Pad.ma 2009: Sadanand Menon (Chandralekha)
Duration: 00:40:00; Aspect Ratio: 1.778:1; Hue: 208.213; Saturation: 0.151; Lightness: 0.246; Volume: 0.240; Cuts per Minute: 0.950; Words per Minute: 105.532
A long-time collaborator of the dancer Chandralekha, Sadanand Menon is currently in the process of setting up a publicly accessible archive of her work. He showcased two videos on the dancer Chandralekha. The first was part of a programme made for a cultural show on Doordarshan. This footage, recorded from television, is the only available version of the programme.
Sadanand's annotations for the Tanabana programme (the second video) take us through an intimate journey with Chandralekha (http://pad.ma/=Chandralekha
). Moments that would otherwise be missed (a dog passing by, Chandra making rangoli), if we were just watching the film, are re-read by Sadanand to create a shared space in which we begin to understand Chandra's philosophy of creativity and the body.
Sadanand Menon is a reputed arts editor, teacher of cultural journalism, a widely published photographer, curator, writer and speaker on politics, ecology and the arts. He is Adjunct Faculty at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai.
For the Pad.ma vidoes on Chandralekha, see
For a report on the event, see http://camputer.org/event.php?id=75
SA: Thank you Ranu...
With great pleasure I'd like to introduce everybody to Sadanand Menon, a reputed arts editor, teacher of 'Cultural Journalism', a widely published phtographer, arts curator, writer and speaker on seminars on politics, ecology, the arts. He is adjunct faculty at Asian College of Journalism, Chennai. A long-term collabortaor of the dancer Chandralekha, he is currently in the process of setting up a publicly accessible archive of all of Chandralekha's work.
Who are We hall, Nehru Centre, Worli
SM: Thank you very much Pad.ma, Shaina, Ashok, Lawrence, Madhu, all of you- quite a few of them- thanks for inviting me to this. I've just come into it very recently, but have been through it. I knew the project was on, and I think its just about 10 days ago that we connected and we linked up.
I have just had a pretty unambiguous attitude towards archiving which is, I would say, a positive attitude. Even though one knows the history of colonialism and one knows that colonialism, the entire foundation of colonialism stood and is built on a certain kind of contstructed archiving, constructed memory... And as Sanjay pointed out earlier in the day, it is very closely linked to power. But nevertheless, as a media person, this was something that I was quite in favour of. My own work with photography, I work with writing a certain personal process of accumulating material that one needed to do. A certain kind of indexed set of material put together. I remember way back from 1969 we've got clippings of all sorts of things that happened across the country- photographs, cartoons, illustrations- its a huge body of stuff that's just been dumped into trunks and trunks and trunks and now I don't know exactly what to do with it, but its there.
SM: But during the period when I was working with Economic Times as an Arts Editor where I had an experience which I would like to narrate here in this forum. One of India's best known writers, poets, cultural anthropologists, A.K.Ramanujan who used be living, working and teaching in Chicago, passed away under very unfortunate circumstances. And it just so happened that about 2 months before he passed away he was in New Delhi and he was interviewed by a very dear friend of mine, Ayisha Kagal who many of you in his room would know, an excellent long interview. Just coincidentally at the time in Delhi was also this wonderful photographer, who many of you in the room would know. She had taken some brilliant photographs of the man. And both of them had given the material to me. So it was very easy immediately put together a full page in the Economic Times for A.K. Ramanujan. However I needed some support with graphical material which I had at home but it meant going an hour and a half out into ...
We'll come to this later.
SM: So I've decided to check with the Sahitya Akademi, which was just 5 minutes away from where I worked at the Times of India building, and the Time of India librarian who happened to be to Karnataka from (?) almost seated ,standing up on th phone and saying- thank you very much for calling us, we also heard that A.K.Ramanujan passed away and we are very glad that you are doing a tribute page for him. Please come, we have the material, etc etc.
I hopped across to the site, and this man was waiting at the door to felicitate me. Very ceremoniously he took me inside his cabin and he made me sit down in his own chair, walked down the corridor, opened the drawer, pulled out the pink file with big blue lettering around it, I could see it from a distance. Very ceremoniously (he) brought that file over. I opened that file and there was not a piece of paper in it.
