Interview: Leela Samson

Posted on April 25, 2007


Picture courtesy: thehorizons



Kalakshetra made Leela Samson what she is today. In return, Leela Samson hopes to restore Kalakshetra to what it was yesterday.

APR 22, 2007 – IT IS a huge office that Leela Samson occupies. This isn’t a metaphorical reference to the responsibilities of carrying on the legacy of Rukmini Devi. I mean that her office is huge – physically huge. Everything in it appears diminished in perspective – even her voice, which, by the time it reaches me, seems to hover someplace between a whisper and a murmur. I’m tempted to ask her to speak up, but I don’t. That might phase out the ambient noise that enhances our conversation, much like how the right background music adds flavour to a movie moment. The sounds filter in from not very far away, where a practice session is in progress. The reverberating jangle of anklet bells as feet stomp the boards in unison, the enunciations of the jathis from the nattuvanar guiding these motions, the tinny chimes of the finger cymbals tracking these rhythms… Even the ceiling fan above us leaves the imprint of a metre, with its gently creaky whirr. It works up enough of a breeze to tease into motion a few stray strands of Leela’s hair, which is otherwise done up in a severe bun. Add to that a vertical streak of black on her forehead and an unfussy cotton sari, and I could be talking to the headmistress of a particularly disciplinary school. But then I take in the way she holds the recording device – poised on the tips of fingers that extend from a delicately cupped palm, a lotus bud with a chrome offshoot. I am in no doubt that this is a dancer I am sitting across.

“I joined in 1961,â€? Leela begins, referring to the institution that was established in 1936. At the time, Kalakshetra was not in Thiruvanmiyur. It was in Adyar. “We were part of the Theosophical Society then. The great stalwarts had very definite ideas about what education meant, what art meant, what progress in India meant, what political awareness meant. It was a very vibrant atmosphere.â€? She paints the picture of a happy utopia, almost a fairy tale when looked at from today’s frankly utilitarian times, but her subsequent account of the politicking behind the scenes dismisses all notions of happily-ever-after. “But Rukmini Devi was going through a very, very bad patch. She believed that her work was part and parcel of Theosophical thought, but the Society thought otherwise. They felt she was taking up too much land, getting too much individual recognition. At one point, they asked her to leave.â€? That was when Rukmini Devi bought the land in Thiruvanmiyur, to continue her work in the arts and in education.

The mention of those days makes Leela break into the kind of smile usually reserved for rainy afternoons spent thumbing through yellowed family photographs. Much fond nostalgia is evident in her recollections of seeing the infrastructure come up, “cottage by cottage. It would be a large area to focus on the all-round education of the Indian child. Arts, science, fine arts, culture, architecture, philosophy, mythology – it was a very holistic view.â€? The school – named after Annie Besant – offered an “alternative system of education. We wore pyjamakurtas or pavadachattais. We didn’t have shoes and socks and ties. We played sport, but we also learnt dance and music. We had weaving as a co-curricular activity. We learnt patriotic songs, folk songs.â€? As she describes it, Besant Theosophical High School stood for the best of western education, but with Indian sensibilities – and it retained that identity till Rukmini Devi’s passing. Now it’s become a State Board school, providing free education for the underprivileged, but, “at that time, the students came from Theosophist circles. They were children of people who admired what Annie Besant stood for.â€?

I ASK if Leela’s father was a Theosophist too. She laughs, shaking her head. “Not at all. My father was from the services, the Navy – very British, but also open-minded enough. I was extremely unhappy with the convents. This school suited my temperament perfectly.â€? Leela says this with such enthusiasm, it’s easy to imagine her as a little girl jumping up and down, clapping her hands – to the tempo of a metronome, of course. But an inadvertent question changes the mood. Just where exactly was this school? “It was where the KFI (Krishnamurti Foundation India) school is now… It’s ironic and actually very sad – because there was a legitimate Theosophical school there, which they shunted out. Later, they gave the same land to J Krishnamurti.â€? She goes silent, and I am surprised that all these years after, there are still such strong feelings about the injustice. Then, realising perhaps that emotions have gotten in the way of objectivity, Leela offers this corrective. “But that’s not for me to comment on, really. I’m just saying that it’s nice to look at history. These were people who we looked up to and thought they were perfect beings.â€? What she leaves unsaid is that they had their biases, just like everyone else.

“And anyway,â€? Leela says, “I think it was wonderful when Rukmini Devi did move out, though she was always fighting a battle.â€? Gradually, Kalakshetra became a vital dance company and dance academy, and also a sort of finishing school for many South Indian girls, giving them “that other awareness of music and dance. The way Rukmini Devi dressed was emulated. The way she spoke was emulated. She became an icon of Indian culture. This was important because it brought back an awareness of the aesthetics that weren’t there before, or that were beginning to be forfeited at the feet of Western education.â€? Such ideals do not translate into a mad rush for enrollment, especially these days, and Leela admits that their CBSE school – this one exists apart from the school for the underprivileged – doesn’t get “a certain class of students because we wear pyjamakurtas, because the students sit on the floor. But that’s what she believed in. She thought it didn’t matter to a child. And sitting on the floor is good for your bones. Even today, we sit on the floor and eat. Just this year, I put it to the students and staff if they wanted dining tables. They all said no.â€? I’m not surprised, having had a taste of this Spartan culture for myself while waiting for Leela in the reception area. There’s no sofa to sink into – only a wooden rest that practically dares you to slouch.

