When the news of Sangeet Natak Akademi’s new chairperson was announced last month, it would have hardly made a ripple and would have possibly been buried on page six of the daily paper if not for the individual who had been selected for the position — Leela Samson. For 40 years, this quiet and determined woman has stayed the course and followed her passion — with grit and grace. In her 60th year, she assumes a position that is both powerful and crucial for India’s image in the world of changing tastes and increasing cultural incoherence.
The reader may ask, “What is the Sangeet Natak Akademi?” It is India’s premier apex cultural body that was established in 1953 by the first President of the country, Dr Rajendra Prasad in New Delhi’s Parliament House. Now registered as a society, the Akademi, widely referred to as SNA, has been headed by cultural and political giants like Indira Gandhi, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Girish Karnad, KPS Menon and Bhupen Hazarika.
The more pressing question on many minds is “Why was Leela Samson chosen to head this prestigious institution?” Samson’s pedigree may not resemble that of a typical bureaucrat, but her distinguished career has pushed her step by careful step to this moment. Her Facebook profile photo shows a relaxed graying woman embracing her two dogs who loiter in and out of her office on the Kalakshetra campus; a thoughtful speaker, an insightful writer who wrote a monthly column, The Still Point, in New Delhi’s First City for almost 10 years, a beautifully controlled dancer and a silent rebel against all kinds of extremism, Samson is now in the proverbial hot seat. The last woman head of the SNA was dancer Sonal Mansingh who was unable to complete her five-year term during the BJP government. That another dancer, and that too, a woman would once again be appointed as the head of this most coveted cultural ‘gaddi’ came as a surprise to many. But upon closer inspection, we learn that Leela Samson was always someone who was regarded very highly by the corridors of power. A former guru of Priyanka Gandhi, Samson has distinguished herself as an excellent teacher during her 30 years in New Delhi. Her students testify to her open-minded training methods and many like Justin, McCarthy, Navtej
Johar, Anusha Lal, Aditi Rao and Anusha Subramanyam have distinguished themselves as classical and contemporary dancers.
Leela Samson left Kalakshetra for New Delhi in 1975, the same year I joined the academy for my Post Graduate Diploma in Dance. All around me were admiring whispers about her talent and exceptional performance ability. Also swirling overhead were the comments of caste and community. “She is not one of us, so how can she truly understand”, was an oft-repeated phrase, something that Samson has collided against through the years. Instead of buckling under these innuendos, she has used her Judeo-Christian background to give her both objectivity and clarity about Bharatanatyam rather than get ensnared by the semantics and infighting that often plagues the classical community. At a recent conference in north America, I found her chafing at what has become de rigueur now, of pitting her guru Rukmini Devi against celebrated dancer Balasaraswati.
A multiple award winner at the national and regional levels, Leela was a prime student of founder Rukmini Devi Arundale and toured with the Kalakshetra troupe as one of the principal dancers for many years. Her own aesthetic arc has revealed an austere composure in her dancing and a surprisingly eclectic ‘optic’ in her attitude to the arts. As president of the Kalakshetra Foundation from 2005, she has quietly overseen a transformation of this seminal cultural space into a crucible for vibrant cross-pollination of the contemporary alongside the classical. Festivals, works in progress, modern Tamizh theatre, discussions on classical and contemporary music, restoring musical legend MS Subbalakshmi’s piano are only some of the projects she has green lighted. Currently the famous Koothambalam theatre at Kalakshetra is being renovated with upgraded lighting and sound systems for the upcoming December season.
Also holding the position as head of the South Zone Cultural Centre, which monitors folk and non-classical cultural activities in all the southern states, Leela now holds a third and most prestigious baton as numero uno of the SNA. As the 12th chairperson of this national body, she will oversee the management of a large budget from the Human Resources Ministry that dispenses grants, scholarships and support in the areas of dance, music, theatre, tribal, folk, ritual/traditional arts and puppetry. The SNA also organises festivals, workshops and has separate departments for publication and documentation as well as a library and a proposed museum of the performing arts in New Delhi. She will have to manage the multiple activities of the regional and zonal centres of Kathak, Koodiyattam, Chhau and Sattriya dance styles. She will supervise the animated discussions of the annual SNA awards which are the most prestigious arts honours in India. The many SNA committees delegated to the various branches of the performing arts are comprised of artistes and not bureaucrats.
Indian performing arts were always the shining international ambassadors for a country seemingly in the perennial grip of poverty and want. Maharajas and classical dancers were our poster boys and girls until corporate India and Bollywood burst onto the millennium scene. Today, India and all things Indian is the buzzword around the world. Young dancers and musicians are not seeking state sponsorship, having cracked the corporate need for constantly changing mind-numbing tamashas. There are fewer and fewer of the next generation willing to commit to a life in dance and music with monetary returns remaining a distant reality. How will the SNA grapple with the increasing mediocrity in the arts? How will it broaden its horizons to accommodate the present global reality of technology and the popularity of self-published bloggers, media managers and You Tube podcasts? Bharatanatyam and Kathak, now global dance forms, have found excellent practitioners outside India and dance academia are flourishing outside our shores.
Infrastructure for India’s performing arts is dismal. Lack of trained managers, agents, impressarios, interlocutors, writers, critics, technical personnel, a performance network, rehearsal spaces — the list goes on. Leela Samson has her hands full.
While cultural appointments are not regarded as prestigious postings by the Delhi bureaucrats, for a dancer to be in the driver’s seat of such a large cultural institution has required patience and resilience.
Leela Samson has faced controversy while assuming her current position at Kalakshetra. She will be severely tested again at the SNA. How will she juggle her appointment book in two cities? In the field of culture, the two remaining culture postings in India are Chairman of the ICCR (Indian Council for Cultural Relations) which is Karan Singh’s portfolio and head of the IGNCA (Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts) which Kapila Vatsyayan now holds. Then the next step — a Rajya Sabha seat.
One fact is certain. Leela Samson’s new responsibility will severely curb her performing life. Her recent performance at Mumbai’s NCPA may be one of the last we see of this intelligent and dignified dancer. Her two successful ensemble productions Spanda and Charisnu are already internationally
applauded and perhaps her role as dance mentor and choreographer may widen. At an age when many divas stubbornly cling onto centre stage, Samson finds herself making a timely and graceful segue into an eminent position of responsibility, and simultaneously becoming the single most powerful person on India’s cultural map.
— Anita R Ratnam holds a Phd in Women’s Studies and is a dancer, transcultural collaborator and cultural entrepreneur. She is a member of the Executive Council of the Sangeet Natak Akademi since 2009.