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Archive of a dancer who created modern dance on its own Indian terms

THE ASIAN AGE. | SUNIL KOTHARI
Published : Jan 15, 2019, 1:16 am IST
Updated : Jan 19, 2019, 5:16 pm IST

Chandra had a flourishing dance career. But she was not satisfied with performing Bharatanatyam with the mythological themes and songs.

Classical dancer during one of her performances. (Photo: Sadanand Menon - Courtesy The Chandralekha Archive, SPACES, Chennai)
 Classical dancer during one of her performances. (Photo: Sadanand Menon - Courtesy The Chandralekha Archive, SPACES, Chennai)

It was on 30th December that I was asked to inaugurate an archive of renowned dancer Chandralekha. Sadanand Menon, who is the managing trustee of Spaces at 1 Elliot ‘s Beach Road, Besant Nagar and looks after the Spaces and Chandralekha’s archival material, books, photographs, reviews, writings, video recordings of her works, interviews and several other things, had asked me to inaugurate the Archive Building. He had also asked me to speak about Chandralekha as I was one of her oldest friends.

She was known as Chandra to all her friends. Her close friend and associate was the well-known painter, designer and multi-faceted artist Dasharath Patel. His paintings, ceramics, photographs and several other materials are also being looked after by Sadanand. As a matter of fact, Sadanand, Dasharath and Chandra worked together. Sadanand had also curated an exhibition of photographs, paintings, ceramics, etc. for National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi. A documentary film is also made by Iffat, a filmmaker from Jamia Millia.

The Archive will house the material of these two rare artists. Sadanand has for several years after the demise of both Chandra and Dasharath meticulously organised the material which would be of immense value to researchers. About the paucity of Archive in India, I shall write more about it in my future article.

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When I had to speak on my association with Chandra, it was quite difficult for me as she was a dear friend. I had met her in September 1957 during her performance at Rang Bhavan, Mumbai, next to St. Xavier’s College. She was performing at All India Dance Festival, organised by the Maharashtra government. I had seen there Mrinalini Sarabhai’s Serabhendra Bhupal Kuravanji and next day Anjali Merh’s solo Bharatanatyam. She was from Kalakshetra. Chandra’s Bharatanatyam solo was on the next day.

At that time Navin Khandwala, one of the trustees and son-in-law of Dr K.M. Munshi, the founder of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, was looking after classical dance performances. He was looking after Chandra’s presentation. I had known of Chandra in Mumbai, when she was studying law at the Law College. I had seen some of the early photographs in The Illustrated Weekly of India. I had started writing in Gujarati for the Janmabhumi newspaper as a dance critic. Navin Khandwala had invited me to see Chandra’s performance. Young, vivacious and full of beans, Chandra’s Bharatanatyam had impressed me and I was delighted to see her abhinaya to the singing by Elappa Pillai who conducted her nattuvangam. After the performance, Navin Khandwala introduced me to her. She warmly held my hands and said in Gujarati: ‘Lovely meeting you Sunil. I understand from Navinbhai that you also have studied dance. Come tomorrow to the Jahangir Art Gallery to see an exhibition of paintings and we shall talk more.’ I had seen in the green room Dasharath Patel assisting Chandra. Next evening we all met at the Jahangir Art Gallery as planned, when she introduced me to Harindranath Chattopadhyaya, the poet whose songs we knew by heart: ‘Surya asta ho gaya, gagan mast ho gaya’ (The sun has set and the sky is all aflame with colour!) He was known as Baba.

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When Chandra left her parents to study Bharatanatyam, she was supported by Harindranath. They lived together and often Baba used to recite his poems of curd seller before Chandra’s programme of Bharatanatyam. Chandra under Baba’s guidance read a lot of literature, poems. Often Baba would recite aloud and she would write down his poems. She herself was a gifted writer and a poet. She wrote many Haikus and often used to recite when we used to meet.

