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A Thinking Body——A Lecture by Padmini Chettur

Lecture / Asia Hundreds

ASIA HUNDREDS is a series of interviews and conference presentations by professionals with whom the Japan Foundation Asia Center works through its many cultural projects.
By sharing the words of key figures in the arts and cultures in both English and Japanese and archiving the "present" moments of Asia, we hope to further generate cultural exchange within and among the regions.

Part1: The Life and Works of Chandralekha as a Choreographer

Good afternoon. I'm Padmini Chettur, and today I'm dividing the lecture into two parts. The first half, to give a little sense of the history, of a certain lineage of thinking about dance that I come from, and that I still feel is important to be understood because I think it has an important place in the larger history of Indian dance and further an extreme relevance to the problems faced by contemporary choreographers in India as well as in Asia today, especially those of us with colonial history. So the first half is predominantly around the choreographer that I worked with for ten years, Chandralekha. This is her, and I do a little bit to describe her as an artist, a choreographer, and to explain what her choreographic project was. And the second half, which is always the more difficult for me, I think, is to trace the life of those thoughts beyond the time of Chandralekha, and to think about how they traveled in and through my work, often referencing back to the past, and sometimes in great contrast as well.

But specifically, because I am here in this context, I'm going to try to focus the attention, especially for the second half, not so much on artistic practice or technique, but I want to address a little bit the way that our idea of market is actually influencing artistic production, and why there's a potential danger to certain kinds of movements in the world that somehow seem to be worsening. And therefore, I felt it for myself appropriate at this point, and also at this place, to have this kind of a conversation. I hope you can follow what I say.

A photo of Chandralekha
Image no. 1 Chandralekha portrait Photo: Sadanand Menon

This is Chandralekha, born in 1928 in a western region in India, Gujarat, and traveled to south India to Chennai, the city where I live and work as well, in search of a knowledge of the south Indian traditional dance form, Bharatanatyam. There she lived and learnt with a very famous dance guru, and her own career as a soloist, and I can't within these two hours give a great, detailed sense of this narrative, but I must point out at this time that the form of Bharatanatyam itself has a much-debated sense of origin and has its own story of appropriation, which I'm not going into in great detail. But let's just say that the form that we refer to today as traditional Indian dance actually only has its beginnings in the 1930s, and perhaps we can't really look at it as an ancient historical relic. But perhaps it is the first modernist form of dance for India.

Chandra was starting a solo career, performing in whatever way that that form was performed at the time. The form itself had been reconstructed for the proscenium stage but somehow maintaining a certain sentimentality in its choice of content and narrative, and an idea of 'offering' the female for the enjoyment of a male viewer. I say this because though Bharatanatyam supposedly had its origins in temples and in courts, where it was perceived as functioning largely either in a religious context, or for the entertainment of men. But somehow, even in this modernist moment, when the form was recreated for a performative context, the old ideas of dancer as seductress, the old two dimensional ideas of the stage remained unquestioned.

At a certain point in this early career of Chandra's, she started to ask questions around the relevance of the content, the relevance of those particular narratives that were used repeatedly, and she decided it didn't make sense for her any more. And this was already in the 1950s that she took this kind of distance from the form. For the next couple of decades, Chandralekha traveled the country. In a way it resonates with also some of the early years of Sardono's ethnographic period. These ideas of traveling and kind of mapping-out the dance movements that existed in different parts of the country. But she also got very involved with the very strong nation reconstructing movement that was there in India, post-independence, so the 1950s, 1960s, even into the 1970s, where Indian activists, Indian artists, were saying, "Let's look at what has been lost in the last hundreds of years. Let's find out what those things were, and let's bring it back into the larger public discourse." And Chandra was very much a part of not only that movement of looking at Indian crafts, at Indian arts, but also her involvement and deep friendships within the early women's movement became a very important information for her in the creation on new content and narratives for a new dance in India.

Where did this idea of contemporaneity in dance come from for her is debatable. Some people say it was her early meeting with choreographers like Merce Cunningham, traveling in America and actually seeing that there could be an idea of dance that wasn't any more about narratives and storytelling, but it could be about bodies and space, and bodies and time. Nevertheless, she—intelligently enough—never for one moment thought about reimporting those ideas just for the sake of it, and conjoining it with what we had in India, but rather she came back to India in the 1970s and thought, "Hang on a moment. This idea of contemporising dance—we can do this in India for ourselves. But that movement has to come from within our own systems of physical knowledge, and we don't need the West to tell us how to do this." There was the beginning of her choreographic journey....

A photo of Navagraha
Image no. 2 Navagraha (1971) Photo: Dashrath Patel

This is one of the earliest images of Chandralekha dancing herself. She was already in her forties when this photograph was taken, and it's with a very famous male dancer, Kama Dev. Already the idea of a male and a female duet on stage was unheard of in those times, and Chandra was very much interested in somehow looking at certain images that were embedded in Indian iconography, and to transpose them somehow into form onto the stage.