SM: I looked back at him, I closed the file equally ceremoniously, I gave it back to him and I said "Tomorrow morning, when my page comes out, I will come and gift it to you. Please then start a fucking file! I think a story also of a certain kind of attitude to recording, to what material means, to what someone's life means, how you create dignity through remembering people, certain kind of memorial process.
This kind of attitude is rather prevalent here. We know increasingly that even the mainstream media does not get any more space for people who pass away, let alone personalities, particularly artists. And there was time when, even I was working at the Times of India, at any given time there's a bank of editorial ...editors in charge of orbituaries, and full big bank of orbituaries written, everybody ready with material. Today that's not there anymore. People can just vanish from the face of the earth and nothing appears. Its like that history is gone. I come from that background. So, for me it was important to always stay recording.
SM: At the same time, for a long time I worked with Chandralekha for over 30 years and she had a peculiar attitude towards recording per se, particularly electronic or photographic recording. She was fairly hostile to the idea. And particularly as a dancer, she felt that the flat medium- the 2-dimensional medium, could not do sufficient justice to her work. She would constantly challenge film makers to actually come up with a film that was honest and accurate for film- or for dance. So this tension was there right there when we were working with designers. In fact the guy who has put together the exhibition that you see outside was part of the National Institute of Design. Again, always with the camera, we were always recording, but Chandra would be rather hostile to the idea.
It was within this tension that whatever recordings did happen of Chandra do exist. And when she passed away a couple of years ago, I though it was very very important for me, as being a kind of holder of the material almost, to try and piece together all this in some sort of format. The only thing that came to mind was a publicly accessible archive.
SM: It would be around at least 200 - 220 odd video recordings, there are literally hundreds or thousands of photographs, there are leaves and leaves of written text. There was no work that Chandralekha's did not research very deeply, every production of her's she generated at least 10 to 12 heavy fat diaries, notes and references and annotations and so on. So all that material is there and needs to be organised. That's the kind of task I've set myself on at the moment. I'm still looking for people who would assist in that. Slowly some young dancers and scholars are coming as partners and joining in. That's one kind of thing.
The other is Chandra very firm belief that the body is an archive. We would particularly work with movement as material. We would work with more the dancers' movements as material. What you are doing is searching that archive in the body. And that archive in the body is a memory of many things past. If your hand is moving in a particular way or the ear is moved in a particualr way, to a particular beat or rythm the body moves in a particular way- its a certain memory also working. Its an archive that is sort of taking over and working. She hada very interesting take on that, which at some point one would like to elaborate. But she had studied this whole relationship for example between Bharatanatyam, which was her own medium, or Kalaripayattu, which is a Kerala martial arts discipline, or Yoga. And she has seen some very very interesting parallels between these 3 distinct disciplines- which all linked to the human body having learnt movement nature and from animal life to begin with. The way a bird moves, the way an insect moves, the way an animal moves. All these are part of the repertoire of human movement.
SM: At the same time, how historic process of material construction- like through hunting societies, through agriculture, early agrarian societies, through contemporary industrial society. A certain kind of body movement emerges. A certain kind of chain and overlay emerges. The fact that in the context that you may want to see many of these things simultaneously, rather than one area say in a corporate (?) and you can see tribal society, agrarian society and industrial society co-exist, often interracting. What it does to the body kind of clashes in the body- body memory of one time clashing with a body memory of another time and the kind of tensions that it builds up and so on. So this was part of the material she worked with. This was a daily engagement in her rehearsals, in her conversations with dancers and so on.
SM: This is something that, one was keen to extend as part of the art learning process. I quite connected with what Lawrence said earlier about this kind of experiment or exercise being a space where you can take social text and merge it with the personal space. The possibility of that happening. And then, the personal space immediately (?) social destiny(?)...to extend that space all over.
So basically this was the frame in which I thought of coming into the Pad.ma space and I have deliberately chosen 2 entries here for the moment. What you're seeing on the screen here is an excerpt from a 1992 television film made by PTI television. In those days along with Doordarshan television there was also PIT television. They had a cultural (?), a weekly cultural (?) called Tana Bana, which was produced by Sachin Kumar who is a well known media person and he is a film maker now.
