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body, gender, modernity, tradition
Performing Arts (dance, dance / choreography)
Asia, Southern and Central
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A pioneer of new Indian dancing

‘A life lived entirely on one´s own terms´ aptly describes the life and work of the dancer and choreographer Chandalekha (1929-2006), born in southern India. The most controversial of Indian choreographers, and now a legend not only in India but also abroad, she is an innovator of Bharatnatyam, one of the five classical Indian styles of dancing. In transforming an old tradition she is in search of the roots of womanliness.
The first public performance of a young dancer in India is known as her arangetram and is a great feast and important event for her. Chandralekha recalls hers with mixed feelings. The context was a welfare performance for victims of catastrophes. Without paying much attention to the occasion, Chandralekha presented the old ritual dance Mathura Nagarilo, a representation of the river Yamuna, but suddenly in front of her mind’s eye she saw the earth opening and swallowing victims, and for the first time she experienced a contradiction between art and life. This experience was to leave its mark on her whole artistic career.

Chandralekha was already a bharatnatyam star at the time when she broke off her solo career and abandoned dancing for twelve years. The style of bharatnatyam, in its traditional guise, seemed to her to be stilted and out of date. In the following years she earned her living by writing, designing posters and books, and by working on multi-media projects. She also took part in movements for women and the environment.

The turning-point came in 1984, as Chandralekha took part in an east-west encounter of Indian and European dancers in the Max-Mueller Bhavan, a subsidiary of the Goethe Institute, in Bombay. This event proved to be the start of her new career, and a year later she produced her first new choreography Angika. It is now said to have been a milestone in the history of Indian dancing, in blending classical bharanatyam with kalarippayyat, which is a martial arts’ dance-style from Kerala, and with yoga.

As in all later productions, Chandralekha was especially in search of female and male energy. She calls her performances ‘celebrations of the human body’, since she believes that the body is as important as the spirit.

In the following years came new productions, which made her well known for her clear and radical attitudes. In India her innovative ideas and works caused a furore. Conservative critics accused her of breaking the rules and of rendering bharatnatyam banal. This made her India’s most controversial choreographer but did not prevent her from further influencing and renewing classical Indian dance.

Chandralekha’s dancers do not wear the classical bharatnatyam make-up and are dressed as simply as possible. Her style is based on bharatnatyam but blends it with other Indian styles of dancing and also with features which Chandralekha has developed in working with European dancers like Pina Bausch and Susanne Linke. Interactions between women and men play an important role in her work. As a sign of her distance from traditional Indian dancing, Chandralekha does not have her dancers perform the traditional pranam, prayer, at the start.

Chandralekha lives her life according to her own rules. She is for instance still single, which is unusual for members of the Indian middle-class. She counts as being a feminist, even if she herself disagrees: ‘I am not a feminist; I am a woman – and therefore feel responsible for women´s equality.)

Her work Sri, shown in the House of World Cultures in Berlin in 1992 during the Indian Festival, is about equal rights for Indian women. On three levels this choreography shows ancient myths about women’s power. It is about equal rights during mating or the act of creation, about women’s loss of power and about regaining self-confidence.

Yantra, produced three years later, shows the essence of Chandralekha’s notion of dancing. ‘It´s a piece about sexuality, sensuality, spirituality and the female principles of our culture.’ she said. Yantra, according to Jochen Schmidt in the magazine Ballett international in September, 1994, ‘has for Indian dancing a new message of beauty, which springs from the erotic interplay of female and male bodies. If Chandralekha sets an example as influential as Pina Bausch’s was in Germany, Indian dancing may indeed be renewed.’

In 1999, for the Hamburg Festival, Chandralekha developed a meditative dance-poem about the continual renewal of female energy in the bodies of women and also of men. In this dance, Chandralekha, who demands openness more than anything else from her dancers, breaks another taboo of bharatnatyam, insofar as two men embrace each other affectionately. This does not suggest homosexuality as much as brotherly love, compassion, comfort and understanding. Womanliness, said the choreographer before a performance, is to be found ‘deep down in the bodies of men, waiting to be evoked, waiting to be invoked.’

Chandralekha has received for her work many prizes like the Sangeet Natak Academy Award in 1992 , the international Time Out/Dance Umbrella Award for the best dance-performance in Great Britain, and the GAIA Award in Italy.

Even today, Chandralekha is controversial in India, though she has long since been internationally acclaimed. Her newest work Sharira – Fire and Desire, in which she again focuses on the relationship between body and feelings, has been shown at the German Festival in India as well as within the framework of a prestigious international conference in Chicago.

‘Chandralekha is a legend. Loved, hated, admired, criticised. You could brand her work obscene, or revere her as a priestess of erotic. But you can´t forget her. Somewhere, those intensely alive eyes in a face well past it’s prime leave their mark. Much like the embers that remain long after the fire is gone,’ wrote Anupama Bhattacharya in 1999.

Events at the HKW:
27th September, 1992
Indian Festival
Contemporary Dance from Indian

Organiser: House of World Cultures together with the Ministry of Human Resource Development, New Delhi, and the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, New Delhi

The Chandralekha Group
Contemporary Dance from India

Saturday, 3rd June, 1994
Yantra – Dance Diagrams

Sunday, 4th June, 1995
Lecture demonstration

Monday, 5th June, 1995
Mahakal – Invoking Times

Organiser: House of World Cultures
Author: Anna Jacobi 


Born in 1929, the Indian dancer and choreographer Chandralekha has managed to bring Indian dancing up to date. Trained in classical Bharatnatyam and a student of the famous bharatnatyam teacher Ellappa Pilla, she became a legend in her own land in the 1950s. Her early life was shaped by her deeply religious mother, her agnostic father, a course of training in bharatnatyam, which was reserved for daughters of well-to-do families, and her great affection for the actor and poet Harindranath Chattopadhyay. In 1962 she turned to choreography but in 1972 gave up dancing from lack of faith in the fixed norms of classical Bharatnatyam. For 12 years she paid her way by writing and by designing political placards. She also took part in the Indian movements for women and the environment.

In 1984, an east-west dance encounter in the Max-Mueller-Bhawan Institute in Bombay led Chandralekha to take up dancing again, and she began a new career. She has since brought a new production out every year and won international acclaim with her Chandralekha Dance Group, though remaining very controversial in India. She has also worked together with European dancers like Susanne Linke and Pina Bausch.

The icon of Indian dancing died in 2006.


Sharira – Fire and Desire

Production / Performance,

Sloka: Self and Renewal

Production / Performance,

Raga: In Search of Feminity

Production / Performance,


Production / Performance,

Yantra - Dance Diagrams

Production / Performance,


Production / Performance,


Production / Performance,


Production / Performance,

Request Concert – Solo

Production / Performance,


Production / Performance,


Production / Performance,


Production / Performance,


This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the partner institutions.

Festival of India

(07 September 91 - 17 March 92)
Chandralekha Dance Company


taken from "Mahakal - Invoking Time"
Haus der Kulturen der Welt, 05.06.1995

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