Chandralekha was quick to laugh but what she always laughed loudest at was the idea of “legacy” – of a sacred institution, unquestioning disciples and a style of dance frozen in time. That is why, when the legendary dancer passed away in 2006, it had almost seemed like the death of a body of distinctive work.
The one choreography that survived the finality of her departure, however, was Sharira, her last and most minimal work – an unhurried exploration of the idea and power of female sexuality.
Created with contemporary dancer Padmini Chettur and kalaripayattu wizard Shaji John in 2000, Sharira had left its audiences stunned. The tempo defied the word slow. And almost the entire performance is marked by the refrain of the female dancer’s legs lifted and parted, the pelvis rising, falling and undulating to the ati vilambit pace of dhrupad by Gundecha brothers.
Sharira demanded complete audience attention for its running time of 63 minutes. In the immediate years following Chandralekha’s death, the choreography was staged a few times. But some years later, the buzz around it dried up.
Way ahead of her times with her unapologetic stance on the play of abstraction, physicality and sexuality in her dance, Chandralekha was anyway never the most popular of dancers in her life, nor the darling of the Chennai dance establishment. Her quest for something beyond the prettiness and piety – she hilariously called it the “dollification” – of conventional bharatanatyam did not make for easily ingestible art.
But just when it seemed that Chandralekha would remain no more than an abiding subject for dense academic works on dance, Sharira came alive again. Over the last year and a half, it has been performed over a dozen times across the country. (In her own lifetime, Sharira was staged only five times over six years.)
Not just that, Chandralekha’s life and dance philosophy have become subjects of great interest at literature melas, theatre festivals and thinkfests. The legacy she scoffed at is now a part of the curriculum at no less than six new dance study programmes.
“There is immense curiosity about her today and not just in dance circles, but also in theatre, and other arts,” said Sadanand Menon, Chandralekha’s long-term partner, writer and light designer. “There is hunger for archival material on her, interviews, videos, anything.”
To Menon’s utter surprise, he was invited to speak about her at a dance conference at the Karthik Fine Arts, one of Chennai’s oldest cultural citadels. Chandralekha’s time, it appears, has finally arrived.
“There has been, in the last year and a half, an immense acceleration of interest in her, especially in Sharira,” said writer-yoga practitioner Tishani Doshi, who moved into Chettur’s role two years later after Sharira debuted.
Doshi added, “It is not as if we have been chasing this because Chandra herself was ambiguous about the idea of ‘preserving’ her work. This revival of interest I think it has to do with the fact that in the last eight or nine years of its existence, life itself has accelerated so fast that this profound exploration of time and space that needs complete audience participation now seems to take us to another place.”
It has been a decade since Chandralekha passed away on December 30 and usually a three-day arts festival is held to mark the day at Spaces, her beachside home in Chennai. This year, there was a staging of Sharira, and a musical tribute by Carnatic vocalist TM Krishna. Besides these, her senior dancers who were a part of her earlier creative years are reconstructing a portion of Sri, a 1991 choreography that melded concepts of woman power, fertility and nature. It is a tough task, since none of her works were notated or documented, except through videography.
“She hated being videographed, especially during rehearsals,” recalled Menon. “So we had to settle for filming the performances and then you had no control over angle or lighting. Most of it was anyway in low, quiet ambient light. So the recordings aren’t much help. If you asked her ‘after you, what?’ she would throw up her hands and say ‘Up and in the air’.”
So the 25-minute segment for Sri had to be assembled using the memories of the older dancers and the talent of young artistes who were never trained under Chandralekha or exposed to her ideas.
“Of course, it does not match up with the actual experience of doing group work with Chandra but it is an effort to make her work accessible for other dancers,” said Padmini Chettur, who joined Chandralekha in 1991, six years after Chandralekha performed her groundbreaking work Angika. “There is so much greed today for the clarity she brought to working with multiple bodies on stage, for the physical values she embodied – the way she used the spine to energise space for instance.”
Chandralekha’s use of yoga and kalaripayattu were considered revolutionary in her time but there is hardly a dancer today who does not practise one or borrow from the other in choreographies. “It is a pity they just borrow the radicalities of her works, the kalaripayattu moves, the red sari and big bindi – she is considered very glamorous now – but not the thinking behind it,” said Chettur. “Her philosophy extended beyond dance, to how to live, eat, dress, deal with the body.”