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PARIP 2005

International Conference | 29 June - 03 July 2005

Meduri: Avanthi | UK

What is in a Name? History as Performance/ Performance as History

Research/Script/Concept by Dr. Avanthi Meduri, Reader Dance Programmes, and Convener Interdisciplinary MA in South Asian Dance Studies, University of Roehampton, London

Actor/Dancer: Rukmini Devi Arundale (Avanthi Meduri)

Actor/Dancer: Chorus (Chitra Sundaram)

This historical performance entitled "What is in a Name?” re-stages the repressed trans-national biography of Rukmini Devi Arundale--the celebrated revivalist of Bharatanatyam, the classical dance of India. The piece attempts this re-envisioning by re-presenting key historical events from Rukmini Devi’s life and uses these events to create a secondary historical elaboration which will enable her re-positioning as a global Indian and woman-Theosophist both at once.

The dominant representational frame in which Rukmini Devi has been reclaimed is that of the ‘Indian classical dancer’ and ‘Indian nationalist’ used interchangeably. But Rukmini Devi was more than a dancer and Indian nationalist by virtue of her controversial intercultural marriage to Bishop George Sydney Arundale, an Englishman, who became the third President of the Theosophical Society, and her subsequent incorporation into the art and education movement of the Society in the 1930s. Rukmini Devi, besides, was also the spiritual daughter of Dr. Annie Besant, the well-known British feminist and political activist who integrated British suffragette movement into her own brand of New Age spiritualism. To realize her Divine feminine vision, Annie Besant gave Rukmini the divine name of ‘Devi’ and appointed her as the leader of the World Mother campaign, conceived as a parallel movement to the World Teacher enunciation embodied by J. Krishnamurti. Groomed thus by both Annie Besant and George Sydney Arundale, Rukmini Devi, emerged as the new Indian woman of the twentieth century, and endeavoured on her part to keep alive the global legacy of the Theosophical Society in India through her long and distinguished career between 1920-1986. 

After the declaration of Indian Independence in 1947, Rukmini Devi was incorporated ambivalently into the project of Indian nationalism, and nominated as candidate to the office of the Presidency of India in the 1970s, which she declined graciously. Any historian/performer interested in understanding Rukmini Devi’s appropriation as national icon will have to necessarily do two things: first tease open the historiographic project of writing which localized and provincialized Rukmini Devi’s work as Indian nationalist; second, interrogate the selective modes of seeing which enabled her objectification and fetishization as a dancer and aesthetic figure.

What needs to be noted, however, is that Rukmini Devi exceeded the discursive categories in which she was recuperated because she worked as a liminal figure in the multiple fields of art, culture, education, politics and spirituality and left her trace in all these domains. Rukmini Devi, in other words, was not a local Indian, but a global-Indian.  She was not an Indian-nationalist but an Indian-woman-theosophist. Liminality and hyphenation are the two defining thematics in her biography.  

The seminar/performance explores the two interconnected issues of liminality and hyphenation by developing a metaphoric and poetic structure, comprising highly allusive visual images that appear to succeed each other according to an internal logic of association and storytelling. These images, however, are not represented realistically, with the help of stage props, but with codified Indian gestures, known as mudras, juxtaposed, however, with English language text, sound, and Bharatanatyam movement.  Although the stylized mudra has been banished from contemporary explorations in South Asian dance because of its overdetermined representational expressivity, it is the mudra that actually facilitates the re-interpretation of the Rukmini Devi archive by providing an alienating and distancing effect, what Brecht described as the famous V-effect. Using the stylization inherent in the mudra, the performance stages the historical event and its ghostly re-making in the present simultaneously. Artistically, the piece has been conceptualized to explore the creative energy of the multifaceted mudra as a metatheatrical devise and to demonstrate its efficacy in the making of historical performance.    

Finally, this performance is intended not to recover Rukmini Devi as a subject but to provide a different way of reading/witnessing/mourning/celebrating her colossal legacy, present as a generative and creative trace in the global world of intercultural dance and performance even today. 






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