Dancer Leela Samson opens up about her guru Rukmini Devi, Kalakshetra and her recently released book.
Rukmini Devi Arundale is a name perennially associated with Bharatanatyam and its revival. Yet, there were aspects of her growth as an individual, her art and philosophy, that are barely known and that risk fading away for want of adequate chronicling and documentation.
A labour of dedication and love, Leela Samson's biography Rukmini Devi: A Life released recently, unravels the events of her life, and the deeply personal relationship she had with the author.
Leela Samson, the Director of Kalakshetra, is a dancer known for rare sensitivity in her performances and an approach to choreography that is contemporary without compromising on the classical. Some excerpts from an interview…
This is an extremely well-documented biography of Rukmini Devi Arundale. It is also a very evocative one. What was your motivation to write it?
I am shocked that no one has written her biography…even as a student I remember wondering why nobody had chronicled her work… those who were really close to her were too involved in her work to be able to do so. ... It was tragic; almost ironic that somebody like that was not written about.
After she died, Sankara Menon was lamenting the fact that he had no energy to do this; he felt that somebody had to do it; I don't think he meant me to do this. It is quite obnoxious of me to think that I could actually do this! But when I asked him if I could look at her papers, he knew that he had put the noose around my neck…
I was fascinated to read about George Arundale and Annie Besant; you almost got distracted by them, because they were such amazing personalities. But, I saw her everyday, knew how quick she was to both affection and temper. She was the one I had to write about, I had a connection with her.
She emerges as a shy and sensitive person, but hugely talented and full of dynamism.
Yes, she also realised that she was fated to do something… she had to do it. She was also full of misgivings. And a very private person; not somebody you can write easily about. She was brusque with people who did not come to the point, who were humming and hawing… She was very kind to the poor…very close to them in a way that you were almost jealous of! There was contact and a space that you could not enter into.
Her genius flowered in the Theosophical milieu. How much do you think this movement had to do with it?
I can't believe how many people it affected…how many simple people it affected. After I joined Kalakshetra, my father, told me that his father had been part of the movement! Nobody had ever told me there was even an inkling of Theosophy in my family.
My grandmother, when she learnt that I was going there, told me he had been a follower of Annie Besant and had been inspired by her ideals! .Athai was a big leader; Annie Besant told her to go and stop the slaughtering of animals in front of the temple. And she would sometimes go and physically stop them. She was just a beautiful shy young girl, but that was when she came to her own…
What are some of the lesser known aspects of Rukmini Devi's art?
I would risk saying she was interpreted differently by different sishyas and I think that is a hallmark of somebody who has a large vision, large enough to be interpreted differently. We were tutored in inexplicable ways: what it meant to wear cotton; to tie your hair… she'd talk about these things. Her aesthetics on stage, the colour combinations; she'd adorn you with the most beautiful of colours. What I would do later wasn't a patch on her sense of aesthetics. Just to replicate her costumes is a struggle…they are not ‘gettable'.
In the book, you bring out the fact that she paid her tributes to devadasis…what was her attitude to them?
She adored the devadasis. Even today, students want to put her in a box. All these ugly words that have been used about her: that she ‘sanitised' dance; ‘sanskritised' it…that she was an antithesis to the devadasis.
This is because nobody is trying to understand who she was as a person. I am sure she had a lot of admiration for someone like Balasaraswati. But publicly, people drew lines between them saying that one stands for sringaram, and the other for bhakti,and the two don't meet.
Did they think that Balasaraswati had no bhakti or that Rukmini Devi with all the work she did in her dance dramas had no sringaram?
It depends on what your idea of sringaram is. She wasn't training us just to be dancers. Time and again she would tell us to be good citizens; good human beings. Her approach was educational, she was not hell bent upon showing overt sringaram to draw a particular crowd…dance was another vehicle, like craft or weaving, to have a sense of oneness with oneself... She set all encompassing syllabi for the arts - textiles, crafts, music, temples, mythology, philosophy…
Your lasting memories of Rukmini Devi?
There are so many … it was always very special to be there to see something being choreographed for the first time. Sometimes she did large chunks of choreography and you didn't know where you were! There were minimalistic moments, but always intense. If it was, say, poignant, it was difficult for us to give what she had in mind. I remember we had asked her for photographs of her, for her 50th year. She found it very surprising! When she gave us those pictures, she was so shy and vulnerable…
Then there was the incident I have spoken about in the book…after the tillanaI performed with Prof. C.V.Chandrasekhar, she didn't overtly ‘appreciate' my dance. But there were some people who, she felt, needed to be told they were good. Now as a teacher I realise that some people are embarrassed if you tell them they are good. These were things you learned in hindsight.