In South, few knew that she was Gujarati, when she settled down in Chennai and gave regular performances. Dasharath Patel had also joined Government College of Arts where the great sculptor Dilip Roy Chaudhary was the principal. Baba, Dasharath and Chandra interacted on matters of art in those years. Elappa Pillai used to conduct nattuvangam for Balasarswati. Chandra and Bala became close friends. They shared their accompanists and Bala loved Chandra. Later, it was through Chandra that I came to know Bala and often met her.

I had started writing on dance and whenever I visited Chandra, I stayed with her. She would make me recite Gujarati poems as she loved Gujarati. She had translated a poem Blue Bird in Gujarati as Nila Pankhi. I had met Mohan Khokar, who used to write in English on dance forms. He had edited for Dr Mulk Raj Anand’s Marg quarterly in which I had seen photos of various nattuvanaras and dancers like Rukmini Devi, Balasaraswati, Shanta Rao, Roshan Vajifdar, Chandralekha, Ritha Devi and a few others. I had written to Mohan Khokar to learn more about Bhagavata Mela Natak and Kuchipudi, which I wanted to translate from his article into Gujarati. When I met him at Dance Department of M.S. University in Baroda, he suggested me to attend All India Dance Seminar organised by Sangeet Natak Akademi at Vigyan Bhavan in New Delhi. That was a historic seminar which I attended and it changed my life. I was preparing to appear for chartered accountant’s examination and was fascinated by the world of dance. But Dr Mulk Raj Anand, Mohan Khokar and elders advised me to complete CA and then follow research work in dance.

Chandra used to tell me: ‘Sunil, become independent economically first and that will help you become independent emotionally from the family. If you want to follow your career as a writer on dance, first become independent on both grounds, else as is normal, parents would ask you to follow what they think is good for you to earn money as a CA and support the family.’

I am grateful to Chandra who gave me this advice and it has helped me as when I did not want to practise as a chartered accountant, my brothers were all unhappy. After practising for two years, I gave up the practice and devoted my entire life in pursuit of study of Indian classical dance forms.

The friendship with Chandra grew over the years. We shared beauty and aesthetics. She, her friends and I would go on the Eliot’s beach in front of her house and watch stars in the sky. She was fond of trees, plants and flowers and we often would wait to see the flowers blooming. Once we went to Pondicherry at the observatory and she showed me the ring round the Saturn. The love for Sanskrit poetry, literature, nature, watching the sunrise and sunset in the sky from her residence are the cherished memories for me. Seeing paintings, listening to classical music, watching performances at Kalakshetra, attending Jiddu Krishnamurthy’s lectures, conversations with Chandra’s friends who included architects, scientists, poets, authors, film makers, sculptors, helped me develop interest in multiple arts besides classical Indian dance forms.

Chandra had a flourishing dance career. But she was not satisfied with performing Bharatanatyam with the mythological themes and songs of nayikas pining for the love of beloved. She was in search of innovative artistic expressions, contemporary issues and for nearly 14 years, she gave up performing. During that time, Sadanand joined Dasharath and Chandra and three of them together with their understanding of arts, plastic and performing and also an awareness of politics charted a new path. Chandra was interested in knowing about physical tradition of Indian arts like Yoga, Kalaripayattu, the martial arts of Kerala and the martial elements in Chhau dances of Seraikella and Mayurbhanj.

It was exciting to attend rehearsals where Chandra was creating new works. Her understanding of women’s issues, deep concern for women, were of prime importance. She was a feminist. She choreographed Dixitar’s Navagraha using Yoga, partnered young dancer Kamadeva from London who had come to study Bharatanatyam from Subbaraya Pillai and Kuchipudi from Vempati Chinna Satyam. Chandra’s Navagraha (1972) choreographic work was a major breakthrough in her dance career. Earlier her choreographic work Devadasi (1961) had indicated her ability to choreograph and her understanding of the form.

Later from 1985 till 2003, she choreographed ten exceptional works. She was hailed as a modern dancer. I was allowed to attend the rehearsals which gave me an opportunity to understand and appreciate her creativity. Sadanand has written a book compiling Chandralekha’s photographs which is out of print now. I have a copy and I am quoting from it about the journey Chandra took.