HERE, LEELA speaks in the capacity of director of the Kalakshetra Foundation, a post she’s held for some two years now. (Kalakshetra was declared an institute of national importance by an Act of Parliament; the Central Government took over, then handed it back to the trust known as the Kalakshetra Foundation.) She recalls her forebears as giants whose shadows still loom over her inheritance. “I don’t think they had any doubts about what their ideal was and what the best thing was for this institution. They were great philosophers, great thinkers, great educationists. I hope we’re not a pale reflection of that but we are simply people who are trying our best to keep such a thing alive. For there is no other like it.â€? Leela does acknowledge sibling institutions like Santi Niketan and Kalamandalam, but notes that they are in various states of disrepair. I ask if this means they aren’t thriving, as Kalakshetra is. “Well, I don’t know if this is thriving either. We are okay in terms of finance, but we have to be creative.â€? And the conversation loops back, perhaps inevitably, to Rukmini Devi, as the disciple ticks off her guru’s achievements – that she was Member of Parliament, that she found the time to run all the institutes, that she created 25 full-length dance dramas, that she was the greatest choreographer of the last century.

That kind of creativity leaves a large vacuum when it vanishes, though traces of what once was still remain. “She created a bank balance for us,â€? says Leela, “but we can’t rest on that and merely preserve her work. In fact, she hated that word: preserve. She felt art should be dynamic. We need to build on her work, not just make more fossilised dance dramas based on her work.â€? What she means is that Kutrala Kuravanji – Rukmini Devi’s very first dance drama – may be as popular today as it was in the forties, but that isn’t an end in itself. Taking an alarippu and merely tweaking the number of counts without tampering with the basic pattern, that isn’t an end in itself either. I wonder if Leela is referring to any particular dancer with this very particular example. But she has only words of praise for the performers of today. “There is great talent, good training.â€?

Leela’s own contributions to this creative renewal include “a lot of work in the solo format, which I’m passing on to students. And Dasaru Kanda Krishna was very well received.â€? That’s the new dance drama from Kalakshetra, where Leela choreographed verses of Purandaradasa and Kanakadasa in praise of Lord Krishna. She admits that this is something her guru is more likely to have done, as “Rukmini Devi was into the wonderful stories of our mythologies. I am into more abstract expressions of themes like space, which have no definite storyline, no hierarchical structure of characters.â€? But there are others occupying a happy middle-ground – like Kalakshetra alumnus Sheejith Krishna, who is doing The Man in the Iron Mask, “a speech play in Tamil, translated from the French, with a lot of dance and a lot of movement.â€? My face must have registered some kind of astonishment, for Leela quickly reminds me that innovation has always been part of Kalakshetra. “Rukmini Devi was the disciple of Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai, of the Pandanallur bani, but she allowed the dance to grow in her hands. Out of the five movements she was given, she created a hundred. This being able to deconstruct, disseminate and then renew – this is her major contribution to the dance form.â€?

THIS MAKES me curious as to whether there is something that characterises the Kalakshetra style of dance, whether there is such a thing as the Kalakshetra bani. “I don’t think Rukmini Devi ever called it a bani,â€? says Leela, “but in terms of performance, it would be the style of rendering an adavu, the insistence on touching the toes in a particular way, taking the bend to its fullness, stretching the arm to its completeness, the emphasis points, how high you jump, the manner in which you take a turn…â€? But if there is a Kalakshetra bani, Leela insists that it would encompass more than just what is presented on stage. She offers the hypothetical instance of a girl who would say she had a year before she went to the States, and wanted to learn enough to do an arangetram. “There are teachers who will help with this. After a couple of days, they’ll get into the alarippus, the completing of the items. There’ll be no theory, no rigour – and the girl, if she’s talented, may even give a very good arangetram. But what happens next?â€?

That’s a question students of Kalakshetra will never face, and Leela invokes an analogy that is particularly beautiful. “Just mugging up and reciting poetry is one thing. But when you learn the fundamentals of a language, when you learn the vocabulary, when you learn the alphabets and learn how to put them together to make words and phrases and sentences and ideas, that’s something else.â€? In Kalakshetra, the students are taught not just dance but to be a good singer, to learn an instrument if they like, to do painting, to do yoga, to learn to respect their body. They are introduced to the theory of dance, the history of art, Vedic heritage, mythology, philosophy, all this in addition to three languages, “and if they’re taken into a dance drama, it’s a privilege, but then they’ve got to do their normal course and perform when the company leaves town. The students are moulded very carefully by a system Rukmini Devi put into place. That, on the whole, you could call the Kalakshetra bani.â€?