SM: This is a 15 minute excerpt,... piece within the run of a 30 minute or 1 hour programme. Very interestingly, about 6 months after this was finished, Sachin Kumar left PTI television. Couple of years after that, PTI television itself was wound up. Today there is no exisiting record of this excpet what I have with me. This is a 'off-the-television' recording when it was first broadcast on Doordarshan. It was the only thing available. And by the time I realised the value of this, already the video tape which it was on had developed scratches and had developed noise. This is a transfer onto a DVD with all the defects that you will see.
Interestingly some part of the film is shot for this particular television episode, but many of the elements in it are taken from archival material that they already possessed of her earlier dances and so on and so forth.
It was a kind of a build up of the 'archive in an archive in an archive' kind of idea. This little thing you see here is Chandralekha performing herself a piece which she had done way back in 1972. This was being recorded in 1992. A 20 year old piece she was recreating specially for this. Its a piece from a production called Navagraha which was performed in Bombay also in 1972, in which for the first time she brings in the idea of yoga into Bharatanatyam and creates the Suryanamaskar sequence to a very important Karnatic music composer called Muthuswami Dikshitar who had never been used before on the Bharatanatyam stage, because it is very dense, and very strong.
SM: So all these elements put together, it becomes a kind of a point of (?) within the pad.ma archive, where the material itself has inherent archival value of certain levels, and then you add the annotation into it and it becomes a personal space which say my space, but many other artists, many others coming into it- the musicians, the dancers, all those who are coming into it and adding more to it. And then on the piece I've chosen, its from a Doordarshan recording of her in 1990, of her production called Lilavati. In her search for Bharatanatyam to move away from the god-godess of mythological content, she was constantly hunting for (?) secular material. And she hit upon this wonderful mathematical text called Lilavati written by Bhaskaracharya in the 9th century- Bhaskaracharya addressing his 10 year old daughter, Lilavati, goes into some great teasers, puzzles and questions on mathematics, arithmatic and so on, and coaxing an anser out of her, all written in very poetic form.
This was performed several times and then Doordarshan PTI-TV centre made a recording of it for which we actually went to the Mathematic Department of (?) University, accessed the original manuscripts for Lilavati, which has been filmed and so on..
SM: What I'd like to do is to begin with the first one- Tana Bana....
(some discussion over which clip to play, and sound)
(Screen: Chandralekha's Tana Bana
From this tradition of synthesis, we take you now to the shores of Madras, for an encounter with the rebel dancer-choreographer, Chandralekha.
'Surya ko Namaskar'
(Paying obeisance to the Sun)
This posture is taken from Navagraha, a dance composition by the rebellious Chandralekha. Navagraha was based on a musical composition by Muthuswami Dikshita. Chandralekha had composed it in 1972. And from here began, for the first time ever, the brilliant choreography which incorporates principles of Yoga into Bharatanatyam. She deviated from the traditional teachings of her guru K Pillai, and began to look for newer forms of expression, within the framework of classical dance. This was no great challenge for the defiant Chandralekha.
Chandralekha (on screen): Yeah, I learnt from the masters, some of the great masters traditional way of dance, traditional style or kharana, what you call, but already there was a tremendous difference between the way the gurus thought and the way I thought. The way they lived their life and the way I lived my life. So already there is a tremendous difference in our consciousness. And any art, if we want to keep it alive, it has to relate to time, space. It's a product of time, space.
(hindi voiceover translates)
C: So I don't think traditions are for museums, or they can be fossilized, or they just be kept as some kind of objects of art to be... to be glittering objects. I feel that traditions have to be tested in the light of the sun, you have to hold them up against and see...
(hindi voiceover translates)
C: So, when I thought of Bharatanatyam form, I like Bharatanatyam form, it has terrific energy, it has power, it has conceptual.. conceptually it is so strong... it tells you that your body is the centre of your world.
I began to see the immense possibilities in the strength and power of the Bharatanatyam form. As you begin to experiment and delve into dance, a whole new world (form of being) unravels before you.
