FRIDAY REVIEW

The passing of the baton

LEELA VENKATARAMAN

Leela Samson... Ready to take over the reins of Kalakshetra.

Leela Samson... Ready to take over the reins of Kalakshetra.  

IN THE manner of a serene hermitage, far removed from urban frenzy, late Rukmini Devi's brainchild Kalakshetra has been an island, cocooned from the pulls and pressures of the competitive world outside. For most of the general public, occasionally treated to the dance-drama presentations, perhaps the most visible part of its activities, Kalakshetra has seemed frozen in the mould set by its founder. It is regarded as the one constant in a changing art world.

Facades apart, the post-Rukmini Devi years have been anything but uneventful for Kalakshetra. Presiding calmly over simmering inner disquiet with personal ambitions rearing their ugly heads, and guiding the ship through choppy times, has been the Director S. Rajaram - the bridge linking the past with the present. Having steadied the ship, S. Rajaram wants to now call it a day and is bowing out of office. Tipped to be the next director is dancer Leela Samson.

Rajaram has been the one strong thread running through a fabric that has seen many changes in weave. Rocklike in his unswerving loyalty to Rukmini Devi, he has tried not to dilute the old Kalakshetra identity, his unobtrusive presence ensuring a continuity of sorts, amidst changes. The old guard of stalwarts like Shankara Menon and Padmasini, and familiar faces like those of Kamala Rani and Krishnaveni Lakshmanan have left this world. The two Sharadas, Periya and Chinna, have since retired as have bywords for Kalakshetra's dance-drama expertise Janardhanan and Balagopal.

The central government takeover while providing the much-needed financial security has also put the cap on overweening individual ambitions, taking over the reins after the towering presence of Rukmini Devi disappeared. No longer does the student in Kalakshetra live in a campus bristling with giant creative minds like Ariyakudi, Papanasam Sivan, Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai or Mysore Vasudevachary. S. Rajaram has been a witness to all the changes. Modest to a fault, he is from the old school of loyalists, all tireless workers with little or no remuneration. In the self-centred world of today, such men are an anachronism. After retiring from A.I.R, Hyderabad as Senior Station Director in 1983, on Rukmini Devi's persuasion, Rajaram joined as Principal of Kalakshetra in 1984. From 1995 as director for a decade, Rajaram has remained the same media shy person. with a spartan lifestyle. To preserve the legacy of the late Rukmini Devi has been his main motto.

Hailing from impeccable musical credentials, Rajaram as the grandson of the great Mysore Vasudevachary, was groomed under the best musical talents of Karnataka. No mean musician himself, his composing versatility has done Kalakshetra proud. When the legendary Vasudevachary, composer of music for Rukmini Devi's magnum opus production Ramayana, passed away before the series could be completed, Rajaram in true unobtrusive fashion, filled the breach, his music for Choodamani Pradanam and Maha Pattabhishekam no less brilliantly imaginative than what his grandfather composed for the earlier episodes in the series.

Kalakshetra's other productions like Bhakta Jayadeva, Bhakti Vijayan and Siva Geethi Mala in Sanskrit, Sri Purandaradasa and Akka Mahadevi in Kannada and Karna Sapatham in Malayalam have all been enriched by Rajaram's lilting music. A composer of Kritis in different ragas and of Varnams and Tillanas, music has been a way of life - though like a lamp hidden in the bushel with none of the performance glare such gifted artistes are wont to enjoy.

An institution, whose reins have been customarily held in proven old hands, will now pass into much younger hands. While groomed in the alma mater she is now called upon to head, Leela Samson brings with her winds from the outside world where amidst fierce competition, without the security of institutional support, she has carved out a successful career for herself.

Leela's appointment will be a change from the in-house functioning of Kalakshetra where none but those from within have been at the helm of affairs. Nurtured in the integrated art ambiance of Kalakshetra, Leela's fierce loyalty to her mentor, has not prevented her finding her own individuality in Bharatanatyam, which for her is a personal expression, underlined by an intellectual understanding.

Her choreography of Spanda, a suite of compositions in Bharatanatyam, is a seminal work, welding old art values to new ideas. As a gifted teacher, along with the training of the student's body and mind, she has passed on to her well-trained disciples a deep concern for decency and integrity and for art transforming the inner individual.

Leela's lifestyle, as her art, are characterised by quiet elegance with little ostentation, both person and art reflecting a sense of spirituality rather than religiosity.

Very much her own person, Leela will inject youthful dynamism into Kalakshetra. Not given to indulgence, she may not look favourably at teachers or students complacent in their not-so-slim bodies, "totally out of tune with your profession."

Leela's aim will be that Kalakshetra turns out, along with dance-drama veterans, really accomplished solo dancers and thinking artistes who know why they are doing what they are, who are able to hold their own against the most carping criticism, whose art has conviction rather than prettiness, and whose respect for the past in dance does not contradict concern for the present. Leela herself, with all her love for the Bharatanatyam Margam, has a very contemporary mind. A strong hand to guide the totality of Kalakshetra is needed. The Annie Besant School for instance, needs attention.

Leela is giving up her well-appointed, established little world in Delhi for a challenging future.

One hopes that little spheres of individual domain in Kalakshetra with all their vested interests, will not resist a Director who means business and will give Leela the cooperation she deserves. Here's wishing her the best!

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