The Arts

'I Believe Dance is a 'Project' To Enable a Recovery of the Body, of Our Spine'

The internal relation between the dance and the dancer and the external relation between dance and society are questions that cannot be taken lightly, argued dancer-choreographer Chandralekha over three decades ago in a pathbreaking essay, republished here on the occasion of International Dance Day.

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It was in 1984, at the East-West Dance encounter, that Chandralekha – making a return to dance after an interregnum of 12 years – proposed these ideas. In subsequent years, she kept reworking these thoughts and reiterating them at various national and international fora. More than three decades after they were first articulated, her ideas on the predicament and possibilities of our dance still ring true.

This essay was first reproduced by The Wire on December 30, 2020, on the occasion of her 14th death anniversary, and is being republished on April 29, 2022, International Dance Day.


One of the crucial experiences that shaped my response and attitude to dance was during my very first public dance recital (arangetram) in 1952. It was a charity programme in aid of the Rayalaseema Drought Relief Fund. I was dancing ‘Mathura Nagarilo’, depicting the river Yamuna, the water-play of sakhis, the sensuality, the luxuriance, and abundance of water. Suddenly, I froze, with the realization that I was portraying all this profusion of water in the context of a drought. I remembered photographs in the newspapers of cracked earth, of long, winding queues of people waiting for water with little tins in hand. Here, Guru Ellappa was singing ‘Mathura Nagarilo’. Art and life seemed to be in conflict. The paradox was stunning. For that split second I was divided, fragmented into two people.

Through the years this experience has lived with me and I have not been able to resolve the contradiction which, of course, is a social one. On the one hand, a great love for all that is rich and nourishing in our culture and, on the other, the need to contribute positive energies towards changing the harsh realities of life. For me, to be able to respond to the realities of life is as crucial as to remain alive and tuned to sensuality and cultural wealth. I have struggled to harmonise, to integrate these diverging directions in order to remain sensitive and whole.

Being inheritors of colonial structures and institutions of education, language, liberal values, and maybe even notions of aesthetics, we cannot overlook the mediation of the West in shaping our approach to our traditional arts. Problems of revivalism, nostalgia, purity, exclusiveness, conservation, preservation, need to be examined. There is a tendency to swing between the polarities of rejecting the West to seek the security of our little islands, or of accepting the West at the cost of a wealth of traditions and without any attempt to try and listen to what they have to tell us.

Portrait of Chandralekha. Photo: Dashrath Patel. Courtesy, The Chandralekha Archive, SPACES, Chennai.

Such conflict stems from a lack of consciousness and an inability to comprehend the central and basic issues which, ultimately, are connected with integrated and humanised existence on our planet. The East in order to be ‘contemporary’ would need to understand and express the East in its own terms; to explore to the full the linkages generated by valid interdisciplinary principles common to all arts and central to the creative concept of rasa; to extend the frontiers of the loaded cultural language of our soil.

I see dance as a visual, tactile, and sensual language, structured with a specific vocabulary and idiom, within an organic bind of space/time principles and, most importantly, related to the dynamics of energy and flow with a capacity to recharge human beings. The internal relation between the dance and the dancer and the external relation between dance and society are questions that cannot be taken lightly.

First of all, dance is an expression of physicality. In the course of human evolution, for a long time, physicality was a communal possession to be collectively expressed. The remnants of tribal societies show the basic unity of material life and physical expression. So we start from the fundamental premise that dance does not originate from heaven, that it has a material base, that it is rooted in the soil, the region, the community, in usages, work rhythms, habits and behaviour, food patterns and social relations and in racial characteristics like nose, skin, eyes, hair – a whole lot of accumulations that go by the name of culture, and intimately related to body attitudes, physiognomy, and to work and tools. Even in its most stylised form, dance retains a certain universality of idiom and is an extension of and a supplement to spoken language.

The history of dance, then, cannot be separated from the history of the various stages of society. The variations in form are like variations in soil, climate, trees, vegetation. Over a long period of time, however, dance along with other arts and social functions, became integrated into the evolving hierarchical structures of society effecting a transformation in its role – from communal participation to communal consumption.

