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Pulsating Moments with Danseuse Leela Samson
An Exclusive © 2017
Interviewed by Anu Gopalakrishnan
A renowned dancer, teacher, writer, choreographer, actress and Padma Shri Award winner, Leela Samson is visiting Michigan. Her upcoming dance performance is testimony to her vision and broadness she encapsulates in her body of work. Coming from a traditional dance upbringing as a privileged student of the late Rukmini Devi Arundale (a theosophist, well respected dancer who played the most important role in reviving Bharatanatyam from its original style), Leela Samson shares her views on Pluralism and its effect on Performing Arts, the reason she resigned as the Chief of Central Board of Film Certification, her perception of dance in today’s world, her original concept of “Nadi” and her strong call for support towards Rally for Rivers. An accomplished, devoted and well-respected senior most artist, Leela Samson was in an exclusive interview with Anu Gopalakrishnan, for Do not miss the event “Rally for Rivers” at Seaholm High School Auditorium on Friday September 29th at 7:30 PM. Event details here!

Here are some excerpts…

You have been vocal about pluralism - could you share your thoughts on how performing arts could be a huge vehicle to propagate that philosophy?

I think the artists who are practicing a traditional art form are often looked at as conservative because of the Sahitya of work which is traditional. The art form carried with it some amount of past baggage. It’s a privileged thing no doubt. But upholding traditions of a country against a modern country that’s in turmoil brings with it new perspectives and challenges. Majority of the people are misunderstanding the concept of modernity. The feeling has been throwing away what is old and trying something new. Personally, modernity is about carrying the richness into the future with progressive ideas and creative freedom. The wisdom we carry with us either as a scientist or an artist goes a long way in shaping the future. I have lived 30 years in the North and 30 years in the South of India. I respect both worlds. But till today, you see the divide. I have always been atypical. I am outsider to any situation and owing to my name (I am Jewish Catholic), your practices and beliefs are questioned. Religion is part of the art forms. It is a framework of a philosophical thought. Hinduism to me is more a philosophy of life. As a danseuse and a choreographer, we need to touch contemporary lives and provide a message that is realistic to what is today.

Student of the esteemed and much respected Guru of all times Rukmini Devi Arundale – how was your experience learning under her tutelage? And how is it different from today’s teaching?

She had many many students like me. We were all very blessed. During her time, very few women were thrown up after the National Struggle and movement. Such a great character. After her and other strong women who supported the national movement, I have sort of never met any amazing personalities. The women in those days were so rooted in their culture unlike men. While the men were talking about British education in India, Rukmini Devi was talking about Ashrams, Gurukulams. Women those days were very simple in nature, high thinking! She was always very passionate about handwoven sarees. She used to cry about how Indian textiles were being demolished by Chinese silks and textiles. She was also the head of the International Animal Welfare Board which showed her compassion. There’s nobody like her. Coming to today’s teaching – Indian films have a place in the lives of the Indian people. As a teacher, one should provide a sense of flavor of other art forms to kids. There is lot of mediocre work. It should become a specialization. Teachers with a certain drive have always instilled the cultural art form in its best. Parents should give the kids an opportunity, a choice to learn any art form. What they do with it eventually is something the kid would figure out. I do not believe when someone says “is it the end of Indian classical art?”. There’s much to teach and learn – traditional, classical, tribal, folk etc. The younger kids when exposed to classical art form feel intimidated. We need to give them time to settle. They usually come back.

Has politics ever limited you from doing what you have to do in the field of art?

Most certainly! As the former Chief of the Central Board of Film Certification, that was one of the biggest learning curve at such a mature age. I got to know my country a little better. It opened up a world of thought within me. I do not have the time to see very film out there. But the job took me to the heart of the problem in Indian Cinema. The government interfering into what people should see or should not see. I have always believed that the ultimate freedom rests with the people and every person has the right to express. Our government always errs on the side of being over cautious. Sadly, one way or the other, those films are ultimately seen. Nothing has been taken off the shelf. Yet, there are a large amount of films that the public does not see. They are beaten up over issues than rules. I think censorship should be self-regulatory handled by the film industry. Live and let live.

I still wonder why these censorship problems are not faced by the rest of the world. Singapore, England – they manage this without a big deal or noise. I remember many instances where censorship/certification was used for a publicity gimmick. Ministers came, lots of press meat to enhance the first week sales at the Box Office. However for that specific film, people came out disappointed. This whole experience with the CBFC only made me stronger. After I tendered my resignation, the whole board resigned after me.

Now, about your favorite art! How did the whole concept of Nadi come about?

Somewhere at the back of my head, I was looking at themes that are universal to the world. This happened a few years ago. I always found myself wearing away from the traditional. I was never enthused by mythological stories like my gurus. During that process of introspection and experimentation, I found that I wanted to move away from a hierarchical structure with a whole host of minions and a goddess whose beauty is superseded by everything else. My work is an extension of my personality. Truly. Nadi- meaning River has 7 performers who all have equal weight in their roles. I am doing a solo but the treatment was required as we had a mature spirit. My themes usually do not delve with kings, soldiers etc. Today, folks are into story telling. I like to move towards the abstract- the five elements, concept of space and beyond. I have always been fascinated by the rivers and that was intrigued by a set of poems. I had to literally filter out volumes of work to perfect this choreography. River in the abstract world means life. Nadi is about the river of life. It’s turbulence. South Asian poets have always worked with metaphors. Crossing the life is like Samskara- transitioning from one life to another. The boat in the river symbolizes the body. The boatman symbolizes the soul, the mind…the plea of the poetess. We have used 6 languages including Tumri, folks songs in Kannada and also classical idiom of the Sangam Poetry. The event will be rich musical carpet – very inclusive of all cultures- something I subconsciously feel attracted to. Classical dancing entices and intimidates us. India is not a heritage you can carry lightly.

Your thoughts on the project Rally for Rivers.

Just living in Chennai, I see the amount of plastic lying in all of the city, go into interiors- a “maidan” full of plastic is visible. One does not understand that plastic is entering water bodies- including the turtles and fish which eventually leads to destruction. We are killing our own habitat. Unless we stop and think, we won’t be able to respond to the call. Sadhguruji is able to take it to the highest level. We are talking about unusual situations, we are seeing those happen today. Around us. Be it Houston, Puerto Rico, Chennai, Bihar or Mumbai. Our perennial rivers have started drying up. They need to be nurtured. Sadhguru heard about the Nadi concept and requested us to perform in some of his ashrams in the US. This is a unifying kind of a program.

And your next project?

I like to go with the flow. I am not ambitious. Happy to let things flow. I have been getting some opportunities to act. Dance is fortunately happening. I love choreography. But one day, I would sit down to write a book.

Event details here
Interviewed by Anu Gopalakrishnan Exclusive ©2017
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