In 1988, Chandralekha was invited to perform at a festival in Wuppertal, a small town in Germany, where dancer Pina Bausch, now 68, lives and works. The place is also the headquarters of Folkwang Danschule (now Hochschule), the most acclaimed contemporary dance school in Germany and arguably, in all of Europe. Bausch had graduated from this school.
Chandra was performing her first choreographed piece Angika at the main theatre at Wuppertal and Pina was in the audience along with her troupe of dancers. There were 17 curtain calls in the performance, and Pina later came backstage to meet Chandra. The three of us, along with others, went out for dinner. Chandra asked Pina how the audience in Wuppertal had reacted to her performance because the context of the piece was completely Indian. Pina told her that the number of curtain calls “was unusual even for Germany”. That was the first time both of them had met, but they could instantly connect to each other. Two people, from very different worlds, had found a common ground; artistically, they were on the same plane and that’s what forged a relationship that lasted for years until Chandra passed away on 30 December, 2006 in Chennai at the age of 78.
Six years after they first met, Gorg Lechner from the Max Mueller Bhavan, New Delhi, proposed to bring Pina to India. He wanted to have an Indian dancer perform two days after her on the same stage and invited Chandra. In 1994, Pina came with her production Nelken (Carnations) that opened in New Delhi and travelled to Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata. Pina performed with 7,000 carnations on the stage. Chandra always marvelled at Pina’s imagination, and this was a feat that only someone with her imagination could carry off. Chandra also considered Pina a philosopher and an artiste with radical politicial views. At that time, everyone wanted to know what was common between the two artistes, and Chandra said, “Everything is common between us. She’s relevant in her context and I, in mine.”
Pina Bausch with Chandralekha. (Sadanand Menon)
Chandra was trained in Indian classical dance, and all her life, she tried to modify the traditional idioms by bringing in contemporary content and then taking the form to an abstract level. Pina, on the other hand, uses all available forms in the world of Western dance—from ballet and modern dance to acrobatics—and creates a powerful political meaning out of it.
The one thing common between them was that both had very strong political views, which is rare among dancers. Through their work, they tried to communicate the politics of the body. Pina had once famously said: “I’m not interested in how people move, I’m interested in what makes them move.”
During the 1994 tour, Pina and Chandra travelled and stayed in the same hotels, performed on the same stages and spent nights talking about art and life. A very interesting partnership formed between them, which went beyond artistic ideas. Their friendship was understated and didn’t really require words. Later, in 1996, Chandra went to Hong Kong for a festival where Pina happened to be present, rehearsing for a performance. There were many conversations about India over breakfasts. Over the years, Pina had begun to acknowledge the diversity of Indian dance aesthetics and was fascinated by the dance forms of Kerala and Indian music. She would often travel to India to watch these performances, and she shared these experiences with Chandra.
Bausch performing at Avignon, France, in 1995 (AFP)
Around 1998, Pina received a prestigious award from the government of Germany. Until then, the establishment had chosen to ignore her because of the political nature of her works, just as the Indian cultural establishment chose not to acknowledge Chandra’s contribution. A grand ceremony was held in Berlin and they offered to pay for the airfares of two artistes of Pina’s choice, and she invited Chandra and a writer from Argentina. On that occasion, Chandra had performed a mimetic Bharatanatyam piece, offering Pina a garland of flowers with her gestures.
Pina and her troupe are performing in India after 13 years, and it’s unfortunate that Chandra is not here. But I will not miss the opportunity to watch Pina again. She is a complete artiste because she can synthesize movement, pace, form, content and colour—a fascinating amalgam of many disparate elements—to convey one idea.
I was in New Delhi in 1994 when Pina last visited India, and I attended the press conference that Lechner was conducting with her. He tried very hard to make her admit that, at heart, she’s a German artiste. Pina refused to respond to his questions, blowing rings of cigarette smoke instead. When he asked the same question a third time, she put her cigarette aside, looked him in the eyes and said, “Gorg, had I been a bird, would you have called me a German bird?”
The sense of exhilaration and passion which Pina brings to a performance is incomparable. She’s one of the greatest artistes of our time and Indian artistes can learn a lot from her.
(As told to Rachana Nakra.)
Bamboo Blues by Pina Bausch and the Tanztheater Wuppertal, on 12 January, 7pm, at the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre, NCPA, Mumbai; call 022-66223737 for tickets. In Kolkata, on 18 and 19 January, 6.30pm, at Rabindra Sadan, GL Sarani.
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