A legend in his lifetime

When you speak of Professor C.V. Chandrasekhar, Bharatanatyam exponent and guru, music composer who is adept in both systems of Carnatic and Hindustani, and a choreographer, it is difficult to steer clear of the cliché, ‘a legend in his lifetime’. Memories of the maestro in his heyday resurfaced recently when a film, Nrithya Gandharva – Prof. C. V. Chandrasekhar, His Art & Life, premièred on YouTube.

A legend in his lifetime

During the 1970s and 1980s, students of Kalakshetra, the guru’s alma mater, would hear of his exploits as an impressive dancer and composer. When he performed with his wife Jaya Chandrasekhar and subsequently also with daughters Chitra and Manjari, the student community watched in awe. The guru would dance, then further along the programme, take his seat with the orchestra to sing and perform nattuvangam while the daughters danced. And Kalakshetra the next day would smile with tales of how the boy Chandrasekhar, cheerfully belting out kalpanaswaras, had joined Rukmini Devi Arundale’s institution to learn music, and how his dancing talents had then been honed alongside. No doubt his own attraction towards dance was a driving factor, but perhaps his musical prowess also drew Rukmini Devi to put into practice her belief that the best dancers are those who sing well. Among the celebrated Kalakshetra alumni, Chandrasekhar epitomises this principle that the founder often reiterated.

Journey across the country

In the late 1980s, as his troupe in Vadodara (where he was spearheading the work of the dance department at the M.S. University, Baroda) came of age, he toured the country with acclaimed productions.

A legend in his lifetime

When Guru Chandrasekhar settled in Chennai in 1992, after a long sojourn in the northern parts of the country, having taken early retirement as Head of the Faculty of Performing Arts at Baroda, he started a new chapter in his life with the same energy and enthusiasm that had characterised his earlier artistic forays. In his late 50s, an age when many performers consider retiring from the stage, he dove into an inspiring solo career, displaying a technical brilliance that put younger dancers to shame.

It was at this time too that audiences heard another aspect of Chandrasekhar’s story. Often during the commentary between compositions — many of them featuring his own music and dance creations — he would talk of his days of struggling to be recognised as a soloist. It had not been easy to succeed as a male Bharatanatyam dancer. While women performing solo were accepted, organisers consistently asked a male dancer to perform with a female duet partner, he said. The implication was that they looked for the decorative and entertaining aspects of a performance rather than considering the skills and depth of each soloist.

While his work has been recognised by honours such as being named a Fellow of the Sangeet Natak Akademi and receiving the Padma Bhushan and the Kalidas Samman, Guru Chandrasekhar’s life story, despite his eminence, is not widely known. This prompted documentary filmmaker Vinu Vasudevan and Kuchipudi exponent Madhavi Mallampalli to make Nrithya Gandharva. After being stalled by the lockdown, the film was released now.

As a tribute to C.V. Chandrasekhar, Nrithya Gandharva covers a lot of ground. Scripted and directed by Vasudevan with narration and subtitles by Madhavi, the documentary has been shot in Chennai, Varanasi and Vadodara, the three important centres in Chandrasekhar’s life.

Madhavi, a Kuchipudi dancer whose Madhura Kala Niketan has produced the film, finds the Chandrasekhars “blissfully untouched by the stress and politics of the art world the rest of us are familiar with.” She says she and Vasudevan “felt this story had to be told, of such people having lived lives totally unpolluted by commercial or professional gain... and still living, happily and in the moment.”

The filmmakers would have done well without the the history of Bharatanatyam, a far too casual and sweeping mention at that. The film includes dramatised episodes of Chandrasekhar’s life. To those familiar with the personalities represented, this is not always palatable, but Vasudevan says he wanted to use the docu-fiction method. “I know, people [are] aware this is not real Chandrasekhar, but I am sure they can connect it with him. This also happened in the case of singing. [The actor] is sir’s grandson, Viraj Rajendra Kumar. He is a music student and has some similarities in appearance.”

Tracing Chandrasekhar’s schooling and dance training in Chennai to his graduation in Botany from Banaras Hindu University (BHU), the film goes on to tell us that while pursuing his doctorate in Botany, he was offered a dance teacher’s job at the Vasant Kanya Mahavidyalaya. Here his skills in teaching and choreography began to sharpen.

We hear the guru recount with a fond laugh, “Meantime, I was 27, Jaya came into my life, and then we got married”. Jaya was a lawyer, he a scientist, and both were accomplished dancers and singers. Since accompanying musicians for Bharatanatyam were hard to come by in those days in Varanasi, they sang for each other’s performances, he says.

Several personalities, largely from the field of Bharatanatyam, have been interviewed in the documentary. A noteworthy inclusion is that of Sanskrit scholar Kamlesh Dutt Tripathi, who describes the immense contribution of the Chandrasekhars to the production of Sanskrit plays at Banaras Hindu University and to developing a practical application for the precepts of the Natya Shastra, particularly in the presentation of the poorvaranga, which was more or less a forgotten concept in the 1970s.

The maestro pays tribute to the many people who groomed him, from Gurus S. Sarada and Sarada Hoffman, who meticulously taught him Bharatanatyam, to the many scholars and musicians he met while working in Varanasi and Vadodara. Of his mentor Rukmini Devi he says, “From inside she was meetha (sweet),” and remarks that though she did not personally put him through his paces, she ignited his passion for dance and opened his mind.

Perhaps the greatest tribute to his mentor is that some 70 years later, that passion continues to burn bright.

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Printable version | Jan 16, 2022 4:47:43 PM |

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