The codification of dance in a society that admitted a hierarchical structure introduced a process of rigidification in the roles of the performer and the spectator, propelling classical dance and dancers towards limiting, though exotic, specialisation and to a fossilisation of the form. Increasingly, the dances became a class preserve expressing an ideological content.

However, through all the distortions of the medieval period, the body retained a certain primacy and sensuality and played a vital role in maintaining human dignity in spite of much privation. It is when we come to contemporary times and an industrial/urban society that a sudden and harsh break occurs. The vital link, between body and nature, body and work, body and ritual, snaps. Dance becomes, almost totally, a spectacle.

A reversal, too, takes place. While traditional thought conceptualises the human body as a unique centre, a centre of the universe, expanding outwards into the cosmos, industrial society converts the human body into the prime target of attack: as citizen, attacked by the political system; as consumer, attacked by the economic system; as individual, bombarded by the media, denied contact with nature, incapable of self-renewal, suffocated by poisons in air and water, isolated and deprived of directions for change.

The question then arises: What role can dance play in such a society? Can it recuperate energies? Can it initiate a living flow between individual and community? Can it integrate human perspectives? Can it infuse people with joy for life, radical optimism, hope, courage, and vision to negate all that is ugly, unjust, and hurtful? If our life is alienated, can our dances and arts help to transcend that alienation? 

Chandralekha and Kamadev, ‘Navagraha’, 1971. Photo: Dashrath Patel.
Courtesy, The Chandralekha Archive, SPACES, Chennai.

I have experienced dance as a sensual language of beauty and of essential freedom; a language of coordination as against alienation; a movement towards the human essence, the sap, the vitality, the rasa. It is this aspect of dance and its unflagging potential to regenerate the human spirit that constitutes for me its contemporaneity and the reason why we need to work with the form. Any human mode with a capacity to touch, to energise, to transform is potent. Otherwise art is primarily to be lived. It is nothing but the quality of all that is made.

Besides several negative features in the prevailing dance situation like spectacular mindlessness, archaic social values, faked religiosity, idealisation leading to mortification of the form, numbing sentimentality, literalism, verbalism, dependence on sahitya, on word, mystification and dollification, perpetuation of anti-women values, cynicism within the solo dance situation and its senseless competitiveness, there are also more serious questions:

Why have classical Indian dances become so insular and unresponsive to the dramatic social, historical, scientific, human changes that have occurred in the world around us over the past forty years?

What blocks and complexes prevent classical dancers from initiating basic changes?

What makes them resistant to contemporary progressive social values?

Why is it that even purely formal exercises and experiments have eluded these forms?

Why have not attempts been encouraged to explore the power and strength of these forms, as for example, their links with martial arts?

At the same time, the criteria, the parameters, the references, the directions for what constitutes ‘new’ and ‘contemporary’ in the realm of classical dance is a sensitive area and there can be no easy formulae and solutions. I believe one can make only one small step at a time with feeling and sincerity. The principles of wholeness and relatedness that form the core of traditional thought are the most relevant for us today. Through these we get some idea of the directions for a fresh search – questions of perceptual and creative levels, exchange and transmission, movement and control, art and experience, tradition and modernity, inner and outer, space and time, individual and collective, integrity and rupture, quantity and quality.

With my root and training in a classical dance form like Bharatanatyam with its ancient lineage and formal purity, I had to contend with several contradictions inherent in working within the traditional form in a contemporary context.

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I have increasingly been disturbed by current Western critical opinion which so effortlessly glamorises and valorises Eastern ‘traditions’ in an uncritical manner, entirely from an orientalist and patronising perspective. For us, in our Eastern contexts, both our ‘traditionality’ and our ‘modernity’ are complex and problematic areas which are not abstract theoretical categories but real everyday concerns – both of life and of performing arts.