Just to retrace a little bit, what does this mean? What did this mean for her in terms of the Indian physicality is, I think, worth talking about a little bit. She looked very much at her predominant dance form as Bharatanatyam, but she also started to look at what she called the less cosmetic body forms. And she was attracted to, of course, yoga, but which in the time in India wasn't so popular, and also the martial arts from Kerala, kalaripayattu. And she looked at these forms, not so much as vocabularies—and this was I think the particular intelligence and lack of laziness in Chandra's practice, that it was never for an easy idea of mixing or just hauling movements and putting it all together—but for her it was very clear early on that what she was interested in was the physical idea that lay embedded in those practices. And she was convinced that there were commonalities. There were common ideas around the spine, around the flow of energy, and the way that the body could occupy space, and she was very much interested in looking at the meeting point of these forms.

Through her working life she persistently worked with these ideas of interconnectivity. I think, it took perhaps 15 years of her own work and research on the body to arrive at this final idea of form where there was no more anything that was recognisably Bharatanatyam, or recognisably yoga or kalaripayattu. But somewhere she proposed what she described in her own words as, "the meeting point of sensuality, sexuality, and spirituality in the body." And I'll show a small part from one of the films later.

A photo of Namaskar
Image no. 3 Namaskar (1986) Photo: Dashrath Patel

This is an image from one of the early group works because one of the things that Chandra was very keenly thinking about was this idea of removing somewhere the importance of the solo performer. And she was very interested, more and more in the years that she worked, in what she referred to as, "the space in between bodies." And that was the space where dance was lived and enacted.

And this is an image from the beach. She lived in a beautiful house near the beach. The house is still there, it's called Spaces.

And this is from Angika, one of the early works which actually launched her into an international choreographic space, and also at the time in dialogue with many of the iconic choreographers of that time, in the 1980s and 1990s. Angika is a work where she's really putting the grammar, she's staging the grammar of Indian physical forms. This specific image actually comes from the namaskar (invocation) of the martial arts, and in a way to have a group of women performing this was a very radical proposition at the time. And the second radical thing was the fact that she invited these male, not dancers, but martial artists to perform the work—even speaking the language of instructions—not performers.

If there was critique around this, even up to the last performances of the work in the early 1990s, it was very clear in the performing of the piece that there were dancers and there were martial artists. And somehow the question often posed to her was, "What does it mean to put non-performers on the stage?" And actually, last night in the watching of Eko Supriyanto's performance titled IBUIBU BELU: Bodies of Border*, it was again for me a requestion that came back to my head, "What does it really mean to take performers who aren't necessarily used to the rules of the stage, and what does it mean to actually frame this?". Thereby also prompting us to ask 'what is performance'. In Chandra's case I do feel that it was imperative for her to bypass the prevalent norms as a strategy to merge the distance between performance and life.

* IBUIBU BELU: Bodies of Border was performed as a part of TPAM2020 Direction Program on February 12, 2020 at the Hall of Kanagawa Arts Theatre.

But Chandra being quite a deeply reflective artist worked extremely hard with all her performers. I mean, we worked all of us together for months, every day for hours towards the performances. And she made a huge effort not just to teach us choreography, exercise, all of this—actually she left that to us, pretty much—and she always said to us, "I'm not working with your bodies. I'm working with your conscience." And for her it was very important that those dancers and those young performers that she worked with were moving along with her politically or understanding what was at stake politically.

Most importantly, because the project in itself was so embedded in a nationalist discourse, which was very important for Indian artists of this generation, very different for an artist of my generation, I think it was very important that there was always a constant dialogue in the company around just these politics of, "What does it mean to be Indian? What does it mean to be contemporary? What is contemporary Indian? Do we even need these titles? What does it mean to propose this work in other parts of the world?" I think that these kinds of battles, because for Chandra it was a battle of a sort, it was a part of the building of the work itself, and a part of education.

A photo of Angika1
A photo of Angika2
Image no. 4, 5 Angika (1985) Photo: Dashrath Patel

Moving on, I have one image of... That's an image from the stage, Angika, you see it's a fairly large company, and this performance... I think this image is taken from a tour of England in 1992 already, so that was a long time ago......however, the aesthetics of her work remained fairly consistent. The dancers always wore saris. We always wore the same colours, dark blue, red, or yellow, and there was no sort of experimentation at this level for her. She was very clear what the aesthetic of contemporary India through her lens would be for all of us. And another interesting thing to know is, in parallel times, there was so much movement in India, also in the visual arts and design sector. The first institute of design was set up in Ahmedabad by a close collaborator of Chandralekha (Dashrath Patel), and I think all of these movements, these conversations were around India in many different pockets, and were always looking with the same kind of rigour and clarity at form, and space, and time.

Often when people watch my performance work now, they say, "But where does this idea of slowing movement down come from?" And it was one of the earliest strategies of Chandralekha, when she started to dismantle the traditional form. She said, "We need to un-decorate it. In order to do that we need to un-embellish it, and we need to make it clear." In order to make it clear she used the device of slowing time down as a way to make movement clear not only to the dancers, but to the public as well. It became a part of a technique really that she was proposing because in the slowing down of traditional form, which is normally quite speedy, something happens within the body, which the body I think didn't already know. These were some of the ideas that she was working around.