Brush with art

Print edition : August 10, 2007

"Art appreciation has to do with who you are. It's personal thing," says Leela Samson, director of Kalakshetra.-N. SRIDHARAN

Interview with dancer Leela Samson on the Indian art scene.

UNINVITED visitors enter a college where an examination procedure in the form of a student art exhibition is being held and denounce some paintings as "vulgar" and "offensive to religious sentiment". The police turn up without a warrant and throw the student-artist into jail. Pressure is brought on the university to suspend the dean for allowing students to stage a protest with another exhibition featuring examples from pre-modern Indian erotic art. The recent goings on in the Indian art scene have also triggered introspection about artistic freedom, institutional autonomy and religious sentiments. Dancer Leela Samson, director of Kalakshetra, Chennai, commenting on the "Lakshman Rekha" between art as self-expression and art as communication, said: "Indians have to be aware of their lack of knowledge of their own heritage of symbols and also of their lack of sensitivity." Excerpts from the interview:

As the director of a highly regarded autonomous institution of fine arts, and as an accomplished Bharatanatyam artist from a minority background you have consciously opted to nurture traditional genres based on icons, symbols and mythologies of the Hindu tradition. Both the artists who have hit the headlines recently are also drawn to themes taken from mythology, religion, spirituality, and so on, although from very different angles. Are we engaging in a meaningful and productive debate on aesthetics, autonomy and creativity? Or is modern Indian art painting itself into an exclusive corner to cater only to a handful of eclectic rasikas with odd tastes, thus exposing itself to the moral police? Let us start with one of Chandramohan's pictures depicting the Cross. With a very ordinary object right beneath it: a toilet seat. What are your reactions and your gut feelings, as an artist from a Christian background who has chosen Bharatanatyam, a traditional art form soaked in the mythology of the majority community; as an academician; as the director of an autonomous institution; and as a citizen? Do you think this picture would hurt someone's feelings, or does it make one wonder what is on the artist's mind?

(Looking closely at Chandramohan's picture of the Cross).I think it is all of those things. The response has got to do with the mind of the person who did it, his experiences today, and with each of us as we look at this picture. With our own journey as a rasika, which is not just an appreciator of art, but one who responds to art as a life experience. It has to do with our samskara, and what we have come with thus far.

What we make of our education, our background, our conditioning or the lack of it has something to do with how we view this or any picture or work of art. It does not really matter what I as a person think of this painting, but it will never represent Kalakshetra, or Christians, or women, though I'm all of those. Art appreciation has to do with who you are. It's a personal thing.

It is now a public issue. We have heard the articulations of secular and liberal intellectuals and others, but the rumblings of the others have to be heard also.

Yes, I know it has become a public issue. It shouldn't have become one; it doesn't warrant it. I would definitely allow anyone to have their space; and to make their artistic statement. It is not going to affect the world, or this country, or the people here.

Is art just for the connoisseur, or the voyeur, or only for some adults with a taste for the offbeat? There are those who feel that there is an excessive level of tolerance among Hindus.

I know that.

And who probably expected a strong protest from Christians to the picture I showed you. But it didn't create a ripple, Christian organisations have not registered any protest. Whereas the Hindutva organisations not only verbally protested against Chandramohan's other pictures, featuring a Sivalingam with erotic motifs and Durga giving birth to a rakshasa, but actually barged into the exhibition, had it closed, got him arrested, and had the acting Dean suspended.

Why would one community create a ripple and the other not create one?

Would it be to show that Hindus also can stand up for their deities, their values? To seize political advantage from a sore feeling among some Hindus that they have accepted too much denigration of their sacred symbols? So they make it an issue today.

I don't think it should have been made political at all. I say it should have been ignored it would not have been noticed anyway. This is a student; these are students in a college who are on their life's journey. Their art will change, their life will change. Why can't they have this freedom of expression?

For instance, will I have to defend, because it is too `explicit' according to somebody or the other, every padam, every jaavali ? [These are dances that deal with srngara rasa, or the romantic/erotic emotion in the navarasa aesthetic.]

Will it mean I can't visit Khajuraho ever again or the Big Temple in Thanjavur because the lingam is `offensive'? At which point will you draw a line if you start demarcating what is `offensive' and what is not? India is so large in terms of its philosophy, so all-encompassing, that I think it belittles it to say `This is what it is!' and `This is what it is not!' It's the only philosophy that can take all this in and still remain strong.

And not turn a hair?

I would not call it religion; it's a way of life. I wouldn't limit it thus. It is symbolic; it is to be interpreted by each of us. And each of us does interpret it - as ritual, as spirituality, as philosophy.

There could be a problem here with this permissiveness... Won't the Bajrang Dal activist who attacked these paintings claim that he too was `interpreting' it?

Attack is not an expression of opinion. He doesn't have that right. See, I might not like this painting at all, but I cannot attack Chandramohan physically or put him behind bars. You may not like my dance, you have every right to say, `I can't stand it! Gosh, she's a Christian! Her dance is so bad!' How can I stop you? It may be misinformed opinion, but as long as you don't hit me on the head, it doesn't matter. Live and let live has been part of our philosophy. This aggressiveness is what disturbs me. So I can argue at length about an artist's conceptualisations. I may voice disapproval or distaste and do it convincingly. But it is not important what I think about this painter or that musician or that dancer.

