Leela Samson's resignation as the director of Kalakshetra has opened a can of worms. Meera Srinivasan and A. Srivathsan look at the murky side of Chennai's premier seat of the arts
Various lobbies seem to be exerting pressure on the tranquil campus of Kalakshetra from all sides, and the recent resignation of Leela Samson as its director is only a symptom of a much more complex problem plaguing the revered institution.
Much of the pressure, particularly in the context of the board meeting held on April 10, came in the form of compliance to government norms and procedures, it is reliably learnt. It must have, for Ms. Samson resigned two days later.
While voices of dissent emerged every now and then ever since she turned 60, a petition filed by C.S. Thomas, a retired professor of dance at Kalakshetra, last year sparked further turbulence. Angered by a “delay” in confirmation of his daughter's appointment as faculty member at Kalakshetra, Mr. Thomas filed a public interest litigation challenging direct appointments made in the institution.
His lawyer R.T. Shyamala, an advocate practising at the Madras High Court, told The Hindu: “There were irregularities in appointments. We complained to the Ministry of Culture, asking it to refer the issue to the vigilance commission. Since the Ministry did not follow it up and caused a delay, we filed a petition.” The petition, besides challenging Ms. Samson's continuance as director after she turned 60, also questioned the director's educational qualification, vis-à-vis the rules laid down in the Kalakshetra Foundations Act 1993.
The institution is also being subjected to pulls from various quarters — some of them political — because it sits on a large property in a much sought-after location in the city. Certain parties have been claiming ownership over portions of the property and the Foundation has been fighting legal battles to assert its ownership over the land. Informed sources say she was never ready for a compromise on that front. This irked many.
Pressures did not always come from outside. Latent anger has been brewing within the campus for long, according to artistes associated with Kalakshetra. A senior dancer complained: “Some old timers who have worked closely with Rukmini Devi feel left out and have been systematically sidelined. They have not been involved even in advisory capacities.” As a result, some staff members including a few young and very promising dancers have consciously distanced themselves from the institution, they said.
A. Janardhanan, a former principal who retired in 2002 and served as professor emeritus for another two years, said he no longer felt like engaging closely with Kalakshetra. “My association with Kalakshetra spans 47 years, uninterrupted. I have worked with Rukmini athai closely and been part of almost all her productions. Somehow, in the recent years I have maintained a distance. I may not be able to tell you why. I do not want to blame anyone,” he said.
But there is another school of thought that throws its weight solidly behind Leela Samson. Artistes belonging to this school point out that when Ms. Samson took over in 2005, she had a clear vision and mandate — take the institution on a progressive path and make it more inclusive and open. An art critic who pleaded anonymity said, “Given her mandate, she might have challenged or altered some existing practices at the institution. That may have angered or upset a few. Any change in such a big institution has such consequences.”
Bharatanatyam exponent Sheejith Krishna, who taught at Kalakshetra until two years ago, said those who feel that old timers were sidelined are not justified in saying so. “An institution is always bigger than individuals. We have to make way for younger artistes and that is one reason I decided to move out. But that does not in any way change my relationship with Kalakshetra, which is like my mother's home,” he said.
Observing that Kalakshetra has never shut its doors to its old students or employees, Mr. Krishna said: “I can tell you that Leela Samson really widened the horizons of Kalakshetra. Whether it was about touring rural parts of north-eastern states of India for performances, or the US after decades [a group toured the US in 1936; the next time was in 2011], it has meant a lot of exposure and learning for students of Kalakshetra. She strived to take the arts to the common man too.” The aim, Krishna said, is to work in the best interest of the institution and not make everyone happy.
And then her detractors, ahead of the board meeting, decided to shine the spotlight on the report of the Office of the Principal Accountant General (Civil Audit) (CAG), Tamil Nadu and Puducherry.
Based on the account statements of the Kalakshetra Foundation during the year 2011, the report raised specific procedural objections. One such was regarding the awarding of civil works and upgradation of audio system in Kalakshetra. The architect consultant for renovation of the kitchen, dining and associated facilities of the hostel block had obtained quotations from three firms and recommended one of them as the civil contractor. The value of the work allotted was about Rs. 34 lakh. The CAG questioned this method of allocation of work. It said that obtaining quotations from different sources was not acceptable and instead a tendering system should have been in place. The CAG also raised similar objections in the case of procuring sound systems worth Rs. 62 lakh.
Kalakshetra had delegated powers to another architect consultant for inviting and analysing tenders for renovating the Koothambalam auditorium. The CAG objected to such delegation of powers and wanted to know why a technically competent third-person was not appointed to look into the tenders. However, the CAG is yet to pass its final comments on this issue since it is awaiting specific replies to the points raised.
Another objection to the procedures adopted was regarding commissioning M/s Madhu Ambat Productions, Chennai, for video documentation of Rukmini Devi Arundale's dance dramas and other productions of Kalakshtera in ‘a broadcast quality digital format'. The contract value was Rs. 3.9 crore. The CAG did not deem such documentation work as being “specialised in nature” and observed that this work too should have been allotted through “established procedures of tendering.” The report also asked why the sound and light equipments bought for the ongoing Koothambalam renovation was not utilised.
The audit report also raises another point pertaining to appointments, particularly some “direct recruitments” instead of promotions, which are at present being legally contested. In its reply to the CAG, the Kalakshetra Foundation stated that “the regularisation of selection and subsequent ratification had already been taken up with the Ministry of Culture and reply is awaited.”
Ms. Samson, her close associates said, tried her best to deal with legal battles, possible gaps in procedural requirements and other kinds of pressure. As one of them put it: “She could not take it anymore. Things had gone beyond control.”