Dance, as she saw it

Dance, as she saw it


Expressive: Dancer, feminist, choreographer Chandralekha.

These configurations, known as the kolam or rangoli, have adorned household courtyards and thresholds for ages. The late dancer-choreographer Chandralekha left behind some 40 notebooks of kolam patterns she had drawn. They were to inspire her later work, including the 10 major dance productions she choreographed in a burst of creative energy from the mid-1980s onwards, beginning with ‘Angika’ in 1985, which sought to contextualise the human body, to her last composition, ‘Sharira’ in 2001, which celebrated male/female energy. 
As Sadanand Menon, one of India’s foremost art commentators, who was Chandralekha’s companion and associate for over 30 years, explains, it’s clear that all the work of the late dancer emerges from these kolams. “She devised a pedagogical method on how the line moves through the dots,” he says.

Today, Chandralekha’s kolam notebooks are part of a valuable collection of material associated with the feminist dancer-choreographer’s life that presently occupies a backroom in her Chennai residence at 1, Elliot’s Beach Road. It includes up to 40,000 photographs; innumerable newspaper clippings, some dating back to the 1950s; around 300 video documentaries; interviews; enormous amounts of writing and drawings, posters and costumes. Taken together, these varied effects could potentially make up an important archive on the times and genius of a woman whose work sought to re-interpret, liberate and energise the human body.

But there is a central problem that lies at the heart of such an enterprise: An unwilling subject. Chandralekha was a rebel. Not only did she battle stultifying interpretations of classical Bharatanatyam, she was constantly defining modernity on her own terms while infusing it with the energy of an indigenous martial art form like Kalaripayattu or the therapeutic values of yoga. 

“Chandralekha was not just suspicious of the idea of institutions, she hated them. She also detested the idea of leaving behind a legacy,” says Menon. This made her naturally hostile to audio-visual documentation — which she saw as two-dimensional recordings of a three-dimensional form.

Dealing with memorabilia

So, how can such a life be archived? That is the conundrum faced by people close to her. On the one hand, they knew there’s a deep interest in her work; on the other, here was a woman who chose to travel light. As Menon puts it, “The idea of an archive is a counter-Chandra idea.” 

He shares an amusing tale of how Chandralekha herself coped with the task of dealing with memorabilia. Once, when she had to move house and had to decide what to do with her old love letters, she and a friend sat before an old iron tub temporarily converted into a furnace.

Chandralekha asked her friend to read out the first line of every letter. On the basis of that first line, the decision on which letter was to feed the flame in the tub was made efficiently.

Those that began, “Dear Beloved Chandra”, were immediately consigned to the fire!

But for Menon, there was no getting away from working on a Chandralekha archive. “I remember, a couple of weeks after Chandra had passed away in December 2006, and after an obit on her had appeared in The New York Times, someone from Princeton University called me, indicating that the university was keen to have all the material on her. I was assured that it would be very well preserved. I just said, ‘Yes, yes’, and forgot about it. But later, there was another call from Princeton, and then another one. That began a buzz in my head. I thought to myself that while people at Princeton were so keen to gather all the material on Chandralekha in one place, our own Sahitya Natak Akademi — of which Chandralekha was a fellow — hadn’t even sent a condolence message.”

So a point of reference on Chandralekha’s work was obviously needed and the responsibility of ensuring it fell on those left behind. Just as obviously, such an archive needed to be located, not in some distant land, but in the space Chandralekha had called home, in a city she had lived in since she was 17. For her, 1 Elliot’s Beach Road was more than a home, it was her working stage. Around 1979-80, Chandralekha, Menon, and artist, design pioneer and close associate Dashrath Patel, got together along with other associates, and began building it as a place where dancers and performing artistes could train and showcase their work, with Chandralekha herself staging her major works. Only by locating the Chandralekha archives here would it become an organic part of her life and work. 

Subversive role

Menon, who is of course an intrinsic part of this archive, also feels that the resource could provide a fresh lease of life to her body of work. “Currently, only her last work, ‘Sharira’, is still being performed. The others don’t exist except in the minds of those who had danced them.

So, with an archive, there is the potential of the original performers recreating her work,” he says. He also believes that besides bringing together all the material associated with her, an archive can play a subversive role by highlighting the ‘constant rupture’ that marked her work.

“Take the idea of western dance choreography, cast in a geometric grid. She knew all of that, but she looked to kolams, curvatures instead of lines, for her own compositions. So, at some point, when there is a debate on this, there will be material to join that debate,” explains Menon.

Given the compelling arguments for a Chandralekha archive, Menon got down to the task, despite serious constraints, including a conspicuous lack of funding for archival documentation. Neerja Dasani, who is assisting Menon in this, is excited about the project. “I had only heard about Chandralekha, never met her, so I see it differently, almost as an outsider. Clearly, what emerges is the sheer interdisciplinarity of her work. The feminist idea was, of course, a strong element. She used her body almost like a weapon. As a woman, for her, it was a special thing, a liberating thing. Then there is her notion of time and space. The slowness you see in her work is not seen in today’s world, but it was integral to her philosophy of dance,” says Neerja.

Walk around her home and visit its central theatre space — now re-christened the Chandra-Mandala — and its clean-lined elementariness comes across powerfully. The trees around it have acquired impressive proportions despite the sandy soil from which they grow — including the neems the late dancer had loved, and a banyan, all of 30 years. There is also a sunken amphitheatre with a Kerala roof constructed in the style and proportions of the kalari — the traditional stage of Kalarippayattu artistes. Also, in one corner of the campus is a small samadhi for Chandralekha and Dashrath Patel, who died in 2010.  

The complex takes you part of the way to Chandralekha; the archive, once it takes form, promises to take you closer. In her last interview before she died, she was asked by Menon how she responds to those who attack her work for ranging on the obscene. Her response was characteristic of a woman who never lacked either courage or cool — “I would like to tell the audiences: ‘I have walked half the distance. Now you should walk half the distance towards me. Because, I have finished my walk towards you. Now you have to come walking towards me. Then only we will understand each other’.” 

Chandralekha has finished her walk. Now, those who seek to comprehend her would have to walk towards her. An archive would help in that walk to understand one of India’s great modernists.