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Natya Kala Acharya award: Acceptance speech by Leela Samson
Photo: R Sreenivasan

January 5, 2015

(We are delighted to share the incisive and thoughtful speech made by Leela Samson after accepting the Natya Kala Acharya award conferred by the Music Academy, Chennai, on January 3, 2015.)

Sri N. Murali, President and members of the Executive Board of The Music Academy Madras, Mr. Masanori Nakano, Consul General of Japan in Chennai, senior gurus present here and those not here physically, under whose shade and inspiration we live, friends from foreign lands who have made our art forms their passion, rasikas of music and dance and friends...

I am deeply honored to be the recipient of the award and title of 'Natya Kala Acharya' that has been bestowed upon me today. This honour done to me is, without an iota of doubt, the honouring of those many wonderful individuals who lit my path and helped fire my imagination.

Nature - the greatest teacher has taught not merely the nature of the universe, but also the nature of men. My parents and family were inspirational in the high values and simplicity that they lived by. Good, honest friends are a perennial source of strength along the journey. They are the ones who help pick up the pieces of your life, when the dream shatters. Gurus are our mainstay; those who cared to point us in pertinent directions and not merely teach material, teachers who waited patiently for results without forcing an accepted norm of beauty, teachers whose reprimand, however harsh and hurtful made me reflect deeply on the matter at hand - to these many preceptors I bow every day of my life. Some of them are with us and continue to remind us of the rules of engagement with the art and of a time gone by; others have moved into the other world only to return, I believe as artists and gurus - to delight us once again with their art of exceptional quality.

So when we recognize that fine quality of talent in a young child amongst us, I am conscious that it can only be due to memory of a past engagement with the arts they once ruled over. The written word and the music we dance to lights up our lives in ways that dancers understand more than any other perhaps, as our work brings poetry to life, while music serves to nourish and capture the beautifully complex world we live in. The temples that inspire, the myth and rituals that give body to our work - to all these many gurus and forms of art a dancer is perennially grateful. One cannot but look back upon those great gurus who have left us, who were giants among men and whose depth of knowledge left us awestruck. Let us celebrate them all!

My journey has been a somewhat lonely one. I have listened carefully to others, but have also paid heed to my own conscience. The choice of being a dancer in our times is a hard enough decision. To do that singly, with the odds against you from the start, is pure madness. But the real reason is simple enough. It is your body that is the visible vehicle of expression. And this body is so vulnerable. The mind is known to be stronger and emotions we know can run high. And the intellect and feelings must inform a dancer's work, but the ultimate deliverance is through this instrument that is both weak and strong, and so swayed by both the mind and the heart! But more than these, I believe that one has to have a philosophy that holds one in good stead. And it is this that takes us through the rough and windy paths that present themselves along the way.

Institutions are made up of men and women; and the calibre of an institution is really the substance of its people. I am idealistic and erroneously thought once that I could fire others with lofty ideals. Alas, the comfort of small individual goals far outweighs the larger inclusive goal for the institute. The truth is that one's work is not bound to a physical space of a childhood home or classroom, but exists in spheres of influence that carry to corners of the globe through individual destinies.

My life as a teacher has been rich. Nothing can take away the fulfillment of teaching with the excitement and love of discovering the dance and making those special bonds of friendship with one's students. They have each taught me something along the journey. To many other young dancers whom I watch - I would like to say how excited we are by your commitment. As a friend, I can only say you may want to tone down the attitude - and those mobiles!

The loneliness of the 'long-distance' dancer is another blessing of the Elders given to so few and brings joys that cannot be expressed in words. The emptiness and darkness of centre-stage is where our dreams are fulfilled. The life of a soloist is also filled with regrets and insecurities that are equally difficult to express. Jealousies are unfortunate partners on your journey! It is only a deep philosophy that can serve to hold one steady through the turmoil of such a career.

Serving the nation at the national level, has taught me that while the power and frills seem attractive, let it not fool you. There is very little satisfaction in working for national institutions that receive paltry sums for the enormity of work in the arts of India. Our country has yet to put time and money into the arts. Preservation, promulgation, digitization and museums, but also the encouragement and simple daily wage to the humblest of artists - these remain unfulfilled agendas. Most of all, we do not have an independent voice that is not dependent upon funds from the Government. When will we understand that dependence cripples our demands? Art is not high on the agenda of our nation. It might never be. If the arts survive it is due to individual and non-governmental endeavor.

I thank the Music Academy Madras and its Executive Board for the singular honour they have done me today. To be acknowledged by them and all of you in Chennai, is a most precious blessing that I attribute to my art.

Thank you.

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