Remembering Chandralekha – Artist, Choreographer, Feminist

On the ninth anniversary of Chandralekha’s passing, marked by a photo exhibition in Chennai on her life’s work, a remembrance of her singular presence – integrating work, play and life into a single whole; and emphasising the centrality of the feminine principle in dance.

On the ninth anniversary of Chandralekha’s passing, marked by a photo exhibition in Chennai on her life’s work, a remembrance of her singular presence – integrating work, play and life into a single whole; and emphasising the centrality of the feminine principle in dance

Under the maple tree, New York, 1994. Credit: Sadanand Menon

Under the maple tree, New York, 1994
Chandralekha (6 December 1928 – 30 December 2006)
Credit: Sadanand Menon

For the annual event to remember Chandralekha, an outdoor photo exhibition on her and her choreographic works spanning 20 years is on at SPACES, Chennai, till 5 January 2016.

Each time I revisit Chandralekha’s home by the sea in Chennai, I feel her subtle presence in the various spaces in and around the house and the big compound: The living room with piles of newspapers and books on the open shelves, benches and floor. The open kitchen with old fashioned brass thookkus hanging from a hook in the ceiling. The open to sky theatre where perhaps a transgender group is rehearsing a play. The  workshop space with Kerala style roofing where students are learning the martial art of kalaripayattu. And the numerous trees that dot the neatly swept compound – hardy native trees that require virtually no tending —  neem,  banyan, peepal, bakul, casuarina, junglee badam, gul mohur, maramalli and odhya marams  creating a  serene canopy.

Not far, the campuses of legendary institutions like Theosophical Society and Kalakshetra exude a similar ambience. Yet what a contrast.  Chandra was disdainful of permanence, of creating entrenched institutions. She would work hard to create a brilliant production and then say, it cannot be created again, it has to be dissolved; I want to make an offering of my creations to the ocean. And then she would plunge into a fresh work. Thus it is that several of the early performances of her productions have no record on film.

Sadanand Menon, her close friend and collaborator has kept her spirit alive without memorialising it. The theatre and workshop spaces are used regularly by artistes:  individuals and groups who want to experiment or rehearse or perform and cannot get or afford or do not want commercial spaces. He is in the process of archiving her work through the trust they jointly created called SPACES.  Would she approve?

'Sakambhari', opening sequence of 'Sri', 1991. Credit: Bernd Merzenich

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

Chandra’s thinking about her dance, evolution of her choreographies and rehearsals with her dancers were all done here, as also the first performance. This was her work space. But she would also water her beloved trees, make her kolam designs on the threshold, playfully doodle, experiment occasionally with making sun-dried pickle, rattle the dice for a game of daayakattai with a friend, chat on the phone sitting on the swing. It was also her living space and play space. Nor did she work exclusively with dance. She painted, wrote, made posters, taught poster making to political activists, curated exhibitions and was engaged in feminist issues from the 1960s through the 1980s. Only in the last two decades of her life did she start focusing largely on choreography.

Chandralekha and Kamadeva, 'Navagraha', 1971. Credit: Dashrath Patel

Chandralekha and Kamadeva, ‘Navagraha’, 1971.                                         Credit: Dashrath Patel

Chandra’s integrating her work, play and life into a single whole – in thought and deed – and her seeking out ideas and practices from allied fields for her dance work was what allowed many people like me, not from the field of dance, to access her choreography. It was inspired by nature, philosophy, yoga, martial arts, iconography, art, music and craft.

Chandra’s initial base was in Bharatanatyam. Although she became a caustic critic of its conventionalisation, routinisation and other trappings, she never lost her affinity for and appreciation of the form. But her refusal to keep it as an island of (attributed) purity and authenticity put her, as an artiste, in a different category. Except for Rukmini Devi,  Bharatanatyam gurus were initially wary of her work.

