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The woman who said no: How Rukmini Devi chose dance over presidency

Rukmini Devi would have been vegetarian enough to favour the beef ban but democratic enough to not go with a sectarian manipulation of that issue

columns Updated: Mar 04, 2016 21:56 IST
Rukmini Devi,Morarji Desai,Nehru
Rukmini Devi would have made an iconic first woman President of India. And from 1980 India would have had that unimaginable combination: A woman president and a woman prime minister. (Photo: Kalakshetra)

Stuck in a traffic jam in a Tamil Nadu town called Annur, my taxi stood immobilised right next to an abattoir. In its chicken coop, some half a dozen stoic roosters and hens were getting scorched under the mid-day sun. Two skinned fowl dangled pinkly an elbow away from me. At that point a large man came into the shack, surveyed the coop, pointed to a large hen which was promptly pulled out, given the mother of all neck-wringing and plonked lifeless on a weighing scale. The entire process was over before one could say Kentucky or, for that matter, Annur.

As the jam thawed and the taxi revved up, I could not but think of Rukmini Devi Arundale, celebrated theosophist, pioneering dancer, choreographer and teacher of Bharatnatyam, founder of Chennai’s iconic Kalakshetra, nominated member of the Rajya Sabha, catalyst of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, and first Chair of the Animal Welfare Board. I imagined Rukmini Devi reproaching me, in blunt Tamil, for not having jumped out of the vehicle, gone up to the “butcher”, as she would have most definitely termed the entrepreneur, told him he was offending the PCTA (Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act) in making the poultry scorch and in displaying flayed dead fowl. “But they are going to die anyhow,” I imagined myself telling her. “What do you mean? Killing animals for meat is gross; killing them after callous cruelty is evil. Don’t mask your laziness in some philosophic argument about ‘dying anyhow’…”

Rukmini Devi had often talked of how her involvement in animal rights started. “I was standing one day on a railway platform, waiting for my train when I felt my sari being tugged by someone. I turned around to find it was no ‘someone’ but a monkey, a caged monkey, pulling at my sari to ask me to help it get out of that trap. I couldn’t do anything about it at the time but then I felt that the monkey had given me a task, a mission…”

One tug led to another and as a Rajya Sabha MP, Rukmini Devi moved, in 1952, a private MP’s Bill for the prevention of cruelty to animals. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, sensing the importance of the Bill in humanitarian terms and the mood of the House, said, “I entirely agree with the … mover of this Bill that one test of civilisation — and a very major test — is the practice of …compassion.” And he paved the way for the passing of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960.

Read | Google celebrates Rukmini Devi Arundale’s contribution to art

But it was Morarji Desai rather than Nehru with whom Rukmini Devi’s life work is linked. Desai, born on February 29, 1896, and Rukmini Devi on February 29, 1904, were both ‘leapers’. This starry link apart, they also had some earthy things going in common. They were both Brahmin, vegetarian and teetotallers of course, had a horror of what seemed to them ‘vulgar’ or ‘forward’ and Rukmini Devi was, like Morarji, no admirer of Marxist or socialist thought. They were both conservative in political and puritan in social beliefs.

Rukmini Devi’s equation with Morarji as prime minister led to his banning the export of the Rhesus monkey, mainly to the US, for laboratory tests. This generated stiff resistance from drug companies in that country. Even the US embassy in New Delhi took up the matter with the Morarji government. Morarji rebuffed them.

Conservatives are not always ‘stoppers’. They can also be innovative.

In nothing less than a stroke of political daring, Morarji, without consulting anyone, decided to offer the presidentship of India, then vacant, to Rukmini Devi. The idea of a woman as president was a ‘first’, and a woman who was a social philosopher and a dancer! The news startled the nation, wowed its south. Over a phone call made to Rukmini Devi’s home in Adyar, Chennai, in 1977, he asked her if she would consent to be President. “President of what,” she asked. “President of India,” said the prime minister. She declined. Asked later why, she explained, “I like to go about barefoot. How could I have done that in Rashtrapati Bhavan? I detest arms and armaments. How could I have moved about with an AdC bearing guns in front of me and another behind me? And also as a committed vegetarian how could I have served meat to guests from abroad who cannot do without it…? Besides my life is bound up with Kalakshetra, the Theosophical Society, Madras. Delhi is … another universe…” Aides de Camps do not bear arms and only stuffy Indian guests, not foreign visitors, would have turned their noses up at a presidential banquet that was vegetarian. Yet it was only natural that she declined.

I do not know of a single individual other than Rukmini Devi who has said ‘no’ to becoming President of India.

Rukmini Devi would have made an iconic first woman President of India. She would have been totally impartial and fair. And from 1980 India would have had that unimaginable combination — a woman president and a woman prime minister. Would President Rukmini Arundale and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi have got along? Office does strange things to people. I believe they would have. The founder of Kalakshetra and the alumnus of Santiniketan would very likely have deftly skirted the subject of the Emergency and Morarji, and would have discussed art and culture, Annie Besant and J Krishnamurti. The theosophist President may even have helped Indira Gandhi look at the Punjab crisis differently and — who knows? — avert Operation Blue Star. And of course the ban on monkeys’ export would have stayed and even enlarged to cover the obnoxious practice, common to both Hindus and Muslims, of the ritual sacrifice of animals.

In a leap year celebrating these two leapers, we must ask if those two ardent vegetarians would have today been on the side of the beef-banners. I believe Morarji and Rukmini Devi would have been vegetarian enough to favour a ban but democratic enough to say they could not go along with a sectarian manipulation of that issue. I started with an imaginary chastisement from Rukmini Devi and conclude with an imaginary comment from Annie Besant’s legatee: “Compassion for animals does not include bigotry.” Rukmini Devi, who chose not to be President of India, will be remembered for all that she chose, with such elan, to do.

(Gopalkrishna Gandhi is distinguished professor in history and politics, Ashoka University. The views expressed are personal.)

First Published: Mar 04, 2016 21:36 IST