A well known musician said during the discussions in the colloquium on cultural policy conducted recently by the Ministry of Human Resource Development: "Anda Amma kitta enakku bhayam. I will tell you privately about the ideas I have." The 'Amma' in question was dancer/choreographer Chandralekha. Her blistering if rambling attacks on the cultural bureaucracy and what she considered as abuse of the very term 'culture' and 'policy' were too intimidating for the mild-mannered musician. Indeed that has been the style of the stormy petrel of Bharatanatyam who has adopted aggressive condemnation of what in certain circles is called "the last bastion of brahminical orthodoxy". The editor of a renowned journal was heard recently remarking: "Even if you tell Chandralekha that you are in total agreement with what she is saying, she will be uneasy and pounce on you saying; "How dare you say that? Do you know the meaning of what you are saying?”
My earliest encounter with Chandralekha was during a seminar held as part of the Nritya Natika festival held in November 1985 under the aegis of the Sangeet Natak Akademi. After phlegmatic silence for a long time, she took the floor and burst into an attack on the 'hypocrisy' of Bharatanatyam dancers, who, in her perception, had forgotten the very basis of dance—the body and its energy coming from a realization of the inner and outer spaces as spelt out in the mandala-s—and had concentrated on over-ornamented contents and self-projection. Excepting for a dignified passing comment by Mrinalini Sarabhai that dancers have their own individual beliefs and that words like hypocrisy were over-strong and unnecessary, none stood up to Chandralekha's tirade. In fact some totally supported her arguments. That is Chandralekha; take her or leave her.
The general Bharatanatyam 'caucus' as it has been called by some, and Chandralekha have little in common, for the very premise of dance as a vehicle of bhakti is questioned by Chandralekha. While many in the former group have chafed at the latter's often ungentle and uncharitableremarks, they have never come out in a strong way to voice their own convictions. Vempati Chinna Satyam once said to me: "Chandralekha says we should eliminate the gods and goddesses from dance. For me dance is an article of faith. I cannot talk about it. I believe in it." But leaving aside those brought up to accept the entirety of a tradition without question, there are well known, usually very articulate dancers who, with a diplomatic shrug of the shoulders, say: "Paavam (poor thing—an epithet least applicable to Chandralekha] ennamo sollara (she talks glibly)"
The aspects of traditional dance that Chandralekha denounces very strongly are its religious content and its relevance, the ornamented dance and dancer, the poor body line, and the dancer's way of projecting herself with all the misgivings one may have about the belligerent stances the dancer adopts. Leaving aside the other points, one can hardly disagree with her criticism that the Bharatanatyam line, as observed in most of our dancers, has lost its geometry. The araimandi is virtually forgotten and, in the bulging classrooms of today, no teacher bothers about the body and its energy centres.
Expressional dance as projected today has drawn Chandralekha's special wrath. There was an article captioned No Clone Of Mylapore Mamis (the last two words in italics) by Prema Viswanathan, in the Delhi edition of the Times of India of 2 August 1992. It said Chandralekha identified dancers of the brahmin community as matrons of Mylapore in Madras and parodied their abhinaya. The report on this rather caustic reference to dancers belonging to a particular community was not denied by Chandralekha who presumably had no use for discretion. But it is true that few dancers of today, regardless of class or community, are able to submerge their individual personality in the universalised moods they are expected to create in abhinaya. That this aspect of the dance has not had the depth of understanding of poetry and dance it demands, has been pointed out by scholar K.S. Srinivasan in Sruti. The prolificity of dance, the enlarged audience base of a nonethnic character and the consequent problems of communicating in a language of symbols with which a large part of the audience is unfamiliar; and the general star culture in the context of commercialisation of art, have been responsible for the present situation. Therefore, Chandralekha's assertion that a particular group of dancers is responsible for this situation is simplistic and wrong. Moreover, it is worth remembering that, except for the interest shown by committed connoisseurs like the late E. Krishna Iyer, what remained of Bharatanatyam would likely have been lost altogether.
Chandralekha's approach to the dance and her works have had a lot of support in the West where, apart from the conceptual aspect, the protestant breakaway from traditional circuits is particularly appreciated. Even in India, despite her cock-a-snook,'I exist in spite of you' attitude towards the cultural establishment, Chandralekha's works have not gone unrecognized. Sruti has focussed on them more than once. The Sangeet Natak Akademi has honoured her with an award and she has participated in several prestigious festivals including the Festivals of India abroad. She has received strong support from friends in the media; their orchestrated praise for what she has done has helped build up an image which is by no means inconsiderable.
