Responses to "Anti-Hindu activities at Kalakshetra, Chennai" by P Deivamuthu dated April 8, 2007 (Also found under the title "Demolishing a tradition at Kalakshetra")


May 15, 2007

Dear Leelaji,
You have and will continue to be an inspiration and a role model for dancers and dance administrators all over the world. You have infused such an enthusiastic energy in Kalakshetra, opening the doors in a welcoming way to the outside world, and encouraging the students there, to see other dance performances, outside of the hoary institution.

We are all proud of the great tradition you are not just carrying on, but taking it to another level ... A level of universal spirituality, one-ness of spirit in the dance, beyond borders, beyond race, religion and ethnicity…a pure love for the art and the dance in all its glory, sanctity and spirituality.

In reflecting on this newly generated negativity, I think it will only reinforce the positive influence you have and all that you stand for. Forge ahead without fear.. I think when Tagore created Shantiniketan and also wrote the beautiful poem below…he meant this for us all –

(anthor momo bikoshith koro, anthoro thoro he,
nirmol koro, ujjal kaor, sundar koro he,
jogruth koro, udhath korr, nirbhaya koro he.
mangal koro, nirlash, nishshankshaya koro he,
juktha koro he sabhar sange, muktha karo he bandho..
(a)nandhito koro nandhito koro nanditho koro he…)

(I am writing this from memory.. but I think I have it down correctly!!!)

In the name of the true spirit of dance and music, spirituality and devotion…

Sincerely,

Viji Prakash
Founder, Artistic Director, Shakti Dance Company, Los Angeles.
e-mail: dancevg@gmail.com


May 15, 2007

The vision for Kalakshetra (regardless of all our personal opinions) was essentially theosophical i.e. spiritual, god inclined, and secular. The government of India that has been voted in, has the secular vision of democracy in India.

I believe that we need to respect the judgement of a vast majority of Indians before whipping up a frenzy of jingoism... Hinduism, already the dominant religion in India, known for its philosophical profundity, and spirit of accommodating opposites, does not need to worry about any threat to the worshipful ways of its believers. In fact if one trusts in one's Gods, They will speak anyway. If Ganesha cannot be allowed to deal with a bit of diversity after being dipped in the polluted ocean millions of times then Who is He? If one is an atheist (and there are many that consider themselves within the fold of Hinduism as atheists) then what is the hoohaa about? Then there are also those who believe that God is beyond name, form and understanding...

In either case, egoist and melodramatic angst generating human interventions.... belittle the doers.

I support Leela Samson's vision for Kalakshetra, because she was personally trained by the founder, and in close resonance with her spirit. She has taught many, many young persons to love and respect Bharatanatyam and to engage with dance in a profound rather than easy superficial way. I believe it would speak highly of all of us to support her artistic vision (even as we critique it) because Hinduism is supposed to be the champion of diversity. We believe we do so out of our shared passions for dance.

Kalakshetra was born of a spiritual vision of art, worldwide financial and artistic support, and ultimately is about art and not about any religion but art. Kalakshetra is not a temple, structurally, organizationally or in its funding resources.

I sincerely hope that the forces of blind religious patriarchy understand they need to accommodate to global heritages.... If Kalakshetra is closed due to stigma, then will its teachings move out of India to UK? And USA?

You will then have killed the goose with the golden egg---for what?
What is really at stake here?
For whom?

Sincerely
Uttara Asha Coorlawala Ph.D
Adj. Professor, Dance, Barnard College/Columbia University.
Professor, Dance, Long Island University- C W Post Campus
e-mail: ucoorlaw@barnard.edu / uacoorlawa@aol.edu


May 14, 2007

Dear friends in art,

I am truly shocked to hear of the criticisms against my friend and guru, Leela Samson. I first encountered Leelakka when I was a foreign student at Kalakshetra for one year in 1972-1973. Leela had already graduated from the institution, and returned during the Music Season to play the role of Rukmini in Athai's new dance-drama, Kuchelo Pakyanam. Later, when I lived in New Delhi in the 1980's, I had the good fortune to study under Leelakka at Sriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra, as well as privately at her residence in Asian Games Village.

