Sangeet Natak Akademi chairperson Leela Samson on her time in Kalakshetra and the role SNA must play to promote the arts better.
Once an artist gains celebrity status, we don’t always bother to look to their early days in the art. The case of Leela Samson, Sangeet Natak Akademi chairperson, is interesting though, considering her journey from a 10-year-old student of dance at Kalakshetra to heading the institution, and then reaching her current position at the helm of the apex cultural body of the country. During an interview on a recent visit to Kolkata, the Chennai-based dancer went down memory lane and also touched on what she endeavours to achieve at the SNA.
On her early years in Bharatanatyam
I started learning Bharatanatyam in Khadakwasla at the age of seven and came to Kalakshetra at ten.
Who were your teachers?
My teachers were Thangamani Nagaraj, Vasanta Vedam, N. S. Jayalakshmi, who learnt from Rukmini Devi and Pushpa Shankar, Kala Ramesh, Shanta Dhananjayan and Krishnaveni Lakshman who learnt from Sharada Hoffman and others.
On her Kalakshetra experience
I was a child and young adult when I studied in Kalakshetra. It was a simple yet profoundly idealistic, inclusive, philosophical, inspirational institution which believed in hard work and sacrifice as a way of life. When I became its director, I was 54 years old. It was in a slump. The visionaries had passed away, the great teachers had been retired off according to some ridiculous government norms. The various units of the foundation acted independently. Even in 2005, there was not a single computer being used on the entire campus, except in the school where computer classes were taught. Kalakshetra was laidback, the teachers were uninspired, conservative thinking was the norm. The teachers lacked an inclusive artistic spirit, with no inquisitiveness or rigour in the educational or artistic processes. The institute lacked vision. None of the students of Kalakshetra, except for the very first few like Sharda Hoffman, C.V. Chandrashekhar and others of their time actually learnt from Rukmini Devi. Everyone else learnt from her students. Everything else about life and art I learnt directly and mostly indirectly from her life and what she stood for. She taught by example. She also saw us dance and corrected, guided, inspired and reprimanded us. That is also teaching and the greatest learning comes from that, not just learning item after item.
On the state of classical dances in the country now and how it has changed from the 1930s
You are talking about a 90-year period! Of course there is change. Some good, some bad. Some better than good, some worse than simply bad. However, it has in these many decades served to do what it did to several centuries of dancers before this period too — which is to liberate a male or a female dancer, why even transgender dancers to find themselves, to discover new paths of livelihood and newer forms of expression. This is good.
If there is a problem, it is with the fashion of being a dancer, the pride that comes with knowing a little, the trendiness of it, the assumption that you can use it whichever way without in-depth knowledge of it or of oneself. The excessive talk about it at various ‘informed’ forums where the dissection of it does not match up to what the speaker does on stage.
On SNA’s role in improving the performing arts
SNA does not have a mandate to teach, to standardise, to pontificate or to arbitrate. However, it does recognise talent and promote and reward it. It also attempts to revive dying instruments and forms. It is meant to represent the artistic community at forums of national or international importance and advise the Government on the health of the community at large and appeal for funds to raise the standard, by promoting and supporting the arts. Since independence, India has had priorities like roti kapra makaan to provide for. Industrialisation, education and health are still struggling to keep up with the times. Successive governments have talked of the loss of our culture but have failed to understand how vital the role of the arts and languages is in retaining the true nature of India and its varied people, customs and beliefs. The preservation of old monuments is as important as the study of them. So too the various tangible and intangible arts of the country. Recording them and their great practitioners is part of what must be done.
The other part is to allow accessibility to the young to research and study them in India and in universities and libraries across the world. Also important is the introduction of the arts to education programmes, from primary class upwards. Culture comes from knowing and being and loving and living the nuances of an idea, a tradition and the appreciation of language, and the arts lead to this. You cannot afford to sever it.