Sarada Hoffman

As I wrote about Rukmini Devi and our Great-Grandfather Alladi Mahadeva Sastri,  I realized our aunt Sharada, who is the second student of Rukmini Devi, and has  been given the Sangeet Natak Akademi award ,  it’d be a good idea to share an interview of her which  shows how deep and close the connections are.  I know Sarada mostly from listening  to my father speak of her , though she did visit me a couple,of times when I briefly lived in Madras .

I thought it’s a good idea to post interview here. It was featured in 

Sarada Hoffman

Bharatanatyam dancer 

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.

The Great-Grandfather who performed the marriage of Rukmini Devi and Arundale. 

It’s Rukmini Devi Arundale’s 112th Birthday, says the Google doodle. What it doesn’t say, and what we all(adis) know and are immensely proud of, is our family’s connections with Rukmini Devi. 

First, the marriage of 16-year-old Rukmini Devi and 44-year-old Dr George S. Arundale in 1920,was performed by Alladi Mahadeva Sastri, the Vedic scholar, who happens to be our great-grandfather. After serving as curator at Oriental Research Institute, Mysore, the great-grandfather had become the Director of Adyar Library, in the 1920s.

Wikipedia informs me that “The ceremony was conducted by Alladi Mahadeva Shastri. Rukmini Devi “was the first well-known Brahmin lady to break caste by marring a foreigner.” She and her family were ostracized by their Brahmin associates, but with support of Theosophists, the Indian public eventually adjusted to the marriage.

His son , M. Krishnan ( younger brother of my grandfather Ramabrahma) who was a theosophist, and worked for the Olcott Memorial school run by the Theosophical Society.

And then our aunt, Sarada  Hoffman, ( cousin to my father and my mother) became her student, her second , after Radha Bernier, danced and taught at Kalakshetra all her life, and now lives a quiet retired life close to it.

As Sarada  says in an interview, -I belong to the third generation of theosophists. My paternal 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.

The Great Grandfather also taught Annie Besant Sanskrit for a while. His daughters, my maternal grandmother Indira, her sisters Padma and Kamala were married on the campus. There is a photograph of Paddu Pati’s wedding ceremony , being held under the banyan tree on the theosophical estate, which, I’m afraid I’m not able to lay my hands on at the moment. I am not sure if their youngest sister, Vasantha was also married there.  

Mahadeva Sastri has authored a slim volume titled “The Vedic Law of Marriage Or The Emancipation Of Women”. Which I have started reading, and in which he explains that the Vedic times were good times for women. More on this as I finish reading, this and his other works, chiefly. The translation of Shankara Bhasya on Bhagavadgita and Dakshinamurthy Stotram 

Here is the interview of Sarada Hoffman, a legend in her own right, of whom my father speaks of with fondness and deep affection.



The  only wealth , (apart from the Telugu translation of Valmiki’s Ramayana)    that Mamidipudi Ramakrishnaiah aka Chamanna left his large brood of grandchildren was the 16 children  he had with Indiramma. How rich  we 29 cousins are in aunts and uncles who babysat, played with us,  got us icecream and took us to movies, and  were willing accomplices in the many capers that were wrought by the young ones , gamely taking the rap, or skillfully concealing the entire op from the authority.

We were all lucky it never mattered which aunt was in charge of an army of cousins. No one felt the lack of their respective moms, and happily demanded whatever was needed from the aunt in charge.  At Saraswathi’s  there was always the aroma of great sambar wafting from the kitchen, and there were tons of M&Bs to be found .  You could see serious conversations between a 4-year-old and an aunt/uncle,in  Nellore, or at Rohini’s and it would be hard to say who was the grown-up there. At Jani’s you could expect some sharp scolding if you didnt eat your vegetables, but as much snacks and junk food you wanted to munch on while playing, if you did eat your vegetables.

Everybody calls each other by name, the raucous arguments often unfold when the clan gathers , the side-shows wher secrets are traded and uncles (as in the spouses of the aunts) commandeer a passing kid to massage their legs,  and a great game of Monopoly is played.  There are aunts cooking up a storm in the kitchen, and an impromptu contest is  announced to judge who, Thulasi ( my mom, she’s been gone four years now) or Jani (Janaki, also gone , for a long time now) makes the best  masala dosa.  There’s Rohini, our youngest aunt, whose adventures in North  Indian cuisine is my introduction to cooking with basmati and garam masala!

Rama went two weeks back, to join her parents and eight siblings, who now reside in our hearts, and memories. And we who know ourselves to be so rich in aunts and uncles, are feeling suddenly bereft of a presence  that was many things- the one we went to when we needed an old myth verified. the juicy details of an old , forgotten scandal, or trying to  untangle a  hopelessly  knotted branch of the vast family tree. She was  the aunt who generously gave of her affection to all her nieces and nephews, cooked the most delicious anything ,  excelled at embroidery and crochet and a host of other crafts,  and somehow ended up being the spare Amma to all of us.

I wish it was possible to remember when you realized your mom was your mom, or the first time you met an aunt and began a beautiful relationship in which you got most of the fun.  I remember that fun part.  A summer holiday when I was  may seven or eight. Venky, Sekhar, Vimala,  brothers Subri and Bunty and I, were all sent to Rama’s house -the mansion on Poes Road.  Her mother-in-law,  also Athya since she was   Chamanna’s sister was there. Venky and Sekhar winkled a permission to raid the mango tree and divest it of the season’s best, only to be roundly chastised, by Athya, who was under the impression that she had said they could gather the fallen pieces, and was quite devasted at the loss of a couple of bottles worth of avakkai in this caper.