Foreign students always loved to study with Leelakka because of her very scholarly approach, and her willingness to explain to us in great detail the many stories of Hindu deities we needed to learn for our dance presentations. In her home, I remember a large collection of images of Ganesha, tastefully arranged in the room where we practiced dance. All this is prologue to my assertion that never would Leelakka go against the philosophical principles instilled in her by the founder of Kalakshetra, and never would she disrespect an idol of Ganesha. Anyone who claims otherwise is clearly jealous, ignorant, or just plain perverse.

Since leaving Kalakshetra, I have heard stories of terrible attacks on the elderly teachers, and desecration of the grounds. These acts were perpetrated by people incapable of understanding or appreciating the wonderful work that has been carried on in that dear place, that simple ashram that has sheltered the fine arts of India against the forces of modernisation and commercialisation for so long. That these people exist is unavoidable; that they should be listened to is a shame. Leelakka and the many great teachers of Kalakshetra are quite capable of deciding how the school is to be run, in keeping with its own tradition.

I and all of her loving students around the world join our voices to wish her well, and beg her not to lose her sense of direction and momentum, in leading Kalakshetra into the 21st century. Remember, Akka, the elephant walks majestically forward, though dogs may bark and howl on either side.

Sincerely,
Christel Stevens
e-mail: stellaguru@yahoo.com


May 10, 2007

I would like to address this letter not to P. Deivamuthu but to those who might have believed his allegations of the impending destruction of Kalakshetra. Before I start, I must establish upon what authority I base myself (something the alert reader would have noticed was glaringly absent in P Deivamuthu's claim). I am a Kalakshetra alumni, who graduated this April 2007. Two of my years at Kalakshetra were under Mr. Rajaram, the other two under Ms. Leela Samson (I lived in the hostel during the entire four year period). Being indeed a graduate allows me an objectivity and frankness which an actual student or staff could not have, since I'm not under the institute's jurisdiction any longer. I would therefore consider myself as unbiased as a human being can be.

Even as an ex-student who was involved in some managerial aspects, I would not consider myself an authority on all details of the institute. Yet P Deivamuthu speaks as if he is privy to all the interactions occurring at Kalakshetra: he knows the accounts, what the board of directors think, the students feel, the teachers teach and so on.

He has prepared quite a list of ten points to prove his case that Ms. Leela Samson is a Christian whose only aim is to destroy Hindu culture. While I will address some of them, there is little use in addressing each point separately, because that validates those points more than they merit; I can merely say that I'm somewhat baffled by P Deivamuthu's audacity in presenting them as fact. To name a few, he openly charges the director with larceny and fraud ("She seems to be in a hurry to completely finish off the funds of the Foundation" and "huge amounts are being spent unofficially"). He could be faced with serious legal implications at this moment for his blatant slandering of her character and activities.

Instead of filing such a defamation-suit, Ms. Samson may view a dignified silence as the best response to these accusations. I, however, find myself incapable of such silence because I realize that most people may assume what they read is true. This would be quite unfortunate because, to put it mildly, P Deivamuthu needs to verify his facts before he boldly declares them to the world. While he does have a general idea of what is happening, an example being the renovation of the auditorium roof, he does not quite present it right. In his words: "She is now planning to demolish the temple structure of the Kalakshetra Auditorium with the excuse of modernising [sic] it."
Further, he states: "Last December, she refused to send students to the inauguration ceremony of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar's Seminar on Health and Happiness held from 5th-8th Dec 2006 at Anna University. The reason given by her is indeed shocking – "The festival is on Hinduism. So you need not go there.' Ravi Shankar Ji had expressed his anguish."

This is a point that needs to be addressed: First, if she indeed "refused to send students" then how come over 50 of us participated? As far as the quote by her which he provides, was he there to hear what she said? Even those, like myself, who were there would be hard-pressed to produce a verbatim quote, so unless he was hiding at the morning prayers with a recorder, I think this can be dismissed as substantial evidence (On the other hand, this should raise questions regarding the authenticity of his claims).

