Chandralekha, my friend and mentor, would have turned 90 this year. As she sped away on the wheels of time at 78, she left behind a ferment in the dance world that is yet to be resolved. When I look around and see dancers from the ‘classical’ genres striving to make meaning and stay relevant through painful attempts at formal ‘innovation’, I increasingly feel that instead of blocking her from their consciousness or attempting to bypass her historically, a little more attention to Chandra’s propositions that countered a nationalist narrative might have helped dance practice here.
Chandra (as she was addressed) was in search of locating the area of freedom in the body through dance. From her background in the stylised form of Bharatanatyam, with its specific moulding of the body in idealised terms, she recognised the need to enable the contemporary dancer’s body to evolve from being individuated or personalised to being universalised and humanised. She would constantly persuade the dancers she worked with during her years as a choreographer to be simultaneously conscious of the source of energy in their body as well as confront the physical and social difficulty they might face in tapping into it. For her, the dancer was someone who did not merely aestheticise the body, but also stimulated the imagination by politicising it.
Dance, culture, nature
It was with Angika (1985) that Chandra, then 57, burst into the national artistic imagination. Highlighting the link between dance and daily physical culture as well as nature, the inspired work emphasised the essential unity of all physical disciplines and proposed a non-narrative, non-sublimated content for dance.
By 2006, when she passed away, her 10 full-length productions, several shorter works, scores of lec-dems, workshops and collaborations at prestigious platforms in India and abroad had posed a volley of crucial questions to the dance world. Her productions Angika , Lilavati , Prana , Sri , Bhinna-Pravaha, Yantra , Mahakal , Raga , Sloka and Sharira are classic examples of how Indian dance can be modern on its own terms without borrowing from the West.
What can the human body, enveloped in space yet grappling with gravity and the passage of time, inspire in us today? How can it be freed of the impositions of caste, religion and regressive nationalism? Chandra boldly turned away from the decorative, sublimated and sentimental answers inherent within fossilised — and ‘invented’ — traditionalism.
She returned to simple yet profound issues like balance, lightness, slowness, gravity, control, eroticism, sensuality, extension (of breath and spine) and femininity and amplified them in a complex way to take the cumulative aesthetic resources to a distinctly political plane.
As a subject of constant observation and research, the body keeps transforming our perceptions of time and space. Chandra’s intuition and creative insights propose a journey through which we can narrow the distances within our own body and re-connect with our energy centres and our humanism. She was an acute observer of the investment of energy it takes to transform stillness into movement and movement into slowness/ stillness and how that affects both the performer and the viewer’s consciousness.
One of the remarkable challenges Chandra posed through her work — with the physical, visual, kinetic media — was to the nationalist project, within which (for example) the bodies of dancers of re-invented classical forms were commandeered for building a new nationalist and moralist aesthetic.
Creating fresh content
The classical dance forms, ‘rescued’ by the nationalist movement from a history of infamy, suffer from having to bear the burden of such a nationalistic projection and proving their ‘Indian-ness’ by being Hinduised, tamed, sanitised of all vestiges of their provenance in militancy and eroticism. They are also used, almost militaristically, to protect the borders of ‘disciplinarity’.
The idea of national culture, its space and function, is built around a social machinery that disciplines everyone into an acceptable base of normative behaviour, failing which there is a structure of punishment.
We can certainly add to this typology the modern performance space of the proscenium, with its subliminal codes of frontality and one-point perspective. The idea of disciplinarity here would, therefore, sound like a disease, a violent act. Chandra celebrated anti-disciplinarity and proudly expressed it as her strength.
Another of her primary concerns was around creating new content for dance. New content does not grow out of thin air. And it does not grow out of newspaper headlines. It also does not grow out of reading fiction or non-fiction. The new content has to come out of the life you lead yourself. It cannot be manufactured. And the life you lead has to have a certain resonance for yourself before it can resonate with others. The core concern for Chandra has been the women’s question and, related to it, questions of sexuality, erotica, femininity in women — and in men.
The specific location of the body becomes essential in her work, paying attention to the spine, to the idea of the body as a contested site, which can never be taken as a harmonious whole. She acknowledged the particular need to historicise aspects like gait, gesture and posture and other specificities that mark bodies in time and space. Her consistent questioning of the idea of the feminine — the way it is perceived, the way it is received; the transgression of space through a specific kind of eroticisation of the body in performance — also negotiated constantly with her idea of the woman’s body as space.
In her choreography, maybe for the first time in India, she deliberately perceived space differently, departing from the accepted concepts of lines, by liberally interjecting the diagonal line. Her perception of the horizontal line as the line of time and convention, of the vertical line as the line of history and project, and of the diagonal as the line of feminist assertion — the line the gendered body can cut through and make a new poetical presence — made a difference to the way she moved bodies in space.
Chandra did not, perhaps, leave a physical legacy — there was no company, dance school, students or archive. Yet, her impact was far beyond dance itself. The number of artists, activists, scholars and creative people she has impacted is legion. She stirred up Indian dance as no one in recent times had done — and continues to do so. Dancers could gain from re-visiting her.
(Parts of this article are from the author’s essay in The Moving Space — Women in Dance , edited by Urmimala Sarkar Munsi and Aishika Chakraborty, Primus, 2017.)
The author was the lights designer for all of Chandralekha’s productions.