Rukmini Devi Arundale: Savior of Bharat Natyam, and a Leap Year Baby!

I am so glad I wasn’t born on February 29th!  On the one hand, you are always only a quarter of your real age.  But on the other hand, only a quarter as many birthday presents!  Anyway, I got curious about famous Indian performers who were leap year babies, and sure enough, I found one!

Rukmini Devi Arundale was born to a Brahmin family in Tamil Nadu.  Her father fell under the influence of Annie Basant and the Theosophical Society and became heavily involved in their work.  Rukmini grew up around the international and intellectual society of the Theosophical group, and eventually married a Theosophist from England who was 26 years older than her.

Her first experience of dance came from a meeting with Anna Pavlova.  She received ballet training from one of Pavlova’s disciples, and then returned home, determined to discover an “Indian” dance style.  Which is when she discovered “Sadhir”, a dance form related to Bharata Natyam, but with elements that Rukmini considered “impure”, one performed by “devadasis”, temple dancers who had a high status in pre-colonial society but were considered closer to prostitutes by the British.

Rukmini trained in “Sadhir” for 3 years, then opened a school teaching a modified version, with the more sexual elements removed.  This is the version that has become accepted and respected today, the “classical” dance that upper-class proper young women, such as Rukmini, can learn.

I find this whole story fascinating!  The way she was a part of multiple societies at once, both an insider and an outsider, and therefore able to understand an artform as an insider, but appreciate it with the fresh eyes of an outsider.  And, of course, see how it could and should be modified to be acceptable to the elite classes both at home and abroad.


And I am also very grateful, because Rukmini’s efforts in re-popularizing the artform have lead to some of the best dancers in Indian film!  I’m not even talking about the Southern industries, where Bharatanatyam is the norm, but even in the national industry.  Where the same “pure” Bharatanatyam skills, with all the sexual elements so carefully removed, have been used for some of the all time greatest item numbers!

Vyjayantimala, who performed a classical dance for the Pope at age 5, then grew up and did a strip tease for Raj Kapoor.


Waheeda Rahman, who learned Bharata Natyam along with her sisters as a child in the 1930s, around the same time Rukmini was first learning it as an adult.  While Rukmini went on to found a school, Waheeda went on to literally shake her tail feathers on film.


Hema Malini founded a dance school too.  But before she did that, and started performing classical pieces with her daughters, she performed numbers like this in dozens of films.


And of course, today’s best Bharatanatyam dancer and movie star, Aishwarya Rai!  Who used her dance training to perform this.


And this:


And of course this:


And don’t know if these were the kinds of songs Rukmini Devi Arundale envisioned when she re-discovered the artform, but I would hope her ability to see beauty in a variety of places, and to understand the value of combining cultures would let her appreciate them.  I know I certainly appreciate them!

3 thoughts on “Rukmini Devi Arundale: Savior of Bharat Natyam, and a Leap Year Baby!

  1. so she removed all the sexual elements and made it pure and these women used this pure form again for seduction and again made it sexual…?!.i m not sure she could appreciate it


  2. Pingback: Guide The Book: Dev Anand Gave Us a Stronger Rosie – dontcallitbollywood

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