
In her case, though, the desired symbiosis was complicated by the fact – however interpreted, analysed and judged – that dance in India had fallen into a deep disrepute that may have had its deleterious effects on the standards of the dances that then obtained and were practised by the generality of the devadasis. Apart from this, there was the other fact that the devadasi system itself had become the object of public opprobrium for reasons that are nowadays both familiar and intensely contested.
What followed was unmitigatedly catastrophic for the temple dance vocation and its caste-bound art, both in the shrine and to some extent on the proscenium Sadir stage. And the first accusation levelled against Rukmini Devi is that she connived with Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy deliberately to suppress the temple tradition so that her own vision of Indian classical dance would triumph without competition.
The second criticism is that her own accomplishment, the reconstruction and redesign of the dance that became known as Bharata Natyam, was a vitiated art undeserving of genuine classical status, and a thing of lesser worth than either the original Dasi Attam or the Sadir of the Tanjore Quartet still being performed as a closet entertainment for wealthy elites by members of a corresponding devadasi upper echelon, including most notably Tanjore Balasaraswati.
The third is that she exploited and abused, for her own purposes in the establishment of Kalakshetra, the dancers, teachers, scholars and musicians of the Sadir tradition. Again, one of the implications here is that she had a deliberate hand in the displacement of the devadasi system in order to leave its practitioners with no option but to labour for her project.
The fourth aspersion is that she wrecked the true parampara and local classicism of the dance by incorporating western balletic, orientalist and Theosophical notions, and that she did this in order to claim the dance for the educated western-orientated Brahmin elites and their nationalist-cosmopolitan agenda. She wrested the dance, so the claim runs, from the castes to which it had traditionally belonged, so that it could be modernized, secularized and ‘sanitized’.
The fifth category of criticisms takes the form of a detailed investigation into her personal life and conduct with the aim of painting her, simplistically enough, as a deeply flawed human being : ill-tempered, intolerant, absolute, tyrannical, ruthless, cynical, and so forth. More recently, attempts have been made to expose her as financially dishonest too. In fact, we even find her being made to shoulder the blame for a series of minor scandals involving Kalakshetra that have occurred long after her death.
Beyond these aspersions, for my present purposes, we need not go.
It is important to note that criticisms of this kind are not only made by apologists for the devadasi tradition. There are other agendas and interests at play here too, and these, which deserve treatment in their own right, often converge with the devadasi plaint.
I want to take into account too the specific instance of the Isaivellalar caste or community, who bear the most direct burden of having been collectively excluded from and humiliated during the revival period of classical dance, who suffered reputational and other losses, and who are still affected by the taint of the normative devadasi narrative.
In working my way towards my own conclusions, I must begin by considering the Devadasi Act which effectively put an end to their vocation and its rewards, and which to a great extent excluded them from the classical dance revival, which we may for purposes of convenience date from 1936, the year of Kalakshetra’s establishment under the name of ‘The International Academy of the Arts’. I don’t wish to retell the whole tale, which is in any case available in numbers of writings easily accessible to interested readers.
What I intend instead is to interrogate the notion that Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy and Rukmini Devi herself were somehow complicit in a tacit but effective conspiracy of assent to destroy the devadasi tradition so that the Kalakshetra vision could triumph. What is often ignored here is the fact that much broader and coercive historical forces were at play. The devadasi system, too, might very well have been a vehicle for sexual predatorship and other forms of exploitation, as well as a dance form somewhat depleted by the social rejection it underwent from the late nineteenth century through the first three decades of the twentieth.
It is difficult to see why, confronted as we are being with the reality of sexual predators in the dance world today, there is at the same time such a pervasive reluctance to acknowledge the probability that hereditary devadasi girls were suffering the same sorts of abuse.
Of course, and fairly enough, the argument is made that it was the problem of the predators themselves rather than the devadasi practice that should have been addressed by the lawmakers and punished by the judiciary. But this appeal, we should bear in mind, is being made with hindsight and from a platform on which women’s rights – and especially their sexual rights – are being taken much more seriously and in an affirmative atmosphere..
