WHEN people ask about Chandralekha, I sometimes tell them how John Cage recorded her infectious laughter and played it on loop through ten speakers at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad. Or that Henri Cartier-Bresson, after seeing her choreography ‘Yantra’, in Avignon, said, ‘Such wonderful slowness; slowness is the only luxury we have left in the world today.’Or that Harry Shunk and János Kender, photographers of French Nouveau realisme and part of Andy Warhol’s coterie, immortalized her beautiful hasta mudras in gelatin silver prints. Or about the friendship between her and Pina Bausch, touring together with their dance companies, visiting each other’s studios – Die Tanztheater Wuppertal and Mandala Theatre in Chennai. Or that Philip Glass, before couch surfing was a thing, crashed at her house in Mylapore,when he was travelling through India in the ’60s. Or that she once found herself in Hawaii, staying with the poet W.S. Merwin, and what she remembered was the size of the vegetables grown huge in all that volcanic soil, but what he remembered was her silver-white hair and how she stood in the garden marvelling at the moon. And if none of this sparks any response, I tell them how she went to the first Woodstock, took LSD, and felt the grass growing beneath her feet.
There is a similarly impressive list of Indian greats beginning with her mentor Harindranath Chattopadhyay, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Balasaraswati, Bhupen Khakhar, Dashrath Patel, Rukmini Devi Arundale, Vallathol, Ratan Thiyam. None of this is about name-dropping but about placing her within a national and global framework of artists and thinkers with whom she had collaborations and friendships, how all this made up the patchwork of her life, her seamless reach across disciplines, from dance to poster-making to poetry to design to feminism to film.
I want to circumvent the hard work of having to contextualize her because I think she should be better known. When I say Chandralekha, I want people to arrive at wonder immediately, because this is the aesthetic realm to which I designate her life and work. Or to use a word she favoured – chamathkaar – which in Tantra occurs in a flash, a sense of magic, transport or revelation that can happen to someone who is not even an initiate. The thing that happened to me when I first met her. An electric river of energy racing up my spine.
Twenty years ago I was asked by this magazine to review a book of poems by the Madras-based dancer Chandralekha. It was my first journalistic assignment, and it would change the direction of my life. The book was a long prose poem called Rainbow on the Road: Montages of Madras, published by Earthworm Books, which I could not find anywhere. Tejbir Singh, who commissioned the piece, said, ‘Just go to her house and get a copy. Everyone knows she lives at Number 1 Elliot’s Beach Road.’
I didn’t know that she lived there. In fact, I didn’t know much about her. I didn’t think it proper for a reviewer to scrounge a copy from an author. Still, I went. Her house was ten minutes from my parent’s home in South Madras. Rough-hewn granite pillars were spaced apart to form a boundary wall. The front gate was made of bamboo, and the compound inside was full of neem and blazing red hibiscus. She wasn’t home, but a man called Sadanand Menon gave me a copy of the book. I told him I was planning to return to India after eight years of studying and working in the US and London. Later, I received an email from Sadanand, saying that my review had been Chandra’s favourite, that she particularly liked the connections I made between the staccato rhythms of her lines to build image upon image, much like the movements of dance.
Things might have been left there, but when I returned to Madras, I began taking Kalaripayattu lessons at Chandra’s centre, Spaces, with Shaji John, a Kalari master, who had worked with Chandra since her first production, ‘Angika’.It was Shaji who urged me to meet her, saying that they were looking for a new dancer. After class, I arrived at her door, sweaty, depleted. She did not have an electric buzzer. Instead, a small brass bell was tied with a rope to the front door grill. It was a relief when no one answered. I scampered away. At the end of the next class Shaji himself walked me over, and once I crossed the threshold into Chandra’s room of swings, the difference between the life I’d lived and the life I was moving into, swelled beneath me like a premonition.
If I could relive those years, I would follow my instinct to record everything – our rehearsals; our talks by the front door – Chandra in her special chair by the door grill with the light falling through; our talks on the parapet looking at the Bay of Bengal; the evening salon-style conversations in her front room, which instead of sofas and chairs had three wooden oonjals hanging from the ceiling; and later, as she became progressively unwell, the things we said to each other as she lay in bed. I wanted to hold all of it and archive it because I was aware there was so much I was not grasping. If I put all our conversations on cassettes, I thought, I’d have something to return to. She was stubborn though, and wouldn’t allow it, insisting it all flow through.
I tried to keep a daily notebook but it was hard enough keeping up with my body, which at 26, was going through something quasi-religious, a kind of bodily Reformation. We worked arduously, seven days a week. If I suggested a day off to rest, I got a look. If I said I wanted to go on a trip with friends, I got a look. Be here now, was the unspoken dictum.
