Chandralekha was ahead of her time. Find out what made the danseuse tread an unusual path
Chandralekha wouldn't be "enshrined" as a guru. That would be exercising power over students She sits there, slim and frail. The strong limbs that brought shock and awe to the "traditional" Indian dance stage are silent today. Her eyes are a bit rheumy and her famous, molten-pearl hair does not cascade. But the one thing that hasn't changed, apart from her keen intellect, is her smile - child-like and enchanting. Chandralekha, "Chandra" to friends, is ageless. In May, the Government of India conferred on her the "Lifetime Achievement Award" at the "Legend of India" Festival. In her acceptance speech, read out by Sadanand Menon, Chandra turned the spotlight on people who influenced her. "For me the word 'legend' is specifically linked to two important people associated with my life," she said. "Their contributions have not received any recognition in contemporary India." One was her friend and mentor Harindranath Chattopadhyay, and the other, her guru Kancheepuram Ellappa Pillai. She wanted the true legendary material of India re-discovered and the creative map re-built.
Enriching art forms
After a liberal education at home and Wilson College, Mumbai, and mastery of languages, Chandra became a regular at Krishnaiar Street in the 1950s. Here, she perfected her dance steps with her guru while interacting with the masterminds of the time. She understood that Indian tradition was about being critical, Indian books were a series of commentaries. When Chandra went on stage, you didn't just see a dancer creating unforgettable images with her fluid body. You saw an artiste, singer, writer, poet and a human rights/feminist activist. Chandra's creativity enriched diverse art forms. Museum Theatre, 1951. The culturatti of Chennai had gathered for Chandra's arangetram organised for the Rayalaseema Drought Relief. In her abinaya for "Mathura Nagarilo", Chandra came to the point where the gopikas were preparing to splash in the abundant river, and froze. In a flash, she saw how art and poetry allowed indulgences that were far removed from the water-starved reality outside. Would she be able to reconcile brutal reality with the beauty of poetry? Would she be able to make her art reflect contemporary life? She knew she would be dancing down a less-travelled path. In 1961, her Devadasi traced the history of Bharatanatyam itself; her abstract thillana had a graphic stage layout. There are no photographs, no record of these pioneering attempts except perhaps in audience memories. "Recording must be done by others," she said.Spurning both the repetitive work on stage and marketing off it, she withdrew to take up painting for NSD and conceptualising the Gandhi Centenary and Stree exhibitions. In 1972, she choreographed the geometric Navagraha linking yoga and Bharatanatyam.
Another gap of 12 years, she came back to electrify the stage at the East-West Encounter in Max Mueller Bhavan. Now the media were ready for her. They gave her all the space they could. And Chandra returned to dance. Chandra looked for the origins of dance forms, the concepts behind the creation. She questioned, researched and interpreted before she choreographed. For her, it is the vitality of the body that mattered, not the decorative veneer of jewellery and silk. She told her students to capture the vast spaces within and around them, then explore and express them in dance. Dance to her was an expression of the intense anger she felt, she said. A dance school? No, she wouldn't be "enshrined" as a guru. That would be exercising power over students. She didn't want them to imitate, but imbibe and improvise. And she knew what institutions could do to art. Marriage? She smiled. That is the first institution she rejected.What does she count as "achievement"? Not her 'Angika' (1985) that integrated yoga and kalaripayattu to give a new direction to dance in India. Not Lilavati, Prana, Sri, Yantra, Mahakal, Raga, Sloka and the breathtaking Sharira, classic examples of how Indian dance can be modern on its own terms. Not being the first to create space for contemporary dance in the Indian context. Not being a member of the first ever Indian artists' delegation to the USSR and China, not performing at prestigious arts festivals across the world or conducting workshops from Taiwan to Toronto. Not Germany's recognition of her work as a window to the changing status of women in Asia. Not the innumerable awards she has won, Ein Lal's film 'Sharira' on her or Rustom Barucha's book on her.Not even the fact that her work is the yardstick by which Indian dance is measured, or she has changed audience perception through innovation, intellectual honesty and sheer guts. "My sole achievement is in having planted 75 neem trees in my plot of land near the sea," she said. "I am more proud of that than all the dance work I have done. The trees are bound to be more lasting." GEETA PADMANABHAN