November 25, 2022

What happened to the inspired language of dance?


On the occasion of the 93rd birthday today from one of the founding thinkers of dance, we reproduce a lecture titled “Changing Phases of Bharatanatyam”, which she delivered (with a demonstration of segments of her revolutionary 1985 choreographic production “Angika”) at the session of the morning of the annual Madras Academy of Music festival, January 1, 1986.

In her prose poetry style, Chandralekha describes a deeply conceptual understanding of its context and signals the need to radically rethink new directions in dance. Thirty-five years later, his call for contemporary relevance in dance remains valid.


Once upon a time there was dance related to life and the daily functions of life – such as gathering food, hunting, fishing, planting, cultivating, harvesting.

Once upon a time, the dance was linked to the stars, the sun and the moon, their cyclical movements, the movement of the Earth; the crescent and the full moon; and the moon on the fifth or seventh or eleventh day – panchami, saptami, ekadashi, paurnami, phalguni, Vaishakhi.

Chandralekha. Photo: Sadanand Menon.

And to the movement of the constellations – swati, chitra, hasta, revati.

And eclipses – rahu, ketu; and the seasons – vasant, sharad, shishir; and the sensations of rain and heat and the chilly pinch in the air.

Once upon a time there was dance linked to Prithvi; to the directorates and the wardens of the directorates – varuna, yama, kubera; and mountains and rivers.

And to the wind and the water and the clouds – chandavayu, parjanya; To navagraha and pancha bhuta; To agni and akasha; To purusha and prakriti – the masculine and feminine principles.

Once upon a time there was dance linked to trees and forests and groves and pastures, to their silences and their sounds; and movement of trees and flowers – kamal and ketaki; mandara, parijaata, champaka, kadamba – tree flowers, water flowers, grass flowers, liana flowers.

Once upon a time there was dance linked to birds and animals; and bees and butterflies – bhramara, prajapati; horse and tiger and wild boar; and monkey and lion and elephant; the majesty and dignity of their bodies, their gait, their mass and their lightness, their weight and their gravity.

Once upon a time, dancing was linked to life’s daily chores – sweeping and cleaning; crushing and pounding; sprinkling and paving of cow dung; planting and transplanting.

Once upon a time there was dance linked to Space – intimate space and infinite space; and to Time – immediate time and eternal time; and the movement of prana – inspired breath and expired breath; inside and outside.

Once upon a time, there was dance linked to the fertility of soils and men; to the bodies of men and women; to poetry and the power of their body.

In the past, dance was an expression of the collective, of the community; friendliness; energy production, ananda; of tied hands of men and women, young and old.

Once upon a time, dancing meant knowing how to stand, how to sit, move, lie down, jump, kick; how to give and receive a blow; how to strike and how to heal – knowledge of the spine and its secrets.

Once upon a time, a legendary sage called Bharata told us about it in an insightful and poetic text.

He taught us how to move the body at a beat, pulse, drum beat, or heart beat; of tala, chanda, shruti; and of mandala, utplavana, bhramari, chaari, gati; links between natya, kavya, chitra, ganita, shilpa, sangita, vaastu.

It offered the module of a theater on a human scale – a mandala integrating all castes and colors.

He told us about our eyes, our neck, our hands, our feet and our head.

He gave us alphabets and a language; and the meaning of hastas evolved through the centuries, preserving the memory of nature, animals, birds, martial arts – simhamukha, sarpashira, mrigashirsha, shukatunda, kapittha, kapota, matsya, mayura, hamsa, garuda – have continuity to this day.

Chandralekha’s groundbreaking production ‘Angika’, a performance photo at NCPA, Tata Theater, Mumbai, 1985. Photo: Raghu Rai

It made us aware of the wisdom inherent in the body, the flow of fluids in the body, the movement of rasa in the body – a knowledge that alone can vitalize us, totalize us as humans, humanize us, activate us.

Bharata’s message is like a mantra, a secret. It is a great journey to be attempted alone. Along with body language, he understood values ​​of life and education – not just entertainment.

What happened to this inspired body language?

Over time, the contents of the body have been hijacked, subverted, denied. Dance reduced to becoming a vehicle at the service of the gods, priests, and religion.

Then the body became a vehicle in the service of kings, courtiers, men.

A dance of then became out of caste, rejected by the moralizing society, by the respectability of the elites, until its rebirth and its resurrection again by a newly made respectability.

And, in our time, the body is transformed into an object – more and more ornate, more and more decorative, more and more fragmented, more and more alienated, more and more enslaved.

And less and less vibrant, less and less militant.

Today we have reached a critical crossroads in our dance landscape. From there, we can proceed in two ways: one is to take the path of change and relate dance to our life and our contemporary reality; the other is to be self-sufficient and self-satisfied, on the side of the status quo, of entertainment devoid of energy.

We speak of “innovation”. For me, innovation cannot be a regurgitation of sentimental and tired mythologies or the opulent decoration of shiny silks and jewelry or eyewear intended for the consumer market. It must arise from a need.

Innovation, for me, is asking a critical question and following it honestly and fearlessly where it takes you.

Text and photos courtesy of: The Chandralekha Archive @ SPACES, Chennai.