Part of the reason I’m a writer is because writing allows me to construct a scaffolding around memory. So much of my time with Chandra exists in quicksands now, and the only moments I can hold and trust are the ones that I wrote about or were recorded. There was a train ride from Madras to Baroda in February 2002, my first performance in Champaner. Chandra, Shaji and I took a train that would take a heroic 66 hours to snake its way across the country.
I fictionalized that journey in a short story called ‘The Navjeevan Express’, using details of how Chandra marked each sunrise and sunset, how at each station she knew what kind of special food you’d find, how she said they should build prisons and hospitals by the train tracks so the inmates could imagine the lives of people passing by. She talked about her travels – how it was important to walk alone, how disappointed she was in Greece because she could not find any bodies that resembled the Fisher Boy of Thebes. In India, she said, you could take your eye from the temple wall to the street and you’d find the same postures, the same shoulders and legs and waists – the squat, tribhanga, sideways recline. For her, there was strength in this continuity.
Chandra was 73 when I met her, and already in ill-health. The choreography I’d perform for fifteen years, ‘Sharira’, would be her tenth and final work. People who have participated in Chandra’s trajectory since Angika in 1984 say that Sharira is both continuation and sublimation of her ideas. While Angika explored a more physical, expansive idea of the body, with a large ensemble of martial artists, yoga practitioners, and Bharatanatyam dancers, synthesizing these different Indian physical traditions in a non-narrative performance of great vitality, Sharira, which means the unending body, was a more meditative and intimate production, scaled down to two dancers. The best description I’ve heard of it is that it’s like a moving collage. Over her ten choreographies, Chandra’s central question remained the same: ‘Where does the body begin, and end?’
For a woman so obsessed with the body, she was hard work when it came to looking after her own body. She was a difficult patient, resistant to the idea of a wheelchair, hiding tablets in her mouth and spitting them into the hibiscus bushes when no one was looking. At a consultation with her doctor, one of Chennai’s top heart surgeons, she berated him for the ugly poster of the human heart hanging above his desk, objecting to its literal interpretation of the heart as a giant pumping machine. ‘This is not what my heart looks like,’ she insisted. Some months later, at her doctor’s request, we performed Sharira at a conference for heart surgeons, so they could understand that it was possible for audience and performer to share a heart – sahridaya.
Such was Chandra’s charm. It extended not just to artists and thinkers, but to everyone who came into her orbit. One morning she called and said, ‘Shall we go to Auroville?’ She had performed there several times, but it had been a while since she had visited. It was the only trip we made together, just her and I. We stayed with a friend, who had converted some horse stables into rooms. I remember it being glorious. On the way back, we stopped on the side of the road because she needed to make ‘lily ponds’. I remember taking her hand because she was a little shaky in the legs, the way she lifted her skirt, that infectious laughter.
Chandralekha Prabhudas Patel was born on 6 December 1928, in Wada, Maharashtra. When she was 17, she gave up studying law in Bombay to learn Bharatanatyam with Guru Ellappa Pillai in Madras, which would remain her home for the rest of her life. By the time I met her in 2001, she had gone through so many avatars and iterations, yet strangely, she seemed so uniquely herself, as though she’d emerged into the world just so. Early in her career she had disengaged herself from caste and familial ties by cutting off her surname, floating around as a free, one-word unit that answered to the name Chandralekha, which was inevitably shortened by friends to Chandra.
At some point, her hair
turned white and she refused to dye it, shocking conservative dance audiences
by continuing to perform. The silvery mane would become her trademark. At her Arangetram in 1951, at the Museum Theatre in Madras, she
suffered what she would later call
‘a split in the body.’ On stage she was performing the joyous sensuality of water, the people of Mathura bathing in the river Yamuna to greet Krishna on his return, but in the streets of the real world there was drought, the papers were full of pictures of cracked earth and empty pots. How to reconcile dance with life? In 1960 she stopped performing in public, continuing to practice dance, but shifting her energies into things that presumably helped salvage the split – print-making, haikus, the feminist movement.
There was something of the
provocateur in Chandra. She understood the power of an apocryphal story, and
she delighted in making people squirm with statements like ‘children are little
terrorists.’ Her imagination was capacious – equally enamoured
with Chola bronzes, principles of mathematics, concepts of time, but not so
lofty as to shun the mundane: ‘Tishani, how did you
get such soft feet?’ (Answer: ‘Pedicures, Chandra’). She was a radical person,
who was in many ways, deeply traditional. Someone who had the greatest
reverence for ideas, but who could shift registers like lightning
and mock with the best of them. She had much to say about ‘great men’ and their little shadows. I believe her decision to live away from the power centre of Delhi was a studied choice, to live her life aslant from the bog of dance politics. She mistrusted institutions of all kinds, including marriage, believing that they eventually ran to seed. She never had children, never created a dance school, was uninterested in the idea of legacy.
