The labyrinthine and controlled enclosures of a 75-year-old institute like Kalakshetra have not been easy to steer for many. This includes its former director and student, Bharatanatyam exponent Leela Samson, who resigned from the post in April 2012 amid much controversy surrounding her “forced” resignation, including the idea that she was “modernising” the institution and undermining tradition. Samson had spoken about being “dazed and beaten” then. But the last two years have seen a new Samson emerge, the one who is a narthaki first. The one whose compelling artistry on stage, that abstract style, which takes off from the core values and grammar of Bharatanatyam have elevated her to the stature of one of the finest Bharatanatyam dancers in the country. Other roles — being Director of the Central Board of Film Certification and Sangeet Natak Akademi — have just come as mandatory appointments.
“The last two years have been a return to who I am. I lost my parents around the same time, so it was a coming to terms with my situation in many different ways. Since then, I find time for what gives me the greatest pleasure and is the greatest teacher. I’m happy going back to what I love — dancing, dealing constantly with sahitya music and interacting with young dancers,” says Samson, who will open the 13th edition of Ananya dance festival on October 8, which is organised by Delhi-based, Seher.
The compositions that will be presented at the festival have two new works, one done earlier for a larger production and two that have been adapted from a solo. These will be presented by her group Spanda. “We have been working on them for many months. This selection of compositions is about different themes — innocence and valour; passion and jealousy; the perennial nurturing of the Ganga and her descent on our land and the power of swaras, their potential to make us full in the ultimate nature of things,” says the 63-year-old, who has choreographed the piece and will also be perform with the group.
However, she says, that as a dancer the solo format is more satisfying. “There is an age for group work. I have crossed that age. I now revel in making others dance,” says Samson, a dancer seeped in the learnings of her guru, Rukmini Devi Arundale, one of the greatest dancers of the last century who revived Dasi Attam (dance of the devadasis) into its present form of Bharatanatyam and got a young Leela to learn the ropes of the art form.
“There is a group of senior Kalakshetrians who believe that only they know what Rukmini Devi was like and stood for. The last word will not be said on her. In many ways she defies description,” says Samson, who left Kalakshetra in the early ’70s. Her performances that followed thereafter garnered much attention. This was happening despite her dance training submitted to the aesthetic of Kalakshetra, one considered superior by many. “We all work on the memory bank of our inheritance. Very few people can say that they do not improvise on what already exists. I do tend to think out of the box. People try to typify me and put me into a known category,” adds Samson, who believes that the only thing an artist is in possession of, and has been made one’s own over years of sadhana, is their art. “When I left all the things that we justify the need to do, we slowly move out of our comfort zone in the attempt to address larger issues and de-personalise our experiences for the larger good of passing on traditions,” says Samson, who is working on new varnams, padams and javalis.