If our so-called ‘traditions’ are largely superficial post-colonial inventions which subsume the genuine experience and accumulation of the past with its treasure-house of complex and holistic concepts of body/energy/aesthetics, then our so-called ‘modernity’ has turned out to be a movement that privileges the ‘bourgeois self’, enabling an elite aesthetic to distort and de-eroticise the real and the liberating energies of the body. Those of us engaged in a battle for recovery in several artistic and intellectual fields, therefore, find ourselves simultaneously battling on two fronts, often tending to get isolated and marginalised by national and international markets, by official state policy, and dominant cultural constructs.

If someone like me battles on regardless, it is entirely because of the pleasure I derive on the one hand from knocking the narrow-mindedness and vested interests, both at the national and international level and, on the other, from a real vision of the full blooming of a form that, I am convinced, can make a difference to the way we look at ourselves.

In our contexts, I believe dance is a ‘project’ that would enable a recovery of the body, of our spine, which for me is a metaphor for freedom. Dance, for me, is not spectacle or entertainment or virtuosity. It is not about seduction or titillation or loaded effects or exotic representations. For me, it is about evoking human energy and dignity in an increasingly brutalising environment. Working with – and making a departure from – the exclusive classicism of Bharatanatyam, therefore, the questions before me have been: how to explore, expand, universalise the form; how to comprehend its inherent energy content; how to see it in relation to other allied physical disciplines in India – like yoga, ancient martial arts and allied life activity with its investment in physical labour; how to interpret the purity of the Bharatanatyam line; its principles of balance and flexion; its body geometry of squares, circles, triangles, coils, curves; how to visualize this body-geometry in terms of space-geometry – the inner/outer correspondence; how to slash across the dead weight of the past suffocating dance in the name of tradition; how to pare dance of its feudal and religious acculturations, sticking like an unhealthy patina on the form, as also from the increasing pressure on it of the demands of the commercial market.

‘Sakambhari’, opening sequence of ‘Sri’, 1991. Photo: Bernd Merzenich

There are more questions: how to understand dance as a language in its own right, self-sufficient and with a vocabulary of its own – so as to free it from the tedious god/goddess narratives and staged religiosity, to give it a secular space of its own; how to demystify its content, which reinforces nostalgia and revivalism, promotes esoteric self-indulgence, and idealises a deep anti-woman content; how to recover and celebrate its abstract content of space and time; how to initiate and consolidate the conjunctions between our traditional forms and our contemporary concerns.

Any work with dance, therefore, in my context, involves engaging with the body and its primitive accumulations, its social complexes, its cultural stratifications. The content of the body is vast and complex. There are no limited or fragmented concepts of the body in indigenous cultures. Here, the body is seen as a unity – with respect to itself as well as the society and the cosmos. Neither specific parts of the body nor physical systems are seen in isolation. For example, the traditional martial art form Kalarippayattu, with its swift leaps and spinal stretches, is integral with a scientific understanding of secret points in the body – such as marmas and chakras. An ability to hurt presumes an ability to heal.

Also read: The Militant Origins of Indian Dance

In this cosmology, the arts and sciences too are interdependent and richly cross-referenced. Dance, music, architecture, sculpture, yoga, medicine, martial arts, linguistics, grammar, are not isolated and mutually exclusive. This is the larger meaning of tradition – to be integral, to be whole. Once this is understood, it is not tradition we will need to break as much as the conditions that create isolation, exclusivity, specialisation, competition. It is binary categories which promote narrow beliefs – as against the more joyous world-view of curvature – that we need to break.

So, with all its contradictions, conflicts, tensions, splits, and ruptures tradition, for me, is not a museum piece or fossil form, hermetically sealed forever which precludes ideation, commentary, questioning, critique. I see tradition as open and fluid in terms of our times, in interactive relation with the past, accepting as well as foregrounding the tensions and disjunctions. This is the only way to locate tradition here and now – as a prerequisite for renewal of our energies at the level of our everyday life.

The issue, for me, is not tradition versus modernity. I do not see them as two different things. The task of the artist is to modernise tradition through the creative process. Not transplanting, borrowing, imitating, or becoming a shadow culture of some other culture. It has to be an inward journey into one’s own self; a journey constantly relating, refining the reality of the in-between area; to enable tradition to flow free in our contemporary life.