Before the classical revival of Bharatanatyam in 1929, it was a dance form performed by devdasis, considered too erotic, with some calling it vulgar. So, early pioneers took the classical form, cleaned and sanitised it, making it very prim and proper, which one wouldn’t mind letting their daughters learn,” says writer and art critic Sadanand Menon. But renowned dancer Chandralekha decided to revive its history, instead of letting it get lost to a moral nation. Whenever it became too difficult for young dancers, coming from Kalakshetra and other training schools, to attempt certain dance moves, Chandralekha would show the steps herself. One such example can be seen in German photographer Bernd Merzenich’s photograph of her, outside OddBird Theatre in Delhi.
Inspired by the Mohenjo Daro seal resting at National Museum called “Shakambari”, where a woman lies upside down and the entire universe is seen growing from her vagina, Chandralekha’s grey hair rests on the ground and forms the base of the black-and-white photograph, as her body is seated upside down in a gravity-defying pose, as her legs lie wide open in the air.
Around 75 photographs curated by her close aide Menon lend a gateway into her choreographic work spanning 20 years through the exhibition “Remembering Chandralekha”, the highlight of this year’s Ignite! Festival of Contemporary Dance. “Chandralekha’s work is considered pioneering, of what we today call the contemporary dance movement. That was why we thought of bringing it up as a part of the festival,” says Menon. With the earliest works dating back to 1984, the exhibition brings together photographs by Menon, her close friend Dashrath Patel, Merzenic, Raghu Rai, and Raghvendra Rao, among others.
Patel’s 1987 photograph called Namaskar has a group of dancers standing tall in front of her home, tucked near the seashore in Besant Nagar, Chennai, with their folded hands to replicate the traditional form of greeting. “Where do we do namaskar? Is it a form of losing dignity in front of someone and going limp, or does it capture the dignity of the body. That is what Chandralekha explored through the piece,” says Menon. There is also a scene depicting the 1989 dance production Lilavati, which interprets the Indian text on mathematics by one of India’s greatest mathematicians Bhaskaracharya, through dance, music and poetry.
Expanding on the relationship that Chandralekha shared with the human body in her productions, Menon says, “She was not really bothered about the dance part but instead had questions on why one was dancing and what does it mean. She was very disturbed by the way dance was taught and how it became diluted. The body lay completely hidden behind all these things. There were many conventions such as the dancer must show her face and not the back, and too much jumping is not allowed. She was keen on stripping the body bare and looking at it again, exploring where does energy come from in our body, whether from the finger, elbow or the shoulder and why are we producing it.”
On display outside OddBird Theatre is a wall-sized Raghu Rai’s image of Chandralekha seated on top of a man, as she enacted the sequence named “Naravahana” from Angika, which was staged at NCPA, Mumbai, in 1985. “Here was a woman using a man as a vehicle.
It’s seen in mythologies where goddesses ride on vehicles, much like Durga rides on a lion and Saraswati on a swan,” says Menon.Chandralekha, on the other hand, re-imagined why there was no goddess riding the man as a vehicle. “It’s a throwback to an imagined past where women had that power and autonomy, where they could present themselves as being powerful women, who were mostly self-created and not a slave to any social bind. This landmark performance changed the trajectory of what one thought of classical dance. Anybody who has seen it has never forgotten it as it created a powerful vision,” he says.
“Remembering Chandralekha” is at OddBird Theatre, Chhattarpur, till October 16