Who's behind Leela Samson's ouster from Kalakshetra?

Last Updated: Fri, May 04, 2012 20:14 hrs

It is time India proved that 'sixty is the new forty'.  And when better than now, when the issue of 60-year old Leela Samson's resignation has gone viral, and artistes scattered across the globe are determined that Samson, hailed as a visionary, be reinstated and allowed to guide the fortunes of the Kalakshetra Foundation.

The government of India adopted the National Policy on Older Persons in 1999, and the policy provides 'guidelines to state governments for taking action in a proactive manner'.  

Observers of the Samson issue are hoping that Tamil Nadu's Jayalalithaa government would intervene - if all else fails. Especially since there is this murky threat of land sharks eying around 15 acres of Kalakshetra property - with Leela Samson being the stumbling block to any land grab plans.

Ever since she took over as the director of Kalakshetra Foundation in 2005, Samson, a dancer herself, has embarked on numerous projects to infuse fresh life into Kalakshetra, founded by Rukhmini Devi Arundale and has made the institution more vibrant and artistically relevant, lifting it from the lethargy it had fallen into earlier.

"She brought back the vibrancy, but the real estate mafia and a few disgruntled elements in Kalakshetra orchestrated her exit," says an observer.

Originally set for April 4, the governing body meet of the Kalakshetra Foundation was postponed to April 10, and although the chairman, the cultural secretary and the joint secretary were present, a majority of the non government members were absent. The issue of Samson's age and the irregularities in executing certain civil works, as cited by the CAG (Comptroller and Auditor General) report were raised.

Whatever transpired in that meeting, it left Samson 'shell shocked'.

Two days later, on April 12, Samson resigned from her post. It was accepted.

"The resignation was accepted with unseemly haste, and the governing body was not consulted," said N Murali, who along with other members has asked the chairman to convene a special emergency meeting of the governing body.

"Age is not the real issue here, since her appointment by the ministry was open ended. We want her to be reinstated," he added.

According to him, Samson inherited a legacy of litigations, and she was not given enough administrative support. A deputy director was appointed only last year.

Meanwhile, artistes are hoping that their collective voice would be an agent of change.

Whoever choreographed the ouster of Samson as Kalakshetra's director has missed a crucial step completely: Public opinion.  

The online petition, started by dancer Anita Ratnam on May 1 went viral within hours, and  hundreds of renowned artistes signed  up  for the 'reinstate Samson' campaign. "This is just a small testament about how people of India feel. She is the right person to guide Kalakshetra," said Ratnam.

With members of the governing body such as N Murali asking the chairman of the board of Kalakshetra Foundation to convene a special emergency meeting, it is clear that Samson may have quit, but she is definitely not out.

Speaking from Brussels, Anita Ratnam said she and fellow artistes would be petitioning the board, the union ministry of culture and everyone else, to step in and reinstate Samson.

That Samson gave a face lift to Kalakshetra is indisputable. But she also rejuvenated its languishing soul.

For every high-profile performance by the students - like the one when US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton visited Kalakshetra - there were countless others, which infused fresh blood into the dance form, which is still popular, but lacks enough patronage, despite Chennai's now famous Margazhi Music and Dance season.

The online petition campaign is a fight for the survival of a number of things, say artistes.

Through the controversy, Leela Samson has maintained her dignity and decorum, refusing to nitpick.

When I told her that the cyber waves were on fire, she merely said, "I am hugely honored and feel grateful for the outpourings of not just the artist community, but many, many people all over the world and India, for whom the artistic expression and survival of an institute like Kalakshetra means so much. It is gratifying and heartwarming."

There is always a chance that Samson may not want her job back. "What people are upset about are the reasons for my resignation. I must clarify that no one asked me to resign. It was my decision entirely. As such, it is the prerogative of the ministry and the board to now appoint someone else to the position. I have done my bit."

But she may not find it easy to go against the groundswell.

"She could feel like stepping back because of the manner in which she was reportedly chastised for doing what needed to be done," said Ratnam. "But we need people with vision, people who can still face the challenge of creating art and managing it as well. And no one should use the law to keep talent out, by raising the issue of retirement age.

"There should be a serious rethink by the government on this aspect," added Ratnam.

With the United Nations Population Division projecting that India's population aged 60 and above is likely to go up by 19% in 2050, up from 8 % in 2010, the retirement age issue will continue to engage stake holders everywhere and what happens in Kalakshetra in the coming days  will be a defining moment.

Image: Legendary Bharatanatyam dancer, Rukmini Devi Arundale. Founder of Kalashetra in January 1936. (Wikipedia Commons)

Other columns by the author....

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Karunanidhi's wrong call for Tamil 'Eelam'

Tamil Nadu's shameful disregard for heritage buildings 

Night curfew: Why IIT-M should look at JNU for solution

Will Sasikala's return affect Jaya's future?

Bhama Devi Ravi is a Chennai based journalist

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