Balasaraswati and Rukmini Devi A Yoga Teacher's Reminiscenc

T.K. Desikachari presides over the busy programme of yoga instruction at the Krishnamachari Yoga Mandiram in Madras. He recalls here his contacts with two great dance personalities, Balasaraswati and Rukmini Devi, who came to him for yoga therapy. Bab died on 29 January 1984; Rukmini Devi on 24 February, 1986.


In 1970, a student of Balasaraswati came to study yoga with me. She had stopped taking dance lessons and shied away from her arangetram and, disturbed by this, her diplomat-father had brought her to me. Her name? Well, we'll call her Mary. She became a devoted student—her devotion evenly directed to yoga and me. After a few months of yoga therapy, Mary agreed to make her dance debut. I attended it and it was impressive. Balasaraswati sang for the arangetram and I could get a glimpse of her, but I did not meet her then. Mary returned to Carmel, California, in the United States but continued to maintain contact with me. Years later, on her recommendation, Bala's daughter Lakshmi began studying yoga with me, as did her brother Ranganathan. Polio-struck Ranga was very resourceful: he drove a car and rode a motorbike although he had only one good leg.

One day Lakshmi insisted that I should advise her mother on certain health problems. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to meet the great Bala. Bala came to my home accompanied by Lakshmi. So ordinary did she look that if I had not known she was a great dancer, I wouldn't have guessed it Nothing about her indicated her profession. This was not all. For, after I completed reviewing her health, I was convinced that she couldn't be dancing at all. Her ailments were such that she had to be resting in bed. When she told me that she was teaching dance in the U.S. as well as in Madras, I couldn't "believe me ears".

When she went on to say she was also giving performances, I —aware that she was a heart patient and suffered also from diabetes and arthritis— immediately told her she shouldn't dance. It was a difficult decision for her. She replied with composure : "It was difficult for me even to come over to your place. I feel so exhausted. But when it comes to giving a dance performance, it's different. It's my moment of prayer. I implore God to give me the strength to dance. The stiff, painful arms begin to move. It's all His strength." I fell silent, moved by her simple, lucid, frank and honest explanation. Bala received yoga instruction from me and we met several times.

Never once did she speak of herself. Her thought speech and action had such oneness, honesty and simplicity that there was no shadow of pride. She took me for a messiah and followed my advice without question. Perhaps it was the yogic exercises she performed or perhaps it was her resolution and faith, or more likely, a combination of both these elements that contributed to it, but her health showed considerable improvement. She could walk, eat and sleep better. She began to appreciate the relevance and role of yoga exercises to dancers and their ability to dance well. A long stream of her students started taking yoga lessons at the Mandiram. One good act leads to another. Several years later, I met Balasaraswati at Raj Bhavan, the State Governor's residence.

She was there waiting to meet the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. When eventually she sat next to Indiraji, it looked as though no garland of flowers could adorn the PM better. But the PM did offer Bala a bouquet and one could feel palpably the mutual warmth that existed between them. Many moons later, she wished to see me. I wish I had met her sooner. The months that followed consumed her physical body. And she died soon. She lived and died a great artist but I am proud to have known her as a simple soul.

Rukmini Devi

Rukmini Devi was on the wrong side of her sixties when I met her. Nonetheless charming. Age could not wither her. But it gave her problems which she wanted to get rid of by learning yoga from me. I had heard of her as an authority on Indian art and culture. I had heard too that she was authoritarian. I was a little worried about my ability to teach her. The warnings were that she was hard-headed, difficult to deal with and not easy to relate to. This was in 1969 and I met her at her house inside the Theosophical Society compound. She was with her family. As I entered, she got up and thanked me for coming to her place for the teaching.

That was the first pleasant surprise. She took her first lesson and, such was the magic of her personality, I completely forgot I was teaching such a distinguished person. I found her to be a genuine student, alert and hardworking. Her range of knowledge was staggering. She spoke of meeting Anna Pavlova and described how ballet dancers were trained to dance barefoot on the snow. She threw open her wide art collection to me. She was an expert tea-maker. She lectured me on the art and craft of tea-making. She showed me how to differentiate the genuine, real chinaware from the imitations. Rukmini Devi exhibited astonishing eagerness to learn more and more asanas. I was cautious in teaching her. I had to consider her age.

But she had tremendous confidence. She wanted to perform shirasasana. At the age of 65! That was tenacity and determination indeed. She refused to be dissuaded. She often spoke to me about the proximity of dance and yoga. A close link. How the mind, the eyes and gestures have to follow one another faithfully in dance. It is so in yoga also. She revealed how she practised shirasasana every day mentally and thus prepared herself so that she could do better when I came to instruct her. A mental preparation culminating in a physical act Yoga should not be merely physical activity. For some years after this initial contact I could not meet her. One day I bad a call from her. She wished to see me. I went to her Adyar home.

There she was with two sets of china ware—authentic ones. She wanted to present them to me since we were moving into the new house that we had built She had wanted to give them to me even earlier but somehow had never got around to do it I salute her memory. She was the very epitome of the best in Indian values. Be it animal care, education, art learning or health, her deep concern was unquestionable.