Presenting Harmony's silvers - sparkling lives, success stories, accounts of endurance, courage, grit and passion

Ageless feet

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Leela Samson has played many roles—Bharatanatyam exponent, cultural administrator, writer and teacher. Her most fulfilling, though, is that of a teacher who stays connected to her art, she tells Sudha G Tilak

If you ever dropped by Chennai during the month of Margazhi (December-January) in the Tamil calendar until last year, you would have seen something special on a visit to Kalakshetra. The school that calls itself a shrine of dance came close to resembling one. Lily and lotus ponds formed soothing features around the leafy school campus and the classrooms thrummed to the beat of dancing feet, tremulous violins and musical notes against the mellow sky and the beach beyond.

Overseeing the school was then director Leela Samson, who invoked her former guru Rukmini Devi Arundale’s adherence to grace, beauty and the primacy of arts in our surroundings. Born in Coonoor, Tamil Nadu, Padmashri Leela Samson entered the halls of Kalakshetra when she was just nine years old and began her association with dance, even as her family shuttled between Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai.

At the time of this interview, she is at her home at a beachside suburb in Chennai. It has to be said that Samson’s presence has a calming effect on others. You always find her small and neat frame clothed in elegant saris, her hair with flecks of silver combed neatly into place and her face shorn of any makeup but for a bindi. Her poise, grace and dignity of bearing hide her steely interior: the courage of her convictions, dedication and intent of purpose. If there’s anything that breaks the beatitude of her countenance, it’s her smile that is dazzling. If you want to see what her energy is all about, witness her perform.


You have been a dancer since you were very young. You have worked as a teacher at Sriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra and at the Gandharv Marg Vidyala and later as director of Kalakshetra in 2005. Awards and encomiums aside, which role has been the most fulfilling: dancer, teacher, administrator?

I taught at the Kendra for 15 years. The most fulfilling in a personal way is the role of the dancer. But the most fulfilling in terms of your connect to the dance itself is teaching. Dancing teaches you about yourself and your true potential, while teaching shows you what you might become, what can be done with the art, and connects the world of the past with the world of the present.

You were nine years old when you entered Kalakshetra for the first time. Do you remember anything special about that day?

The first day was hard in that I understood what distance meant and distancing yourself from those you knew as your world. But there was also the excitement of the new and the simple. That is what I loved most about Adyar [a suburb of Chennai].

What was your first meeting with your guru and mentor Rukmini Devi Arundale like? What memories do you have of her; what impression did she leave on you?

She struck me as being imperial, though with the kindest eyes. She interviewed me along with several other vaadyaar [teachers] on my first day in Adyar. I did the alaaripu. I became a full-time student learning dance at Kalakshetra after the 8th grade.

What sets apart a dance student of Kalakshetra? What were the components of your curriculum that helped shape your art in all the years you were a student?

The 12-odd years I studied there were made up of dance, vocal music, theory of dance, bhajanai, Gita classes, yoga, sports. I am not sure what sets apart a Kalakshetra dancer any more, or even whether they do stand apart, and from what or who! There are many dancers worldwide who practice the art who stand apart and they do so owing to their devotion and commitment. Perhaps some Kalakshetra dancers also do.

What is the contrast you see in Bharatanatyam teaching and schooling then and now?

The discomfiting part has always been ‘item learning’ and this continues to be the bane of teaching all over the world. This has to be replaced with learning the tools of the art—the technique and all the allied arts like literature, music, rhythmic structures, colour, rituals, legends, the Veda—until the students discover the context and content of the art form and then opt to enter its core, which to me are the gems of the tradition; the compositions and how to perform. Besides, and most vital, is that we have missed working on a pedagogy and curriculum for teaching children and one for teaching teachers! Both suffer the burden of the professional repertoire when they ought to have a separate one—more realistic, fun, opening up the world of music, movement, the body, mythology, storytelling, nature and poetry attached to these things.

You were among the select group of dancers chosen for the performing troupe of Kalakshetra. How did you feel when Athai (Rukmini Devi Arundale) gave you the nod?

