Chandralekha’s experiments with the dancing body

Chandralekha experimented not only with form but also with content to create a unique dance idiom

December 10, 2020 06:12 pm | Updated 06:12 pm IST

Last Sunday, Chandralekha would have been 92. A sense of inadequacy grips me as I sit down to write this. As I struggle to find words, memories of the legendary dancer pour into my mind. I had the privilege of spending some time with Chandralekha in the years before her death. Since then, whenever I’ve heard or read about people who have been moved or inspired by her, I have known exactly what they mean.

While my identity as a dancer and a person has undoubtedly been shaped by my training in dance for 15 years under Leela Samson, there is one more person who moulded me — and that is Chandralekha. At a time when I had completed my Bharatanatyam training, she encouraged me to explore other movement vocabularies and broaden my horizons. When I was struggling with my disillusionment with Bharatanatyam’s turbulent history, she urged me to examine the tradition more deeply. If it wasn’t for her, I probably would not have gone down the path of exploring modernities within Bharatanatyam.

Chandralekha watching her dancers do 'Namaskar' on the beach, 1992

Chandralekha watching her dancers do 'Namaskar' on the beach, 1992

In 2009, I got a chance to work with art critic and writer Sadanand Menon on ‘The Chandralekha Archives’ that was being set up at ‘Spaces’ in Chennai. While working there for close to a year, I got a deep insight into her work, life and philosophy. I sorted photographs, watched and arranged videos, transcribed interviews, and read and archived articles she had written and that were written about her. It was then that I understood Chandralekha better.

Around 1960, at the height of her solo dance career, Chandralekha began to be dissatisfied with many aspects of Bharatanatyam. As she said 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 another 12 years. Then, in 1984, she re-emerged, with a powerful presentation on dance at the East-West Dance Encounter in Bombay.

Chandralekha in the 'Naravahana' sequence from Angika, 1985

Chandralekha in the 'Naravahana' sequence from Angika, 1985

In the 24 intervening years, Chandralekha emerged as a sensitive poet. She also created content for the 1969 Gandhi Centenary Exhibition, ‘The World is My Family’, held in New Delhi. This was a rich period, when she was reading, writing, designing, screen-printing and more. She was also delving into the politics of the time. All of this cumulatively informed her choreography when she finally returned to dance with her seminal work ‘Angika’ in 1985. This, and the nine other works that followed in the next 20 years, shook the Indian dance establishment.

What really astonished everyone was not just Chandralekha’s refreshing new approach to dance, but the aesthetics of her work and the fact that she had circumvented the tired binary between ‘Western modernity’ and ‘Indian tradition’. She delved instead into the depths of thus far overlooked Indian movement vocabularies such as Kalaripayattu, Yoga and Chhau, thus striking a distinctively Indian modernistic note.

The gaps in history

It often happens that curiosity about the more distant past supersedes curiosity for a more recent one. But this has led to Chandralekha’s work existing in what Sadanand describes as a "black hole". In a recent Zoom conversation organised to celebrate her life and work, the critic spoke of a manifest lack of curiosity in young dancers about not just Chandralekha but about setting art within a larger context. Current discourses, he said, focusing on Bharatanatyam’s history before and around 1947, and on the form as it exists today, were of grave importance, but these discourses unwittingly skip the entire period from 1947 onwards, sidestepping an investigation into the many things that have happened to dance since. Crucially, Chandralekha’s life and work fall into this period.

Chandralekha and Kamadev performing Navagraha, a piece conceived and choreographed by Chandralekha in 1971.

Chandralekha and Kamadev performing Navagraha, a piece conceived and choreographed by Chandralekha in 1971.

Any comprehensive understanding of dance and its history cannot have such gaping holes. To understand the way dance forms evolve, and how the creative processes of dancers change over time, we have to understand dance history as a continuum. It isn’t possible to completely understand the ‘Kalakshetra style’ Alarippu that we see today without attempting to understand how it was performed by hereditary artistes. And one can certainly better understand Chandralekha’s ‘Misra Alarippu’ in ‘Angalamandala’ (1986) with the ‘Kalakshetra style’ Alarippu as a reference point.

Understanding Chandralekha’s life and work and her questions about dance is extremely important, especially today when classical dance is struggling with ennui and audience disconnect. She was deeply engaged in the project of modernity. I have earlier argued that Chandralekha embodied an ‘alternative modernity’. I mean this in the sense that I understand Rukmini Devi’s vision as a modernist one, and I see Chandra’s modernity as an alternative to Rukmini Devi’s. I am not sure either of them saw themselves as creators of something modern in dance, but it certainly seems to me that in very distinctive ways they were doing just that. As current practitioners of modern-day versions of what traditional hereditary dancers across the country once practised, it is vital to examine how dancers, choreographers and thinkers in the past grappled with and engaged with modernity. If we study the lives, works and creative processes of hereditary artistes, and then that of Rukmini Devi and her contemporaries in order to inform current understandings of our practice and performance, then why not revolutionary dancer-choreographers such as Chandralekha who came after them?

Chandra’s work and philosophy are particularly relevant also because of her areas of interest. She was not only experimenting with form but also with content. She discarded the religious and mythological narratives that were arguably already overworked even in the 1970s and 1980s, opting instead to engage with concepts and ideas that were abstract, thus creating a stunningly contemporary dance idiom. Her concerns were primarily centred around the body, its geometry; about space and time; about the struggles of women and a nascent feminism; about the feminine principle and its power; about sensuality and erotica in the body. These are perennial themes, and it is by continuing to engage with them that one can perhaps arrive at a second modern moment in Indian dance.

As a person, Chandra was extraordinary, and not just because she was personally kind and generous. She was acutely sensitive to ideas of justice, equality and freedom and was involved in social struggles — working with many groups across India on issues of caste, gender and rights. Till the end, she remained actively curious, engaging with the world around her fully and with all her senses.

Chandralekha often said that she did not believe in leaving a legacy behind, nor did she want to create a ‘school’ of dance. Her contribution, however, is so remarkable and important that any serious student of dance must study her work and ideas to understand what it takes to challenge the old and create anew. She deserves to be remembered and celebrated over and over again.

Resources and material

are available at

The Chandralekha Archives, Spaces, Chennai.

The writer is dancer, choreographer and founder-director of the Bangalore-based Bharatanatyam group ‘Vyuti’.

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