Furthermore, I would like to take this opportunity (since I was there) to make clear that she said no such thing. This open dialogue between director, staff and students was an inside issue, but since its content seems to have traveled far and wide (and with various interpretations) it's only right that I address it publicly now. At that time, the director was careful to express her respect to Sri Ravi Shankar AND clarify that the issue at hand was not a religious one. She indeed clarified more than once that this was not a pro or con religion discussion. Her only concern was the aesthetics of a large number of people on stage simultaneously, and because of this (and the organizers' failure to formally request the institute's participation) she was hesitant to send us there. But after hearing one of the student's request, she was moved to let us go, and as stated, over 50 of us danced that evening at Anna University. It is unfortunate that despite her acquiescence, our participation has till this day not been acknowledged.

Now to P Deivamuthu's point number 1: "Most of the Vinayaka idols for which regular poojas were being conducted by the students have been removed, especially the idols in front of the theatre and hostel. After a lot of criticism she has replaced the Vinayaka idol in front of the theatre but the idol which was in front of the hostel has not been replaced."

Again there are traces of facts, but twisted, and I untwist them to illustrate how the changes Ms. Samson is implementing are in accordance with Rukmini Devi's wishes: In the hostel there was a small structure with Vinayaka-images which has been removed, and that is simply because it was not Rukmini Devi who had established it there. The first principal of Kalakshetra, Mr. Shankara Menon, who took care after Rukmini Devi's death, was concerned when the hostel-warden brought in and placed a Vinayaka-deity by the dining-hall. Years later, this one Vinayaka had turned into a miniature temple structure, where regular poojas and so on were held. While that in itself is not inappropriate, the hostel's name is Besant Cultural Centre, and why should only a Vinayaka statue be worshiped there? Rukmini Devi's mood is reflected beautifully in the prayers the students and staff recite every morning. There is one prayer from each of the major world-religions, the last one being an all-embracing 'Universal Prayer.' Rukmini Devi grew up as a Theosophist and was deeply influenced by Annie Besant. Moreover, her passion for dance started first with her deep admiration for Anna Pavlova and the classical ballet. It is therefore misleading to categorize Kalakshetra simply as a place which preserves ancient tradition, for it is founded on broader precepts. (Also P Deivamuthu's reference to Leela Samson as a Christian is irrelevant, and even I, with my share of curiosity as a student, was unable to discern her religious orientation). I believe that many people today consider Rukmini Devi a great woman because she was able to appreciate and assimilate the beauty in many religions. And the appreciation of beauty in all things is, according to Rukmini Devi, the true essence of Art.

Point number 2: (The last one I will address) "Leela Samson ordered all prayers in the institution to be stopped. But the students are continuing with the prayers in spite of the possibility of disciplinary action and even expulsion."

This one is so blatantly false that I'm speechless. In fact, the truth will not reflect too well on the students, but the number one complaint in the hostel which surfaces on a daily basis (from the hostel-matrons) is that very few attend the hostel morning prayers. Need I repeat that P Deivamuthu should base himself on the truth.

Yes, there have been many changes since Ms. Samson took over as a director. But changes were in this case welcome. The prevailing atmosphere during my first two years was not particularly inspiring; the Bharatanatyam classes themselves were my refuge and reason for staying on. As I mentioned at the outset, my first two years at Kalakshetra were not under Ms. Samson, and this has given me a good basis for comparison. Naturally, when a new director takes over, comparisons between the former and the new director are inevitable. While I don't think it is my place to extensively comment on Mr. Rajaram as a director, his lack of involvement with the students became very evident when Ms. Samson stepped in. Where he seldom spoke in the morning assembly and never shared with us any of his concerns (nor showed much concern for us), she often spoke to us about the institute, the activities, and her concerns. (This openness received quite a dent when it backfired on her after the Sri Ravi Shankar episode, and she was understandably less communicative for some time after she had been thus misunderstood and misrepresented.) For whatever reasons, Mr. Rajaram was unapproachable and was often seen alone in his office hours at a stretch. Yet ask any visitor how hard it is to catch Ms. Samson in her office! Either someone is already in there with her, or she is out attending to numerous managerial situations.

