It’s now just more than a year since the dancer-choreographer Chandralekha passed away at the age of 78. To mark the occasion, her close associates and friends, led by companion and collaborator Sadanand Menon, organized a three-day festival of events that was a celebration of the Chandralekha style and manner of living. A theatre for Kalaripayatu, or martial arts, was inaugurated at Spaces, the sprawling tree-filled sanctuary for the performing arts that Chandralekha left behind in Chennai, which continues to attract performing artists from all over the world.
“The word legacy is something Chandra would have disliked. She was against any kind of regimentation,” says Menon. “There is no full-bodied archive that she has left behind, no school, or method of teaching that can be propagated. What she created was ephemeral.”
As he speaks, we both recall a production about the Ganga merging with the Yamuna, with the hidden stream of the third river flowing unseen and joining them, as it is rumoured to do. It was performed for the first and only time at the Kalakshetra auditorium.
A Kathakali performance at Spaces. (Madhavan Palanisamy / Mint)
“I am setting it free!” exclaimed Chandralekha, standing under the night sky, after the performance. Her gaze reaching out to the stars, her trademark white hair streaming out like comets into the dark, her arms up—raised in a dramatic gesture both of conquest and surrender. “It’s now reached into eternity. It’s out there with the stars.”
Then she gave her high-pitched giggle, looking around to see whether we had taken her seriously or not. It was a typical Chandralekha moment. The grand gesture followed by a return to the absurd posturing of the human mind. Her method of composition was, however, just the opposite, of taking a movement from her dancers and transforming it by the power of her imagination from the everyday and the ordinary to the grand and at times, even to the sublime.
“I don’t consciously choose to do anything,” she used to say. “I watch all the time as the dancers come in, the way they might talk to each other, the way someone bends down to remove shoes, the natural attraction that forms between two different bodies as they go through the process of rehearsal. All that becomes a part of the dynamics of a performance at a particular time.”
She often described that spark, that initial force of attraction, as erotic. The idea of Eros was central to her way of perceiving dance. In the language of atomic theory, it might be described as a quantum leap, the tiny burst of energy that occurs when a subatomic particle changes its position from one state to another. In Chandralekha’s language, that was the primal force, the erotic charge she tried to contain and then release through her intensely meditated choreography. Chandralekha’s method of creating her dance patterns was in being able to channel these moments into organized fragments of compressed energy.
The theatre that she had carved out for herself on the sandy beachfront at Elliots Beach was her canvas. Within it, she traced the patterns of her dance as exactly as she did her posters and artwork. It was her block of marble or granite, on which she chipped away at ideas until they became visible. It was her laboratory of human emotions that she stirred with as much detached intensity as a scientist peering through a microscope. Or, the earthen cooking pot in which her fisherwomen neighbours threw in bits of freshly caught fish, spices and shards of coconut to create a richly aromatic brew. For Chandralekha was nothing if not down to earth in her search for a flavour or rasa of the moment.
“This space is what gave her the freedom to create her pieces. She could just go out there any time of the day or night and think about what she needed,” says Menon. Not only Chandralekha, her collaborators, the musicians, the kalari or martial arts experts, the visitors, all tended to gravitate towards the small self-contained theatre space, called Mandala. It was intimate enough to contain one person sitting alone and dreaming up a series of movements. At the same time, it also had the capacity to expand outwards and upwards to include the night sky, the stars moving as inexorably as the movements of the dancers, the dense network of trees that had grown up around the granite walls and in recent times, the noise from the beachfront, leaching into the unearthly voices of the trained classical musicians who, in later years, were more than happy to be invited to perform for a special Chandralekha production.
“She had always wanted to create a space that would be open to performers to use,” explains Menon.
They had once been for a performance to Denmark and there they had been given an extraordinary rehearsal space in the heart of Copenhagen. It was at the behest of a patron who had left behind her palatial mansion as a fully-equipped series of ateliers that dancers and actors could use while practising. They could not only stay there free of cost, but also make use of all the facilities for experimental work.
This is the idea that has been extended in a small way to the building of Mandala. It’s an open-sided theatre with a high Kerala-style pitched roof and seating around the sides. It can be used by the martial arts students who now rehearse there under the guidance of Shahji, one of Chandralekha’s most noted performers, and of course by anyone else. During the three-day festival, it became the green room for the all-night Kathakali performers.
The highlight of the celebration was undoubtedly the evening of music by the Gundecha brothers. Among the many creative collaborations that Chandralekha had with classical musicians, the one with the Gundecha Brothers has perhaps been the most enduring, their slow deep-throated phraseology with contrapuntal bursts of pure sound being suited to Chandralekha’s own methods of performance.
As the darkness fell upon the audience waiting outside the stone walls of the Mandala theatre, the wooden doors were suddenly thrown open. An oil lamp glowed on the stage, cloth dhurries in black, red and ochre were neatly spread on the floor, while from the branches of the tree growing inside, a solitary bat flew in and out, as it had always done.
There was just one brilliant pillar of white light beaming down on the floor at the front of the stage. The Gundecha brothers and the orchestra were placed behind it. “I always do the lights,” said Sadanand, “But for this occasion, I let them do the honours. They wanted the beam of light to represent Chandra.”
The performance began. It soared into the night till the stars dimmed. Somewhere, Chandralekha must have been laughing.
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