In every period, someone has to be selected and they are. I was not exceptional nor an exception. I would like to think that I was chosen at a time when I deserved it on merit. It always felt good to get a nod from Athai. After all, she was no mean observer of the dance.

You dropped college to become a full-time performer. How difficult was it to drop your studies in those days?

I discontinued college after two years to dance with the company on Athai’s call. Then I went back to Delhi to complete what I had left undone. Recently, the board of Kalakshetra, including the secretary, Ministry of Culture, and its chairman asked for my degree to be furnished. This, after being director for seven years! It is laughable; but can easily be justified as a requirement for the job. The insult is not easily forgotten though, for it was not my word that was taken to be true, but the actual certificate required to prove it. Perhaps they thought that’s what got me the job in the first place! Artists and crafts persons, in fact all professionals, are disrespected by bureaucrats in our country.

It is and always was difficult, at any time, to drop one’s studies and take up the arts. Where is that going to get you, especially if you came from a middle-class family as I did? But fortunately I had enlightened parents and perhaps indulgent ones too. They were perhaps influenced by Rukmini Devi who had scant respect for formal degrees.

How supportive were your parents?

In fact, it was they who encouraged me to dance and sing and to follow my heart. They were ignorant of how they might help, but were always supportive.

Born of Jewish-Catholic parents, you chose to pursue an art form that sprang from Hindu temples. What did this mix of cultures bring to your personality and art?

I guess it gave me an ability to view art and life with a sense of awe, yet with distance; with respect, yet not falling into the pits of prejudice that all of them have. In an interview once, I was asked if I had an allegiance to Israel and I said that although I had a Jewish surname, I was Indian and therefore owed no allegiance to Israel. In actual fact, you are only Jewish if your mother is. It was the truth! Unfortunately, till today, it has been an ‘official reason’ not to have me visit that beautiful country, as an artist. I have visited a couple of times privately way back in 1967, when my mother and I worked on a kibbutz through the summer, and later in 1971, when my brother was studying at the Technion in Haifa.

What or whom do you place your faith in?

I had faith in people but have realised that is, more often than not, misplaced. But animals and all of nature are fine! I have two dogs and a cat. They love me enough to make up for the rest.

A solo performer meets with a unique set of challenges while performing. When did you decide to perform as a soloist and what did you bring to your performances?

We were all trained in the early years to be soloists. It was not a decision I made. If you mean different from the dance dramas I performed in, that was part of work in my alma mater. Today, dancers can train differently. Most university programmes abroad are very eclectic. You learn many things and Bharatanatyam could be one of them along with hip-hop, jazz, African dance, modern, classical, etc. This was not so in my youth.

You said that dance is not just performance. It helps to have knowledge of music, theories, stories, history, to evolve. How can this be achieved by gurus in these instant noodle days?

It is difficult to achieve. However, I see no reason not to have these subjects taught in schools, including dance. In the earlier years, you have all the time in the world. What tells us that science and technology are more important for life than art or creative processes? I don’t get it.

You founded the dance group, Spanda, in the 1990s. How involved are you with the group now?

I founded it in 1995. It has been active through various periods but suffered these past seven years, like my own dancing and career did, when I took over the reins of Kalakshetra. Now, both Spanda and I are back on track with renewed energy. The group has some younger artists and some older ones, with a new repertoire of work. I am totally involved. I am sure though that some of the younger ones would prefer the work that Spanda does without me! Unfortunately for them, it’s a package; Spanda and me, we go together.

The boundaries of Bharatanatyam are being redefined. What are your views about contemporary experiments with the dance form?

I have no problems with them. Contemporary experiments are not the prerogative of our times. Everyone contemporised the dance in their own time. All the greats including Rukmini Devi did that. Else it would not be in the condition, good and bad, in which we have received it. I am also a dancer of what you may call contemporary Bharatanatyam. My choreographies are contemporary—both in the solo and group formats.

Your book Rukmini Devi, A Life was a wonderful, warm tribute to your guru written with a biographer’s adherence to the truth of the times and people involved. Why did you decide to write the book?

Because there was a need to write about her and I loved her enough to want to do it, even though I had no credentials in writing to do it. Sankara Menon, her long-time associate, was the one who encouraged me to do the book.