I was quite taken with the collection of Chandamama , all bound , 12  issues to a book , that were upstairs, though I think they were Telugu, and i could barely read a few words. Athya , I remember told me the story  of Little One Eye, Little Two Eyes and Little Three Eyes.

There were cats. and they loved ompodi.  We knew there’d always be ompodi, and  as long as there was enough for the cats, we could help ourselves, which we did.

Subri tells me that  one afternoon,  the Rita Icecream cart came by. Everyone ran out, and Rama said she’ll fetch the donnes ( cups made out of palm leaves) . By the time she returned, everyone was done eating icecream, and Vimala informed her, “we are done already, you can take the “donti” back “.  Rama went, laughing

Kids that we were, none of us bothered to consider where the money to pay for the icecream came from. When she went to doll-making class, she asked me to pick which kind of doll I wanted. I asked for a Japanese doll, and soon enough a 10-inch Japanese maiden in rich orange and cream brocade arrived, to delight me for many years, sitting on top of the showcase. I wish I’d kept it.

Thanks to Rama, I discovered the Woman & Home and Woman’s Weekly, the British magazines that she subsribed to, and had also collected and bound. They were passed on to Vimala and me later, and for many years I treasured mine, reading  and re-reading the serialised romances of  Iris Bromige, Lucilla Andrews,  Lucy WAlker whose stories were located in Australia. In WW, the royal photographer Cecil Beaton wrote a column, and this  is why I think I know a great deal than I am supposed to  about  life in Buckingham Palace, in the 50s and 60s. Again it is  courtesy of these magazines, that also had knitting and embroidery patterns, and recipes that I pretend-cooked and today, know that I will never feel lost in London and its neighbourhood if  were to be left to find my own way around that city.

When the news came that Rama had left us , on Jan 26,  the first thing that hit me was that I would no longer be required to  rustle up  sweetcorn and vegetable soup, and  make a bowl of  dosavakkai because Rama was coming to visit.

There would no longer be  little deceptions practised over cooking egg at home.  Rama’s  fuss over eggs was legendary, and everyone learned to walk around , well, eggshells on this matter. Eggs made a hesitant entry into the diet in some of our kitchens  on account of “doctor’s orders”  due to some of us kids being underweight, and it was an open secret that some kitchens in the clan had become “eggstraordinary”.

She once refused to eat an eggless cake that I’d baked, saying ” cake means egg”. Later, Patta ( our Mama) said of her, ” now she’ll eat anything that has a green dot on it”.

Our aunts and uncles have taught us to laugh at ourselves and laugh with each other.  Rama’s loud crack of laughter at some joke, her delight at a baby nephew’s cheeky line,  her trademark  habit of clutching her forehead with her thumb and little finger, which she would then flap vigorously, meaning that she thought someone (among us) was being annoying,  a thalanoppi in fact, has amused us always, and everyone uses it  now. It could become  sign by which we cousins can recognize each other, across the globe like Freemasons !

SOmetimes Amma  would keep the battered little nonstick pan in a corner of the kitchen, and it would be pointed out to Rama and she’d be told, ” don’t use that Rama, it’s for the eggs.  She’d nod , and we’d avoid eggs while she was visiting. and instead, get her to make her famous vankaya koora with podi, and  kandhi patchadi and any Nellore specialities that we fancied.

I called Srikala, and we spoke tearfully of Rama, and Srikala announced she’d make Dondakaya koora Rama style in her memory.  Venky has said he’ll frame a peice of Rama’s crochetHe ha and hang it up in the living room. He spoke reminiscently of  ompodi , and cats and one summer of mango-picking.Nandini remembered  the summer holidays in Nellore, and Rama’s excellent  minimula pachadi and kathrikai curry.

Appa, and the aunts and uncles,  have seen Rama suffer many tragedies, and much misery. Yet, she was always cheerful, never dwelt on her own problems, Appa says, and I agree, we never saw her brooding or moping.

The oldest cousin, Mahesh, who grew up in  Nellore, and Popy, and I spoke long about what Rama meant to us. How well-read she was, and  well-informed – she always read the paper from masthead to imprint, and could discuss politics like a pro.  I remember some years ago, when Bangalore had a brief outing with floods,  Chief Minister Kumaraswamy came visitng  houses in the Kamakhya neighbourhood, when cousin Sheeli lives. Rama was visiting at the time.

He looked around, and asked them if they were ok, and then Rama asked him , “do you know Alladi Jayasri,  she’s with The Hindu?”

Mr Kumaraswamy, who, it so happened had heard of Alladi Jayasri, and had a few days earlier called up personally to thank her for  the story on his  interaction with women prisoners that was  telecast be Doordarshan, said he did.

With pride Rama told him she was said Alladi Jayasri’s aunt.

Rama our little aunt who had boundless affection for all her nieces and nephews,  and enormous pride in what they did, and  enjoyed being among them, as they laughed, played, argued and fought together, sometimes with her. She’ll be missed much and for long.

Picture (Rama in glasses, and it’s our Indira Paati with her back to us) courtesy Vagiswari. She tells me it is from  the wedding of Mani and Jayanthi. The others are Vagis’ parents and siblings.















































































She wrote long letters, filling the entire blue inland letter with her neat handwriting, with news of the uncles and Pati and visits and trips and asking when Amma would come.