Some critics have lobbed brickbats at her—a common experience shared by virtually all artists. One redoubtable critic went to the extent of arguing that showing her work in the Festival of India in the USSR would damage Indo-Russian relations! Chandralekha herself feels, however, that acceptance of her approach to the dance has come rather later than sooner and is yet grudging. She does not admit that those who deviate from traditional paths have to face opposition and criticism. Basically, despite all her denials, she is like any other dancer—wanting platforms and recognition for all the work done and using the media to achieve her goals.
There are contradictions in Chandralekha's posture. She hates Bharatanatyam as it is performed today but reveres what Guru Ellappa taught her.She loves poetry but is wary about making it the base for any work. She has great respect for music but not its conventional expression in the dance. She cannot relate with the nayika-nayaka syndrome, but worships the art of Bala. She respects tradition—and will work with none but Kalakshetra graduates—but shows disdain for its institutionalised transmission. She has little respect for the weeping woman waiting for her beloved and the kind of idealised prettiness the image of the female has acquired in dance. A strong upholder of woman as Shakti (portrayed in her productions) and Mother Goddess, none of her works show the woman in the stereotype role of wife-mother. Yet she denies being a feminist in the sense the word is used today. Though she rails at conventions, she does not like being called an 'innovator'. She goes back to the wisdom ontained in the Natya Sastra when it comes to the question of the body and the mandala-s but totally disregards its concept of rasa.
The group geometry of her productions, with the whetted perfection of the araimandi and the etched lines, makes one wonder whether she sees dance line as an end in itself. Angika, Prana and her other productions do have a message, but the overall impression left behind is one of emphasis on impeccable lines. The danger in taking up a confrontationist stance against cliches is that this may itself become a cliche. The result of her resolve to cut out all ornamentation to focus attention on the body is so stark that many call the costumes she prefers the 'Chandralekha uniform'. And while the energy focus comes out powerfully in the dance, a little more of the joy of dance would be welcome. This could be seen only in Lilavati.
In sum, while Chandralekha's works have much to recommend, it is difficult to avoid the feeling that at times the overemphasis on body and energy is as pretentious as the perceived pretentiousness of the usual fare she condemns. The tensions between the old and the new are not new to any period. Years ago it was Kalidasa himself who wrote the famous line: Nothing is good merely because it is old; nor bad merely because it is new. The wise man will apply his mind before he judges.
"I Am Just A Sadhaka"
Chandralekha spoke to LEELA VENKATARAMAN of the New Delhi Bureau of Sruti after participating in Vivarta, a presentation of Indian dance in London focussing on its "revolutionary'' redefinition. Excerpts:
You learnt under Guru Ellappa Pillai. When did you begin to feel that you would like to chart out an independent course for yourself? There are people who feel that you were unhappy aboutnot making yourself felt in the solo field and this was what made you think in terms of group productions.
In the nineteen fifties, I performed Bharatanatyam extensively. I performed in all the important sabha-s; even the Music Academy of Madras,gave me an evening performance slot. That was when I performed the famous tanavarnam Viriboni in Bhairavi. Bala was in the audience. She came to me after the performance to congratulate me on the way I sustained the laya to the vilambit singing. I always performed with Ellappa doing the nattuvangam. I often used to do the Husseni swarajati which Ellappa had taught me with the sapta tala-s.
Ellappa was a great guru. He composed nine pieces for me, with that evocative opening for Navagraha. Having him on the stage as conductor was an experience. He was not one of those for sale, whom money could buy. He was fond of saying he would live on 'Vettilai paakku and kanjittanni' (betel leaves and gruel). He hated commercialism in any form.
Despite this background, you still could not relate to the nayikanayaka content of the dance?
I grew up in a highly liberated atmosphere. I could not relate to this theme.
Having rejected the content, what is it that you loved about Bharatanatyam?
Dance was always an exhilarating experience for me. I love the Bharatanatyam form. I can never have enough of it. There is so much energy in it. One can go on refining the geometry further and further like an abstract painting. The power of the line is there. 'Rekha daurbalyam', weakness of line, is what I cannot stand.
Did you ever discuss your approach to the dance with Guru Ellappa?
I went as a novice to him—an empty vessel to be filled by the guru's teachings. At that stage one goes to a guru with an open mind; the questioning comes much later.
And yet you have come out with unflattering statements about guru-s and what they do.