By Anupama Bhattacharya
Chandralekha, legendary dancer from south India, discards the devotional elements of dance for passionate, body-oriented movements. And the effect is electrifying
What would you call a dancer who is iconoclastic? Who exudes raw power and pathos, the earthy and the sublime simultaneously? Who unites Bharatanatyam, yoga and kalarippayyat in a single mind-blowing step? Chandralekha, of course.
You can’t escape the charm. Silver hair. Dark kohl-rimmed eyes. A bright vermilion dot on the forehead. There is motion in the deep lines of her face—smiling this instant, frowning the next.
Not that it makes any difference. When you meet Chandralekha, all you notice are the fiery eyes, throbbing with restrained power in her lithe body. Dancer she definitely is—it ripples around her as she moves.
Student of renowned Bharatnatyam teacher, Guru Kancheepuram Ellappa Pillai, Chennai-based dancer-choreographer Chandralekha has been known for reinterpreting classical traditions in dance and developing a unique sequence of signature movements. You can’t mistake a Chandralekha composition. Stark sets, often set off by a single object—giant projection of a blinking eye, geometrical figures, a Shiva lingam, a scarlet rectangle representing the universal menstrual flow of creation. All these while her troupe of male and female dancers position themselves in intimate postures.
It could be called obscene but for the masterly execution of each step, the subtle beauty of restrained erotica. In Yantra, inspired by Adi Shankaracharya’s Soundaryalahiri and appropriately subtitled ‘dance diagrams’, the perception of beauty is related to an awareness of the body, both in its spiritual and sexual manifestations, and is expressed through geometrical patterns created by the dancers, signifying male and female energies.
There is also a definite feminism in Chandralekha’s themes. Her 1991 production Sri explores the multifaceted significance of womanhood in India—from Harappan fertility images, Shakti and unity of Prakriti and Purusha to oppressed woman and the woman of the new millennium, the ten-armed Durga.
If Shakti is there, can Mahakaal be far behind? The year 1995 saw Chandralekha invoking time in Mahakaal, a symposium of convoluted movements that went beyond linear notions of time to explore the dance of timelessness, inner space and consciousness. This could be considered the most metaphysical of her productions: the dancer-choreographer experimented with intangible themes such as the beginning of creation with the cosmic sound, awareness of life and the eternal pulse that alone remains and continues between the cessation and birth of subsequent worlds.
Chandralekha, a dancing legend in the ’50s, moved away from the performing scene after a decade of success, rejecting the sublimated brahminical content of post-Natyashastra dance and its market entertainment value. During this period, she busied herself with writing, designing, multimedia projects and women’s and human rights movement. Her return to the stage was marked by the East West Dance Encounter in 1984 in Bombay, western India, where she presented three of her productions with the help of students from Kalakshetra.
You can’t stop a tornado once it sets its course. Chandralekha’s return took her all over the world—from Moscow to London, Italy, Germany, Toronto, New York and Tokyo—stunning the audience with fiercely sensual and intensely iconoclastic productions. For Chandralekha, dance is not bhakti or a sacred tradition meant only to invoke gods. It is a passionate, self-exploratory expression of the earthy, the erotic and the elemental. Which is why, unlike other classical dancers, Chandralekha never does the traditional pranam before her performances.
Inevitably, she has had her share of criticism. The boldness of her vision, often delving into the most intimate aspects of the human psyche, drew scathing attacks. Especially so for her production Raga: In Search of Femininity.
Raga takes you by surprise. It lifts you by your imagination, sways somewhere in the twilight of confusion and leaves the mark of ennui on a stark, bold and often explicitly erotic presentation. Here, two bare-chested male dancers, apparently seeking the female within, entwine in homoerotic, no-holds-barred postures while a chanting of ‘Ardhanarishwara‘ echoes in the background. All this while, a group of female dancers pant and peek at the intimate caresses, often partaking in the mock coitus.
The problem is, the fire burns out too soon. Wavering between fiery earthiness and repetitive languidity, Raga is a statement in contrast. No metaphysics here, not even a linear theme. The dancer-choreographer seems to be content with exploring the primal essence of sensation. Perhaps that’s her way of looking within—into the deep bowels of the earth—and seek out the hidden, the untouched.
The high priestess of the sensate, however, has a strong sense of propriety when it comes to her troupe. ‘Please use your discretion when you take photographs,’ she says politely yet firmly as we watch a rehearsal where the dancers, not in costume, often get their clothes disarrayed through various yogic postures. Then she flits around like a sprite, now demonstrating a dance step, now warmly patting the hand of a favorite student. But, all the while, keeping a sharp eye on the reporters and photographers thronging the auditorium.
Chandralekha is a legend. Loved, hated, admired, criticized. You could brand her work obscene, or revere her can’t forget her. Somewhere, those intensely alive eyes in a face well past its prime leave their mark. Much like the embers that remain long after the fire is gone.
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