eela Samson is a true personification of elegance and grace as she casts a spell with her nimble dance moves. The former director Kalakshetra and former Chairperson of Sangeet Natak Akademi and Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) has many awards and recognitions to her credit. Some of them include the Padma Shri, the Sanskriti, Nritya Choodamani, Kalaimamani given by Government of Tamil Nadu and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for her contributions to Bharatanatyam.
The Spanda Dance Company was founded in 1995 with the intention of exploring ensemble work in bharatanatyam. The choreographies are meant for multiple dancers – usually around eight, both male and female – who engage in a less solo-centric form, without the need to convert all story-telling into a male-female construct and breaking from the frontal, made-for-the-proscenium stage presentations that the soloist has conformed to for over a century. The performances include the abstract and the symbolic, the traditional and the contemporary, without forsaking the vocabulary of Bharatanatyam that forms the bedrock of the style we love. All Spanda choreographies made thus far are by Leela Samson, the founder of the Company. Here’s Leela in conversation with Team Provoke.
Did you always wanted to become a dancer and did you have this dream ever since your childhood?
Becoming a dancer wasn’t initially in my plans. During my childhood, I dedicated my time to extracurricular activities, thoroughly enjoying the experience. However, the turning point in my career occurred when my father held the position of Commandant at the National Defense Academy in Khadakvasla, Poona. Among the officers working under him was Commander Rajan from Adyar. One day, my father shared that nurturing an arts background for his daughter would be beneficial. Coincidentally, Commander Rajan informed me about a remarkable place called Kalakshetra, founded by the renowned Rukmini Devi Arundale. This institution was a hub of learning, offering school education, dance classes, music lessons, musical instruments, and art classes. The decision to send me to Kalakshetra for training in Indian classical dance and music was made when I was just nine years old. My parents made this choice for me, and I’m forever grateful.
Though I initially aspired to become a doctor or surgeon, a dream that had been etched in my mind since childhood, I eventually embraced a career in dance because the training at Kalakshetra was simply exceptional.
My time at the convent school in Poona wasn’t particularly enjoyable, and I had a bit of apprehension about the strict environment with the nuns. Recognizing that the conventional education and uniforms didn’t suit my temperament, my parents made a perceptive decision. They recognized that I thrived in the creative environment of Kalakshetra. Indeed, my journey took an unexpected turn, and it was all thanks to my parents’ open-mindedness and their recognition of the profound value of the institute.
You authored a biography of Rukmini Devi Arundale. What aspects of her life and work inspired you to undertake this project, and what do you hope readers gain from it?
She was undoubtedly a giant in many domains. Her impact extended far beyond revolutionizing dance; she initiated a Pallikoodam (school) that made significant contributions to our nation. At a time when many public schools were following Western educational models, she championed the traditional Indian system of education passed down by our ancestors. She recognized the inherent value in our rich Indian culture and successfully implemented it.
Her influence extended to various spheres. She held the position of Vice President of the International Vegetarian Union and advocated for vegetarianism, promoting a healthier lifestyle and cruelty-free treatment of animals. She was an activist for animal welfare, demonstrating her commitment to the welfare of animals. She also played a vital role in revitalizing the Kanchipuram weaving community, providing them with opportunities for sustainable livelihoods.
Rukmini Devi was indeed a multifaceted personality. She was a philosopher an educator, a and much more. Her association with the Theosophical Society enriched her already diverse repertoire of knowledge and experiences. Her life serves as an abundant source of inspiration and wisdom.
During my time at Kalakshetra, I didn’t spend one-on-one time with Rukmini Devi. We were all there as young children, and our interactions were primarily through her dedicated assistants, such as Thangamani Akka, Vasantha Teacher, and Jaya Teacher, who played pivotal roles in our training.
You have had a multifaceted career spanning dance, choreography, teaching, writing, acting, and administrative roles. How do you balance and draw inspiration from these diverse pursuits in your life?
It is tough and the older you get, your energy levels get slacken. But actually, because I have so many options, my energy levels remain high. I learned how to conserve energy. Since I’m alone I have a lots of quiet hours. When you talk less you will have a lot of energy.
If I had to study or I have to prepare or learn my lines for the film then I would like to do that on my own quietly. So I feel very energised. At the moment I’m directing for the Spanda dance company that will be performing for the Provoke Lifestyle Art Festival.
I do my solos occasionally. I’m doing small roles in films too. I have done many film roles, some are in Tamil, some are in Telugu, while some are in Malayalam. I’m not an expert in all the three languages since I come from mixed parents. I have to study each of the characters and I really enjoy the whole process. Since I’m a dancer, body language isn’t a problem for me. Most actors are good at delivering dialogues, but their body movements are a bit reserved. But for me I have worked on the dialogues and lines a lot and my body postures come easily to me.
