Rukmini Devi's influence on dance, indisputable, can be divided into three broad categories.
On Bharatanatyam. On dance-drama. On their presentation.
No matter what is claimed, devoutly believed and fervently proselytized, Rukmini Devi's influence as a Bharatanatyam dancer per se is as minimal as her creation of a phalanx of teachers gruelled into Bharatanatyam, literally scores spread all over the world, is enormous. There should be hundreds of dancers who can trace their descent from this matchless 'alma mata'.
Just as Rabindranath Tagore's Shantiniketan served, incomparably, to refine, enrich and modify the senses and sensibilities of a people at the turn of the century, Rukmini Devi's Kalakshetra did at a different time and a different place. Few were the institutions that taught holistically at that time.
If students separated from Kalakshetra by four or five generations know even 50 per cent of what the first generation with direct contact does, it goes without saying that they know more than most. Such was the training, in dance and its ancillaries, imparted at Kalakshetra, as visualised by Rukmini Devi.
Today there are indeed a few institutions, private and those that can be called quasi-governmental (universities and the like), which attempt to teach dance with both depth and breadth. Rukmini Devi performed the difficult task of lighting the first lamp, insofar as institutional teaching of dance is concerned.
The number of dance-dramas produced by Rukmini Devi is not small. Twenty-five to be exact. Apart from the Ramayana series, there would be at least six, Rukmini Kalyanam, Geeta Govindam, Andal Char it ram included, which can be considered milestones in contemporary dance-drama, because of their multi-faceted and "finely-honed virtues. True, many eminent personages, Mysore Vasudevachar to Peria Sarada, to name only two out of a score, were behind Rukmini Devi, fortifying every aspect of Kalakshetra. But it was Rukmini Devi's genius that collected, shaped and used their genius to balletic ends. No doubt about that.
The sea-change she wrought in the field of ballet production, in the departments of libretto, lighting, costuming, make-up, music and choreography, is something that is often praised but not frequently understood in its awesome dimension.
There are a few people, like the late eccentric genius Ranjan, who insisted that the Bharatanatyam 'card' evolved out of bits and pieces of the traditional dance-dramas, Melattur Bhagavata Mela or Kuchipudi Bhagavatam. Even if this statement is accepted in toto, a few observations have to be made about these traditional forms at that time, say 1940. They were crude. Their dance and music had degenerated from the lack of informed patronage. Their learning was limited by an ad hoc kind of apprenticeship, mostly dictated by considerations other than artistic.
Around this time, the showbiz kind of dance performances had ballet-like bits too, but they were of the kind termed 'oriental', items like Siva Parvati, Snake Charmer, Kurathi Couple, generally lasting for 10 to 20 minutes. These were bright, vigorous, colourful but only fourth or fifth cousins to Bharatanatyam which implies an adherence to Carnatic music.
Rukmini Devi came out with a series of dance-dramas, all drawn from our mythology, some known like Kumara Sambhavam, some unknown like Krishnamari Kuravanji, but embellished with the finest of taste. That she learnt Western ballet is not of much importance, but that she saw the best of it on her trips to Europe and adapted what she thought was best in it to her own ballets is. Lighting for instance. Suggestive rather than shouting. Smooth transition from scene to scene by its clever deployment. Costuming and make-up, tasteful and telling that eschewed the gaudy and glittery. The same principle she applied to the sets and. stage properties, and made the inexpensive, easy-to erect and moveable ones convey themes and communicate ideas.
All these pertain to the presentation.
What of the dance-drama proper?
For each production, she had scholars evolve a script under the supervision of those who had an idea of the medium. She had the best of composers compose, again apt to the medium. And had the score sung by competent singers, whose constant rehearsal made their contribution border on excellence. Choreographically too, she drew upon the knowledge of various masters at different times. But she sifted it through the sieve of her personality; on rare occasions, very rare to be truthful (and mostly in dance items like Oorake rammante), it was bowdlerized and bland. But for the vast majority of them, it was what knit the music and subject matter together, superbly, seamlessly.
To evaluate the extent and excellence of her influence in the content and presentation of dance-dramas, let me take just four examples, productions of two within and two without the institution, all four personally trained by Rukmini Devi, all indelibly 'imprinted' by her. And the dance-dramas of one person who had nothing concrete to do with her or Kalakshetra.
Let me make myself clear here on one point. Inherent talent can be spotted, groomed, showcased and stimulated but it has to function on its own after a time, find new directions for its roots, put out fresh branches. Otherwise it will only be old grain in new gunny-sacks. Talent cannot be bequeathed. It can't become a legacy to the unworthy. If left in such hands and circumstances, it shrivels up only to die.
Take Chinna Sarada's Thirumurugan Avatharam and Krishnaveni's Jayadeva. Individual merits apart, they toed Rukmini Devi's anklet-bells to a jingle. If they were done when Rukmini Devi was alive, one would have assumed that they were her productions, good points and bad ones, all. In two aspects—costuming and lighting—both of them fell short, the earlier one, a little more glaringly.
It is useful to recall two specific instances from Rukmini Devi's creative usage of these two aspects. When she costumed the monkeys for Ramayana, do you know where she put the tails? Not suspended from the waist nor seemingly sprouting from the coccyx, both of which would have been unseemly, and hindered the dance. But at the back of the crown! They were in such perfect proportion that it did not strike anyone to question the transposition. Costume-wise many a dancer was made an apsara by flowing silks, silks that clung seductively (of course in the staid Kalakshetra fashion!) yet gave them a flying dimension.