But Bharatanatyam itself has been changing.  Performers in the last two decades, both within India and in the Indian diaspora, have done some rethinking. The solo margam dancer following the traditional structure and order of performance is still the norm. But some performers have experimented in stretching the classical margam to its limits. Some have taken up group choreography, some have gone for less opulent and more innovative costumes and some have delinked from religious mythology to take up broader themes and socially sensitive issues. Overall, rasikas are now more accepting of ‘innovation’ within an overall conventional framework. These could be attributed at least in part to the ripples created by Chandra’s pioneering approach. Formal recognition of the roots and genesis of trends comes late and only in retrospect.  Ideas are neatly lifted and co-opted any which way without acknowledgement. But those who are keen followers of the classical dance scenario can trace the line of influence. Anyway, Chandra would scoff at becoming part of the canon and would surely disavow any miracle that is needed for canonisation.

So too, the field of contemporary Indian dance is now much more fertile than two decades ago. Among other things, it has opened up to performers with initial grounding in a variety of classical genres, who have transited to a more abstract conceptualisation of movement and rhythm. One can see in their productions and utterances, Chandra’s spirit hovering around.

Namaskar, 1986. Credit: Sadanand Menon

Namaskar, 1986. Credit: Sadanand Menon

In general, Chandra was loath to label herself, but she did consider herself a feminist. Her basic conceptual framework was grounded in notions of the centrality and power of the feminine principle, drawn from samkhya and tantra philosophy and from the iconography of the mother goddess. She approached it not as a scholar but as a visual artist uncovering insights from what she called her ‘primitive accumulation’ in the cultural fields over many decades. More than equality, she spoke about the historical and civilisational primacy of the female and the feminine.

I first knew Chandra in the late 1970s when she deeply engaged with the women’s movement. At that time, the fledgeling movement, what we now call the ‘second wave’, was hungry for inspiration and vision. Chandra spoke, wrote, made posters and choreographed productions around the notion of  empowerment of women. She created the first poster for the Forum Against Oppression of Women. She created the logo for the new publishing house Kali for Women.  She was invited to design the original cover of the journal Manushi; it had elements from her repertoire, including ideas of shakti and other primal concepts. The Manushi editors were uneasy and initiated a huge debate at their  office in Delhi with Chandra and a large group of feminists participating. Chandra felt that they simply did not understand the cultural politics she was proposing in her graphics. The cover never got used.

Chandra had a running fight with feminist friends that they did not do their cultural homework and were shallow in their understanding of basic concepts. Now, that was harsh criticism of a struggle in which many women had toiled with the tough nitty-gritty of issues like rape, dowry,  domestic violence, equality of wages, reproductive rights and many more.  Chandra, of course, had stood up to be counted in the campaigns then current  – Shah Bano, Roop Kanwar, Mathura.

For the ‘Stree: Women in India’ exhibition at the Festival of India in Moscow in 1988, she wrote texts celebrating women’s unsung labour – walking miles in search of  water and fodder and firewood for family survival, sustaining the environment, nourishing life. In a panel titled ‘How She Copes’ detailing a village woman’s day of unending work, of creating value out of virtually nothing but her labour, I remember her moving last line “While men run the world, she runs life”. ‘Essentialising’ was the tart comment from some feminists.  Unfair, according to me. Chandra stopped short of  attributing inherent traits to men and women. But her poetic and visual skills were so persuasive, that one had to be alert to the message.  She was acutely conscious of the inferior status of women in contemporary society. But she did not engage herself  in the process of explaining the ‘fall’,  the change from ‘empowerment’ to ‘enslavement’  which one of her posters depicts dramatically – a Kali like figure with many arms: on one side, white, adorned with weapons, and on the other side, dark, with the hands and weapons cut off.

Chandralekha and Kamadeva, 'Navagraha', 1971. Credit: Dashrath Patel

Tishani Doshi, ‘Sharira’, 2002. Credit: Sadanand Menon

Chandra’s evocation of the ancient primacy of the female and feminine was inspirational, not historical, and that was how I think she meant it to be. But when she presented this idea through her choreography, you could genuinely be convinced that her evocation was true to how it might have been ‘once upon a time’. It was palpable in the bodies of the female and male performers, in the abstract movements and play of light and energy, and sound and silence on stage.  The world of Indian feminism in the 1970s and 1980s, with its lineage in Left and liberal thinking, was both attracted to and suspicious of what seemed to be an ode to ‘Hindu’ ideas in her work but which she herself consistently held went much further back in time before Hinduism.

Chandra did not bother to explain on their terms. Her truth was there for all to see in her work and her life.

The writer is a sociologist based in Mumbai.