Long associated with the doyen of Bharatanatyam, Rukmini Devi, and privileged to be the second student to graduate from Kalakshetra (the first being Radha Burnier), Sarada Hoffman, now at 73, is the first recipient of the Rukmini Devi Medal for Excellence in the Arts from the The Centre for Contemporary Culture, New Delhi.
Residing in a small flat, near the seashore in south Madras, Sarada who has spent all her life dancing and teaching, now leads a quiet life with her husband Hoffman and her books. Born in 1929 and hailing from a family of theosophists, dance has been the only dream, passion and mission of this artiste, who did not seek to be in the limelight. Sarada who formally retired at the age of 60 in 1989, continued her services till 1996 at Kalakshetra.
Although awards and honours have been given to her now, (she received the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1997), what she still cherishes is her younger days spent with Rukmini Devi and the temple of fine arts. She reminisces about them in an interview with Kutcheribuzz Reporter S. Aruna.
Award for Sarada Hoffman - Click here.
You have received an award in the name of Rukmini Devi, what does it really mean to you?
It is a very special honour, since this is the first time that an award has been instituted in her name and I have been chosen to receive it. I'm indeed happy and appreciate their gesture. Although, awards are not for which I worked. I just enjoyed working and with the person I wanted to work with.
How did you get to be called 'Chinna Sarada'?
Simply because there were many 'Saradas' during my time. The older Sarada was called 'Periya Sarada' and since I was younger, I became 'Chinna Sarada'. Besides, there was also a Saradambal amma.
About your theosophical background?
I belong to the third generation of theosophists. My grand father, Alladi Mahadeva Shastri was the Director of the Adyar Library in the 1920s. My father M. Krishnan, also a theosophist worked for the Olcott Memorial schools. (There were five schools originally, with one left right now, which is being run by the society.) He was the first Indian to head the institution, who opted to work for the downtrodden, in those times. So, I was born and brought up in the theosophical estate.
About your first meeting with Rukmini Devi?
She knew my family since my grandfather, Alladi Mahadeva Shastri, was the priest who performed the ceremony while conducting her marriage with Arundale.
I met her in 1934, when I was about six. She was producing an English play, 'Light of Asia' by Sir Adwin Arnold. It was the life story of Lord Buddha, and she asked me to take part in the play. She was Yashodhara and I was her son Rahula. I had no major part except to sleep next to her! In the play, she also danced the 'Swan', which inspired me.
When did you see her first perform?
She gave her first Bharatanatyam performance in 1935, which I attended. It was a memorable occasion, which I'll never forget. Such beautiful dancing. She was like a goddess and the audience was spellbound. She gave this performance to prove to the people, the divinity in dance. It was a time when the British were against dancing in the temple.
So, did you begin learning your first dance steps from her after this?
When we approached her, she said I was too young and therefore we had to wait. But I was enrolled as one of the first students in the Besant Memorial school (later renamed Besant Theosophical school), founded by her and Dr. Arundale.
When I was ten, she said I was ready.By then, she had started Kalakshetra, where Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai conducted the classes for her, while his nephew, Chockalingam Pillai, conducted the classes for the other students. I was a student for four years under him.
What do you remember of her as a student learning from a Guru?
I have watched her learn from Meenakshisundaram Pillai and the way she responded to what was being taught. He saw that she was creative and would let her portray the abhinaya according to her imagination.
Were there many students taking to dance then?
Oh yes. When she became famous as a dancer, everybody wanted to learn Bharatantyam. Many wanted to learn from Menakshisundaram Pillai. So he moved to his village, Pandanallur. Later even Chockalingam Pillai left and Rukmini Devi was left without professional teachers.
How did she manage the crisis?
She conducted the classes herself. She learnt to handle the nattuvangam (cymbals) from Bhairavam Pillai, who played the mridangam for her concerts. She conducted my arangetram and did the nattuvangam for my performance. I was about 14 then. Then on, she began training her own teachers. When I was 16, she asked me to assist in handling the classes for the younger students and in 1947, I was appointed as a teacher officially.