The lighting under Rukmini Devi's coaxing created many a dawn in her dance-dramas, though its effectiveness was less evident in some of the lesser productions. Many a gloaming evoked by greened gunny.
The costumes in Sarada's and Krishnaveni's productions were a far cry from the pastels and the sturdy colours which Rukmini Devi becomingly contrasted in what is now known as the Kalakshetra saree style. The lighting in them was neither creative nor evocative. And the backdrops were poor too.
Both Chinna Sarada and Krishnaveni are yet in the grooves created by Rukmini Devi. It is too soon after her death, but in time they have to come out before they become ruts. In the beginning, their wings might be wet and sticky but they must take flight and prove to the world, and themselves, whether they are butterflies or moths.
An admission has to be made at this place. For the many 'balletic' questions she faced, Rukmini Devi had found answers and the ideal (according to her) ways of deploying them by the 1950's. Afterwards, considering these answers as the syntax value for all time perhaps, she did not veer from them. When a new solution had to be found, she did, but by employing the old methods only. This gave all her dance-dramas a consistency—or a sameness as some saw it. Her prime disciples too have used only this syntax; they have not broken it up and put it together in novel form.
V.P. Dhananjayan-Shanta and C.V. Chandrasekhar come to my mind as prime examples of those who have toiled to perfect their skills under her guidance, and whose ballets have been seen and lauded all over. Dhananjayan follows her precepts (Just one instance: in Rukmini Devi's Andal Charitram, there is a sequence when Andal and her sakhis are singing a song, the same song, she with love and they with devotion; this idea is echoed in Dhananjayan's Valli Tirumanam. Valli's eyes glint with amour and her sakhis' with adoration singing about Muruga). But he takes off from there. The costumes are more dazzling, but Rukmini's taste lingers. The choreography at Kalakshetra utilised Kathakali for the martial sequences (and drew a bit of flak then) and Dhananjayan does this and goes a bit further. In his version of Ramayana, the only version which does not contain even a minute of expected boredom, he has employed Far Eastern combat techniques, which have slivers of judo, karate and the like. Again, the taste that decrees perfect assimilation can be traced back to Rukmini Devi. This fight is between Vali and Sugreeva. It might not have been so acceptable if it was between the bothered-about-publicopinion Kshatriya and Veera Brahmana. Rukmini Devi used jati-s in Kalakshetra ballets with contextual meaning. Dhananjayan too has, in his ballets — e.g., Valli's sakhi warding off the Vedan's advances—and in his dances as well (e.g., the Turaiyur Rajagopala Sarma varnam, Chinni Krishna, about the greatest of gods). Like his mentor, Dhananjayan has the maestroes compose music for him: Turaiyur Rajagopala Sarma in the past, and T.V. Gopalakrishnan now. Alas, he does not have a Sivan or a Vasudevachar to work the words; so he makes do with lesser ones, who just pen the words, which are mangled with music by someone else.
Chandrasekhar gives his music a distinct Hindustani flavour. A musician himself, he knows how far to venture into Hindustani before the Bharatanatyam quotient starts being leached out. Again, in choreography (particularly in his masterly Meghadutam) he ventures more outside the pale of strict Bharatanatyam (you can't do his choreography of a few sloka-s within the card of a Bharatanatyam programme; generally, you can reproduce Dhananjayan's similar choreography in a recital of Bharatanatyam), but within the licensed precincts of a ballet, making it a wholly aesthetic experience. His Athai would have approved of it and considered it but an extension of the parameters laid out by her. Too, Dhananjayan's and Chandrasekhar's selection of subject matter veers from the familiar to the unfamiliar, like Athai's.
Vempati Chinna Satyam's credentials are : a thorough grounding of homerule (Kuchipudi), a knowledge of music and Sanskrit, a stint as a film choreographer which opened his mind, and a willingness to absorb all that he considers good from each and any source. Living in Madras for the past three decades, seeing the best of performing arts, has helped in no mean degree.
If you see his Chandalika, the influence of Rukmini Devi is everywhere. Suggestive and minimal props. Reticence in the use of decoration and costume. Lighting that is mood-mellowed and directed. All this in the presentation. In choreography, he is totally his own — that is, Kuchipudi made a little more taut, a lot more precise; rhythms that are correct and not lax ; raga-s that stay stuck to their melodic patterns, not veering off into Mohana at the slightest pretext.
For a person who has been in Madras, a long-time spectator of dance with some knowledge of the basic mechanics, every dance-drama from any Indian source seems to carry Rukminian influences, if not principles. A choreographer or a performer can claim not to have been under her influence, and even with less credibility, claim that he or she hasn't seen her ballets. While I am not trying to disprove such a statement, I am asserting that Rukmini Devi's staging techniques and story-telling devices have become so much a part of the collective consciousness of Dance that one cannot beg off and say: "No thanks". How can one claim to be in it (dance) and claim not to have seen her ballets, or the photographs of it, or at least read the reviews, heard people describe and discuss them? This is how definitive influences seep into the culture of a people.
Good influences are something to be welcomed, not abhorred. But they should not be allowed to become shackling traditions. By retaining the useful, discarding the pointless and dated, by combining the packaging virtues of many sources with our own solid goods, Rukmini Devi became a part of history.
We might not be able to create history as she has done, after all we are of a different clime and time, but to remain a continuing part of it, we should slough-off the skin from time to time, if need be, while safe-guarding the spirit all the while. That's the only way to keep dance a many splendoured thing for all time.