“I didn’t have any intention of becoming a dancer,” says Bharatanatyam exponent Leela Samson (65; right), who founded the Spanda Dance Academy in 1995. She also had overlapping appointments for the top posts at Kalakshetra, Chennai, Sangeet Natak Akademi (SNA) and Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), all of which she quit in 2013, 2014 and 2015, respectively.
Ahead of Samson’s performance, titled Past Forward, at the Nakshatra Dance Festival at the NCPA on October 23, we speak to her about freedom of expression, among other things.
You were heading CBFC and SNA simultaneously. Are you glad that phase of your life is over?
Totally (laughs)! I have done some things in life, but ultimately, it’s dance that gives me the maximum satisfaction. I conformed to the idea that if I am in these positions, there is a clash of interest [if you continue dancing]. But nobody else does that. Either before me or after me, everyone has continued to do their work. During that period, Spanda and my work was completely dead. But now, we’re adding to the repertoire and choreographing new things. I have no regrets [about leaving the CBFC and SNA] at all.
You have performed your upcoming dance piece — Past Forward — several times. Have you made any changes for the Mumbai show?
Past Forward is not a piece; it’s just a theme. Spanda celebrated its 20th anniversary last year, and we have [done] a lot of work [since the company started]. Some of our earliest works seem absolutely new, while some of our latest works, which we consider new, are thought of as old. This dance show is a collection of our pieces that represent the present, the past and the future. We change the items [that are part of Past Forward] almost every time according to where we are [performing].
What are the major themes in the show this time?
It’s a mixed bag. One piece is based on the descent of the Ganga. I’m doing some solo work. The others are doing a group abhinaya. Since I revived Spanda in 2012, after I was done with all my work (at the Central Board of Film Certification and the Sahitya Natak Akademi), the show comprises some pieces I had worked on much earlier, and some of my work in the past five years.
Do you feel there is a lack of infrastructure for Bharatanatyam?
Not at all. There’s an increase in interest. Thousands of children are learning Bharatanatyam. They don’t have very good teachers, though. Teachers, who have a true commitment and want to improve the pedagogy, are a scarcity. If you want to teach Bharatanatyam today, you should be able to conceive the techniques that suit today’s children. If you do it (introduce them to the dance form) in the wrong way, they’ll turn away. But if a teacher chooses to focus on any one aspect of Bharatanatyam, the child will imbibe that aspect. What is Bharatanatyam really? How do we know? There’s no proof. So I’m quite comfortable with the range of this dance form. It appeals to different people at different levels, and that’s the way it should be. It should be inclusive and not exclusive. It’s the same with movies.
What about movies?
Every film can’t be for everyone. People think, “Arrey, ismey ye kar diya. Hum kaise le jayein apne bachhon ko? (They have added an objectionable scene. How do I take my children for the movie?)” You don’t have to take your kids to every film. I couldn’t show my mother certain films. So I knew what I had to select in order to make her comfortable. The switch-on, switch-off [button] is in your hand. It’s not the producer or the director’s duty to say, “Don’t watch my film. It’s got sexual innuendoes.” Similarly, for dance and music, sophistication is on one end of the spectrum, and folk and tribal expressions on the other. They are beautiful as well. It’s each person for themselves. It’s (what you choose to watch) a journey of the self, and that is important.
Watch: Bharatnatyam dance Leela Samson performing Tillana
Do you think there should be a ‘reasonable’ limit to the freedom of expression?
Nobody should dictate that to anybody else. [Free] expression is the character of a healthy nation. You can walk away from a situation if you don’t like it. That’s what my parents said as well: “If you don’t like it, you have an opportunity to grow up and find your own life.
So, do you believe there should be any censorship at all?
I don’t believe I was heading a censor board, but a film certification board. I insisted then and I also insist now, that certification is all we should be doing. We should say it’s an ‘A-plus’ film or an ‘X’ film. People who watch ‘X’ films will watch them. It’s not my duty to tell you what to watch. You can’t censor anybody, but you can hope for an enlightened society that allows people to have different opinions.