Were you also giving solo performances then?
Yes. I was a solo dancer since 1945. Sabhas would invite us to give performances. But I was working with Kalakshetra and the institution took priority.
How did the dance dramas that Kalakshetra is known for, originate?
In 1944, Kalakshetra produced the first dance drama, 'Kutrala Kuravanji'. It was Rukmini Devi's original contribution and was done with her own intuitive knowledge. The Kuravanji was done in the temples as a tradition and she wanted to revive them and present them on stage. She invited Karaikkal Saradambal, who gave her suggestions on the production. The music was composed by Veena Krishnamachariar and Rukmini created the entire production. It was premiered in Bombay and traveled all over north India.
She played the role of the heroine, Vasantavalli and I was a sakhi (friend).
In 1947, she organised the 'Besant Centenary Celebration' all over India. Somebody suggested that she could work on Kalidasa's works and so she produced 'Kumarasambhavam', which was the second dance drama produced. She played the lead role of Parvati. She would say that the dance drama was one way of expressing bhakthi (reverance) and wanted the people to be conscious of the divinity in dance and not that it was just a show. She was trying to make the Indians aware of the Indian classical dance.
Was Kalakshetra getting stronger then?
By this time the institution had grown and we had a number of teachers and a lot of youngsters poured in. It was an established institution. Besides dance, classes in music, painting, poetry, Bhagavad Gita and theosophy were also conducted. In 1954, the first Ramayana was produced. In all this, I was helping her. She would choreograph them on me and in turn we taught the sequences to the students.
What is unique about the Kalakshetra style?
Rukmini Devi was particular about refinement and whatever was portrayed through dance was dignified. She made sure that any kind of vulgarity was eliminated. Movements have to be stylized on stage and our style was particularly noticeable.
Many people feel that Kalakshetra today is not what it used to be?
Now I'm not there so, I can't say anything. But the ideals of the institution were based on her principles then. Her whole idea was that through dance one must transcend to be a better human being. Many students have branched out from the institution, but that is how it should be, to propagate the art and its values everywhere.
And surely dance isn't what it used to be?
Sensitivity to aesthetics is lacking today. If it is there, the quality is different. The quality that was seen when I grew up is not much seen today. One must forget oneself to be an artiste. Only when the mental attitude is focused on the divinity and purity of dance, one can shine as a dancer. If you think of money, popularity and publicity, you may be appealing but you don't touch the heart. The art must elevate the dancer and the audience.
And how do you see what many dancers call their work as 'innovative'?
Considering the actual meaning of the word, nobody has done anything new. They haven't developed any new techniques. Concept and themes may be different but the techniques are the same. Change is a way of life, but today, we're trying to compete with the west. We can be rich in our own culture.
Any dreams that never came true?
I wanted to be a dancer and I wanted to help the person I admired most and I did it till the end. No more dreams were necessary. I had no time left for any.
Any favourite pieces in the dance repertoire?
I used to dance Andal's dream, 'Varanam Aiyaram', which was specially composed for me, since I was fond of Krishna. It was a lovely piece which I performed in 1945 at the Theosophical Convention.Later I played the role of Andal in 'Andal Charithram' in 1961 The Anandabhairavi varnam, 'Sakiye' is another refreshing piece.
Are you completely retired?
I just like to lead a quiet life now. I spend my time reading, which I enjoy. Earlier, we worked from 6am to10pm and I hardly had any time to read. Occasionally, some students come for help.
Has your husband been supportive all along?
Oh yes. My husband is a very nice husband! A theosophist himself, he came here from the U.S in 1949, to assist Rukmini Devi in her various projects. He was the first editor of 'Animal Citizen', the magazine on animal welfare started by Rukmini Devi. In fact we got married at Dr. Arundale's house in 1960.
She resides at Flat 2E, 23 B, Coral Bay Apartments, 3rd Seaward Avenue, Valmiki Nagar, Thiruvanmiyur, Chennai-600 041. Ph: 4420246.