Chennai: Kalakshetra, one of the cultural icons of Chennai that is synonymous with Bharatanatyam is in the centre of a controversy with its director Leela Samson resigning from her post earlier this month.
The board, the patrons of Bharatanatyam and the city’s cultural elite are divided over the celebrated dancer’s decision to quit, with the majority opinion seeming to side with her.
Samson’s resignation came as a shock to the Board of Kalakshetra, and others in the city. She confirmed to The Hindu on Sunday that she had resigned on 12 April and the union ministry of culture has accepted her papers.
On the circumstances of her resignation, she said a former teacher of the institution had filed a PIL against her continuation as the director since she had turned 60, and she didn’t want to stay on if the board and the ministry didn’t support her.
However, what is not clear is if Sasmon has resigned even before the ministry and the board could take a call on the issue. She is definitely a favourite of the union government without whose blessings she couldn’t have become the chairperson of both the censor board and the Sangeet Natak Academy.
Her resignation came two days after a board meeting of Kalakshetra Foundation, which apparently was not attended by many members.
Samson, who has been associated with Kalakshetra for several years since her student days under its founder Rukmini Devi Arundale, has reportedly said that she was under pressure and she found it difficult to handle “lies, allegations and games” that individuals played.
For-and-against-Samson discussions are out in the open now with two leading newspapers taking interestingly divergent positions. While one, The Hindu openly canvassed for her continuation in the office with the active support of the board members such as Apollo Hospital managing director Preetha Reddy, former managing director of The Hindu N. Murali, and actor Arundhati Nag. The chairman of the institution and former West Bengal Governor Gopal Krishna Gandhi appeared neutral in his stand that the decision ought to be left to her and the ministry.
The board members supporting her appreciated her contribution to the growth of the institution and the art, and the innovation that she had catalysed. The Hindu report also said that many of the board members would take up the issue with the ministry of culture.
Murali has reportedly said that “she has been made a victim of circumstances” and that “she has been cornered and forced to resign”. He also said that the board was not taken into confidence on the issue.
However, the Times of India, the other big newspaper in the city, carried the views of her opponents who alleged that she ran the institution “according to her personal whims with little regard for rules.” Her opponents also said that a CAG report has found financial and administrative irregularities.
Reportedly Samson had contracted a local organisation for documenting some performances without proper tender processes. They found procedural flaws in the renovation of the institution’s theatre as well. Former Supreme Court judge and former chairman of the Foundation has said that he found serious lapses.
Her detractors also quote the CAG report to allege that there were irregularities in the appointments as well.
Samson’s exit was more or less predictable and is an example of the power-play of the city’s conservative and influential lobby of the cultural elite that has often been criticised for its patent exclusion of diversity. Despite her impeccable credentials as a dancer and teacher, including the enviable patronage of Rukmini Devi Arundale she once enjoyed, Samson has always been an outsider and a source of annoyance for this lobby.
That she is a Jewish-Christian perhaps made matters worse and had even led to allegations that she had removed some ganesha idols from the campus.
Although many contemporary and modern dancers viewed her art traditional, Samson was also attacked for diluting the ideals of Kalakshetra and purity of bharatanatyam when she allowed for experimentation with contemporary elements.
Probably Samson was prepared for such an exit and knew that she would always be an outsider in the traditional bastion of classical art in Chennai. The cultural elite of the city has a closely held monopoly over the traditional art scene, without whose patronage it is impossible to make even an entry.