C: There's lot of excitement in learning something new. You are a student.. a seeker.. and the world opens up for you when you are a seeker.
(Hindi voiceover translates)
When I was learning dance just the excitement of learning was there. Once you learn, then what do you do with it? You can go on refining it, ok, you can go on perfecting it, ok. I couldn't go on dancing the same solo Bharatanatyam dance forever. That was for sure that I had to stop, I had to reflect, and I refused to be mechanized in life by anything.
(Hindi Voiceover translates)
I never wanted my one day to be mechanized as any other day, and that is, I think all my life I've sought very consciously that kind of a.. as a way of life.
C: You dance Radha and Krishna
Later I began to see the whole idiocy of it. In terms of my own life... what does the butter sequence mean to me? It doesn't mean a thing to me. In fact it looked so ridiculous, that every time I had to dance that, please. Where Gopika and Radha are churning the butter, and taking out the butter, and then putting it in a pot and putting the pot high up, and Krishna comes, and then he licks up the butter and all that. I thought the whole thing was... it had nothing to do with me.
It was mindlessness to reproduce that kind of a thing as art. And if dance was going to mechanize you, then it wasn't for me. I had to distance myself and see its meaning.
After 1972, for 12 years, Chandralekha stayed away from dance. Drawn back to the power of Bharatanatyam in '85, Chandralekha made a terrific and ground breaking comeback with her production 'Angika'. Her choreography now combined Bharatanatyam with Kalaripayattu, a martial art form, and yoga. She effectively changed the language of Bharatanatyam.
C: So I needed that distance for reflection, and so when I came back again to dance, I started right from the beginning...
...dance exercises, or these were called the grammar of dance or these were called the theories of dance, I began to see the circuits of energy in those areas. And I began to see the meaning.
C: Today if some kind of recognition has come to me, it is not sudden... kind of a drop from heaven. It has been a result of almost thirty years of day-to-day struggle.
(hindi voiceover translates)
C: ...But basically at various time, all the time trying to find values, your concerns for what's happening around you, what's happening to you, what's happening to the body. It's not just dance, but to the whole immediate world around you what's happening all around you, and these concerns, somehow they come together and coalesce in your work. So, '84 onwards I began to... it has been a continuous work... several productions, five productions in which this quest has been continuous ongoing kind of work, the first work was Angika, about the body, about rejection of cosmetic content, rejection of religious god-goddess content, and exploring how Naatashastras sees the body and relating it to other physical disciplines like martial arts, what are the principles learnt from nature, from animals, from birds and animals, and principles learned in various physical disciplines.
(Hindi voiceover translates, as Chandralekha speaks)
C: In the next work, 'Namaskar' which you will see, again, its the potential of the body- What is the power of the body? What is dignity of body? Is Namaskar just a genuflection?- You dive at somebody's feet and you go limp?
(Hindi voiceover translates...)
C: ...all your body, like eight limbs, will show the dignity. What is the dignity of the body, and that's what I tried to explore in this concept of Namaskar.
(Namaskar being performed to strains of Carnatic music)
C: In Lilavati it was a poetic concept. You take a text like mathematics text. And how do you relate it to dance?
(Hindi voiceover translates)
So in the next work 'Praana' and 'Shree', again it's a quest for spine, and the loss of spine - spine becomes a metaphor for freedom in this work, and how the loss of spine and the reclamation of spine can be a theme, can be a quest, a search, and through that you go to areas like self-respect, identity, dignity.
(Hindi voiceover translates)
C: I believe in working with a group, making relationships; I do not like to have power over people.
(Hindi voiceover translates)
I don't like people diving at my feet, for example. I have no illusions about making institutions in this country
(Hindi voiceover translates)
...having bureaucratic power to establish that sort of a thing. Because finally we have to go on breaking those institutions, because they come to sea. They all become so decadent. And I would say that my statement to this kind of a cultural bureaucracy would be who never moved a little finger, who never did any kind of help for me, my statement to them has been 'I exist, in spite of you', and I feel that artists need to have that kind of a dignity at...
(Hindi voiceover translates as Chandralekha speaks)
Chandralekha's quest to breath new life into classical dance, still continues.