‘It was with Angika (1985) that Chandralekha proclaimed the need for integrating the diverse Indian physical traditions and exploring new and contemporary directions for dance in India. The inspired work, which highlighted the essential unity of all physical disciplines, proposed a non-narrative, universal and non-sublimated content of dance. The power, energy, dynamism broke the clichéd images of woman. Chandralekha stands out in one of the images (see the photo) riding over a man, Naravahana, and shooting an arrow, that speaks of what Abhinavagupta says as an example of Vismaya, Adbhuta rasa. The cumulative   direction of her search was to return to the basics of the body and its energies within the changing time/space dynamics.’

Till she passed away on 30th December 2006, after ten full productions, several short works, scores of lecture-demonstrations, workshops and collaborations in India and at many prestigious venues around the world, Chandra’s vision has become the yardstick by which new and contemporary dance from India is being measured.

Her productions like Lilavati, Prana, Sri, Yantra, Mahakal, Raga, Sloka, and the latest Sharira are classic examples of how Indian dance can be modern on its own terms without borrowing from the West. Sadanand who did lighting for all her productions and dialogued with her when each production was undertaken, helped her, working as a sounding board. He has put his observations succinctly in his book on Chandra.

Public memory is short. And it is important to recollect in order to commemorate such an artist’s work, for readers, and younger generation. Not only that, but also since the Archive will be operative, the researchers and young generation of dancers will have an access to her writings, and video recordings to grasp what she has left behind. She did not believe in having her works videographed or filmed. But by fortuitous circumstances, the venues where she was invited to present her works, the organisers have recorded some of her works and somehow they have been preserved in whatever state they could be. With further technological advances, Sadanand would update the records at the Archive.  

‘Chandralekha’s work constitutes,’ observes Sadanand, ‘an appeal to reappraise the formal beauty and geometric integrity of the classical Bharatanatyam form in an entirely new proscenium space, while being a critique of its mechanically interpreted narrative content. The correlating of the dance with the confines of narrow religiosity made her consciously search for and foreground a broader, more abstract and no-mythological content.

What can the human body, enveloped in space, yet grappling with the laws of gravity and the relentless passage of time, inspire in us today?’ ‘Chandralekha boldly moved away from the decorative, sublimated and sentimental answers inherent within fossilised traditionalism. She dwelt on simple issues like balance, lightness, slowness, control, eroticism, spirituality, extension of breath and spine, sexuality or femininity and re-presented them in a complex way to take our cumulative aesthetic resources to a higher plane.’

‘As a subject of constant observation and research, the body keeps transforming our perceptions of time and space. Chandralekha’s intuition and creative insights propose a journey through which we can narrow the distances within our own body and reconnect with our energy centres and our humanism.’

‘In that sense, her process is akin to the manner in which the abstractions of the music or colour are able to reach out to us and touch our consciousness. It is also, perhaps, the reason why audiences the world over have experienced her work in a physical, sensual, visceral sense rather than as spectacle or a piece of entertainment to be consumed.’

‘Chandralekha’s current legendary status in India is a result, on the other hand, of her having also, opted out space for contemporary dance in the Indian context and having been presented at some of the most prestigious venues in the world, including several international dance festivals.’  

‘Like another epochal dancer-choreographer, Isadora Duncan to whom she is often compared, Chandralekha takes both physical and spiritual energy as her subjects, and shows them as ultimately indissoluble.’

‘Her quest continued: ‘Where does the body begin… and end?’

Rustom Bharucha, the noted scholar, has written the book Chandralekha: Woman, Dance, Resistance, published by Harpar-Collins, which gives readers an idea of creative process and her life. Unfortunately it is also out of print. But both Sadanand’s and Rustom Bharucha’s books are in the Archive.  In such a state of affairs, the Archive will be the best source for studying works of Chandralekha. One is grateful to Sadanand Menon for building such valuable archive of a dancer who created modern contemporary dance on its own Indian terms.

The writer is an eminent dance historian

All photos by Sadanand Menon - Courtesy The Chandralekha Archive, SPACES, Chennai

Tags: chandralekha, all india dance festival