Indulge one-on-one: Parvathi Nayar and Leela Samson discuss the creation of meaning

Artist Parvathi Nayar along with veteran dancer and cultural ambassador Leela Samson take a look around affairs of the arts in the city, with a view to make the best of what’s around.
Parvathi Nayar & Leela Samson
Parvathi Nayar & Leela Samson

It is never easy to get into the minds of artists, especially not if they’re as active, involved in multiple projects and collaborations, and engaged with socio-cultural affairs as Parvathi Nayar and Leela Samson.

A virtuoso bharatanatyam dancer, choreographer, instructor and writer, Leela has been the director of the Kalakshetra, the chairperson of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, and the chairperson of the Central Board of Film Certification. Parvathi, on the other hand, is among the more outgoing and socially active artists in the city, frequently working on projects that emerge out of the gallery ‘white box’, and proactively engage the community, particularly, groups of children.

We got Parvathi and Leela to settle down over a pot of tea at Amethyst a few weekends ago, for a morning-long conversation about the state of the arts, the evolving cultural identity of Chennai, and the need to inculcate values of good language and art appreciation in people. Excerpts from a wide-ranging interaction:

How long have you known each other? Do you remember the first time you met?
Parvathi Nayar:
I’ve always known about Leela, but I didn’t live in Chennai for a long time. I was in Singapore, Jakarta and London. And when I returned, I got back into the socio-cultural life, so to speak... Then, I had the opportunity to review the biography she had written, on Rukmini Devi Arundale (Rukmini Devi: A Life). That was the first actual formal contact I had with Leela. Since then, it has just been meeting at various different cultural events and social occasions in Chennai.

Leela Samson: I was Director, Kalakshetra at the point that the book came out, and I remember being very tied up with paper work. I think for the first time in decades, at the time, we had begun to interact with Chennai, where Kalakshetra actually moved its art into the city, and tried to be become a part of the mainstream, rather than be an exclusive oasis of high art. 

I didn’t agree with that whole thing, and tried my best to break that conundrum. It was difficult. But on a personal basis, I’ve met Parvathi at various art functions, and I’ve been to a couple of her exhibitions, and really enjoyed her very individualistic spin on whatever she does. The reason we haven’t met as much as we’d like to is that we’re so tied up with our lives... 

The idea of islands, and people wrapped up in their bubbles — that’s true of this city as well. You can get totally wrapped up in your work, and you’re left with little time for anything apart from your own commitments. It is wonderful to have the off-time to meet an artist whom you really admire, across spectrums of the arts in Chennai.

<em>Parvathi Nayar & Leela Samson. Location courtesy: Amethyst, Chennai. Pic: Nakshatra Krishnamoorthy</em>
Parvathi Nayar & Leela Samson. Location courtesy: Amethyst, Chennai. Pic: Nakshatra Krishnamoorthy

The idea of breaking notions of high art, opening up the art outside of the gallery, and making it a community affair — all of that is very close to both of your artistic work. Artists today, at the highest level, are very aware of what is high art, and what is not... and the trappings in between.

LS: Absolutely. In Kalakshetra, we lived right next to a fishing kuppam (village). And when I came in there, I actually went and met all of the fishing folk in the kuppam, and I urged them to send their young ones in to watch the shows, because it’s not like we ticketed any of them, and we were a government institute, so the people were entitled to come and watch the programmes.

But it’s funny, because the psychology of our social system is such, that they also hesitated over these many decades, and now their children have become arrogant about it; it’s like, ‘Why should we go?’

So this works both ways, and it’s not just that high art wishes to remain in its spaces... For instance, many dancers say, I’d love to perform out in the open, but what about lights, sound and all the things we worry about so much? Also, I know that it works the other way as well. Politically, I’d have to say that I know of groups who are actively recognising dalit art, so you don’t have to fragment that.

How does the aspect of inclusivity work in an art show?
PN: Speaking personally as an artist, you always want to communicate with the maximum number of people, without dumbing down too much to them. As an artist who draws, and paints, and makes installations, you also accept that it’s like a good book, not everybody will respond to it. And I think, if you always go for the lowest common denominator, I think something is taken away from the art. 

So it’s a fine line that you tread without wanting to be elitist, but not wanting to dumb down either. I think one of the problems in Chennai is that there isn’t a national museum, there isn’t a place where this dialogue can happen easily. 

In Singapore, for instance, there are six museums, and they are constantly engaging with children every weekend. With my shows, what I wanted to do, was to try and reach out — admittedly through a private show, in a private gallery — which may reach out to about 300 students, perhaps.

But, at least, those 300 students have taken away something of what art is. I think we always try and deal with that reaction from people, who go on asking, ‘What does this mean, what does this mean...? Creation of meaning becomes a very important thing in today’s art world.

