An evening with Leela Samson, a Sarmaya Travel exclusive

Part of the Spotlight feature The Chettinad Affair

From Leela Samson's exclusive performance for Sarmaya Travel, at The Bangala, Karaikudi

We gathered in hushed anticipation and awe, under a moonlit sky, waiting for her to begin. This was going to be a performance that none of us would ever forget, a rare honour to have a goddess of dance in our midst, for her to share her art with us in this intimate setting on a magical night. The enchantingly pure voice of young Carnatic star Ashwath Narayanan rang through the darkness, clear and strong, and then she began.

Born in Coonoor in 1951 to a Jewish father and Roman Catholic mother, Leela Samson has lived in Chennai for most of her life. Brought up in a Jewish household, she immersed herself in Hindu theology through her practice. Samson learnt the ropes of her trade and honed her craft at The Kalakshetra— a dance academy founded by celebrated Bharatanatyam dancer Rukmini Devi Arundale in 1936. She started training at the academy when she was just nine, graduated with a first class diploma and went on to complete her post graduation. She was absorbed by The Kalakshetra’s repertory company and travelled extensively performing across Indian and international stages.

Samson has made significant contributions to the arts throughout her long and illustrious career as a performance artist, teacher, administrator, writer and actor. At 67, the world-renowned Bharatanatyam dancer continues to commands the stage and wield considerable influence in the Indian performance arts arena.  For Samson, pushing the boundaries of her practice is almost second nature — whether it is through getting into the skin of her character in a solo performance, through the creation of Spanda — a body of work exploring innovations in a traditional dance form or through widening the academic scope of the students she mentors.

As a soloist Samson is a delight to behold. She is a consummate storyteller, still light on her feet, moving fluidly through the air as if it were water, her face endless expressive – going from beseeching to terrifying, loving to wrathful, coy to bold. She brings a certain serenity to her recitals but paradoxically her performances are also bursting with a characteristic intensity. She seems to be drawing from an unceasing source, blending technical prowess, dynamism and excellent form with nonchalant ease.

Sarmaya's brand custodian and a one-time Bharatanatyam student at Kalakshetra, Pavitra Rajaram, had this to say about Samson's performance for Sarmaya on Instagram:

Nataraja or the dancing Shiva is the God of Dance in the Hindu pantheon and Bharatanatyam dancers typically invoke his blessings by opening their performance with a piece dedicated to Him. Of course the unique and brilliant Leela Samson would never do something so ordinary. She chose to open with an invocation to Shiva alright but chose Him in his form as Rudra. Rudra “mightiest of mighty” is formidable and fierce, as he prowls in the company of the wind and storms. He is powerful, controlled and unmatchable, and so was she. When she finished dancing, there was only the stillness of the night and the shimmering undercurrent of cosmic energy slicing through the air.

But Samson’s talent and charisma are not limited to the stage. She served as the director of her alma mater, The Kalakshetra, from 2005 to 2012 where she challenged stereotypes in a traditional arts setting. Her initiatives at the academy include releasing publications and films that documented the founder’s numerous dance dramas as well as leading the computerisation and modernisation of the institution. She has also served as the chairperson of the Sangeet Natak Akademi in New Delhi. Between 2011 and 2015, Samson took on the role of chairperson at the Central Board of Film Certification, and made her acting debut in Mani Ratnam’s 2015 film OK Kanmani.

Samson is also the author of Rhythm in Joy, a discourse on the classical dance forms of India and Rukmini Devi – a life, a biography of the legendary dancer. She has been bestowed with a number of awards for her contribution to the performing arts, most significant of which is the Padmashri that she won in 1990. After working across the domain in various capacities, Samson has now returned to what she loves most — dancing and performing.

We were captivated as we watched her soar through the air, making music out of movement, a mere few feet away from us so that we could reach out and touch her, make sure it wasn’t a dream. For truly, the enduring appeal of Leela Samson lies in the gift she possesses, to move her audience with an immersive narrative resulting in a transformative experience. That night in Chettinad, we were the blessed ones.