Educating local dancer about Leela Samson

Excerpted with permission from Malhotra, Rajiv and Aravindan Neelakandan, "Breaking India: Western Interventions in Dravidian and Dalit Faultlines," Amaryllis Publishers, Delhi, 2011
Chapter: 8. Digesting Hinduism into Dravidian Christianity
Section: Christianizing Hindu Popular Culture
Sub-section: The Leela Samson Scandal
Printed Pages: 120-123
Footnotes included

The Leela Samson Scandal

Rukmini Arundale, a guru who rescued the dance form from the era of colonial evangelism, speaks of dance as ”Sadhana which requires total devotion.”[1] Kalakshetra, the institution she founded to specifically stress the Hindu spiritual roots of Bharata Natyam, was recently captured by Christian evangelists led by Leela Samson. Samson started her connection to Kalakshetra as a high school student and went on to a career as a dancer and teacher. Rukmini had reservations about admitting Leela Samson, according to a contemporary guru who knew Rukmani:

Leela Samson a senior artist today, came to Kalakshetra as a young girl. Because of her Judeo Christian background she had not had much exposure to traditional Indian culture. [Rukmani] was therefore hesitant about including her as a student. However on examining her on various related aspects we found that she had the attributes of a good dancer. I then persuaded [Rukmani] to give her a chance and she did so, but with some reluctance.[2]

In 2005, Samson was appointed as the new director of Kalakshetra. In 2006, she provoked a media storm by justifying the elimination of the spiritual roots of Bharata Natyam. Trouble started in 2006 when Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the head of “Art of living” meditation, expressed his concern over the attempt of Leela Sampson to thwart the participation of Kalakshetra students in the inaugural function of a “Health and Bliss” religious course being conducted by him in Chennai. According to Ananda Vikatan, a popular Tamil weekly, the most disturbing aspect was the reason cited by Leela Samson. She explained: “This function is concerned with Hindu religion. So Kalakshetra students need not participate in it.”[3]

This was soon followed by an article that appeared in Hindu Voice, a magazine run by Hindu nationalists, which claimed that under the Samson tutelage at Kalakshetra, most of the Vinayaka images for which regular poojas had been historically conducted by the students were removed. Only after a lot of criticism did she replace one image but not all. Samson ordered all prayers to the deity to be stopped, and the clothes adorning the deities were removed.[4] As this progressed into a major controversy, Samson was forced to react but denied all the charges. She made the claim that "Kalakshetra never had idols that were worshipped. A lamp was all that was lit in every place we worshipped, according to Theosophical principles and the highest philosophical principles upheld by our elders."[5]

Whereas Siva's Nataraja form represents the Cosmic Dancer, the dancing form of Ganesha has customarily been invoked by Indian dancer and worshipped before a performance. The suppression of these "idols" by Leela Samson was an attempt to detach Bharat Natyam from its traditional roots under the guise of secularization, and then remapping it within Christian theology and symbolism. Her response against “idol worship” contradicts her mentor and the institution's founder, Rukmini Arundale, who had defended the Hindu worship of various deities' images:

All the songs we dance to are of Gods and Goddesses. You may ask, “Why so many Gods and Goddesses? The only reply I can give is, “Why not so many Gods and Goddess?[6]

Rukmini did not support a vague notion of a “universal religion” and in fact specifically critiqued this sort of generic spirituality, saying:

Some people say ‘I believe in universal religion’, but when I ask them whether they know anything about Hinduism, they answer in negative. They know nothing about Christianity, nor about Buddhism or about any other religion either. In other words, universality is, knowing nothing of anything….Real internationalism is truly the emergence of the best in each….But in India when I say India I mean the India of the sages and saints who gave the country its keynote, there arose the ideal of one life, and of the divinity that lives in all creatures; not merely in humanity.[7]

In the morning assembly, Samson allegedly told the students and teachers that "idol worship" is superstition and should be discouraged at Kalakshetra. There were complaints that her hand-picked teachers explained the Geeta-Govindam in denigrating tones. The certificate that was designed by Rukmini Arundale with Narthana Vinayakar had the emblem of Siva on it. The present certificate has been changed and is without any Hindu symbols.[8]

Samson has been criticized for undervaluing the Hindu stories and symbols to the point of ridicule, comparing them with Walt Disney's characters, Batman and "the strange characters in Star Wars."[9] In contrast, Rukmini explains the deep meaning of symbolism in the ballad, ”Kumarasambhava”:

Why does the story of Kumarasambhava please me? It is because of the symbolism. Finally what Parvati wins is not passion but the devotion and sublimation of herself. Parvati wins Siva and she becomes united with Him, because she has discovered the greater, indeed the only way of discovering God. This is very beautiful symbology. Siva burnt to ashes all that is physical. So must a dancer or musician burn to ashes all thought which is dross and bring out the gold which is within.[10]

She speaks of the Ramayana and Mahabharatha as the “essential expressions of Indian dance.”[11] Far from being manmade stories as Leela Samson considers Indian narratives to be, Rukmini Arundale speaks of Sri Rama, Sri Krishna and Buddha in the following manner:

Why was India a world power? Because Sri Krishna had lived in this country, Sri Rama had lived here and so had Lord Buddha. It was their Teaching that made India a great world power.[12]

Where Leela Samson sees the equivalents of Batman and Mickey Mouse characters, the founder of Kalakshetra sees great world teachers and symbolism of the most sublime kind. In Sampson’s appropriation, Bharata Natyam was denied its vital spiritual, devotional, aesthetic and pedagogical dimensions, and dragged down to the fantastic garish mass level of cartoons. Thus in Leela Samson’s own words the process of usurpation can be seen in its crucial stages: initially de-Hinduising and secularizing the art form and then Christianizing it.

[1] (Arundale 2004, 20).

[2] (Sruthi (Jan 1996) 2005, 56)

[3] (Anantha Vikatan 20-Dec-2006)

[4] (Deivamuthu.P 2007)

[5] (Prakriti Foundation 2006)

[6] (Arundale 2004, 185)

[7] (Arundale 2004, 148-9)

[8] (Deivamuthu.P 2007)

[9] (Samson 2004)

[10] (Arundale 2004, 186)

[11] (Arundale 2004, 117)

[12] (Arundale 2004, 147)

Arundale, Rukmini Devi. "Philosophy of Dance." All India Radio, April 14, 1954.—. Some Selected Speeches and Writings of Rukmini Devi Arundale-Vol-I. Chennai: Kalakshetra Foundation, 2004.

Sruthi (Jan 1996). "Advice from a Veteran:Interview with Sarada." In Nirmalam-The Genius of S Sarda, by Anita Ratnam. Arangam Trust, 2005.

Deivamuthu.P. "Anti-Hindu activities at Kalakshetra, Chennai." Hindu Voice, April 8, 2007.—.

"Demolishing a Tradition at Kalakshetra." Organiser, April 29, 2007.

Prakriti Foundation. Prakriti Foundation Invitation . December 8, 2006. (accessed August 10, 2009).

Samson, Leela. History And Myths of Indian Classical Dances. August 2004. (accessed April 10, 2008).