AABHA pays homage to Rukmini Devi Arundale 
by Arun P Madangarli 
December 5, 2003   

The Bharatanatyam rasikas of Atlanta had a most memorable afternoon on the 16th of November 2003, at the Hindu Temple of Atlanta in Riverdale, GA, where the Atlanta Association for BHAratanatyam (AABHA) had organized a fitting homage to one of the most remarkable terpsichorean geniuses of India – Smt. Rukmini Devi. 

“Remembering Rukmini Devi”, a program that commemorated Rukmini Devi in her Centenary year, was conceived and executed by AABHA with a deep understanding and awareness of Rukmini Devi’s oeuvres in the realm of classical dance. After all, her legacy to the cultural heritage of India was not merely the revival of Bharatanatyam (shunned by the elite of her times) but also its reformation.  She helped this art that was essentially routed in solo temple performances evolve into the genre of a dance drama. Rukmini Devi was an artiste who understood the ethos of her art.  Her creations were total, not designed in parts and put together, but crafted with the whole in mind.  Every sequence was thought out to the minutest detail, and every mood and passage visualized in its entirety before even the production.  And uncompromising artiste that Rukmini Devi was, she demanded utmost perfection in teamwork and execution.  In “Remembering Rukmini Devi” the teachers and students of AABHA paid apt homage to this facet of her inventive genius with a series of seven group performances that dovetailed with each other with absolute precision and created a rich tapestry of Bharatanatyam from Pushpanjali to Thillana.  This was all the more remarkable when one considers that a large majority of the performers were very young children. 

The program started with a welcome address and a song on Rukmini Devi composed by Mysore Vasudevachariar was rendered by Subhashini Krishnamoorthy. Then (and this was one of those items that set the afternoon’s events apart from more mundane “remembrances”) an extremely well made documentary on Rukmini Devi from the 1980’s was shown.  No better introduction to Rukmini Devi was needed; she, along with many other stars of Kalakshetra who claimed her tutelage, was interviewed exhaustively during the course of the documentary.  
A power point presentation on Rukmini Devi was also set up outside the auditorium, for the general audience to view at any time.  
Gayatri Devi lighting the lamp 

Gayatri Devi of New York, the honored chief guest of the evening, who is Rukmini Devi’s senior most disciple and an internationally renowned virtuoso proponent of Bharatanatyam in her own right, lit the traditional “Kuthuvilakku” (lamp) that signified the start of the dances in the agenda.

“Natesa Kautuvam” the invocatory piece that precedes most Bharatanatyam performances was the first item to be presented.  Set to raga Hamsadhwani and Adi tala, this piece propitiates Lord Shiva, the Nataraja whose cosmic dance is said to encompass creation, preservation and destruction. Gayatri Subramanian and Ranjani Suresh, two of the AABHA professional dancers, performed this item gracefully. It was choreographed by Gayatri and Ranjani. 
This was followed by “Janakita Pushpanjali” set to raga Nattai and Eka tala.  In this fairly contemporary invocatory piece, the young students of Anupa Thakurta offered salutations to various gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon; Ganesha (Vighna Vinayaka – the remover of obstacles), Kartikeya (the merciful), Saraswathi (the goddess of arts and learning), Mahalakshmi (the goddess of wealth) and Shiva (as the embodiment of Shakthi). This dance was choreographed by Lalitha of Saraswati Gana Nilayam. It was beautifully presented by the very young dancers. 


The next item to follow was “Jatiswaram” in Ragamalika choreographed by the famous Dhananjayans. This arguably difficult piece of Bharatanatyam repertoire that emphasizes on pure dance (nritta as opposed to nrithya) was performed with considerable verve and skill by Anuradha Murali’s students from South Carolina.  The absence of any ‘sahitya’ in these compositions of course precludes the expression of bhavabhinaya in Jatiswaram.  The performer instead seeks to enthrall the audience by skillfully executed rhythmic patterns, aesthetically sculptured poses and delightful musical phrasing.  All this was accomplished very nicely in this item. 


The item that followed the Jatiswaram was the “Madhurashtakam”, composed by the Pushti-marga sage-philosopher of sixteenth century, Srimad Vallabhacharya.  Originally set in either raga Misra Pilu or Misra Kamaj, this item was choreographed in Ragamalika and performed by the students of Preeti Vinayak Shah. The young students did a delightful presentation of this item. The eight stanzas that form the ashtakam were illustrated with expressional (abhinaya) dance, culminating in pure nritta. 

After the “Madhurashtakam” came one of the most complex, elaborate and interesting pieces of the evening, the famous keerthanam “Natanam Aadinar”, composed by Gopalakrishna Bharati and choreographed by none other than Rukmini Devi Arundale.  Set to raga Vasantha and to Khanda Ata Talam, this item describes the Ananda Tandavam of Lord Shiva, a metaphor to the belief in the interdependency of the good and the bad and the dynamic balancing between opposites that constitute life.  This piece embodies every major element of Bharatanatya, a challenging combination of nritta, nrithya and abhinaya that provides ample scope for the dancer to exhibit her talent and skill.  The students of Savitha Viswanathan made superb use of this, and the resulting performance was truly enchanting. 

Keertanam - “Natanam Aadinar”
Keertanam - “Madhura Madhura Venu Geetham”
This item was followed by the slow and lyrical “Madhura Madhura Venu Geetham”, a keertanam choreographed by Vazhvoor Ramiah Pillai and set to raga Atana in Adi talam.  This piece, which is sung in praise of Lord Krishna describes Him in highly poetic phrases, and offers the dancer the freedom to exhibit her mastery over abhinaya.  This was wonderfully performed by the students of Chandrika Chandran executing various formations and group poses. 

Gayatri Devi, the chief guest, then performed a beautiful javali, set to Suruti raga and Adi Talam, in which the Sakhi teases the Nayika and says “My dear friend I happen to see Krishna making signs at the lady who covers herself with a silk saree”. She then goes on to describe the pranks of Lord Krishna, like him stealing butter. The abhinaya in this piece was exquisite and yet it was light and uplifting for everyone to enjoy.  

The grand finale of the afternoon’s performance was the traditional Kalakshetra tillana dedicated to Rukmini Devi.  Set to raga Natabhairavi and to Adi Talam, this was presented by all the teachers of AABHA, and was veritably a visual treat.  The joys of rhythm and movement predominated in this item of pure dance.  What the students had introduced through pushpanjali and jatiswaram was fully developed and brought to its logical conclusion by the teachers in the Tillana.  The simple eye-neck-shoulder movements evolved into a mesmerizing display of rhythmic patterns and postures during this piece. The performers were Anuradha Murali, Subhadra Sudarshan, Chandrika Chandran, Preetha Sayeekrishna, Savitha Viswanathan and Uma Pulendran, the last four also being on the AABHA executive committee. 

With this event, AABHA can definitely claim to have arrived in the cultural scene of Atlanta – with one very big difference that sets it apart from other, similar organizations.  Its charter commits AABHA to providing yeoman service in fostering and promoting the uniquely Indian aesthetic experience that is Bharatanatyam.  And in this short while (it is but a year old) AABHA has established a reputation for the unflagging enthusiasm of its core members in promoting better understanding of Bharatanatyam (both amongst experienced rasikas and the un-initiated) through performances and lecture demonstrations.  Let us hope there are many more of such presentations to come! 

Arun P Madangarli is an electrical engineer, art enthusiast and a literary writer. He can be contacted at maalu@juno.com