SINGAPORE - Elegance, class and grace - these are the three words that come to mind when you meet noted bharatanatyam dancer Leela Samson. The 62-year-old was in Singapore from July 10 to 12 as a Singapore-India Partnership Foundation (SIPF) exchange fellow. The SIPF, launched in 2006 by then senior minister Goh Chok Tong, promotes and enhances the exchange of education, arts and heritage activities between Singapore and India.
During her stay in Singapore, the dancer met officials and representatives from various councils and organisations that included the dance division of the National Arts Council, the films division of the Media Development Authority as well as the National Heritage Board among others.
And when tabla! caught up with Leela at the Four Seasons where she was staying, she had just got through an entire day of meetings but she did not look tired. Instead, dressed in a red sari with her hair neatly tied, she smiled and greeted reporters as if this was her first meeting for the day.
But having a full schedule is something Leela has been used to for years, she revealed. During her years as a young student, she juggled school with bharatanatyam classes at Chennai's Kalakshetra - a reputed arts and cultural academy. She was only 10 when she started learning the dance form.
"I just took a liking to it (bharatanatyam) and it became something much more for me over time," said Leela, who was born in Coonoor, Tamil Nadu, to a Jewish Indian armed forces officer. Her mother was a Catholic who used to play the piano. "She played it so beautifully," said Leela. But her brothers weren't into the arts.
It was never her plan to become a full-time dancer as Leela aspired to go into medicine. "But I never had the brains for it," she said with a laugh. She went on to college and did "literature and history and things like that", while bharatanatyam continued to play an integral part in her life. It was after college that she "started my career as a dance soloist", she said, adding that the rest was history.
A colourful history, at that. With every stage and every performance, Leela gained recognition throughout India and then internationally. She was conferred the Padma Shri in 1990, one of the highest honours in India for those in the arts. Five years later she formed Spanda, a dance academy, and had numerous students under her guidance including non-Indians from faraway countries.
"I've had a Chinese student and also an American, Justin McCarthy, who now teaches bharatanatyam himself," she said.
A decade later, she was appointed director of Kalakshetra, a position she held for two years until she quit in 2012. Her reason for leaving was sparked off by "some disagreements within the board and the members".
"I don't have any grudges against the institution. I have done all I can for it, to my best abilities," she said.
Currently, Leela, who isn't married, serves as the chairperson of the Sangeet Natak Akademi - a national academy for the arts set up by the Indian government - as well as the chairperson of the Central Board of Film Certification.
"It's a demanding job," she said, referring to her position at the Indian censorship board. "I'm an artiste and as an artiste I understand the necessary artistic nuances in some films, but they may not be aligned to the political or social notions. It's quite tough to decide what is to be censored and how much of it, especially since, with the Internet, almost everyone has access to almost everything."
But with all these positions, will she find the time to dance? "Of course. I'm currently working on several productions," said the artiste, who has been to Singapore on many occasions to perform at The Esplanade.
Dance is something personal. The best moments are those when one is on stage and forgets the audience and is unconscious of her physical being.
Those moments of release, I call them, are the most memorable parts of dance," she said.
And added: "But those moments are not realised then and there. They are realised only when the dancer looks back to her performance. It's for those moments and for myself that I will continue to dance."
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