Surely criticism has a place in art? What if you had been asked to review these paintings?

When you've lived a little, you realise there is nothing to be had from being rude. You don't have to put up with a piece of art. You can go to another exhibition. I think that is our philosophy. But you asked how I react to this as a Christian (laughs). I'm not at all conscious of whether I am a Christian, or whether I am not a Hindu. I've been brought up in the best way possible in terms of my relationship to god. And all the gods of my art are my gods, and nobody can tell me that I am not Hindu because I happen to be born Christian with a name like Samson.

There is much about Christianity which I find very beautiful, and much that I don't like, but that doesn't make me a worse Hindu or a better Hindu. I have been taught to appreciate everything that is best in all philosophies, but I am not a religious person. I'm a philosophical person. I like to listen to another opinion and take it on my shoulder. I'd like to be able to tolerate it. It doesn't have to be something I like. I might find something extremely distasteful [as art is, sometimes].

But to resort to violence, to oppose it is much, much more distasteful. We should draw the line at aggression.

Tolerance, as individuals or as a community or as a nation, is the only way we can survive. In politics and science and art there are sensitive issues that will always create some friction, some tension. But unless there's tolerance, we cannot understand each other's language. A scientist should be able to look at a Nataraja and say, `That has physics in it, it's a symbol.' Then you've immediately brought two worlds together, the dancer's interpretation of the Nataraja becomes closer to the vision of the great physicists.

This is important because, if you understand the real truth behind a phenomenon, then it's beyond language, it's just one language. It's Advaita then. You and I can journey in each other's worlds and I can understand your striving, your `dukh-sukh' and you can understand mine. That's friendship, that is coming together, that's the possibility before humankind. That we can touch each other without infringing upon each other's nature, or point of view. I don't have to be like you exactly, but I can appreciate your search.

Many are not able to swallow this `live and let live' philosophy, faced with what they see as not an assault on their religious sentiments but an assault on the body. An icon or an idol uses the body to represent an idea, a concept. People see this kind of art as iconoclastic, not so much because it attacks gods or goddesses but because it specifically targets the physical aspect, the bodily functions, the sexual function particularly. Is this a healthy trend in art?

The physical aspect is the easiest thing to recognise in art. Emotion or intellect in a work of art is not easily recognised. So you don't see them as being abused. It's only the physical that one feels abused by.

But isn't that the responsibility of the artist, not to abuse the body?

Absolutely. But that's his or her journey through the physical, through the emotions and the intellect to the spiritual.

As in Tantra?

There are dancers who are offensive because of their costume, or it's their body that's being overused, or a part of the body that's not being treated well. Kids dance on television these days, and to me it's offensive! It's mostly parts of the body below the waist which are being used, gyrating with the hips. In classical dance forms, it's the area above which is used to express the emotions, the intellect, working towards the spiritual above the head.

As expounded by the founder of Kalakshetra, Rukmini Devi, back in the 1930s?

Well, this perspective has been refined over centuries and according to it, the lower body is supportive; the physical supports the emotional; emotion is informed by the intellect of the person; and this allows you both to forget the body and to give up the ego. It takes you on journeys above the intellect that are spiritual. Those are the beautiful journeys. Now, it could be that these particular pictures are too physical.

The suggestion of infiniteness is not there. But this is bound to happen in the journey of an artist. You have to go through it. When I did my first dance performance, I was more concerned with just getting through the sheer exercise of precise physical movements, the kanakku vazhakku or `accounts' as we sometimes term them. But today I'm interested in their sublimation. Sometimes you're not dancing for anybody else, and you're not dancing for yourself either. It is a search, and what emerges depends on how far you have travelled. But it's only in the physical that the ego is present. It's a niche.

Looks like some artists paint themselves into a corner. Suppose a student of yours wanted to use different parts of the body, and in different ways from the discipline you follow.

For me, the body is the most ethereal and the most dangerous brush with which I can paint. It's not which part of the body that has to be kept hidden. That is a matter of cultural conditioning. The midriff is taboo in Western classical dance, the legs are taboo here. This is not a question of old/ traditional/conservative versus new/contemporary/ modern ways of using the body.

There are students who are offensive without doing anything `new' with the body. It has to do with the mind, the ego. Lack of sensitivity or grace, a blunted intellect will affect everything I say and do - on or off stage.

And it's not just a question of what training or what discipline you have had. Even a student of the great Pandit Birju Maharaj can be either sublime or ridiculous. You can't control or influence students, you cannot be them. If there is arrogance present, a desire for power or money, or if there is confusion in their lives, their art will show it. It is as simple as that.

[In response to another question.]

And then there's a lack of sensitivity. The attitude is similar to a person sitting in a compartment and opening his tiffin box without a thought about akkam-pakkam, the people near him. Can what I have be offered or shared, or even looked at?

It could be a beefsteak, but I don't care, I have paid for this seat. That's the attitude. What's needed is not moral policing, or social control, but self-control.

Every artist must be sensitive to the feelings of the people who are going to look at his work.

At least in public there must be some regard for who you're talking to, through your art. I think art is part of nature, but even if you consider art an object outside the self, a dance performance or a painting created for public consumption, art appreciation is a journey towards compassion, a journey over many janmas.

A letter from the Editor


Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.

Sincerely,

R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor
×