Padmini Chettur

Published in ‘Voyages of the Body and Mind: Selected Female Icons of India and Beyond’ – Cambridge Publishers

In 1990, during my final year of chemistry studies at BITS Pilani, fellow dancer Krishna Devanandan invited me to visit a rehearsal at no.1 Elliot’s Beach, home and workplace of Chandralekha. On stage, 3 dancers – Krishna Devanandan, Meera Krishnamurti and Jasmine Simhalan – were rehearsing what we later referred to as ‘The triangle’ – midsection of Shri (1991).

The feminine and masculine depicted as a triangle with pulsating centre. Interpreted by these 3 dancers whose spine held the kind of strength and dignity I’d never seen before and a single male dancer in the centre who simply explored the vertical line. There was no smiling, no trying to be expressive. In this image, very far from the narrative, coquettishness and pretence of the Bharatanatyam I’d learnt through my childhood, deeply embedded in a profound understanding of space and time, the lateral and the horizontal, and most importantly, a deep research into the origin of energy and movement within the body, we can start to read the discourse of Chandra’s dance.

Immediately convinced, I asked and she allowed me to start training from the next day on. Yoga with Nandakumar and Nagin (B.K.S. Iyengar practice), Kalaripayattu with students of Vasu Gurukul (EPV Kalari, Kottayam) and adavu class with Meera and Geetha Ramesh. Chandra was working at the time mostly with Kalakshetra students, therefore for those of us who came from other schools, there was a period of re-learning the grammar with a new focus on line and geometry.

Why these three forms?

To Chandra, the conceptual knowledge of these forms (even beyond their references in mythology) represented a united physicality that would go beyond any of these in isolation. It was not for her merely a strategy to expand her movement vocabulary by learning multiple forms the way contemporary dancers today tend to do. Instead, Chandra looked beyond movement into the underlying principles and connected.

From Yoga she understood spine and the ability to remain fluid in stillness. The way bodies open with breath. She would constantly urge us to apply this knowledge to our Adavus. To look for the initiation of all movement in the base of the spine. She knew that the particular ‘grounded-ness’ and flexibility we would gain from Kalaripayattu would help us to understand the simplest of body states – how to stand, how to walk, how to sit, how to change the levels of physical movement.

With Chandra, there was no end result. No completion to the learning. She constantly challenged and pushed our knowledge and relationships with our own bodies. Stripping away our mannerisms. Refusing to allow prettiness. What we slowly understood was that Chandra was starting to see far beyond the physical body that we knew. She was seeing the body as the charger of space. The body as extension of ground. The body as the site of energy. The body as lines, triangles and circles. At times looking for the body’s vulnerability. The incredible tension between bodies – in proximity, far apart. If we look hard at the incredible journey that is Chandra’s, we see much more than dance. We see a philosophy of life, a shrewdly political mind located in post-independent India, and most importantly, I think, someone who dared to ask the question and find answers to: – ‘what does it mean to be a woman’.

So, equally important as the exploration of form and performance itself was what Chandra referred to as her work on our consciousness. However resentful we were as young girls in our early twenties to be lectured on everything, starting from what we wore and ate, how we looked at people, the twitches of our mouths, our gaze, how we socialized, what we read. What became very clear was that Chandra was not interested in ‘faking’ performance. Her women dancers had to come as close to being ‘women’ in the way she envisioned them. Stripped bare of frills, make-up and artifice. With strong bodies and powerful focus. She was never interested in youth and beauty in the way patriarchy portrayed it. She urged us to be ‘ancient’. Not to waste our time on the frivolity of consumerism. Not to be swayed by populist fashion. And though critics have often said that the power that Chandra could bring to the stage, through the strength of her own consciousness, was always stronger than that of her dancers, I do think that the beauty of this journey for me is, that if we choose to, we can keep traveling on it. Even now, in her absence. And only now can I understand many of her words and the reasons for them.

So, time. Time is of course central to Chandra’s discourse. In her hands, time becomes political. As intrinsic to form as body itself, in the way that her use of time affected movement. We can look at the ‘slowing-down’ of movement in Chandra’s work from several perspectives. My first experience of the task itself, especially when applied to Bharatanatyam material, was that it actually exposed to me what I didn’t know. That so much of what we do with our body is purely mechanical. So, at a first purely physical level, slowing down asks us to clarify all the details of movement and to energize what we would otherwise rush through. ‘Slowing’ down however was also intrinsic to Chandra’s focus on charging space. When the body takes time to occupy image, to shift line, then the transition becomes that much more important. On Chandra’s stage, moving slowly was about flow, and extending the body’s lines into space. It was a very deliberate move away from the virtuosity and titillation of Bharatanatyam dancers in third speed. It was intrinsically connected to her thinking that dance is not entertainment. The dancer’s function is not to seduce the audience, or even to make it ‘easy’. With the same rigor that she applied to her own life, Chandra refused to enter a cozy and lazy engagement with her audience. She wanted them to meet her halfway.

Through her performances, she wanted to share a very qualitative experience with people. She wanted to remind us of what we were losing by living these speedy mechanized lives. She wanted us to look once again for the poetic potential of dance. Not a dance that was frozen in time, telling irrelevant stories in redundant ways, but a dance where the body itself plays central character.

A dance where the body recovers its spine and its dignity. A dance where the brutality of life finds a counter. Where violence is answered by sensuality. Where the aridity of our insides is made fluid by sexuality. Where the body can escape its own ‘materiality’ to discover spirituality.

And finally, in her last work Sharira (2000), Chandra finds a form where the 3 meet within the body. Spirituality, sensuality and sexuality are bound together in this work, which is neither yoga nor dance. It is instead a masterful choreography of time and space. In powerful response to one woman’s question: “Where does the body begin and where does it end?” Chandralekha.

Note: Having worked with Chandra for 10 years, this essay for me, even as I write it, is incomplete. It has not allowed me the space to mention aesthetic, content or even her humanity. In stead I have tried to focus on body alone and I hope there is clarity to this at the least.