Chandralekha experimented not solely with kind but additionally with content material to create a novel dance idiom
Last Sunday, Chandralekha would have been 92. A way of inadequacy grips me as I sit down to write down this. As I battle to seek out phrases, reminiscences of the legendary dancer pour into my thoughts. I had the privilege of spending a while with Chandralekha within the years earlier than her demise. Since then, each time I’ve heard or examine individuals who have been moved or impressed by her, I’ve identified precisely what they imply.
While my identification as a dancer and an individual has undoubtedly been formed by my coaching in dance for 15 years beneath Leela Samson, there’s another one that moulded me — and that’s Chandralekha. At a time after I had accomplished my Bharatanatyam coaching, she inspired me to discover different motion vocabularies and broaden my horizons. When I used to be battling my disillusionment with Bharatanatyam’s turbulent historical past, she urged me to look at the custom extra deeply. If it wasn’t for her, I in all probability wouldn’t have gone down the trail of exploring modernities inside Bharatanatyam.
Chandralekha watching her dancers do ‘Namaskar’ on the seaside, 1992
In 2009, I bought an opportunity to work with artwork critic and author Sadanand Menon on ‘The Chandralekha Archives’ that was being arrange at ‘Spaces’ in Chennai. While working there for near a 12 months, I bought a deep perception into her work, life and philosophy. I sorted images, watched and organized movies, transcribed interviews, and browse and archived articles she had written and that had been written about her. It was then that I understood Chandralekha higher.
Around 1960, on the peak of her solo dance profession, Chandralekha started to be dissatisfied with many facets of Bharatanatyam. As she stated later, ‘I had many questions, but no answers. So, I stepped away from performance until I could get some clarity.’ Her first break lasted about 12 years, interrupted briefly by the memorable ‘Navagraha’ in 1972. Her second break lasted one other 12 years. Then, in 1984, she re-emerged, with a strong presentation on dance on the East-West Dance Encounter in Bombay.
Chandralekha within the ‘Naravahana’ sequence from Angika, 1985
In the 24 intervening years, Chandralekha emerged as a delicate poet. She additionally created content material for the 1969 Gandhi Centenary Exhibition, ‘The World is My Family’, held in New Delhi. This was a wealthy interval, when she was studying, writing, designing, screen-printing and extra. She was additionally delving into the politics of the time. All of this cumulatively knowledgeable her choreography when she lastly returned to bounce along with her seminal work ‘Angika’ in 1985. This, and the 9 different works that adopted within the subsequent 20 years, shook the Indian dance institution.
What actually astonished everybody was not simply Chandralekha’s refreshing new method to bounce, however the aesthetics of her work and the truth that she had circumvented the drained binary between ‘Western modernity’ and ‘Indian tradition’. She delved as an alternative into the depths of up to now neglected Indian motion vocabularies reminiscent of Kalaripayattu, Yoga and Chhau, thus putting a distinctively Indian modernistic be aware.
The gaps in historical past
It typically occurs that curiosity concerning the extra distant previous supersedes curiosity for a newer one. But this has led to Chandralekha’s work current in what Sadanand describes as a “black hole”. In a latest Zoom dialog organised to have a good time her life and work, the critic spoke of a manifest lack of curiosity in younger dancers about not simply Chandralekha however about setting artwork inside a bigger context. Current discourses, he stated, specializing in Bharatanatyam’s historical past earlier than and round 1947, and on the shape because it exists as we speak, had been of grave significance, however these discourses unwittingly skip all the interval from 1947 onwards, sidestepping an investigation into the numerous issues which have occurred to bounce since. Crucially, Chandralekha’s life and work fall into this era.
Chandralekha and Kamadev performing Navagraha, a chunk conceived and choreographed by Chandralekha in 1971.
Any complete understanding of dance and its historical past can’t have such gaping holes. To perceive the best way dance varieties evolve, and the way the inventive processes of dancers change over time, now we have to know dance historical past as a continuum. It isn’t attainable to utterly perceive the ‘Kalakshetra style’ Alarippu that we see as we speak with out making an attempt to know the way it was carried out by hereditary artistes. And one can actually higher perceive Chandralekha’s ‘Misra Alarippu’ in ‘Angalamandala’ (1986) with the ‘Kalakshetra style’ Alarippu as a reference level.
Understanding Chandralekha’s life and work and her questions on dance is extraordinarily essential, particularly as we speak when classical dance is battling ennui and viewers disconnect. She was deeply engaged within the venture of modernity. I’ve earlier argued that Chandralekha embodied an ‘alternative modernity’. I imply this within the sense that I perceive Rukmini Devi’s imaginative and prescient as a modernist one, and I see Chandra’s modernity as an alternative choice to Rukmini Devi’s. I’m not certain both of them noticed themselves as creators of one thing trendy in dance, nevertheless it actually appears to me that in very distinctive methods they had been doing simply that. As present practitioners of modern-day variations of what conventional hereditary dancers throughout the nation as soon as practised, it’s important to look at how dancers, choreographers and thinkers previously grappled with and engaged with modernity. If we examine the lives, works and inventive processes of hereditary artistes, after which that of Rukmini Devi and her contemporaries with a purpose to inform present understandings of our observe and efficiency, then why not revolutionary dancer-choreographers reminiscent of Chandralekha who got here after them?
Chandra’s work and philosophy are notably related additionally due to her areas of curiosity. She was not solely experimenting with kind but additionally with content material. She discarded the spiritual and mythological narratives that had been arguably already overworked even within the Seventies and Nineteen Eighties, opting as an alternative to interact with ideas and concepts that had been summary, thus making a stunningly modern dance idiom. Her issues had been primarily centred across the physique, its geometry; about house and time; concerning the struggles of ladies and a nascent feminism; concerning the female precept and its energy; about sensuality and erotica within the physique. These are perennial themes, and it’s by persevering with to interact with them that one can maybe arrive at a second trendy second in Indian dance.
As an individual, Chandra was extraordinary, and never simply because she was personally variety and beneficiant. She was acutely delicate to concepts of justice, equality and freedom and was concerned in social struggles — working with many teams throughout India on problems with caste, gender and rights. Till the top, she remained actively curious, partaking with the world round her totally and with all her senses.
Chandralekha typically stated that she didn’t consider in leaving a legacy behind, nor did she need to create a ‘school’ of dance. Her contribution, nevertheless, is so exceptional and essential that any severe pupil of dance should examine her work and concepts to know what it takes to problem the previous and create anew. She deserves to be remembered and celebrated over and over.