A recipient of this year's Kalidas Samman, maverick dancer Chandralekha rouses both admiration and criticism.
Dancer Chandralekha revolutionised Indian contemporary dance and gave it an aesthetic but erotic dimension in terms of the interpretation of the kinetics of male and female body language. She reminisces on her long journey and unfolds her vision in a chat with K.K. GOPALAKRISHNAN.
How did you get interested in dance?
My first responses to dance were to the magic of movement and to the sheer poetry and excitement of the visual and graphic language of dancing fingers, hands, eyes, feet - the idea of the whole body being seemingly in a state of ecstasy always fascinated me.
You have been influenced greatly by Harindranath Chattopadhyaya. Could you elaborate?
Can't describe Harindranath Chattopadhyaya (I called him 'Baba') merely as an "influence". He was an inspiration. He infused in me a certain spirited way of looking at the world around me; a certain broad and universal world-view and a positive critique of social structures. One could be on a creative high with him all the time.
Did Balasaraswati influence you as a dancer? And what about Rukmini Devi Arundale who supported your return to active dance field in 1984, after a 12-year break?
Even from a young age I used to collect pictures of Rukmini Devi and Balasaraswati from journals and magazines. I would cut these out and carefully paste them in my scrapbook. Rukmini Devi remained a dear and attractive personality for me. After I got to know her, my pleasure at her sheer sense of aesthetics only increased. I remember her as a visionary artist who was extremely generous in loaning her dance students to me at a time when I needed them.
Balasaraswati's art drew me into a world of fantasy and imagination that was unique. Every time I saw her dance, it was a pure and unforgettable experience even when I was not fully conversant with the subtleties and complexities of the dance. Bala made a deep enough impression on me for me to want to learn Bharatanatyam from Guru Kancheevaram Ellappa Pillai, who also happened to be Bala's nattuvanar. This brought us quite close.
What about the influence of Guru Kancheevaram Ellappa Pillai on your career?
Guru Ellappa Pillai is a living presence for me. Though he is no more, his memory has the life force of a flowing river. All that I learnt from him has shaped the banks of my art and what it is today. Besides his legendary qualities of laya and depth of repertoire, what was most valuable for me was his artistic openness. He let me take my initial exploratory steps in trying out new things without any prejudice. Moreover, once he was convinced of the artistic merit of the work, he participated in it without any reticence or reservation.
You were known as a captivating Bharatanatyam performer in the 1960s. To the surprise of all, suddenly you disappeared from active dance for almost 12 years. During the period, you wrote several poems in addition to several illustrations and poster designing. In the late 1960s, you wrote prose poems for The Illustrated Weekly of India that was later published as an anthology titled Rainbow on the Roadside: Montages of Madras. What was the inspiration behind this spirit?
The more I began understanding and loving dance, the more I began getting disillusioned by the prevailing performative norms and distortions in the dance scene. I began asking myself, "If I do not dance, what else can I do?" Everything I did later, like write or paint or make posters, followed from this.
One of your striking earlier choreographedworks was in 1972, "Navagraha". What was the inspiration behind it?
The inspiration for "Navagraha" came from the placement of the Navagraha icons in temple compounds in which each graha has an ordained sthana. Interestingly, none of the nine icons face each other. Therefore, when you perambulate around the Navagrahas, you experience a sensation of movement-in-the-round. In the early 1970s, I was also looking for a new content for the dance. The form itself received a new charge by juxtaposing it with the tensile energy of yoga. For "Navagraha", I composed a piece to Muthuswamy Dikshitar's "Suryamurthe" by restating the yogic suryanamaskar at a different pace/beat and different tension. I was looking to get out of the dance form and its mechanical repetitiveness. It was not long before I realised that we could gain something from the hundreds of superb physical forms that exist all around us. That, it itself, brought several new ideas.
Could you explain how you develop an idea for choreography, the process of choreographing new pieces and training process?
Choreography per se is not a compulsion for Indian dance. Nevertheless, within a proscenium context, I see it as the organisation of movement within a space/time framework. It connects us to the geometry of the body the square, the circle and the triangle and to the purity of line. Choreography happens when you look at the body in terms of a prolific variety of movement. It enables an architectonics of body-in-space. It frames for us the visual logic of the intimate coming together of bodies on stage. There is a continual excitement of the play of space and time within this and, once you connect with this, it becomes the challenge of speaking a visual-kinetic language space filled, space emptied, positive space, negative space and new forms and new meanings emerging out of all this.
Your recent works are known for the harmonious rapport with background music. What about your musical collaborations?
I have always had the good fortune of extraordinary collaborations with the best of musicians and benefiting from their open attitudes. Prof. S. Ramanathan, Vidya Shankar, Madrimangalam B.Krishnamurthy, TVG, Aruna Sayeeram, T.H. Subashchandran have been good collaborators. For my last three productions, "Raga", "Sloka" and "Sharira" which have a distinctly abstract content, with more movements from kalari and yoga that have been consciously slowed down to an ati-vilambit tempo, I felt the need for music too which could achieve this. The idea of the controlled exploration of breath in the Dhrupad ang appealed to me and provoked me enough to want to juxtapose the stretch and extension of the body with the stretch and extension of breath. The link with the wonderful Gundecha brothers happened around this time and it has turned out to be a mutually energising journey. The more non-narrative my dance gets, the more the colour of Dhrupad paints emotion into it.
Your piece "Yantra" was influenced by Sankaracharya's "Soundaryalahari" and titled dance diagrams, spiritual and sexual manifestations expressed through geometrical patterns highlighting male and female vibrations. Do you think the Indian society found it indigestible?
Which 'Indian society' do you mean? In virtually every street around old temples, you will find bookshops with the Sri Chakra diagrams. Sri Chakra is an abstraction of the male-female body in union, in free space. It is expressed through the square, circle, triangle and bindu. It occupies the deepest recesses of Indian minds and often finds pride of place in people's homes. They don't find this "indigestible". My own search was to try to know why Adi Shankara, of all people, used and celebrated the word Soundarya. In what context was he using it? I realised that it had different meanings at different times expressing, by turns, sensuality, sexuality and spirituality. The Sri Chakra became representative of the co-existence of all these in our body. This is what made me re-look at the human body and its specific, non-hierarchical, non-divisive energies.
"Raga" was criticised when it was premiered in 1998. Why?
Besides exploring the feminine side in men, "Raga" was also expanding the notion of the pancha-indriyas (five senses) through the sensation of touch. It is an integral part of daily life and the criticism sprung from illiterate, un-informed background. In later discussions , I explained this through the psycho-analytic method called "Rorschak" which explains why we sometimes miss seeing what is out there and instead see only what is in our mind. It is also a sign of the gap and distance that some critics have from their own cultural/artistic resources.
Being a non-Tamil (a Gujarati by birth) who spent her early years in Saurashtra, Pune, Aden and Mumbai, what made you shift to erstwhile Madras when you were 17?
Shifted to Madras to concentrate on dance and, of course, cutting the parental umbilical cord was important for this.
Rustom Bharucha wrote your biography, Chandralekha: Woman, Dance, Resistance. Any idea or chance of writing an autobiography?
I think I'll need another and separate lifetime to write an "autobiography". Anyway, there's nothing eventful to write about.
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