But beyond this there is the question of the hereditary devadasi system itself, in which choiceless young girls were handed over to temple functionaries and their patrons, who trained them and put them to work at a religious-ritualist vocation without further ado. Here indeed is a picture of female disempowerment that can surely not be condoned. Yet in the arguments for the devadasi today this deprivation of the rights of the girl-child usually goes unmentioned, even while the position of the devadasi as nityasumgali is painted for us in admittedly interesting, convincing and picturesque colours.
It is only when these two fundamental and obvious questions are honestly and meticulously answered that we can begin the task of reconsidering Reddy’s motives – recalling that her mother stemmed from an hereditary devadasi family herself – and how and why they would have been taken up for intensive consideration by Rukmini Devi when she undertook her project. After all, they posed both a challenge and a threat to her vision, and it is of some significance to recall that she herself sought Reddy’s explicit approval for her work at Kalakshetra.
The entire saga of the movement to abolish the devadasi system that culminated in the Devadasi Prevention of Dedication Act of 1947 (implemented in January 1948) is a long and tortuous one, vexed by simplistic and partial opinions. It stretches over a period of some eighty years and involves a nexus of political, bureaucratic, social and artistic activity that is nowhere near as simple as the assigning of blame to ‘Victorian puritanism’ or a Brahmin upper class imbued with western moral tropes. Moreover, it is a controversy which played itself out mainly in Tamil Nadu, where the temple dance tradition was omnipresent and entrenched. Other states of India, such as Delhi, Maharashtra and Odisha were affected, but the heart of the tragedy was enacted in Tamil Nadu, and especially in and around old Madras.
It was the Madras Social Reform Association, founded in 1892, that moved the Governor General and the Governor to take action against the devadasis for the unwholesome role they were perceived as playing in ‘dance parties’ for the elites. When, in 1894, the Governor General returned an unfavourable response to its petition, a local public outcry ensued and was taken up in the regional press.
M. Ramachandran, secretary of the Arya Mission, published pamphlets against the ‘debauchery’ of the devadasi system as early as 1910. Rukmini Devi was at this time only six years old. In 1912 the Protection of Women and Girls Bill was moved with little effect, and this was the case also with the 1913 bill ‘to prevent dedication of girls under sixteen’ (later amended to ‘under eighteen’). Many other bills were proposed in the twenty-year period before we first hear of Dr Reddy’s involvement in the 1920s. These were all aimed at preventing the dedication of girl-children, often adopted by devadasis for the purpose of ensuring perpetuation of their land grants and general inam, which would otherwise have expired with the end of their service. In fact, it was a bill devised by Reddy (the Religious Endowment Act of 1926) that allowed the devadasi’s to retain their inam without the need to dedicate girl-child successors. It would surely seem then that the main purpose of the many forms of social activism taking place was really to halt the perpetuation of a system that demanded the ongoing religious trade in the girl-child. This motive becomes even clearer when we bear in mind that the actions taken against the devadasi vocation formed part of a larger movement of reform, which included the addressing of prostitution, child marriage, the remarriage of widows, sati, ‘dedication of girls to idols’ and ‘use of girls for immoral purposes’. Today we would think of it as social activism for the rights of the woman and the girl-child.
In addition, laws were also being enacted that aimed at the curtailment of the customary autonomy enjoyed by priests and temple functionaries. The net of social activism and proposed legislation in which the devadasis were swept up was therefore one that covered a broad expanse of local reformist agendas.
The question becomes more complicated in that there existed an elite sector among the devadasi’s themselves, a group whose prowess, locality (usually urban) and situation in life (family background and connections) ensured for them a level of patronage that might keep them above the depredations suffered by their less privileged and more rural sisters. It is usually with these more elevated members of the hereditary caste in mind – dancers in the position of Gauri Ammal – that the attacks on Reddy and Rukmini Devi are carried on by activists and critical historians.
We should also note that the elite sector must further be divided into those dancers who danced for the temples and those, the rajadasis, whose performances were staged for the secular elites, traditionally the local royal courts. These it is to whom the Madras Social Reform Association probably referred in its complaints against the ‘dance parties’.
