Samson may well have been a casualty of Chennai’s powerful, but inward-looking cultural elite.
Leela Samson, a renowned Bharatanatyam dancer, has just resigned as director of Kalakshetra. Also, chairman of the Central Board of Film Certification, and chairperson of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, Samson headed Kalakshetra since 2005.
One of the most celebrated cultural icons of Chennai, Kalakshetra was the dream baby of Rukmini Devi Arundale, who set it up in 1936. Now on a sprawling 99-acre campus, Kalakshetra is not only an institution of national importance, but is also celebrated for its promotion of Bharatanatyam and Gandharvaveda music through some brilliant teachers and exponents.
Samson was undoubtedly an apt choice to lead Kalakshetra. She learnt Bharatanatyam from Arundale herself, and wrote a well-researched and authoritative biography of Rukmini. Besides, Samson has been honoured with some of the highest civilian awards.
The question in Chennai’s most rational circles is, why did Samson walk out of the hallowed premises of an institution where she fitted very well? She turned 60, and this could have signalled her retirement, but she could have easily got several extensions. She is extremely active, and there is no sign of age on her.
Also, Samson is reportedly very close to Sonia Gandhi, the Congress Party president and the real power now in India – without whose support Leela may not have been got all the posts.
Why then did she quit? One can merely harbour guesses in the absence of any answers coming either from Samson or the chairman of Kalakshetra, Gopal Krishna Gandhi.
Chennai is known to be a suffocating, conservative city with the mindset of a small town. And Leela is part Jewish (from her father) and part Roman Catholic (from her mother), and Chennai (and even Tamil Nadu) is clannish, with the Tamil Brahmin community invariably intolerant of any other group.
Leela may have been born in Coonoor (a hill town, just below Ooty), may have lived all her life in Tamil Nadu, and may be speaking Tamil better than any other native of the State. Yet, she must have been made to feel like an outsider.
Remember a Christian-Jewish parentage could be allergic to the staunchly Brahminical and highly religious group that holds sway over Chennai, and most certainly Kalakshetra.
Samson made one bombshell of a statement. She said she was under pressure and she found it difficult to handle “lies, allegations and games” that individuals played. This came after a former Kalakshetra teacher had filed a public interest litigation against Samson’s directorship post 60 years of age.
The episode, so sordid, has understandably provoked a raging debate. N Murali, one of the directors of The Hindu newspaper, reportedly quipped that “she (Samson) has been made a victim of circumstances” and that “she had been cornered and forced to resign”. The paper itself supported Samson’s continuance.
However, The Hindu’s rival paper, The Times of India, alleged that Samson ran Kalakshetra “according to her personal whims with little regard for rules.” Her opponents also said that a Comptroller and Auditor-General report had found financial and administrative irregularities in the institution.
Be that as it may, in the final analysis, I feel that Samson may well have been a casualty of Chennai’s powerful, but inward-looking cultural elite, which has often been criticised for blatant hostility towards others.
Gautaman Bhaskaran is a Chennai-India based author, columnist and film critic, and can be contacted email@example.com. He is an FMT columnist.