Friday, September 10, 2010

A Silent Rebel Against Extremism

The gritty Leela Samson has proved all those who doubted her
wrong after assuming the top spot at Kalakshetra. Now also at
the helm of other cultural bodies, Anita R Ratnam finds she
has her work cut out for her All around me were t r admiring
whispers about her talent. Also swirling r overhead were the s
comments of caste and r community. "She is not a one of us, so
how can she r truly understand", was an oft repeated phrase, t
something that Samson has collided against
When the news of Sangeet Natak Akademi's new chair person was
announced last month, it would have hardly made a ripple and
would have possibly been buried on page six of the daily paper
if not for the individual who had been selected for the
position -Leela Samson. For 40 years, this quiet and
determined woman has stayed the course and followed her
passion -with grit and grace. In her 60th year, she assumes a
position that is both powerful and crucial for India's image
in the world of changing tastes and increasing cultural
The reader may ask, "What is the Sangeet Natak Akademi?" It is
India's premier apex cultural body that was established in
1953 by the first President of the country, Dr Rajendra Prasad
in New Delhi's Parliament House.
Now registered as a society, the Akademi, widely referred to
as SNA, has been headed by cultural and political giants like
Indira Gandhi, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Girish Karnad, KPS
Menon and Bhupen Hazarika.
The more pressing question on many minds is "Why was Leela
Samson chosen to head this prestigious institution?" Samson's
pedigree may not resemble that of a typical bureaucrat, but
her distinguished career has pushed her step by careful step
to this moment. Her Facebook profile photo shows a relaxed
graying woman embracing her two dogs who loiter in and out of
her office on the Kalakshetra campus; a thoughtful speaker, an
insightful writer who wrote a monthly column, The Still Point,
in New Delhi's First City for almost 10 years, a beautifully
controlled dancer and a silent rebel against all kinds of
extremism, Samson is now in the proverbial hot seat. The last
woman head of the SNA was dancer Sonal Mansingh who was unable
to complete her five-year term during the BJP government. That
another dancer, and that too, a woman would once again be
appointed as the head of this most coveted cultural `gaddi'
came as a surprise to many. But upon closer inspection, we
learn that Leela Samson was always someone who was regarded
very highly by the corridors of power. A former guru of
Priyanka Gandhi, Samson has distinguished herself as an
excellent teacher during her 30 years in New Delhi. Her
students testify to her open-minded training methods and many
like Justin, McCarthy, Navtej Johar, Anusha Lal, Aditi Rao and
Anusha Subramanyam have distinguished themselves as classical
and contemporary dancers.
Leela Samson left Kalakshetra for New Delhi in 1975, the same
year I joined the academy for my Post Graduate Diploma in
All around me were admiring whispers about her talent and
exceptional performance ability. Also swirling overhead were
the comments of caste and community. "She is not one of us, so
how can she truly understand", was an oft-repeated phrase,
something that Samson has collided against through the years.
Instead of buckling under these innuendos, she has used her
Judeo-Christian back ground to give her both objectivity and
clarity about Bharatanatyam rather than get ensnared by the
semantics and infighting that c often plagues the classical
community. At a recent conference in north America, I found s
her chafing at what has become de rigueur c now, of pitting
her guru Rukmini Devi against celebrated dancer Balasaraswati.

A multiple award winner at the national c and regional levels,
Leela was a prime student of founder Rukmini Devi Arundale and
I toured with the Kalakshetra troupe as one of the principal
dancers for many years. Her s own aesthetic arc has revealed
an austere r composure in her dancing and a surprisingly
eclectic `optic' in her attitude to the arts. As f president
of the Kalakshetra Foundation from 2005, she has quietly
overseen a trans t formation of this seminal cultural space
into a crucible for vibrant cross-pollination of the
contemporary alongside the classical. Festivals, works in
progress, modern Tamizh the r atre, discussions on classical
and contempo s rary music, restoring musical legend MS
Subbalakshmi's piano are only some of the a projects she has
green lighted. Currently the l famous Koothambalam theatre at
Kalakshet a ra is being renovated with upgraded lighting I and
sound systems for the upcoming December season. i Also holding
the position as head of the i South Zone Cultural Centre,
which monitors folk and non-classical cultural activities in
all the southern states, Leela now holds a third r and most
prestigious baton as numero uno of i the SNA. As the 12th
chairperson of this national body, she will oversee the manage
i ment of a large budget from the Human c Resources Ministry
that dispenses grants, scholarships and support in the areas
of a dance, music, theatre, tribal, folk, ritual/tra t
ditional arts and puppetry. The SNA also organises festivals,
workshops and has sepa t rate departments for publication and
docu t mentation as well as a library and a proposed museum of
the performing arts in New Delhi. o She will have to manage
the multiple activi s ties of the regional and zonal centres
of Kathak, Koodiyattam, Chhau and Sattriya dance styles. She
will supervise the animated discussions of the annual SNA
awards which are the most prestigious arts honours in India.
The many SNA committees delegated to the various branches of
the performing arts are comprised of artistes and not
Indian performing arts were always the shining international
ambassadors for a country seemingly in the perennial grip of
poverty and want. Maharajas and classical dancers were our
poster boys and girls until corporate India and Bollywood
burst onto the millennium scene. Today, India and all things
Indian is the buzzword around the world.
Young dancers and musicians are not seeking state sponsorship,
having cracked the corporate need for constantly changing
mindnumbing tamashas. There are fewer and fewer of the next
generation willing to commit to a life in dance and music with
monetary returns remaining a distant reality. How will the SNA
grapple with the increasing mediocrity in the arts? How will
it broaden its horizons to accommodate the present global
reality of technology and the popularity of self-published
bloggers, media managers and You Tube podcasts? Bharatanatyam
and Kathak, now global dance forms, have found excellent
practitioners outside India and dance academia are flourishing
outside our shores.
Infrastructure for India's performing arts is dismal. Lack of
trained managers, agents, impressarios, interlocutors,
writers, critics, echnical personnel, a performance network,
ehearsal spaces -the list goes on. Leela Samson has her hands
While cultural appointments are not egarded as prestigious
postings by the Delhi bureaucrats, for a dancer to be in the
driver's eat of such a large cultural institution has equired
patience and resilience.
Leela Samson has faced controversy while ssuming her current
position at Kalakshet a. She will be severely tested again at
the SNA. How will she juggle her appointment book in two
cities? In the field of culture, the wo remaining culture
postings in India are Chairman of the ICCR (Indian Council for
Cultural Relations) which is Karan Singh's portfolio and head
of the IGNCA (Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts)
which Kap la Vatsyayan now holds. Then the next step -a Rajya
Sabha seat.
One fact is certain. Leela Samson's new esponsibility will
severely curb her perform ng life. Her recent performance at
Mumbai's NCPA may be one of the last we see of this ntelligent
and dignified dancer. Her two suc essful ensemble productions
Spanda and Charisnu are already inter nationally pplauded and
perhaps her role as dance men or and choreographer may widen.
At an age when many divas stubbornly cling onto cen re stage,
Samson finds herself making a imely and graceful segue into an
eminent position of responsibility, and simultane usly
becoming the single most powerful per on on India's cultural

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