The same principle applies to questions regarding the quality of the Dasi Attam itself. It may be that the higher echelons of the devadasi community had better access to capable teachers while the majority performed the temple dances at a much lower level of proficiency. If this was the case it would provide a plausible explanation for Rukmini Devi’s assertion that the technical qualities of the dance had been degraded and stood in need of regeneration and improvement of standards, codification and presentation.
However that may be, and reverting to the more important point, we must note that the agitations around the problem of the nautch had been cuirrent for at least thirty years by the time she was born in 1904 (if we date the process from 1873 when the Governor General in Council decided to put a stop to the ‘dedication of girls to idols’). She grew up while the anti-devadasi mindset was being decisively cemented, and was only twenty-two years old when Dr Reddy began to tackle the problem in earnest. It seems wrongheaded, then, to place Rukmini Devi in any sort of position of connivance. The cultural and social climate in which she was raised would have settled the question for her by the time she was a young woman, and her Theosophist parents would have driven the matter home.
I would think rather that it says much for her independent character that, in spite of the air of moral decline attached, whether scurrilously or not, to the dance in her formative years, she should nevertheless have taken it up in 1933, receiving lessons from hereditary devadasi teachers despite exposing herself to further criticism on the back of the scandal of her early marriage to George Arundale. Besides this apparently unwise step, she worked closely with E. Krishna Iyer to explore the Sadir dance as it then existed, to applaud the best exponents (including T. Balasaraswati) and to employ teachers, musicians and dancers from the lineage when she established, at the age of thirty-two, the dance-and-arts-orientated school that a little later was named Kalakshetra.
It seems plausible to conclude that her decision to rescue the dance from the crisis in which it then found itself could be carried out in no other way than the one she was coerced by historical factors and the prevailing moral mindset to adopt.
As one starting point for debating the situation in which she found herself, we may use the profile written on the programme for the All India Dance Festival of 1945 :
‘Rukmini Devi has regenerated this art and rescued it from degradation and virtual extinction and restored it to its pristine beauty by permeating it with a religious and devotional spirit … and has rescued it from all monopolies, especially as regards teaching and conducting.’
Though this does read as a piece of heavy-handed propaganda, it is probably fair to say that it was a necessary form of justification for the suspect work she was carrying out. The public, and especially the upper classes, would have needed this kind of reassurance, not only in order to justify their attending the dance performances but also to be convinced to allow their own daughters to dance.
These considerations formed a large part of Rukmini Devi’s vision. It is hard for us to understand today the power of the stigma that was attached to dance in India. But if we can begin to grasp it, we can also see how difficult was the situation in which she found herself. Her own ambition was not only to make dance accessible to all girls (and boys) as the core-component of a wider, liberal, arts-centred education, but also to bring it to secular audiences throughout India and across the world. It would therefore obviously have needed to be freed from the moral obloquy attached to it.
We have to be careful here of a tendency to give credence to the idea of a devadasi ‘Golden Age’ that was destroyed by the dance revivalists working consciously in concert with the moral reform agendas of the day. In the first place, as I have already pointed out, the social reformist antipathy to the devadasi system was already a fait accompli by the time Kalakshetra was founded. Second, the grand era of the devadasis had gone into decline by the late 19th century – so that the notion of the dance having been ‘degenerated’ may well not be an implausible one. To speak of its ‘virtual extinction’ also makse sense when we take into account the extent to which it must have been enfeebled and its communities ostracised by 1945, only three years before the Prohibition of Dedication Act was passed into law.
It must have seemed necessary to Rukmini Devi, as politic in her nature as she was both shrewd and determined, to create a completely new discourse around the whole conception of Indian dance, which she saw could only be re-established not as a religious ritual but as a secular, public art with a ‘religious and devotional spirit’. Hence, too, her famous argument with Balasaraswati over the sringara element.
In this regard, curiously enough, it is Douglas M. Knight, Balasaraswati’s biographer and son-in-law himself, who tells us that ‘Bala’s outspoken criticism of carnality in sringara rasa … had been a matter of record by the 1930s …’ and that ‘if Bala objected to the carnality in sringara of most dasi dancers, she was equally against puritanical and artistically impoverished Brahmin dance’. (My italics)
We have only to ask ourselves what is meant in this case by ‘carnality’, and then to apply the epithet to ‘most’ dasi dancers. Today such an approach would seem risibly narrow but in 1945 these moral aspects would obviously have weighed heavily with the cultivated Indian public for whom Bharata Natyam must become acceptable if it was to be widely appreciated and practised throughout the whole country and among all its various communities.
