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Leela's lessons

The unassuming dancer thinks that a guru should also be an eternal student

Leela Samson: `We're not breeding enough people who can transfer knowledge with love.' — Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

SHE'S NOTHING like I've seen in the pictures. A stunning pink sari and a matching single pink glass bangle on one hand, a stark and unembellished appearance. She's not the glamorous dancer I've seen in old black-and-white photographs. In fact, she has the air of a professor. I'm not expecting a zealous response from her, considering I was trying to nudge in an interview just before her performance.

The cool Cubbon Park breeze keeps up its tempo, just as the music does in the background. In the middle of the park's verdant green, Leela Samson stands talking with organisers of the Bangalore International Art Festival, discussing stage arrangements for the Purana Qila Dance Festival.

Down to earth

But after a quick intro, I see a warm, down-to-earth woman willing to plonk down on the lawn and talk about her love with a restrained passion, just before she dons make-up.

Dedicated shishya of Kalakshetra's revered Rukmini Devi Arundale, director and choreographer of her dance group Spanda, perceiver of dance as a coming together of body-mind-soul, enjoyable author of books on dance — Leela Samson has donned as many paatras off stage as she has in her dancing career.

Her endorsement of such festivals as a medium to take art to the common man is evident as she recalls how at a similar festival up north, joggers and walkers, popcorn and channa sellers stopped by to listen to Pandit Bhimsen Joshi. She is a believer that performances like the Ramlila are not the only source of art for the common folk. "The common man's sanskara is closer to art than that of us city-bred people. An exclusive crowd in an auditorium with a ticketed concert is not a place an ordinary man will walk in with confidence."

`The sho-sha business'

Ticketed concerts, "the sho-sha business", is bad for the arts, she believes. "I sometimes feel deprived of facing an audience that's different."

A spontaneous dancer draws substance from what moves her; she ventures into a no-man's land, with no precedents along the path. "You're moving forward and you know there is light at the end of the path. But whether what you're doing is true to the innate truth, and to tradition, while keeping up with the vision of the future, has to be proved by time alone."

What's intriguing is that the teacher of decades is still grappling with questions of her creativity, and of her innovations. But that's said to be the true sign of the eternal learner, the student. For someone who served her guru for 10 years and spent valuable time with her before going on to teach, it is inevitable that she wish away the quality of dance education today that she deems watered down. "When there was a concentration of dance teaching in the Thanjavur belt, there was high potency in that little area. Now we have spilled across to San Francisco." She's sceptical the numbers learning dance: "They go to the gym for a while and for Bharatanatyam maybe a longer while. But finally formal education takes the front seat... and even if they do strike a balance between a full-time career and dance, what are the returns? Is commercialism soul-satisfying?"

It is this business-like attitude to the learning of dance that displeases her. "They're teaching items in exchange for money. It's like a vastu (object) without value. Everybody wants to be a dancer, but not everyone wants to be a teacher. To be a teacher you need that spirit of analysis and dissection. We're not breeding enough people who can transfer knowledge with love."

Soul-searching second and third-generation NRIs may speak another tongue and live confused lives, but deep inside they have a keen interest in art forms that take them to their origin, says Leela who has been teaching abroad. But there aren't enough teachers.

As the evening light plays hide and seek with her face, her lustrous eyes catch a glint of sun as she fondly remembers Rukmini Devi Arundale, whom she sees as a visionary. "We have to see if someone has the same drive, momentum and natural spirit she had." She's now working on a biography of her guru and wants to write books that bring out the fun in dance "something teachers have no time for". A series of books on the theory of dance pertaining to various streams is also in the offing. Most of the recorded traditions are in Sanskrit with no translations for today's learners.

And as her thoughts wander as she looks away into the evening sun, she stuns me by declaring: "My dance career is over. I'm an old lady... very old," she laughs. "My bones are telling on me, you'll see. You can't dance forever."


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