Leela Samson, who has been steering Kalakshetra's course with a firm hand, opens up on diverse topics

The quietude of Kalakshetra reflects in her personality. There is an understated elegance, a Spartan charm about Leela Samson, the director of this well-known temple for the arts. The sense of aesthetics and neatness is pronounced in her office — magazines arranged tidily on a rack, bronze statues of the deities, founder Rukmini Devi's grace and beauty captured in a black-and-white photograph, wall hangings and artefacts that reflect our craft heritage.

Leela Samson has been steering Kalakshetra's course with a firm hand since she took over office five years ago. This was the institution the dancer-Director had joined as a girl, imbibing its traditions from Rukmini Devi. In the last few years, Leela has opened wide the doors of the Kalakshetra Foundation. Folk performing art forms. Crafts bazaars. Modern theatre productions. Contemporary dance recitals. The multi-coloured skeins of our cultural weave have since been creating patterns of oneness in diversity.

As director, she has been faced with challenges and a few controversies. But she has held her own. Leela, who ran her own dance repertoire (Spanda) in Delhi before shifting to Chennai, wins one's respect by not shying away from questions. She speaks her mind frankly and with rare articulation.

Opening up the space

It takes time to turn a ship around, to change people's mindsets. As an artiste, you want the institution to flourish in a certain way. But, you have to win trust. I could get support from the Board and from the Ministry of Culture…

The broadmindedness of the founder did not transfer to the next generation. I've always said the enemies of Kalakshetra are from within — parochial, shuttered. I feel there should be tolerance, mutual admiration and respect — for institutions, styles, banis and individuals.

But, she points out the openness is not something new to the institution. Rukmini Devi had introduced it all — modern theatre, modern dance and craft. She was very liberal. The arangetram of many of the works of dancer Chandralekha was held here.

There was a time when the institution was quiet….

But, then does not every institution go through this phase? When the head of the family dies, there is a lull…

Controversies: shifting of idols on the campus

I faced the challenge of trust. I don't belong to a particular faction, and I don't belong to the South. As for the problems, I was not born a Hindu. If you belong to a minority community in this country, you can be belittled for your “lack of understanding” of a “deeper” philosophy. But, you can't be a Bharatanatyam dancer in India without an absolute attunement to the Hindu faith.

Performances as dancer

I miss it, definitely. There is no making up for it. I can't sponsor my own programme. I'm usually now a chief guest at other performers' programmes. But, I was never very ambitious as a dancer. (Pragmatically) As you sow, so you reap. Dance needs continuous practice. I miss performing, but accept it. I do a show now and then.

Administrative work

No, administrative work does not bog me down. It is a means to an end. I am okay with it. If artistes don't generally like it, then maybe I'm not such a good artiste (she laughs). I'm actually not very good at everything — I'm a bit of a dancer, a bit of a writer, and a bit of an administrator. But, we have pulled off some very nice festivals with the enthusiasm of the students and the teachers here.

Finding the strength to deal with the pressures

Difficult question (becomes thoughtful). The job depletes a lot of energy, and there is resistance to change. Kalakshetra was not keeping up with the times at all. So many units had to be computerised. There was also not much “lena dena” with other institutions. I have worked at altering the composition of the student population to make it representative. Usually, artistes are said to be volatile people. But, there is an inner resilience when you are an artiste.

A distant demeanour; socialising

When you are a single woman, it could be an off-putter. Otherwise, his (husband's) friends are your friends. I'm sure there is a bit of that in it. But frankly, wrapped up in this job, I find it difficult to socialise too much, though I love having friends. I have some close friends in Chennai. But, I was never one for painting the town red. I love animals and I love books. My dog and cat help me relax. I also put some of the weight (of stress) on my mother. My father, a retired naval officer, passed away two years ago.

The response to her recently-launched book on Rukmini Devi

There has not been much response as yet. Frankly, I think it is partially good. I don't have the academic background, a scholarly method of analytical study or critiquing. I was overwhelmed by the material I had. But I think that before critiquing, it is important that youngsters especially get to know about the lives of such amazing people.

Rukmini Devi, for me, is not so much a constant as a distant presence. Her philosophy and sense of aesthetics have rubbed off on me and several others — no doubt of that.