The claim to have returned the dance to ‘its pristine purity by permeating it with a religious and devotional spirit’ is possibly best understood by placing the stress on ‘spirit’. Given her stated aversion to ritualistic religion, one can see what might have been meant. Her views on Shiva Natraj would almost certainly have been aligned with those of Ananda Coomaraswamy, which placed Chidambaram as a symbol for the centre of the universe and made the orientalist conception of Shiva available as a source of spiritual impulse and insight to a globalized human fraternity. This sort of approach to spiritual ‘purity’ would have appealed to her strong Theosophical convictions.
The claim to have rescued the dance ‘from all monopolies, especially as regards teaching and conducting’ is a particularly interesting and telling one. Knight’s comment that her ‘reference to monopolies was perhaps directed at the nattuvanar teachers at Kalakshetra from whom she wrested control of teaching and conducting concerts, which she then placed in the hands of non-hereditary teachers of music and dance, including herself’ seems to me a rather disingenuous deflection.
It is after all common knowledge that the hereditary teachers were on the whole averse to transmitting their caste-bound knowledge to outsiders. They would surely have been even more inclined to resist such teaching to Brahmin students after all they had endured at the hands of the reformist classes. I don’t want to enter into the forbidding complexities of caste relationships here, but it is on record that the Isaivellalars were reluctant to universalize their hereditary art. And this is surely understandable too. But what choice would have been left to Rukmini Devi in this case but to ‘wrest control’ from the community whose inward-looking parochialism was so much at odds with her own universalizing purposes? In saying this I do not mean to imply that a battle for control at Kakalshetra did not occur. It did. Nor would I want to leave unemphasized the fact that she herself was taught by an hereditary teacher. I am only concerned with making a plausible case for the very different vision espoused and instituted by her at Kalakshetra and the traditional practice of the hereditary dance establishment : the one localized and ritualist, the other global and secular. The struggle was not so much for competing interests as for competing world-views.
That Rukmini Devi’s attitude to dance in India was not directed at wholesale dominance is evidenced in the fact that so far from inhibiting she actually encouraged the emergence of the regional classical forms that we know today. Even though it is true that she disparaged Odissi when she first encountered it, we also know that she was willing to teach Sanjukta Panigrahi and that she extended extraordinarily cordial treatment to Mayadhar Raut, one of the leading Odissi gurus, during the years he spent studying at Kalakshetra, by which time Kala Vikas Kendra had already been established to design and teach the reconstructed dance form. Her control over the development and spread of Bharata Natyam was largely limited to the situation as it obtained in Tamil Nadu.
Rather than that of a cynical tyrant of the Indian dance world, the picture that confronts me is one of a determined, ambitious and powerful woman who did not disdain politics to achieve the ends she had in mind when she first set out to revitalize, reform and make universally accessible the art to which she devoted the remainder of her life. That her vision was a deeply personal one can however not be doubted, and to that extent it was bound to clash with those of a variety of opponents and detractors. So far as the history of this kind of renewal goes, the traits of the individuals who bring it about evince a good deal of similarity. They are singleminded, dedicated and rather ‘tough’ specimens, uncompromising, perfectionist and often intolerant of differing views, a strange mingling of the genuinely altruistic and the unselfcritically egotistical.
Those who record their memories of Rukmini Devi often, and usually inadvertently, allude to her tenderness and kindness only after hinting at a tendency in her to a severe and unforgiving stringency. No doubt, she was demanding and headstrong, and the record shows little evidence of self-doubt. But these qualities, again, seem inherent and even necessary to radical cultural and artistic reformers.
It is probably owing to these same traits that, until the end of her life, she seemed incapable and uninterested in showing any remorse at the tragedy that had befallen the hereditary dance community, and in which she had played the role of silent affirmer of the status quo.
