`Time to open the doors'
Leela Samson, Kalakshetra's new director, on her vision for the bedrock of Bharatanatyam.
`There are lots of challenges, but things will improve'
Photo: S. R. Raghunathan
Dancer at the helm: Leela Samson's mantra is give people the joy of Bharatanatyam.
Walking towards the banyan tree, Leela Samson winces every time she sees another truck spluttering into the campus. "There is just too much concrete in Kalakshetra now. I can barely recognise it," she says, putting a hand to her face as dust rises from a just-thrown sack of cement. But she's here, sitting by the banyan tree in Kalakshetra after 30 years of a hi-flying performing career that took her all around the world; she's here, ready to take over next month as new Director of this bedrock of Bharatanatyam.
"A cycle is coming to an end," Leela says, perhaps not only of her own life, but also the life of her alma mater. "How did she do it?" she asks, in disbelief of the strength of Rukmini Devi Arundale, whose brainchild Leela now holds in her hands. "To create something that stood for India's past, to make a statement against a very British system of education, and to see all this come to fruition in 50 years of Independence... And all this while giving new meaning to Bharatanatyam itself." After atthai passed away in February 1996, Leela says several elderly people guided the spirit of the institution, "but they've passed on too." Suddenly, it seems like there is a new face everywhere.
However, the character of Kalakshetra remains the same. "This is because of a sort of conservatism. There is so much more in the art world. It's time to open the doors... " As if having a debate with herself, she quickly counters her vision with what others might say. "Yes, of course, a true folk artiste hones his craft in his village, and not at seminars in the city."
In that way, she says, Kalakshetra's isolation has helped preserve a dance form. But without exposure, she worries its unbending rigidity is taking over the art.
With diplomas from Kalakshetra, students become performers, or return to their small towns and teach exactly what they learnt here.
"Now you can't go and teach 40 children with geography and physics homework the same rigorous methods you learnt in an exclusive dance school. You must give them the joy of Bharatanatyam, not the whole book of instructions."
Leela attributes this to the divide between the classical art and the art people actually enjoy. "Imagine every Indian child knowing how to use a few mudras it'll be like easily using a few words from a language that's not our mother tongue." It is the spirit of movement that anyone associated with Kalakshetra must try to forward.
"I realise I have this view because I left Kalakshetra," says Leela, who trained here, but went on to become a soloist and choreographer with a contemporary bent of mind. "Delhi is a pot pourri of artists from all scenes; not like Madras, where even artists come specialised. I'm glad for the 30 years of exposure there. I carry all that richness with me." In Rukmini Devi Arundale's days too, there were artists, philosophers, and educationists who shared their experiences with the students then. "This opening up is not new to this institution. I guess after so many threats to its existence, so many struggles, people have shrunk back into their shells." When asked if people here are actually terrified of losing the art form, Leela retorts: "I don't know why there should be any fear! If the art had to go, it had 300 years to go. Any of us could've taken more remunerative jobs. And what are they worried about anyway?" she says, exasperated. And adds, "People are falling over each other to perform in the Sabhas anyway." Do they complain that what exists now is shallow? "See, the arts are alive at what depth they're alive, we can only understand through more research and study. For this, healthy interaction is necessary. And more than one opinion."
Leela says that things have gone unquestioned for so long that even "ugliness has become institutionalised". "It's hurtful to see a dancer perform in front of big white letters in thermacole, unnecessarily announcing the sabha they're performing for." Atthai had once spoken to her about a performance that had a huge Amrutanjan ad as the stage backdrop. "Ugh. If you're not constantly thinking, reengaging with the art form, your performance ends up with the mediocrity that coexists with the greater artistes of the day."
Still shaking her head about the Amrutanjan ad, Leela slowly stands up, folding her paai. "I'm just filling in after S. Rajaram. There are lots of challenges, but things will improve," she says, smiling broadly, "First, we'll start with changing some mindsets."
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