I REMARK that the Kalakshetra way of life appears not just artistic but spiritual, but Leela brushes aside the notion. “Spiritual is too big a word – but I’d say philosophical, with the emphasis on contemplation. By the time they finish, the students are definitely more reflective individuals.â€? But why would anyone want to put themselves through such a degree of austerity when they could go elsewhere and just learn the steps? “That’s exactly what I’m saying,â€? says Leela, seeming somewhat relieved that I’ve finally begun to understand Kalakshetra. “That’s why it’s not popularâ€? – the “itâ€? being the diploma course in Bharatanatyam for students who’ve completed the tenth standard. “At 16, when they’re ready for freedom, why would students want to come to some place that’s stricter than home?â€? She attributes this rigour to why Kalakshetra doesn’t attract middle-class students. “Very rarely has a South Indian child from the middle or upper middle class come here, because they can afford to go to a private guru, where gratification is instant and on one’s terms. Here, they would have to conform to strict standards, to absolute discipline, to vegetarianism, to a quiet environment with no television. It’s a way of life that is very ashramic.â€?

Again, this is hardly the ideal recruitment speech, especially when Leela gleefully adds that the first year sees a great dropout rate. Then she talks about the kind of students who actually make it in, “from humble backgrounds, from small places all over the country. They are dying to be dancers but they cannot afford private teachers. So Kalakshetra literally serves the common man.â€? She talks of subsidies and scholarships – especially for the men, who would otherwise be pressured to get a job – and veers into a nostalgic non sequitur about male dancers, the first of whom were “students of Chandu Panikar who came along with the Kathakali master when Rukmini Devi invited him to teach. She had already started creating dance dramas, so it was important to have male dancers. Now, of course, everyone wants to choreograph the male body.â€? Digression over, we discuss the practical considerations of what students do after graduation. “They return to Surat or Nasik or wherever and get a good job at a school, apart from which they could set up a little dance school and end up being the Kalakshetra bani teacher in that town.â€? Many people become teachers rather than dancers because of financial reasons. “If you want security first, then you forfeit your dance career. Becoming a dancer takes a lot of time.â€?

LEELA SPEAKS from experience. In her case, she remembers, “It was tough. I also started teaching but I kept it minimal, just enough to see me through the month. It was a slow start.â€? But over the years, she ended up with her own dance company in Delhi – Spanda, which is one of the reasons Leela didn’t want to take up the offer to head Kalakshetra. “I was sitting pretty after all the hard work. I had a good career, a large number of students, very nice friends. I had a life in Delhi.â€? But Leela also cared that Kalakshetra was not really getting anywhere, and she outlines the period of turmoil after Rukmini Devi’s passing – a chain of events that lend themselves less to a gentle institution of the fine arts than the imperial court of Louis XV. Factions. Duress. Big egos. Union troubles. An attack on elder statesmen by an unknown assailant. These partial facts bounce off me, creating a picture with no discernable outline, but Leela helps with an analogy to the squabbles in a family “when the matriarch passes on.â€? She acknowledges the tough times her predecessors – Shankar Menon (Rukmini Devi’s “deputy for lifeâ€?) and S Rajaram – went through, and confesses, “In a sense, when I took over, that period was over – that period of shani, if you like.â€?

Leela isn’t sure why she was picked for the post, over “various people from outside who were bidding strongly for it.â€? But she guesses that “Rajaram was in his seventies and the institute needed a youngish person. I am in my mid-fifties. And I certainly have a very good understanding of what the institute is about.â€? Leela says she would have been happy for anybody from the system to come and revive it, “but it happened to fall in my lap and I felt that so often in life we complain about systems and societies and here was an option to do something without complaining. This was a chance to come back and do something for an institute that I believe is vital to the country.â€? I ask if she’s brought – along with Rukmini Devi – an amount of Leela Samson into Kalakshetra. “I’m not sure I did, though many people thought that I would. Since I’ve been here, I haven’t performed at all with them. I haven’t pushed my personal point of view.â€?

But it’s there just the same – that personal point of view, regarding the “rigid way of teaching,â€? for instance. “I’ve tried to talk to the teachers about teaching methodology, of which I have a great amount of experience. I haven’t been able to influence them yet.â€? Leela speaks of treating children like adults and drawing them into a world of beauty and creativity. “You only have to show them how to enter that world. After that, I would let them go. I wouldn’t make a bird with my hands and say, ‘Now copy me.’ I’d say, ‘How would you show a bird? Let’s do birds.’ I believe that’s the only way, but it is difficult for every teacher here to be like that.â€? Leela is happier discussing her documentation efforts for posterity, beginning with filming Rukmini Devi’s choreography for The Ramayana. “But it’s not just her. We are also documenting other greats who lived in her period in our institute – people like MD Ramanathan, Papanasam Sivan, Tiger Varadachariar,â€? she says, with the conviction that preserving the past is as good a way as any to set about the future.

Copyright ©2007 The New Sunday Express

Posted in: Arts: Indian