While the devadasis suffered outright dismantling and outlawing of their hereditary vocation, including its remunerations and perquisites, the hereditary artists working outside the temples became the objects of public suspicion and legislated prejudice. It is recorded that Isaivellalar teachers had to obtain police clearances in order to conduct their profession, and that they were forced to display notices on their premises declaring that they were not involved in the coaching of prostitutes. Encumbered by demeaning obstacles of this kind, it is self-evident that they would not have enjoyed much patronage, and we know that most of them lived and laboured at their art in penury. I am reliably assured, too, that the contempt and antipathy shown towards them by the public and especially by the reformed dance community had not abated by the 1980s. Gurus who had received their training in the hereditary tradition rather than at Kalalshetra had to keep the fact to themselves or risk being ostracized afresh. It is a dismally unjust picture.
Yet Rukmini Devi, who must have been intimately acquainted with their circumstances, kept steadily silent about these injustices and, so far as is known, never did try to right them or even to speak up on behalf of her fellow artists. Her culpability in this regard seems even more egregious when we recall that it was teachers from this community who taught her to dance and who later imparted their inherited knowledge to her early students at Kalakshetra. Without them, indeed, Kalakshetra could never have been brought into existence.
From the point of view, then, of personal morality, we can hardly exonerate her on this score – especially when we bear in mind that, two years before her death, she did not oppose in a BBC interview a commentator’s statement that 80% of the devadasis were prostitutes. This calls to mind echoes of Muthulakshmi Reddy’s infamous and rather hysterical riposte that, out of a thousand devadasis, 999 were prostitutes and one the mistress of a married man.
The most we can do is try to understand the position in which she perceived herself and her project to be at the time when these injustices were being perpetrated. If she did not act or speak against them, why was this the case?
Any number of reasons can be proposed here but not without the qualifying reminder that she was in no way morally deficient in the ordinary sense. On the contrary, she had an extremely articulate awareness of justice and charity and set very high standards of discipline and duty for herself. Her many socially-engaged and private kindnesses are a matter of record, but so are her intolerance of slackened standards and the extreme demands she made on those who worked and danced for her. One remembers how she could never forgive a certain girl who had not properly tied her ankle-bells which almost came off during her performance. Years later she was still berating the unfortunate offender: ‘How could you have done that?’
For my own part, I am not disposed to find reasons in public for defending her so far as the devadasi question goes. I only want to examine the single possibility that the vision she had so carefully and meticulously fostered during half a century of forceful activity had become for her larger than any moral blame which, though suppressed, it must have carried within itself. Her claim to have rescued the dance from degradation (which had its own historical truth) could not be seen to have been achieved on the basis of some other moral failure, some other form of degradation. Like most great visionaries she harboured a large blind spot which she turned towards any counter-narratives that might stain the total achievement. To her, the humiliation and displacement of the devadasis and hereditary artists was simply the result of the historical situation into which, through no fault of her own ambition, they had allowed themselves to decline. In order to keep Kalakshetra and everything it was conceived to represent blamelessly alive, this single ongoing act of expediency was unavoidable.
Apart from this there is the other possibility, that the dance as we know it today, in the ways in which it is open to evolution and freely accessible to all who want to practice and appreciate it, is to a great extent present to us as a result of her efforts, her blind spot notwithstanding.
It is at any rate staggering to consider what she accomplished in the light of the small beginnings she made in 1936, when she founded not much more than the idea of her ‘International Academy of the Arts’, and gave the following address to those present on the occasion :
‘This is an informal meeting of what for the present we are calling the International Academy of the Arts. Possibly we may find a better name for it afterwards. Our objects will be :
(1) to emphasize the essential unity of all true Art.
(2) to work for the recognition of the Arts as inherent in effective individual, national and religious growth.
For the time being we shall have no formal organisation, as we want to begin in a small way, so that as we work we may sense the lines along which we should develop. The spirit within all our work will be to reflect as best we can Art as a pure power of Divine Nature, God in His Aspect of Beauty.
I feel particularly happy that we are inaugurating this movement on a day sacred to Nataraja, the Eternal Lord of the Dance, the Lord of Divine Rhythm, to whom I offer whatever I can give.’