The strength of Samson's style
- A. Seshan, Mumbai

September 7, 2010

Leela Samson, Director of Kalakshetra and Chairperson of Sangeet Natak Akademi, the apex body for music, dance and theatre, gave a memorable Bharatanatyam (BN) performance at the Experimental Theatre of the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Mumbai on August 27, 2010. She has been in the dance circuit for more than three decades and is acknowledged as a leading practitioner of the Kalakshetra bani of BN. I saw her programme for the first time around 1970 when she resided in the then Bombay city with her father Rear Admiral Samson of Western Naval Command. If I remember well, it was her arangetram. Subsequently, I attended her lecture demonstration on group choreography with her team called Spanda at the 21st Natya Kala Conference of Sri Krishna Gana Sabha in Chennai in December 2001. I eagerly looked forward to seeing a solo programme of the artiste again after a long interval.

The Programme
The evening started with a prayer to Lord Ganapati in the form of a Dikshitar kriti ("Maha Ganapatim" in Nattai and Chatusra Eka) sung by Hari Prasad without the dance. He established the professional ambience with a fine exposition of the raga alapana ably supported by the flautist Shashidhar. Then came the dancer with the Ardhanareeswara Stuti, a sloka in Ragamalikai consisting of Kharaharapriya, Kalyani, Kambhoji and Todi, followed by Dikshitar's kriti "Ardhanareeswaram" in Kumudakriya and Adi. It was a refreshing experience for me as the song is rarely sung nowadays in the Carnatic music concerts. I heard it many years ago when Semmangudi sang it on Akashvani. As in the rest of the programme, she explained the meaning of the song that helped in understanding her movements. The choice of the kriti was appropriate as it provided plenty of scope for mudras and nritta for portraying the androgynous Shiva as the duality of Brahman and how the latter is beyond gender. The contrasting aspects of Shiva and Ishwari, one being static and the other dynamic, and so on, were delineated well. There has been a controversy on the appropriateness of the use of the kritis of the Carnatic music trinity and other vaggeyakaras in dances on the ground that they were not designed by them for that purpose. In her introduction to the classic entitled Mahabharata Chudamani brought out by the Mahamahopadhyaya Dr. U V Swaminatha Iyer Nool Nilayam, Chennai, Rukmini Devi says, while recommending it for reading by all students of music and dance: "Music is Dance and Dance is Music." In his Sriranjani kriti "Sogasuga" in Rupakam, Tyagaraja speaks, inter alia, of navarasas among the ingredients of a standard kriti. So where there are music and rasa, there is dance. The only issue is whether a kriti provides scope for the employment of hastamudras of various types. So, not all the kritis may be suitable for dancing. One nattuvanar once told me that Syama Sastri's Swarajatis are not popular among BN artistes because of the limited scope for mudras.

"Sankara Srigiri" in Hamsanandi and Adi of Swati Tirunal with a Mohanam prelude in a sloka was the next item presented. The nritta with built-in jatis in the matu of the sahitya was fascinating with a good support from the mridangam. Sancharis at "Bhasma trinetra" recalled many episodes associated with Shiva. One could see the Samharamurti in the fierce looks of Leela. There were flashes of suddha nritta to the accompaniment of mridangam played by Karthik.

"Dari juchu," a popular padam of Moovalur Sabhapati Ayyar, in Sankarabharanam and Misra Chapu, was taken up next. It portrayed the mood of a Mugdha Nayika - a heroine at the threshold of youth and love. The tremulous state of the young girl awaiting her lover was portrayed realistically. Then came a javali ("Mayaladi" in Todi and Adi) attributed to Pattabhiramayya by some. It is about a Khandita Nayika, an angry young woman who knows that her lover is flirting with another one and is jealous. The angikabhinaya was suggestive despite the sensuous nature of the song. Todi is a hard taskmaster but the contours and the contents of the raga were beautifully captured by the flautist Shashidhar in his alapana. The song has a tricky eduppu (start) before the sahitya, which the dancer tackled tactfully. The nattuvangam embellished the item.

The tillana of Lalgudi Jayaraman in Revati and Adi has a complex rhythmic structure in Misra Chapu (seven beats), as explained by the artiste. As a pure nritta item, the dance had all the standard elements in terms of the movements of the head, the eyes, etc. The concert came to a close with Mangalam in Surati.

As Leela said, the whole programme was enhanced by the excellent support on the side wings with Hari Prasad (vocal), Rajesh (nattuvangam), Karthik (mridangam), Shashidhar (flute) and Ananthanarayanan (veenai). Lighting was professionally done by the NCPA staff. Leela's aharya was simple but elegant in what looked under the lights like a combination of maroon and white silks.

Wrap Up
Leela Samson's strength as a BN artiste lies in her adherence to the uncompromising classicism of the Kalakshetra School following the tenets of the sastras, as interpreted and expounded by her guru Rukmini Devi, be it in maintaining anga suddha in adavus or in the establishment of stayibhava with quicksilver changes in mukhajabhinaya. Some of the adavus were straight from the textbook constituting good lessons for the students and junior dancers in the audience. The subdued and tasteful portrayal of the nayika in the javali, typical of Kalakshetra School, was appreciated by the discerning audience. In an answer to my question in the interactive session after the programme, she said that Kalakshetra was not against javalis as such but was not in favour of only certain types that could not be taught to children without the maturity to understand them. She also made a significant remark that the Kalakshetra approach to BN had undergone changes over the years. I found the overriding influence of the Pandanallur bani in such aspects as the tempo of movements, deep-seated positions, the predominance of padartha abhinaya, etc., and she confirmed that Kalakshetra is indeed Pandanallur. The term "Kalakshetra bani" has come into use because of certain controversies of the past in relation to the approach of its founder. I would say that it is a sanitized version of Pandanallur shorn of its sensuous movements of the torso and talukkus and kulukkus resorted to evoke the rati sringara rasa. Of course, Rukmini Devi's contribution in such areas as group choreography, dance drama, the designing of the costume with a fan-shaped front, the seating of the orchestra on the side wing, etc., are well recognized. One reputed BN artiste has made the comment that Kalakshetra artistes develop knee problems because of their habit to strike hard on the floor. I found Leela's stamping soft. In an otherwise complete coverage of all aspects of nritta, utplavana was conspicuous by its absence.

Her command of, and confidence in, rhythm was evident from the choice of the songs. Instead of taking the easy route of the even-paced Adi tala throughout the recital as many artistes do, she performed to Misra Chapu twice to demonstrate her mastery of the medium. In one case, the eduppu (in "Dari juchu") was not normal and in another case (tillana) there were fractions in the rhythm cycle. Her kalapramanam was impeccable.

The programme was in the format of a modified Margam, a few standard items only being left out due to the limited time available - around 90 minutes for dance and another 30 minutes for an interactive discussion. The enthusiastic response of the full-house audience in the Experimental Theatre, with tickets of Rs 300 and Rs 200 sold out, once again disproved the assumption of many BN artistes that the rasikas have no patience to sit through Margam. Perhaps it has something to do with their patience and stamina! (See "Vadivelu and Vazhuvurar Centenaries"- Obviously in a country with a large number of rasikas there is a market for every style and type of dance.

The author, an Economic Consultant in Mumbai, is a music and dance buff.