This is a first-person narrative by Smt. Shakuntala Ramani, Chairperson of the Craft Education and Research Centre at Kalakshetra Foundation, one of the premier art institutions of India situated in Chennai. A close associate of the late Rukmini Devi Arundale, the founder-president of Kalakshetra, Smt. Ramani has been an active member of the Kalakshetra fraternity working in various capacities, as member, Academic Council, editor of the Kalakshetra Art Quarterly and the Kalakshetra News, and as head of the weaving centre and vegetable dye block-printing unit. She has toured extensively throughout the districts of Machilipatnam and Sri Kalahasti and other textile centres to acquire first-hand knowledge of the Kalamkari craft prior to establishing the Kalamkari unit at Kalakshetra. Deeply interested in the traditional textiles of India and the craft of vegetable dyes, she has lectured at many forums and writes regularly on craft subjects.
Born at Chennai in 1933, Shakuntala Ramani did Honours in English literature from Patna. She is well versed in Sanskrit, Hindi and Tamil literature. She was for some time member of the Advisory Committee of the Tamil Nadu Lalit Kala Akademi and edited their bilingual art and craft magazine Nun Kalai.
Talking to Organiser in Delhi she says, ?I was 14-years old only when I entered college. I joined the Patna Women'sCollege to study English literature, philosophy and Sanskrit. Because my father was a Sanskrit nut, I got stuck with the name Shakuntala. He was a strict disciplinarian and on the one hand, he wanted us to eat with the fork and knife, while on the other hand, to learn Sanskrit and all about our ancient literature.
?I was only 17-years old when I got married. My husband gave me full freedom to pursue my hobbies and interests. My husband decided to set up a plant for manufacturing special types of chemicals, like rayon grade caustic soda, etc. at Alwaye in Kerala and after we got married, I became a part of a big industrial group. I looked after the house and had children. As part of the industrial groups in Kerala, the wives of business magnates wanted to do some substantial social work. Moreover, because of Mahatma Gandhi also, I, like so many other women of India, was drawn to social welfare activities.
?I was appointed president of the Mahila Samaj and we all, members of this Samaj, decided to provide mid-day meals to children of jhuggi-jhonpris. On the first day of the inauguration of the programme, I saw children lined up in a row in an open mud ground with their hands stretched out to receive the meal we were to provide on their hands. For the first time I came face to face with such dire poverty. They did not have even banana leaves or paper to collect the meal in. I had always led a very sheltered life. It really shook me up. I told my secretary that first of all we had to have a proper hall constructed for serving the meals to children. So we decided to make our husbands and their friends to shell out the money. We all went to the office of Burmah Shell to collect money from a friend of my husband. As a social worker, I used to sweep the floors, cook the meals and do other chores but I found that to be a successful social worker, you needed to have the chutzpah to collect funds which I lacked and which was something beyond me. So I decided I was not cut out for this sort of work. ?Later as part of the Red Cross, we began to collect funds for establishing a centre for orthopaedic treatment of the disabled.?
?In 1968, I joined Rukmini Devi Arundale. This reminds me of the time when her marriage to an Englishman had caused a big furore in the south. I was really surprised that while she was criticised for marrying an Englishman, at home, we were told, ?Look at her, what all good work she is doing. It is really commendable.?
?I used to do a lot of batik painting and Smt. Rukmini Devi called me to help out in Kalakshetra work. I was put on the management committee and asked to convey to others what all Kalakshetra was doing. I was even given the responsibility of bringing out the newsletter. It was a time when all the people were against her. She had been thrown out of the Theosophical Society and she wanted a place to establish schools for children and purchase land. She collected money through donations from her friends and the link for which was the newsletter. That was where I came in. I got to know her friends also, who were all great artistes. All this work was after my own heart and I was allowed to move on an equal level. I did the work with utmost devotion and as a cause on the principle that we took not a penny from Kalakshetra. That is how I developed and matured?exposure to innumerable artistes and exposure to Rukmini Devi, cleanliness, simple habits and being Indian. Till then I was from an Indian Civil Service (ICS) family eating with a fork and knife, but on joining the Kalakshetra, I discovered a whole new world and underwent a complete change of heart. It was the same with Rukmini Devi. She had many British friends from the families of English nobles but she did not go begging for she believed in ?thus far and no further?. She was Indian to the core. She used to say, ?You must be true to yourself?. I could feel it in my heart that this was the correct thing that I was doing and that is why I am still stuck to Kalakshetra. We have to be true to ourselves instead of reflecting somebody else'sculture. It is so sad that this is what we are doing today. Ours is a holistic culture.
?I started the natural dye Kalamkari art and craft whose technology was so imperfect then that the colours used would bleed. Rukmini Devi was dead against the use of chemical dyes and wanted to use natural dyes alone, an eminent art which is dying and will soon been completely lost to us. You know, in the past we had some 300 natural colours and today we have only 10. Kamladevi Chattopadhyay and Rukmini Devi were very close to each other and she used to come to Chennai to see the work we were doing. In 2004, the Kalakshetra celebrated its birth centenary and we put up a grand show. All the work that we did to make the event successful was because of our fond memories and devotion to Smt. Rukmini Arundale.
?When I was in the Red Cross, I went on hospital visits. In India, we as the ladies? group used to go and help feed the helpless patients. We even carried out a survey of all the hospitals and found that the relatives of the patients would be crowded in corridors and verandahs as they had no accommodation to stay in. We collected funds and helped put up a shelter for the helpers to the patients.
?At Kalakshetra I noticed how pathetic we all were towards our craftsmen. You just have to see the absolutely superlative craft pieces that they create but their lives are such a misery. Dismal conditions, sitting in a mud pits and weaving Kanjeevaram brocades. I feel guilty even to wear such a saree. Yet after 100 years, they are in this pitiable condition. What is the use of organising festivals of India all over the world? Why don'tour government officials visit our villages and see for themselves the misery of these wonderful craftsmen of our country?
?What is more, everybody today wants synthetic garments as these are longer lasting and they are oblivious of the cotton and silks we produce. Fashion designers are preparing what is not true to us. What they produce is not indigenous. Even if one-tenth of the money spent on organising such fashion shows, etc. was spent on improving the lives of our craftsmen, we would be able to go far ahead. Nowhere in the world can we see such a variety of craft and skills as is present in our country.
I have reached an age when I feel comfortable with myself. I am able to come out and interact with people with my sense of worth. No criticism or approbation bothers me as I am happy with myself. I am not taking a penny from Kalakshetra but am doing whatever I can to keep Rukmini Devi'smemory alive.?