At a recent talk, Sadanand Menon, her long-time companion and light designer, remarked that it had been a pattern of hers to create iconic geometries on stage and then dissolve them like the ten-armed Dashabhuja in ‘Sri’, which has since been ripped off by any number of dance companies. The difference with Chandra though, is that rather than treating that image as a moment of crescendo or conclusion, she pushes further by dismantling it, as though a hive of bees had suddenly been unleashed, a collective of women’s energy spiralling across the stage.
Chandra’s subversions, and
there were many of them, were certainly not just for the hell of it.
She was interested in ideas of recovery rather than representation, abstraction rather than story. Dance, for her, was not spectacle or entertainment, but having the audience meet you half way. I remember her saying that she didn’t want people to lean back in their chairs and watch. Their spines needed to be as actively engaged as the dancers’ spines. So, the audience leaned forward, and we reached out.
What does it mean to arrive towards the end of someone’s life at the precise moment when your own life is opening? A space is made where certain exchanges happen. Would you believe me if I said that for the first few years of performing Sharira, I had no idea what I was creating on stage? We rehearsed in silence, keeping our own internal talam. Our theatre had no mirrors. It was only after a friend made a video of our performance and showed it to me that I saw what she was doing – how those arms and legs, Shaji’s and mine, were making formations and shapes and shadows. How they were of the body but in some way, beyond it.
The word ecstasy comes from
the Greek, ekstasis, to stand outside oneself, and in
a strange way, watching myself perform, was exactly that. While performing, I
occasionally experienced moments of transcendence. Not always. In Bhopal, for
instance, there was an extremely fidgety audience, heavy on the
bangle-clashing, and an errant cockroach flew from the dark onto my shining
thigh (which might
have been transcendental for the cockroach but not for me). In general, performance offered doorways where I sometimes felt lifted out, magnified. Watching the video of our show was different. It was seeing what she saw. Her vision of the world. And her vision made people say things like, ‘I felt my soul shooting out of my body’, or ‘I felt myself falling in love.’
There was something spiritual and of the air about Chandra and her work, yet utterly earthy and sensuous as well. She was engaged daily in the idea of beauty with utility and sacrality. She told me once how delighted she was that she’d met a man who had only ever bathed in rivers. This gave her such thrills. She’s the kind of woman who would stay up all night to watch a flower bud unfurl, who made kolams outside her door every morning, and gathered hibiscus to place at the feet of her Natarajas. She collected all manner of household implements, textiles, woven baskets, but her nerves grated against the sounds of domesticity – woe betide the maid who banged the vessels too loudly while washing up. Her great dream was to build a theatre connected to the sea and sky, incorporating those elements into her work. Being in the world for her involved looking and listening with deep contemplation, irreverence and pleasure.
Chandra died on 30 December 2006, a holy day of Vaikuntha Ekadashi, when the gates of heaven are supposedly open for all. It was the same day that Saddam Hussein was executed, and I knew that Chandra would find play in this – her and Saddam hanging out in heaven.
Over the years, I’ve
realized that my retroactive ambition for Chandra is, in fact, an attempt at
pinning her to a single narrative, which is exactly the kind of thing she was
always escaping from. It means that every time I go back to her work, to write
an essay, to think about that time, I must find a new point of entry, and in
this way, our relationship is continually revitalized. The essence of her lies
beyond her ten choreographies, written texts, and posters. It has to do with
the way she lived her life. She could be difficult, cantankerous, even stun you
with sudden cruelty, but there was something about her devotion to ritual, to
the daily assurance that the world was full of magic, that constantly recentred her. And she
was brave, unafraid of rupture. Some days, after rehearsals, perhaps having looked at the work too long, she’d say, ‘I think it’s time to shut up shop.’ It was not threat, or sadness, but an ability not to be overly in love with her own work.
If I think about what I have taken from her, it is this desire not to place any schisms between life and work. To keep the walkway between these two territories open. To find your own way of being modern. To politicize the energy within, so that even if you are comfortable in your life, you can see what’s brutal around you. To resist the mechanical by harnessing agents of renewal. In other words: rage dazzle rage dazzle.
Reading the stories of Ambai recently, I was struck by something her translator, Lakshmi Holström, described in her introduction – ‘A personal history with which you are at ease,’ she wrote, ‘is what you take with you wherever you go…To be able to feel firm ground wherever you tread, rather than to be rooted in one place – that seems to be Ambai’s goal.’ She goes on to say that the word Ambai uses for this groundedness in Tamil is irutthattum, from irutthu – to hold firm, stabilize, ground. Chandra was my source of irruthattum.In the stories of my life, what layers underneath – even the times before her – is this sense of waiting and awakening. The real marvel of Chandra was that she was a source of irutthattum for so many.
* Tishani Doshi worked as a dancer with the Chandralekha Group in Chennai for fifteen years. She has published seven books of fiction and poetry, the most recent of which is, A God at the Door, shortlisted for the Forward Prize 2021.