Adyar K Lakshmanan is one of Rukmini Devi's earliest students. He joined Kalakshetra in 1944, at the age of 11, to learn music but ending up learning dance.
Rukmini Devi once said, 'I sent people to scout for youngsters with musical aptitude. That is how Pasupathi came, then Raman and Lakshmanan. I used to try them out in dancing also.'
Lakshmanan runs his own dance institute in Chennai.
Athai -- that's what we call Rukmini Devi -- started Kalakshetra in 1936. My brother [Raman] and I became her students in 1944. We were, in a way, Kalakshetra's earliest students. When I came to Kalakshetra, I didn't know much about Athai. With each passing day, I learnt how great she was!
My father worked as a schoolteacher in a place called Vandavasi, 75 miles from Madras. Doraiswamy Iyer, who was the manager at Kalakshetra then, asked my father to send us there. It seems Rukmini Devi had asked him to bring some Brahmin boys to Kalakshetra because, in those days, only those who belonged to the Pillai community danced. She was the first Brahmin woman to dance, much to the shock of the Brahmin community.
When Rukmini Devi asked me to take up dancing, I refused. Like all other boys my age, I thought only girls danced. But she convinced me by saying, 'Dancing is physical exercise.' I told her, 'If it's physical exercise, I will learn!' That's the kind of person she was. If she wanted something, she knew how to get it.
She was in her forties when I first met her, but she looked so beautiful and elegant. Her dance was divine.
As days passed, I began to enjoy dancing. She composed some of her famous dance dramas like Kutrala Kuravanji, Kumara Sambhavam, Ramayana, Sita Swayamavaram and Usha Parinayam when we were there. I used to dance, sing and play the mridangam in the dramas. Everything excited me. Though she was a very strict teacher, she also was very appreciative. She had only nice words about my dance, music and the way I played mridangam. I felt she had a special love and affection for me. I still cherish those moments.
Other dance styles existed at the time, but she developed a unique style for Kalakshetra. She created more than 25 dance dramas and each one became a classic. I can never explain in words the experience of participating in her dance dramas; it was exciting and divine.
I also cannot forget the days she composed songs. She would say, 'Lakshmana, ukkaru [sit].' In front of my teachers, she would ask me to keep the thalam [beat] as she composed. She would also ask my opinion. Those were some of the greatest moments of my life. It gave me an opportunity to be with her, sit with her and compose.
When she wanted someone to learn one ashtapadi [verse about Lord Krishna] directly from Papanasam Sivan, who was one of the greatest musicians of the time, she chose me for the privilege. He was also happy that Rukmini Devi had sent me to him. I really do not know why she sent me when there were so many people she could choose from, but I was elated. I came back and taught my teachers the ashtapadi. Then, she composed.
Kalakshetra differed from other institutions because we had the opportunity to learn everything from the greatest masters. Athai was very particular that we learn from the best, so she called only the greatest to serve there. Legends like 'Tiger' Varadachary, Krishnamachary (his younger brother), Mysore Vasudevacharya and Bhoothalur Krishnamurthi Sastrikal stayed there and taught us. I am sure all of them felt quite happy to serve Kalakshetra.
After my studies -- though Athai believed learning never ends -- I left to work in another institution because I had to support a large family. She understood my difficulties but could not offer me more. She told me, 'Lakshmana, this is your birth place. Don't forget that.' I haven't.
I used to meet Athai quite often even after I left Kalakshetra. I don't think anybody who has seen her or learnt under her can live without thinking of her and admiring her. She was born great. That is why, even after starting to learn dance so late in her life, she became such a great artiste.
I would say she is like a Shankaracharya. In my life, I have not seen a greater artiste or a greater personality. I don't think there is anyone in this field who can take her place.
Adyar K Lakshmanan spoke to Shobha Warrier.
Shanta Dhananjayan: 'Rukmini Devi was a banyan tree under whom everyone flourished'
Krishnavenu Lakshman: 'She moulded us into good human beings'
Adyar K Lakshmanan's photograph: Sreeram Selvaraj
Image: Uday Kuckian