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FEW events have caused as much dismay in the world of Indian art and culture as the recent, and somewhat unexpected, decision of Leela Samson to put in her papers as the director of Kalakshetra, the nearly eight decade old institution founded and nurtured for over half a century by Rukmini Devi Arundale. Whatever the reasons behind this step – and the gossip mills are full of stories of internal squabbling in the artist fraternity and conspiracies involving both the faculty and board, allegations of financial and procedural oversight, even discussions over the age of retirement – the inability to hold on, or at least permit a dignified exit, to an artist, herself a distinguished alumni of the institute and whose contributions are widely regarded, speaks volumes about our collective inability to imagine and evolve frames for running such institutions.

There is much hidden in Leela Samson’s interview to The Hindu post her decision. She reiterated that Kalakshetra has a ‘dream’ board, headed by an individual held in high esteem for his public record, institutional propriety and good sense. And while one can never underestimate the ingenuity of the ministry bureaucracy under whose ambit Kalakshetra falls, the high regard that Leela Samson enjoys, both among her peers and the ‘powers that be’, was widely expected to shield her from the insidious machinations that commonly mark our public institutional spaces. For her, after seven years of endeavour to revive her alma mater, to admit defeat, stating that she needed to return to her first love, dance, to heal herself and recover her creative energy, captures a moment of collective defeat and failure.

It is undeniable that many of the institutions whose past we glorify had exceptional founders, individuals who not only had made a mark in their chosen fields but also enjoyed wide social respect, including among the political class. Even when the institutions came under the umbrella of the state, thereby reducing the energies required for raising the necessary resources for survival, the early leadership enjoyed wide latitude in articulating and actualizing their vision for the institution – be it in selecting colleagues, expansion plans, framing rules and procedures, including for promotion and rewarding of merit. In no small measure this space enabled them to build up ‘islands of excellence’.

It can be no one’s claim that these were uncontested domains; both creative and personal differences over preferred choices and styles were not unknown. Yet, those were different times. Though charged by detractors of remaining a closed, self-referential world, the institutions were seen by most as part of a larger national project and the then leadership as representing public interest. Possibly, this may explain the relative success in negotiating the conflicting pressures and demands and help prepare the groundwork for continued excellence.

In part, at least, it does appear that our vision of the role of these institutions, as exemplars and trend setters, has changed alongside our less than happy shifts in the perception of politics and governance as public service. As each of these sites increasingly started being seen as avenues for dispensing patronage, to serve narrower and partisan agendas, freedom and autonomy of action transformed to license, sometimes with active connivance of the leadership. The terms of social discourse governing reflections on institutional visions and practice became increasingly shrill, not merely reducing socially legitimized space for the exercise of ‘judgement and good sense’ but also enlarging the arena of accountability from peers to now anyone with the ability to approach political authority, ferret out internal information through the use of the RTI, or turn to the courts for ‘justice’. And now, there is the additional spectre of the CAG reports, armed with their ‘questionable’ notions of audit.

While welcoming the strengthening of democratic, social accountability, we simultaneously need to guard against the tendency of proliferating rules and regulations which can defeat even seasoned administrators, forget artists and scholars. The demands of merit and excellence sit uneasily with those of populist democracy as increasingly complex systems of oversight serve to stifle initiative. Fearful of consequences, most heads of institutions seek safety in ‘not acting’, preferring instead to set up committees and commissioning reports. The result – stasis.

Leela Samson stood out because she chose to act, with good sense and through consultation. Evidently, in the Byzantine world of public institutions, mere appeal to good sense, or past record, or even a plea to look at consequences is not enough. No surprise that in a petty, procedure-governed world, suffused with mistrust about motives, it is difficult to attract, and retain, individuals, incapable of or unwilling to play by the ‘new rules of the game’.

Harsh Sethi