Leela Samson, a former student of Kalakshetra who had the privilege of studying directly under Rukmini Devi, is one of India’s best-known Bharata Natyam dancers. She taught for some years at Kalakshetra and toured all over the world as a member of its dance troupe. She is also a respected teacher, choreographer and writer.
I had the opportunity to meet with her following her recent performance in London, England. We had arranged to meet the next morning at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan where she was conducting a month-long workshop with a group of young British dancers. As we arranged our chairs in a corner of the dance studio and I tested my recorder, she admitted that she never sleeps very much after a performance because of all the energy and excitement she feels after a show. She didn’t show any signs of fatigue, but seemed rather composed and cheerful. The traces of alta still fresh on her hands were the only remnants of her performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall the night before.
My first question to Leela was one she’s surely been asked thousands of time: “How did you start dancing?” She started by explaining that she didn’t plan on becoming a professional dancer. She believes that it was fate that made the decision for her. Her father, who was a naval officer, and her artistically-inclined mother who enjoyed playing the piano, had sent their sons to prestigious schools and encouraged them to play sports. They felt that their only daughter should have some kind of artistic education and so decided to send her to Kalakshetra in Madras. This was a long way from Pune where the family was living, but Kalakshetra was one of the only schools which offered a formal education and the serious study of classical dance, music or painting. Leela has fond memories of her days there and remembers being very happy in its ashram atmosphere. When asked why she chose to study dance and not music or painting, she replied that she doesn’t really know why, and that she actually planned to become a doctor! She told me how when she finished secondary school she wanted to register at the university to study medicine. She was asked by the nun at the registrations office why she was applying to study medicine when she had a first class diploma in dance from Kalakshetra. Leela replied that she had learnt dance, like someone learns a sport or a craft, but that she really wanted to become a surgeon. She was then sternly told that she should think seriously about what she wanted to do and to come back if she decided to study medicine. Leela explained that until then, becoming a professional dancer wasn’t something that she had really thought about, and that at the time she didn’t realise the value of a first-class diploma from Kalakshetra. She laughed and said it was like a dancer coming out of the Bolshoi and declaring that she wanted to become a surgeon! (Below: dance class at Kalakshetra by Isabel)
Although the Indian government has offered her land and asked her to start a dance institution in Delhi, Leela prefers to teach privately. She decided at the beginning of her career that she didn’t want her artistic time to be eaten up by all administrative matters running a school entails. She believes that all you need to create beautiful dancers is a small space, and feels she has proven this through all the professionals she has put into the field. She keeps her classes small and only takes a few children as students from when they’re six or seven years of age, and keeps them right through their schooling.
Born to a Christian mother and a Jewish father, Leela belongs to a minority practicing an art form which has become dominated by Brahmins. She feels that she has been kept at a distance by some traditionalists for this reason. Bharata Natyam is a devotional dance form but Leela believes that the dance doesn’t speak a religion, but a universal philosophy. For Leela, Bharata Natyam has become a universal language which is being universally performed by people of all races and religions. “The constant search for something, be it a goal, beauty or happiness, a search for truth or love or the beloved is what the dance and art is about. It comes from the same impulse: looking for something beyond oneself, which is common to every human being.”
Though Leela received very traditional training at Kalakshetra, she has not hesitated to experiment with contemporary themes. She has been doing contemporary work with a group she has formed of young dancers. When I asked her to describe how she sees her evolution as a dancer, she explained that although she is considered to be a very traditional dancer, she has been able to use tradition to say new things in a modern context. For her, Bharata Natyam is a traditional art form which has the language and capacity to speak a modern language. She doesn’t see modernity and tradition as being in two different worlds and perceives things not in terms of past-present, but rather present-continuous: “For me, the fact that I’m dancing as a person of this time, if I’m dancing a traditional art form, for me that art form then becomes contemporary.”
We had been speaking for some time and Leela’s students had already arrived and were busy chatting and doing warm-ups at the other end of the room. I had time for one last question: “What’s the most important thing you would like to communicate through dance?” Leela was momentarily pensive before reflecting that many things get communicated through dance and that each person in the audience picks up on different things according to his or her sensibilities. “But I would say love for beauty, love for life, love for expression. People tell me I’m very philosophical! As a person I am. So maybe it comes out in my dance, I don’t know. I can’t tell. I haven’t seen myself dance!”
This article was published in the Spring 2004 issue of Kala Arts Quarterly.
Photo of Leela Samson by P. Ravindran courtesy The Hindu.
Since this interview, Leela Samson went on to become Director of Kalakshetra in 2005. Rukmini Devi – A Life, her biography of her guru and the founder of Kalakshetra, was published at the beginning of 2010. She was recently appointed chairperson of the Sangeet Natak Akademi.
Visit the Kalakshetra website here.