LS: I know what you mean... The problem is, we live in art. But we’re not used to looking at it. And for most Indians, you can’t blame them for taking it all for granted, because there’s just so much of it. For me, a basket is interesting, for them, it’s just a basket. Are we the ones who are the voyeurs, who have the voyeuristic tendency, and they just live with it, every single day? And sometimes it’s good, and sometimes, it’s bad. But that’s us. 

It’s because, we have so much. I mean, look at the number of arts — even without being a part of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, just look at the number of dance forms at the classical level, and at the folk level — it’s mind-boggling. Every state has multiple folk forms, every village has one — their instruments are different, language is different, food is different. And then you have the tribal arts, the martial arts... at every level, you have dance, music, theatrical and fine art expressions.

PN: You know, I’ve heard Leela speak of how the movement of dance is abstract, and what it conveys is how well it is done; and then over that is the layer of abhinaya, or the layer of meaning and music — in a way, contemporary art is like that. Many people don’t give it enough credence for. 

At one level, the meaning is how well or how confidently with what integrity you present it, and over that is the subject matter, the visuals. But that combination of abstraction and reality is what combines to create meaning. So there needs to be that sense of, ‘I would put a little time into it, to derive the meaning from it.’

LS: It’s got to be had with a whiff. You have to smell it, or taste it...  Unfortunately, most of us don’t even have the time. Then again, let’s just take in the fact that we had a wonderful arts college here — the State Arts College, which has a khazana (bounty) of paintings from the British period, lying in there... and the space was so neglected, that they allowed water to fill in there, and some outrageous things happened with that art college.

And today, it’s a beautiful old building that needs to be restored. That’s where all art in Chennai should be shown, frankly.

<em>Parvathi Nayar and one of her recent installations</em>
Parvathi Nayar and one of her recent installations

Then again, the political content in much of contemporary art today seems to have eroded the fine art skills and technical finery associated with good art.

Leela Samson: Don’t you think, that irrespective of the politics of it, it’s time that the government at the state and national level, pulls out of these institutions, where they are holding onto these huge buildings, not being able to control the political forces, and the unions within — and let cooperatives take them over, like at the Cholamandalam.

Whether it’s at the people’s level, or at the fine art level — ultimately, it should be a combination of both, and of art collectors, and restorers, and other people interested. Because, why should these places, like the Government Arts College, still remain in government hands, when nobody is able to control the forces? They know very well, that they are actually pushing them to stay in that very corrupt state.

I mean, look at the Lalit Kala Akademi, and how a few people are working hard to keep things together. I know, personally, it’s under great pressure... 

I’ve handled the CBFC, so I know about interference. They say on one hand, these institutions are autonomous. But where is the autonomy? And what is the sustenance level in a government official, who remains in a position for not more than one to two years. Anybody who comes in even briefly within this sphere, wants to move to another ministry. 

Nobody wants art culture — they come into it under duress, and hold the post for like a year or so. And you’re left trying to convince them about a project... and the next official comes along and says, I’ll have nothing of it.

So, there’s absolutely no sustainability — for the arts, you need huge sustainability, you need to look at projects of five to ten years. I’m talking about institutions, which you cannot rebuild or pull up, in one year. You’ve got to go out with your heart, and take the time to do it. Given the sad state of affairs, it’s also that they need to be held together not just by good administrative processes, but also huge amounts of artistic motivation.

And then there’s the concern over the language of art appreciation...
That’s simply not part of our culture, or psyche.

PN: I suppose, it’s that thing — when it’s there, it becomes a part of the wallpaper, and you take it for granted. To take another perspective, I believe that art has a role to play in our lives, in a way that can change the world someday. I think the arts in general speaks to a society that lives with grace, one that thinks. I certainly believe that the arts, and visual arts in general, contributes to that.

You know, when children do art, it’s a form of expression, and a form of intelligence... one hates to talk of the proverbial box. It adds to the richness of what makes them human. It’s part of what makes us human, the act of creation — whether it’s music, dance or art...

On the other hand, there’s also a huge movement going on worldwide of un-schooling, even as the idea of making art has become more of an act of subversion...

PN: You know, when people ask you, how did your show go? They are not talking about critical reception, or whether you’ve touched someone. It’s simply, how many did you sell? So that’s become the yardstick of everything — financial success.

LS: Getting back to Chennai, let’s look at what children did here — when it comes to music and dance, there’s a teacher at every corner here, in Chennai. And traditionally, every child, when they came back from school — I’m talking from the 1960s, from my childhood — every child went and learned either pattu (song) or natyam (dance). They went to an old, nondescript teacher — from the time they were six or seven-years-old, sometimes at an atte’s (aunty) or patti’s (grandmother) house, in a small room, and she’d bang a stick, or have a shruti petti, and they’d learn music.