At the time you became director of Kalakshetra in 2005, dance and music performances in Chennai had become an industry. Kalakshetra seemed to have disappeared into the mist. You gave up your teaching and school in Delhi to shift to Chennai. How difficult was it for you?

It was a very difficult decision for me as I had a good career, great students and a life in Delhi. It was hardest for my students though—many generations of them. In my sacrifice, they made the bigger one.

You revived the beautiful school surroundings, held fests in the December season and brought the place alive under your care. Why did you nurture Kalakshetra with so much of your heart?

I knew what the place needed and did it because I loved the ideal with which it was started. It is meant to grow, not become stultified owing to the lack of vision of the teachers, or the corruptive and mal-intent of some office-bearers, or even the ‘couldn’t-care-less’ attitude of the bureaucracy in Delhi. Heart is what any institute needs, and foresight.

Was resigning as the director of Kalakshetra the hardest thing you ever did?

No. The easiest. I had had enough. I understood the games men play and their reluctance to deal with a woman. Their manipulations always plagued me and would always hamper me.

You’re now chairperson of the Sangeet Natak Akademi and Central Board of Film Certification. What are your plans to safeguard and nurture the arts that seem to be struggling in these days of commercialisation and movie and celebrity culture?

Why should I or anyone else presume to safeguard anything? Or nurture the arts? They have survived without the likes of me for centuries. I also do not believe that the arts of India are under threat from cinema. There is commercialisation in the arts, which is sometimes what it needs and sometimes detrimental. Cinema was always a part of India’s fabric and culture—now for 100 years. Films too celebrate our culture, our customs and our festivities. In fact, much of these have been immortalised in cinema for our masses.

The world is going through a phase of spectacular situations in cinema and Indian cinema will not be left behind. Sex and violence, abusive language and gang warfare is part of world culture too. Films reflect this. There is also sensitive cinema. Who cares to watch it? Does this not impact us as well?

The problem is that, very often, good cinema in India is given ‘A’ certification and gets ruled out of being shown on Doordarshan. These films have a right to be seen. People are happy watching fantasy lives and fanciful families that talk like ‘actors’ to each other. This is what we want our masses to watch. The good stuff is not seen. The documentaries are not seen. The award-winning films are not shown. Only the jury gets to see them.

Artists like Rukmini Devi Arundale, Chandralekha and Balaamma danced late into their lives. How does ageing affect an artist?

Like it affects all human beings I suppose. It is debilitating, I am sure. I don’t know because I am not quite there yet, thankfully! But I will soon be. Rukmini Devi did not dance for long. She started late and finished early. She did other things.

How do you keep yourself busy? Could you take us through a day in your life?

It is different each day. But typically, when I am in station, I take my dogs out early and do some jogging or exercises after that. If I have a rehearsal, the musicians come by. Sometimes I work with the group towards a show.

Do you miss having a family of your own? How do you keep in touch with your siblings?

No, I do not. Else I would have had one. The family lives abroad and I meet them off and on. But email and the mobile are great binders.

What do you read these days?

Whatever comes my way. A friend gave me The Wildings by Nilanjana Roy that I liked. I picked up The Help by Kathryn Stockett and Our Lady of Alice Bhatti by Mohammed Hanif. Also on my table is Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar. Thank God I have time once again to read!

What gives you fulfilment today?

Fulfilment is a big word. I do not see much fulfilment in what I am doing, as there is little trust between the powers that be and professionals like us. In fact, rude awakenings constantly happen when you are told in no uncertain terms who the bosses are. So any dreams of seeing some good work happen is a lost dream. Only bureaucrats can tolerate bureaucrats.

How do you keep your mind and body together?

Through my dance and by having a philosophy.

What do you look forward to in the following years?

I do not dream anymore. I have learnt not to. I simply want to continue doing small things that will help our field, with small private agencies that care.

Appointed chairperson of the Central Board for Film Certification (CBFC)

Became director of Kalakshetra Foundation

Founded dance group Spanda

Received Padma Shri for her outstanding contribution to Bharatanatyam

Photo: Avinash Pasricha
Featured in Harmony — Celebrate Age Magazine
October 2013