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Leela Samson's recital: An aesthetic experience
- Dr. Sunil Kothari
Photos: R Sreenivasan

August 15, 2014

It is always a pleasure to watch a Bharatanatyam recital by a seasoned dancer like Leela Samson. After seeing her delectable recital one wants to see more. As a mature dancer with an excellent track record, training in Kalakshetra and imbibing the aesthetics and values of life from Rukmini Devi and other teachers, Leela epitomises certain qualities, which reflect in her dance. That sets her apart from other dancers.

Performing in an ideal setting of Sannidhi auditorium of Gandharva Mahavidyalaya, the ambience created a magic of its own. Intimate and cosy, the auditorium makes it easy to watch the subtle nuances registered on the face of the dancer. It adds to the relish of the aesthetic experience.

That Leela was in excellent form is stating something obvious. Recalling her earlier performance at Sannidhi when it was inaugurated, she said that she was very happy to perform again after 2009, as she had left for Chennai by then. Her long and intimate association with Gandharva Mahavidyalaya, Bhai-ji and entire family has been very precious for her. Before performing shlokas describing Lord Shiva's preparation for marriage from Kumarasambhavam's 7th sarga, Leela said she had approached Madhup Mudgal - Bhaiyya as she addresses him - to compose music for those shlokas. Madhup set it to Vibhas raga and Leela said that this is one of her most favourite numbers.

Though I had studied Kalidasa's Kumarasambhavam in my college days at Wilson College in Mumbai under Professor Gajendra Gadkar, the beauty of this particular episode by Kalidasa must have escaped me. It was indeed exquisite. Leela said that we do not generally come across shringara associated with Lord Shiva. It is here that Kalidasa with his supreme imagination (remember 'upama Kalidasasya?') observes that when he was all set after wearing his usual clothes, Lord Shiva wanted to see in a mirror, called his ganas and asked one of them to show him the shining sword, in which he looked at himself for a moment - Ah! What a wonderful way Kalidasa has put it and it was enacted by Leela in an exquisite manner. The clothes the mother goddesses brought, Lord Shiva touched politely but preferred his own clothes; the hide of elephant had a zari like border, his third eye shone forth like a jewel, and the description of the marriage procession was breathtaking. Not only was it majestic, but as it were, all the mountains moved! The dance of the ganas and the festive mood were created before one's eyes by sheer power of dance.

If there were three presentations on Lord Shiva, they were distinctly different and brought his iconic figure in its variegated movements. Leela began with Swati Tirunal's Shankara Sri Giri in Hamsanandi, preceding it with stotras in Mohanam, which created a wonderful picture of the dance of Lord Shiva when Saraswati played veena, Indra flute, Brahma cymbals, Lord Vishnu mridanga - what a celestial music accompaniment - and the twilight Pradosha samaya, the divine setting for dance. Describing Shiva's trinetra, the sanchari of turning Kamadeva into ashes, 'Bhutan sanga nachat,' dancing with the ganas, interweaving excellent pure dance, Shiva astride Nandi, Leela turned in all directions bringing a three dimensional effect to Shiva's sculptural forms in a telling manner. The refrain Shankara Sri Giri Natha Prabhuke ...nritta virajita chitrasabhame was hauntingly rendered, evoking the abode of the Lord where he danced!

A young vocalist Nandini accompanied Leela for javali and padams. Nandini has a resounding voice and evokes the mood to which a nayika tells her story. She is a gifted vocalist. Minus elaborate live musical accompaniment, this experiment was very successful. Picking up a javali in Behag, a composition of Swati Tirunal, Saramaina maatalento chaalu chaalura Leela enacted madhya khandita nayika, who uses sarcasm at the truant lover, is not angry or hurt, but conveys her annoyance subtly using sarcasm. She asks him not to say sweet nothings. He had moved to another woman, and at such a wonderful time for union with the moon shining in the sky, he was with that other woman, while she was left alone and the same moon rays burn her. She adores him and trusts him, but is this the way she be treated?

In Kshetragna's padam Valapudasa in Varali and mishra chapu tala, Leela presented a premagarvita samanya nayika who unabashedly declares how proud she is of her love for her beloved. Even if he forgets her, she does not mind. When she sees him coming she rushes to welcome him, takes him inside and makes him sit comfortably. Leela registered all these nuances evoking the state of the nayika and its impact was heightened by Nandini's singing. One marvelled at Kshetragna's ability to enter into the psyche of a woman with such intense feelings.

Smarasundaranguni in Paras raga of Dharmapuri Subbarayar's padam saw Leela portraying swadhinapatika nayika who tells how her beloved nayaka responds to her every move willingly. She proudly declares that there is none equal to him. He never contradicts her, never casts a glance on another woman, and when she plays veena, he listens carefully and applauds her art saying 'Shabash,' like what we say in North India "kya baat hai!" And we all felt like telling Leela, "Kya baat hai!" Bravo!

Leela concluded her recital with Kalabhairavashtakam in Hamsadhwani, chorographed for her by Sheejith Krishna. I saw it during the Music Academy January Festival in Chennai. Kashipuradhinatha Kalabhairavam bhaje goes the refrain. The reference to Lord Brahma laughing at Lord Shiva and Kalabhairava cutting off Brahma's fifth head was depicted well as were several other aspects of the Lord. The ashtakam evokes feeling of devotion as in the end it says whoever prays will be blessed, and it created a feeling of being blessed watching Leela performing it.

Before each number, Leela read from her personal note book and spoke charmingly of how one feels comfortable holding it and reading from it. It was very touching and one could see those years of training and absorbing such rare treasures. There is a natural charm in her demeanour and simplicity. She transported us into a different realm and one did not want to come out of the magic circle that she created. Let us hope whenever she is in Delhi, she gives us such opportunities to see her art in exquisite settings like Sannidhi.

Her performance was a part of 75th year celebrations of Gandharva Mahavidyalaya. Arushi Mudgal also mentioned about the abhinaya workshop Leela conducted for young students there and whatching Leela's performance, she and other students who attended the workshop got an opportunity to see in Leela's dance what she taught and explained how to internalise the feelings for abhinaya and other values which they saw reflected in her dance. A delectable aesthetic experience.

Dr. Sunil Kothari
Dr. Sunil Kothari is a dance historian, scholar, author and a renowned dance critic. He is Vice President of World Dance Alliance Asia Pacific India chapter, based in New Delhi. He is honored by the President of India with Padma Shri, Sangeet Natak Akademi award and Senior Critic Award from Dance Critics Association, NYC. He is a regular contributor to, the roving critic for monthly magazine Sruti and is a contributing editor of Nartanam for the past 12 years.

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