Roots of the Banyan: Remembering Rukmini Devi
Over a five-day festival, the Kalakshetra Foundation in Chennai honoured the legacy of Rukmini Devi Arundale – a visionary, a trail-blazer, and the majestic tree that continuously nurtures souls
There is something in the air at Kalakshetra that is humbling and inspiring at the same time. The large verdant campus by the sea has a unique aura to it. A sense of calm settles over you once you enter the grounds. Vehicles seem out of place; and as faint sounds of music invariably find their way to you, a sense of excitement settles in. To outsiders like me (read: lacking knowledge in the traditional arts) the Gurukul-like atmosphere might seem intimidating at the outset; but one experience of the space and a slight glimpse of the beauty it has to offer is enough to break through uncertainties or cultural differences. I later found out that that very aspect was the founding premise of the Kalakshetra Foundation back in 1936.
Between February 25 and 29 this year, the Kalakshetra Foundation hosted Remembering Rukmini Devi Festival – a five-day festival to celebrate the 116th birth anniversary of its founder. ‘This festival pays tribute to the legendary Smt. Rukmini Devi Arundale and reminiscences her work as an innovator who conserved the traditional art forms and made it available for the youth of India’, said Revathi Ramachandran, Director of the Kalakshetra Foundation, when speaking about the festival.
The festival kicked off with a production of Rukmini Devi’s Koorma Avatharam performed by the Kalakshetra repertory. In a treat for classical music fans, day 2 saw a Sarod recital by Ustaad Amjad Ali Khan and his sons, Amaan Ali Bangash and Ayaan Ali Bangash; and day 3, a Carnatic vocal concert by Sanjay Subrahmanyan. Day 4 was special in many ways. I finally got the opportunity to witness the festivities first-hand, yes. But also because, this was the day set for the unique performance, Vishakha – Offshoot of the Great Banyan.
It began with a simple note:
A tree of wisdom is a teacher who plants the seeds of knowledge like a mother, nurtures growth like a father, and protects progress like the divine. Four shoots, who branched off the great tree to carry her legacy forward, return to her shade to offer their reverence, gratitude and love.
With performances featuring four of Kalakshetra’s most prominent alumni – PT Narendra, the duo Shijith N Parvathy and Sheejith Krishna – Vishakha paid ode to Rukmini Devi’s life-long vision in a one-of-a-kind ensemble. Where Shijith Nambiar and Parvathy Menon depicted Alingana – the symbolic union of Shiva and Shakti, the coming together of opposites to create a balanced ‘whole’, PT Narendra adopted an original song from Kuchelavrutham, a Kathakali play written by Muringoor Sankaran Potti that details the tale of Sudama and Lord Krishna, to fit into a Bharatanatyam repertoire. A personal highlight was Sheejith Krishna, who together with the Sahrdaya repertory, presented Maate, a unique performance which evoked a connection to earth as it spoke of the toils and joys of motherhood. It spoke of the majestic tree that provided shelter and pointed the way forward; and the imagination of the visionary who planted the first seed. For the final performance, the team enacted a condensed version of Rukmini Devi’s Ramayana dance drama.
Rukmini Devi was born on the February 29, 1904, and this being a leap year, the final day of the festival was all the more significant. The festival ended with a day-long event of music and dance; and a special production of Rukmini Devi’s Sabari Moksham. Throughout the five days, in synchrony and singularity, artists offered homage to the place they called home, to achievements of the complete woman, of Athai (as Rukmini Devi was often addressed), who has nurtured generations of artists who continue to spread her message of beauty, love and humanity.
All Images Courtesy of the Kalakshetra Foundation India.