If you become a student, you will always learn something new.
How was your experience working with Manirathnam Sir?
Working with him was so comfortable. He made me very comfortable. He didn’t give me any instructions, and he never scolded me. In ‘OK Kanmani’ he gave corrections to others like Prakashraj Sir, Dulquer Salman and Nithya Menon, who have all acted in many films. Manirathnam Sir gave corrections to all of them but not to me.
How did the transition from a successful dance career to administrative roles at Kalakshetra and as the CBFC chairperson impact your perspective on the challenges of leadership and administration?
I like to explore many things, and I’m not always capable of doing many things. Sometimes you get hurt, and sometimes you are a failure, but when the opportunity comes, you should try. I started acting in the films after my 60s. I had always thought and had a plan that if I retired from dance, I should learn something new.
It wasn’t easy. My career was different, and Kalakshetra was different. When I became the director of Kalakshetra, my troubles began. I made a name as a soloist but to head an institution is a big thing and that to an institution that is a part of the Central Government. You had to learn government norms, rules, regulations conditions, finance, and law cases related to the institute. I’m a dancer and looking into these many things is a specialist job and we are not trained for that. Even an IAS officer is not trained to handle everything, but they have some training in these administrative processes. And being the CBFC chairperson was also hard.
How much are the people interested in learning Bharatanatyam in 2023?
A lot of people are interested in learning Bharatanayam. The question is whether they can make a career out of it. People don’t like to pay dancers. They are willing to pay musician but they won’t pay the dancer. The musician who plays for the dance gets paid, but we don’t get paid. So this is a problem dancers are facing. So for a dancer to survive a career in dance is a very tough thing but they still learn the artform and train very hard as they’re passionate about it. I’m not talking about rich girls from rich families; I’m taking about poor girls from poor families. They are also dancing as they also want to express themselves. So this is a big thing. In olden times ‘Devadasis’ didn’t have much money but they sacrificed their whole life to dance. So this is very important for us to remember that many people have given a lifetime to keeping these dance forms alive.
Our children are lucky that they are receiving not one classical form, but so many. Many classical forms in this country are alive and kicking and still they are being passed on. Why should someone put on four hours of Kathakali makeup and become a Kathakali dancer? He doesn’t need to do it. He can join a company and make a lot of money but still they are doing it. Despite less money, there are still some boys who are entering into the field to be Koodiyattam artist or a Manipuri artist or a Kathakali dancer. They are drawn towards this art form, they do it and some are very successful and make good money. But they have to teach even though they have to they are not teachers, but that is where they can make some money.
The students are now very talented, but they lack some steadiness. And girls will be pulled to get married or have children, which takes away from their preparedness of their body and mind. But of course you have to be a daughter, you have to be a mother, a sister and daughter in law and take care of all those responsibilities. And still they are practicing, which is a big thing.
For last 50- 60 years we can see many foreigners coming to India, to learn our artforms. There are scholars who became residents of India and they are scholars of our art form who have written many valuable books on Indian art.
We also happily take from Western culture not only in films but also young people who are using Carnatic Sangeet and Hindustani music to rap with jazz artists or great violinists. Our great composers are all working with orchestras. So there is lot of very good collaboration happening and with that, our children are changing and that is good because we need people to appreciate each other. Some are conservatives, and some stay within the boundaries of their form, which we appreciate, as both are healthy.
How do you see the evolution of art getting fused?
It is a natural progression. We all change with each generation according to our comfort, logic and understanding of the world and there is nothing wrong with it. It is not easy to fuse two art forms and bring something new and to do it intelligently and to make the third entity more beautiful than the two independent entities.
Spanda is also a new concept. It is a new and different work and we are happy doing it and enjoying every moment.
You’ve received several awards and honours, including the Padma Shri. Can you share a particularly memorable moment or achievement that stands out in your career?
I can only say that it is a blessing and an honour that you are honoured by your own community of artists and the country recognises you, but it is not necessary. I think you should have the guts to live your life without the awards. Our grandmother gave their 70 years of life to the family and they didn’t get any award. It doesn’t mean they deserve less than people who got awards.
Our farmers have spent 70-80 years of their life to the farmland. That doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve the awards. Our soldiers are giving their lives; of course, the army has awards, medals and medallions. Every nation tries to honour their citizens but I think it is not necessary. One should keep giving and keep following one’s passion, regardless of the awards and rewards.