Cut to many years later, and because they’ve done all of this without question... now, there’s no awe factor left over the music at all! Sometimes, it’s irritating, sometimes it’s boring. And then, these are the people who have become great artistes of our time, but all of them went through this same syndrome.

PN: You know, that whole British thing that education is useless, you just go out and acquire knowledge... And then you go out and you can learn a craft, and do your job. Now, all of education seems driven towards making engineers, and doctors!

Art on the other hand, can be so much more life-enhancing. This whole thing of going to university and notching up shows and performances, that’s not the reason you should be studying dance and art. It really is to add to the quality of life...

<em>Parvathi Nayar's recent installation, Wave</em>
Parvathi Nayar's recent installation, Wave

Opening up people’s senses...

It is a hyper-competitive world...
That is the problem. I mean, how happy are they? In the US, for instance, I know people who are highly successful, having taken on the corporate world, and now all of them are forcing their kids to take Skype classes for classical music. Imagine coordinating the time difference between the countries, where you’re trying to catch the teacher before he goes to bed!

But many of the kids seem to enjoy it, because they have this connect with a quaint vaadhyar, talking to them all the way from India, saying, ‘No-no, sa-sa-re-re not sa-sa-ma-ma.’ They’re engaged, and they love it. Just as their experience of America is so differently removed from this world. 

There’s a definite importance associated with the core formative arts, in Chennai.
Now, it’s on everybody’s terraces and courtyards. Art in Chennai... and I have to say this with some good feeling, that ultimately, we have gone back to the baithaks. I know numerous people here who host these little soirees on their roof terraces. It’s just a group of people in our natural space, doing what we do, without any of that lighting or glamour — just to see and share. I really do believe, all of us — children, and grown-ups — should be given the chance to engage with, and do some art.

One’s education is not complete if there is no art in their lives. For me, I can write that on stone — to say, there is one part of you that is completely uneducated, if you haven’t had that connect to rhythm, to the impulses of music, to the feel of paints, or even the idea of the line...

My guru used to say, when she found people looking for the centre of the stage, she’d say, ‘What are you looking for?’ And she’d really fire us up. We’d say, ‘We’re just looking for the centre.’ And she’d tell us, ‘Do you have to look at it? You have to know it, you have to know it here (pointing to her heart). How do you find the centre, and how do you find it within you — you don’t have to look at your body to find it! And that’s the same with a painter, it has to be there...

We seem to have lost that innate sense, possibly as a result of a lot of commercialism...
I too feel, if you don’t give a child a sense of hearing and dancing and looking — opening up their sensorial perceptions — you’re blinding them, covering their eyes and ears. They’ve got to be open to the world as gracious human beings.  

LS: I’ve been trying to put my finger on it, and I feel there’s just too much noise in our heads, and outside. Today, you can’t find a space where you can just sit and have a quiet moment.

<em>Parvathi Nayar & Leela Samson. Location courtesy: Amethyst, Chennai. Pic: Nakshatra Krishnamoorthy</em>
Parvathi Nayar & Leela Samson. Location courtesy: Amethyst, Chennai. Pic: Nakshatra Krishnamoorthy

Yet, we’re a lot more grounded about our identity here...
I think Madras, or Chennai, is still opening up ever so slowly. You know, I walk my dog out at 5 in the morning, and by 4.30 am, these women are out there, quietly in the dark, putting down their kollam. It’s such a work of sadhana (discipline), where you have a concentrated effort being made to make something beautiful — every day, they do it for 40-50 years. Who’s appreciating them? Cars go straight over these kollams before 5.30 am. But she still does it. That, in many ways, is the state of the arts. Nobody stops to say, let’s look at the kollam...

But things are changing at the same time...
A lot of these things will happen inspite of you and me. It’s going to happen anyway, it’s already becoming a pot pourri of various forms of expression, which is a takeaway for somebody or the other — if it’s not for you, it’s for someone else, or the kid in the next building. That’s okay. Luckily, the walls in between are not as high as they were, when I was a kid here in the 1960s.

Now you see children, whose parents went off to the United States, you see them returning and coming to learn their art forms — sure, with an American education, and a twang in their voices. But it all levels out in the end. It’s also about a certain loosening up, and just letting loose and grooving a bit. I mean, you have to enjoy your life. 

PN: The landscape of human experience has to be a rich and diverse one. We can’t keep filtering it down to this very tunnel-vision goal. The arts are there in part to blow open that landscape, to give you different tasting palates, where money is not the only criteria. A good work of art is not so because somebody has a lot of money to pay for it, but because it has a certain richness of being.

By that, I do also mean, a work of performing art, dance or theatre — where say, only 20 people come to that play, but that play has a certain impact, which they will then talk about, and that has a larger bearing on life. Sometimes the influences are subtle, and permeates in different ways. It gets there and becomes a part of a larger conversation...

LS: That takes time, it takes time...

PN: And Chennai affords you that space, and the time.

— Jaideep Sen

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