The Leela Samson Scandal
Rukmini Arundale, a guru who rescued the dance form from the era of colonial evangelism, speaks of dance as â€Sadhana which requires total devotion.â€ 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.
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 â€œArt of livingâ€ meditation, expressed his concern over the attempt of Leela Sampson to thwart the participation of Kalakshetra students in the inaugural function of a â€œHealth and Blissâ€ 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: â€œThis function is concerned with Hindu religion. So Kalakshetra students need not participate in it.â€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. 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."
All the songs we dance to are of Gods and Goddesses. You may ask, â€œWhy so many Gods and Goddesses? The only reply I can give is, â€œWhy not so many Gods and Goddess?Rukmini did not support a vague notion of a â€œuniversal religionâ€ and in fact specifically critiqued this sort of generic spirituality, saying:
Some people say â€˜I believe in universal religionâ€™, 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 anythingâ€¦.Real internationalism is truly the emergence of the best in eachâ€¦.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.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.
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." In contrast, Rukmini explains the deep meaning of symbolism in the ballad, â€Kumarasambhavaâ€:
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.She speaks of the Ramayana and Mahabharatha as the â€œessential expressions of Indian dance.â€ 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.
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 Sampsonâ€™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 Samsonâ€™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.
 (Arundale 2004, 20).
 (Sruthi (Jan 1996) 2005, 56)
 (Anantha Vikatan 20-Dec-2006)
 (Deivamuthu.P 2007)
 (Prakriti Foundation 2006)
 (Arundale 2004, 185)
 (Arundale 2004, 148-9)
 (Deivamuthu.P 2007)
 (Samson 2004)
 (Arundale 2004, 186)
 (Arundale 2004, 117)
 (Arundale 2004, 147)