To relate to Ayisha's work would be, found found recordings, 8mm recordings of Ram Gopal which is dated 1938, its very interesting to somehow do try as an exercise, to construct a contemporary history of dance in India of the 20th century. Surprisingly, first ever recorded material on film for Indian dance of any kind dates back to 1929. There's nothing before, and then well into 1938 there's nothing after. And in 1929 it was done very notoriously by the fact that a very well known American dance company ...(?) happened to visit. Once they landed in Indonesia and they travelled overboard all along into Burma, into Calcutta, came to Orissa, came down to...Tanjore, went to Trivandrum, then came to Bombay, went upto Lucknow...Wherever they went they recorded with a (?) camera the dancing styles of India. And that's surveyable only in a place called Jacob's Pillow in Massachusetts...that's the foundation (?) started. For visual evidence of Indian dancde history you have to go there. If you want to know Dev dancers dance you have to go there. This is one of those very strange situations.
SM: What we need to figure out in this exercise is- Are we entering a visual process? Or are we entering a textual process? And I think that's an important distinction to make because if you are going to read it- then what will be the reading? Will you read it as a visual- the entire thing- the pad.ma screen? Then, that sense- there are a particular type of neurons in the system that process in a certain way. But if you mining it only for certain texture information and even the visual and the text, then you are approaching it in a completely different way.
I think the construction of the site needs to be a little clear, which way it will go. There is a confusion about it. This confusion is what will lead to what earlier we were calling the 'anxieties' of various kinds.
SM: The whole idea of what Lawrence had brought up about the political being the aesthetic, I just have one little rider to add to it. And that rider comes from good old Walter Benjamin, as always, coming up with the right sentence at the right time: 'Who wanders against not aesthecising politics, but politicising art.'
I think that's an important distinction. I think its very easy to succumb to this new remix format. Its very seductive. I was telling Shaina and Ashok, so seductive, that once you start doing the annotations, it just sucks you in, it gives you tremendous space. And its like unending horizon in which you can travel and add on material. But one needs to know whether by itself it was politics. I don't think so. I think politics has to be written into it. And the frame has to be so strong that, that which is not particular cannot enter. It has to have some structure, some format. Which means, on an everyday basis, this format will have to challenge itself. It will have to question its own legitimacy almost. Because I'm quite sure one year down the line, if this becomes the site to be on, like Chandra says in the film, like an institution, it will just go to sea. As she says I have no love for files, ultimately you need to just dump thembecause it all becomes decadent. We need to protect ourselves form that through a constant daily challenge.
SM: I will just end with a very short excerpt from Lilavati- this opening portion where Chandra introducing Lilavati for Doordarshan and for the audience, which also tells you the kind of archival research she was doing on a 9th century text.
(Screen: Excerpt from Chandralekha's Lilavati)
Link on pad.ma
SA: When was this?
SM: This was aroiund '99.
SM: All her dancers used to live together, so they would co-operate the same way in their dances...
Chandralekha (in video): Lilavati is the celebrated text on Indian mathematics, by Bhaskaracharya. Bhaskara's work, addressed to his daughter, Lilavati, constitutes the creative peak of Indian mathematics.
The text, Lilavati, is a series of most beautiful and poetic questions, from Bhaskaracharya to his daughter Lilavati, when she was a little girl. They are addressed to 'Ae bale, Lilavati'. The questions are elegant problems in Arithmetic, Algebra, Calculus and Geometry, seen in relation to the fantasy and the imagination, in the life and mind of a little girl. Learning is transformed into a creative and joyous activity through the Indian genius of interlink. Interlink between poetics and hard numbers. No wonder then, that the little girl Lilavati, later became India's most well-known woman mathematician. Bhaskara's questions reveal a world of that time. Nature, an environment of that time, flora and fauna of that time, prices of that time, prices of rice and dal and ghee and salt, prices of gold, and diamonds, rubies, emeralds, pearls.
Chandralekha (in video): What we see in the text Lilavati, is a little girl at play, a mathematician at play, their mutual perception of cosmos at play, rythmically linking these, is the constant of pure numbers. It is as much to the poetry of numbers that can unriddle universes, as to their deep play, that this work is affectionately dedicated.