In her role as director of the prestigious Kalakshetra Foundation at Adayar, Chennai, established by Rukmini Devi Arundale in 1936, and considered the home of Bharatanatyam, Leela Samson is austere to the point of being forbidding.
It has been two years since she took over the troubled affairs of the academy and threw open its doors. Almost literally, the clear glass doors and windows now open to wooded grounds on an estate bordered by the sea. Dancers from all over the world study here. The open-air auditorium witnesses great performances while the koothambalam—traditional Kerala-style theatre—resounds with new ideas. Even the trees outside Samson’s office now look spruce, despite the summer heat.
Samson’s style of functioning has led to veiled attacks that she is an outsider and does not understand the ethos of the place. These have come from the Tamil press, from certain right-wing quarters and, more insidiously, via the Internet. “I’ve always been the outsider,” she says, “I knew that this was going to be a challenge. It was just something I felt I had to do.”
All this is quite a contrast from her image as one of the most enchanting dancers of her time, dressed in vibrant silks, her large, luminous eyes conveying seductive nuances and lightning changes of mood. It’s even more at variance with the time when, under Rukmini Devi’s inspired tutelage, Samson grew up in an atmosphere that fostered internationalism while exploring ways that nurtured pride in being Indian.
“As students, we were disciplined without being restrained. Rukmini Devi attracted some of the most creative minds of her time. They allowed us to be who we were without trying to mould us in any way. Compared to them, we are actually conformists, timid spirits who are afraid to be ourselves. They exemplified the idealism that was fostered by the national movement. Everyone thought of just one thing: the need to be free both within and without.”
Rukmini Devi surrounded herself with people of stature—artists, teachers, dancers and musicians. She also made sure that some of her best students went on to become teachers at Kalakshetra. Leela Samson was one of them. Many aspects of Rukmini Devi’s life, including the mementos from her travels, are now preserved in a small, but exquisitely curated, museum close to Samson’s office.
However, as has been the case with other such institutions, once the original impulse faded, so did the light from all those lamps that might have been lit earlier. It has always been a subject of intense debate whether the dancers who left the fold, such as Yamini Krishnamurthy and Leela Samson, became more famous because they moved into the circles of official patronage at New Delhi, or whether the ones who stayed behind at Kalakshetra, faithfully preserving their heritage, were more worthy of the creative spirit of their mentor.
V.P. Dhananjayan and Shanta Dhananjayan, a gifted husband and wife team who left Kalakshetra to start their own dance academy in Chennai, will always recall their break with a sense of regret. “I don’t think I would describe us as rebels,” explains Shanta. “We were happy artistically, but we felt that we had to leave because we wanted to better our lives. We were expected to work for very little money. We had to think of the future. By moving away, as some of the others have done, we have preserved the spirit of Kalakshetra in our own distinctive fashion.”
It’s interesting to remark upon what constitutes this spirit. For many of the younger generation of dancers, even invoking the name of Rukmini Devi implies a certain rigidity of approach, the severe discipline that was a hallmark of the teaching style at the school. As Chandralekha, the dancer-choreographer who challenged the Kalakshetra tradition once remarked, “The Kalakshetra dancers have forgotten their bodies.” Samson, too, echoes this: “As dancers, we rarely think of our bodies, I think we have to change this aspect of our teaching methodology (she has a volume of Gray’s Anatomy in her bookcase.) Having run her own school of dance in Delhi and now trying to explain her methods of teaching to a new generation of teachers at Kalakshetra, has been a part of the change that she is trying to introduce. She stresses that it’s quite different to run a school with a few select pupils as compared with handling a teaching institution such as Kalakshetra. Here, there are students from different walks of life, and they have just four years to train, so the teachers have to stick to a fairly rigid curriculum. It is a problem that classical dance academies the world over have had to face, how to maintain discipline while encouraging creativity.
There have also been repeated attacks on Rukmini Devi’s attempts to “sanitize” tradition by removing what people contend are the more erotic aspects of various poetic texts and rendering them Sunday School-type of blandly edifying performances. Shanta Dhananjayan counters this: “She tried to remove vulgarity and make the dance more aesthetic. You have to remember the period in which she revived the dance form. But she understood the aspect of shringara (erotic love) in the subtlest of forms. When she herself taught me those aspects of shringara that I had to perform when I took the role of Radha in a Geet Govind performance, when I was a very young girl, she did it with the utmost delicacy. It makes me catch my breath even now, after all these years, that she could convey such feelings, and make the moment sublime.”
It’s also very arrogant on the part of the younger dancers not to allow Rukmini Devi her own artistic freedom to choose those aspects of a poetic verse that she might have found most interesting to her way of thinking. Ironically, today it’s these puritanical elements that are trying to lynch Leela Samson for being too free with the so-called tradition of Kalakshetra, by introducing film appreciation classes, modern literature and ideas that are being described as “un-Hindu”.
“It’s unfortunate that in our country, we don’t seem to be able to separate the idea of an institution from their founders,” says Samson. “Places such as Oxford or Cambridge continue to have an image of themselves, despite having nurtured persons of great charisma and intellectual ability. The persona of that person does not wipe out the image of the original place.”
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