Remembering Rukmini Devi Arundale on her birthday February 29th.

Founder of Kalakshetra, Individual instrumental for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960 Founder and Chairperson of Animal welfare Board of India for almost 2 decades.

My happiest memories about Kalakshetra in my early school days (between the age of 8 and 16) was the walk to school and back from hostel. Accompanied by all the hostel dogs hopping and skipping, this was particularly my favourite. Even the walk to dance class through girls’ hostel. Both paths passed the rain water filled lakes with abundant water lilies that bloomed in the sunlight. Yellow, purple, pink, white- dazzling and beautiful. Come season we would see the dabchicks with their floating nests and young ones, swimming in line with perfect precision behind the mother. Dozens of other water birds would descend as well during monsoon – pond heron, cattle egret, and cormorant, patiently waiting to catch their food. If you were lucky you would see the water snakes swimming along enjoying the watery world and its thriving frog life for the brief time it lasted.

Drango

Drango

On most days the bird calls were the background chorus on campus. We took it for granted. I remember Anandhi teacher hurry past our dance class one evening and when we stuck our heads out to see what was happening, following the rhythmic chime of her mettu, she ran by calling us to see the Golden oriole that had just gone ahead. We knew the calls distinctly and ran after her to catch a glimpse of the brilliant golden bird with black wing markings. There are fond memories of barn owls that lived in the open air theatre. Beautiful big barn owls, a whole family of them. At dusk if one walked through campus one would never miss the owl screeches, swooping down, chasing after a rat or mouse. There were woodpecker as well in the big old trees around the old theatre. Once a visiting theatre performance of ghostly foreigners on stilts took us on a run through campus at dusk and a spotted owlet actually followed the performance out of curiosity. Gave the whole show an eerie effect!

Checkered Keelback

Checkered Keelback

Rat snake and mongoose were common sights and we learnt to stomp our way in the dark not wanting to step on a snake. Chameleon and monitor lizard were sighted too on the sandy banks under the trees. I never knew fear, just fascination to be still and witness one more of creation.

When I first arrived at Kalakshetra I was welcomed by hoopoe… dozens of them pecking at insects on the ground. I don’t see many around these days. Come summer it was the koel , both male and females with striking red eyes, daring to eat Singapore cherries right outside the hostel room windows. If one sat quietly one could see a number of birds enjoy the cherries- bulbul , babbler, finch. But the sound of the koel calling reminds me of hostel even today!Jyotsna’s father Uncle Sidharth Butch introduced me to birds. I remember asking him about a small brave black bird with a forked tail that liked to tease the hostel dogs.”Drango”, he smiled informing me and the name stuck. After that I always made the effort to find the name of the bird and never refer to it by the colour. He gifted me my very own first bird book by Salim Ali. Drangos dived and played every evening around the dogs under the casuarina trees in hostel. And the hostel cat would insist on having kittens in our room, Madhavi’s cupboard in particular!

Paradise Flycatcher

Paradise Flycatcher

Other prized sightings were the paradise flycatcher, long white tail swooshing through the trees as we followed. And my first rescue was a little swift whom I dropped off to Uncle Sidharth. I thought he would know what to do with the terrified little fellow. Now of course I would have looked for the nest in the trees above and put him back. But I didn’t know any better then.

When I started Blue Cross of Hyderabad in 1992 as a rescue and shelter for animals in Hyderabad, I was anxious of how I would cope with the responsibilities. During that time I had a dream of Attai one night. Rukmini Devi was affectionately called Attai by all who studied at Kalakshetra. In the dream I saw us as dance students in dance dress walking behind her as she briskly walked around Kalakshetra campus, her arms waiving as she showed us this tree and that building, smiling wisely she spoke facing me, “ When I started Kalakshetra I never imagined what it could be. All I knew was to plant one tree and build one classroom. Now look how it has grown. Don’t be afraid!” That message was what gave me strength and I put my worries aside, built one shed, rescued one animal at a time. Today 23 years later we have helped over 400,000 animals!

pond heron1-min

Pond Heron

Rukmini Devi had a deep impact on all of us students. She inspired and shared the beauty of art and compassion at every opportunity. She was instrumental in bringing in the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1960, India’s first Animal Protection Law and she chaired the Animal Welfare Board of India for many years. I carry deep respect and gratitude for Attai in my heart, for all that she did for us, for animals and nature.

Amala Akkineni
Actress / Founder, Blue Cross of Hyderabad
Director, Annapurna International School for Film and Media