Earlier, there was a silent and secretive mood, where few revealed anything about themselves, and most people were constantly afraid of 'getting a bad name in the office,' itself a highly dreaded place to set foot in. Even in the classroom, the students were unable to articulate opinions about anything even when beckoned repeatedly by the teacher. For example, in 2004 a gentleman from Art of Living addressed the hostel students and concluded by opening up for questions; he admitted to being perplexed by the heavy silence he got in response. Other gatherings he had addressed usually had questions or comments. I would put forth that this gathering was no different, only that their faculties for expressing was hampered. Fear is not a symptom of respect, though at that time it seemed so. Strangely enough, P Deivamuthu seems to believe that empowering the students with a voice is a break-down in the gurukula-system, but I strongly disagree. For even the best teacher cannot anticipate each doubt or answer every question unasked. The students must be encouraged to articulate and voice their doubts and opinions. Only then is the learning process a meaningful exchange.

Crediting the students with maturity (perhaps more than we deserved), Ms. Samson was from the outset very approachable and encouraging. Because she is actively involved on a daily basis, the list of what she has done and is doing would be rather lengthy. To summarize a few, she has improved the dance-cottages, built a new library and instrument-room, upgraded the offices, replaced old dance-costumes, applied make-up for the performers, increased cultural programs, and so on. During program-times, she would get involved to the point where she helped on all levels, decorating, moving chairs, encouraging student participation, and whatever was needed for the event to succeed.

The annual December festival, for instance, saw house-full on several nights, something I've never seen before (even ten years earlier when I attended the festival as a visitor). After the newly choreographed 'Dasharu Kanda Krsna' premiered, any visitor could have witnessed the spontaneous elation of the performers, mostly post diploma students, who crowded around the director thanking her and even jumping for joy. People like P Deivamuthu have evidently not taken the time to attend these important events of the institute, which demonstrate the enthusiasm of both the director and her students.

And aside from these, Ms. Samson qualifies as a highly capable and judicious director for Kalakshetra, because she is a dancer who has created a niche for herself in a highly competitive city, Delhi. (Let's not forget that Kalakshetra is a dance-institute aiming to produce capable dancers/teachers who can stand before an audience confidently). She was there during Rukmini Devi's time and has through her life and her writings demonstrated such an adherence to the Kalakshetra style that critics make it a point to underline her stylistic faithfulness to Kalakshetra's technique. Where many artists create a style strongly distinctive to the one they've been trained in, Ms. Samson is pointed out as one who has her own style while simultaneously clearly reflecting the principles of her early training.

In conclusion, I'm fully aware of the heat Ms. Samson is under from various places, some quite close to home, for the changes she is implementing. But that human beings resist change in general is evident, found clearly in accounts of the founder's own life. Was Rukmini Devi (now glorified by all) supported unanimously or enthusiastically by her contemporaries? P Deivamuthu seems at least to have respect for Kalakshetra's founder, and I find that puzzling in view of his attitude towards the current director. Rukmini Devi was by no means one who went along with what Hindus (or anyone) thought during her time. She was under severe criticism. Moreover, I do not find the comparison between Rukmini Devi and Leela Samson inappropriate because they are two people supremely devoted to Art, to Bharatanatyam, and to Kalakshetra. Whatever complaints people may have against Leela Samson, one cannot in all fairness doubt her devotion; it is evident in her hard-work, her availability, and steady engagement. I doubt P Deivamuthu has ever seen any of her dance-recitals which have been hailed for their dignity and above all faithfulness to the Kalakshetra tradition. (In addition, I also doubt whether he has even been to Kalakshetra. I'm not so sure that he knows Kalakshetra at all).

This kind of attack by P Deivamuthu and others like him is unwarranted and even unbelievable, as I hope I have demonstrated to some extent. It is far easier to stretch a finger to point out a crack in the structure, harder to raise a strong hand to repair it, and in this case, it's clear to me whose finger is simply pointing and whose is steadily engaged in building anew.

Thoughtfully,
Vrnda Devi
Kalakshetra Graduate, April 2007
e-mail: vrindizm@hotmail.com