Chandra and her connects with Madras

Yet another moving speech by Mr Sadanand Menon, as a part of Madras week celebrations.

Mr Menon, (Sada, as he is lovingly called by his contemporaries in the art world) is an impeccable orator. Every time I hear him speak, especially about her (Chandralekha), he opens up a new dimension to her character that is so great yet so relatable.

If I were to explain my perception of her I would say – Power in simplicity. Getting to know her through Mr Menon eyes is a whole new revelation as against googling her – especially for a person like me who is unfortunate not to have met her.

‘Spaces’, her home in Besant Nagar, even today, is vibrant with energy that she has left behind, reaching out to the souls of everyone who steps in. I often visit Spaces for my music and Kalari classes, I also frequently attend various purpose driven and artsy events there – like her photo exhibitions and various other theatre productions and lectures. This has only made me more and more curious to understand art expression through her eyes.

Here are some excerpts from the lecture that had a deep impact on me.

Dance

Her flamboyant arangetram preperations began and the huge list of invitees included the most famous people in the world of performing and visual arts at the time. The event was a fund-raiser for the affected farmers in the Rayalseema area which had faced the worst drought.

Program began with vigour, the first few pieces went off very well. Then came this piece on Lord Krishna and his childhood pranks… There was a brief moment of silence during the jalakrida sequence when she froze – in her mind – the moment passed in split second, although it escaped the eyes of the audience, her guru knew that something was amiss. When he confronted her, questioning her about this rather intimate moment, she couldn’t explain it, says Mr Menon. The irony of celebrating imaginary abundance of a river and the lord enjoying it versus reality where people suffered with not a drop to quench, hit her hard. The thought of farmers being dragged to dire streets, parched as they waited in queue for hours for a small tin of water, bereft of any energy left in their bones is something she couldn’t recover from. Why romanticize mythology and not reality?

Slowly, she had grew detached from the mainstream world of Bharatanaytam that concentrated on Gods and Godesses, questioning the concept of approaching spirituality through bhakti for a mythological being. Energy within the physical body and its endless possibilities is a more realistic approach to spirituality – she thought. The magical process of farming, the beauty in the rhythm of movement of a person climbing a coconut tree, the matter-of-fact ways of a domestic helper – these were concepts that excited her.

Well-known artists in the music industry were far more accepting of her alternative thoughts than the mainstream dance fraternity. So they worked with her while the dance world was relatively hostile to her approach, he says.

Thiruvannamalai:

Another very moving incident that he spoke about was her tryst with Sri Ramana. Her dance teacher being and ardent devotee of Ramana, expressed his decision to leave for Thiruvannamalai as soon as the news of Ramana’s illness reached him. Chandra decided to accompany him to Thiruvannamalai even though she wasn’t a devotee.

In the ashram…

It was cancer. The physician examined Ramana and said – he is going through a sensation akin to that of multiple lacerations in the body at the same time. It is a wonder how he won’t even flinch about his pain refusing to go through a surgery or a course of medication. She couldn’t believe all this. She decided to stare at him hawk-eyed for the next few days just to prove the world wrong. He will express it, he is no God, she thought. He did not, a few days later she accepted failure. This entirely changed her approach to life.

0ne evening as they all sat down to have their evening tea, she and her companions looked up and noticed a ball of fire passing by the sky and immediately news came to them that Ramana was medically declared dead.

Mr Menon narrated this incident with fervor, the audience sat gripped to their chair, agape. 

Literary works

Although she is very well know for her revolutionary approach to dance, she had many different interests and talents that were less known at the time, he said.

Her house was always open to friends with whom she had many interactions, she had an exhaustive collection of books which was open for anyone to peruse (so long as they were left back in place), she could talk about any subject to anyone as she was so well-read. She respected anyone just the same whether it was a great artist or her domestic helper.

He read out the foreward and an excerpt from her book, which moved my soul. I realized how shallow existence could be if we don’t understand the depth of life beyond our physical boundaries and limitations.

Kamala, the title of the poem, was her domestic helper. The poem talks about many things – this particular one chilled me to the bone and teared me up.

Under a thatched roof, life of a woman married to a man with an ambiguous job, for whom every day’s booze is primary, who cannot promise one single meal for their child, who comes home drunk and lashes at his wife in a state of unconsciousness. She endures. It is only when her child asks for food at the end of a long day that she explodes at him in anger – anger is a demon born from frustration and frustration from helplessness that she is unable to lay a plate of food for her own child, the only form of life in her world that looks up to her for care. This is the worst nightmare that a mother can face.

My eyes cloud as I type this because the poem is fresh in my memory. I feel for once that there are other people who feel as emotional as I do sometimes for things that may seem completely ‘irrational’ and ‘of no consequence’. What a wonderful person Chandra would have been? Shame that I couldn’t interact with her!

Her home: a museum

Her house by the sea, is quaint with its simple lime-plaster and red-oxide finish elegant with Kerala-style simplicity tiled sloping-roof structures and pockets of spaces strewn around amidst trees that break the earthy monotony with fresh green canopies above our heads, each structure vibrant even today keeping alive her vitality. What I find irresistible is to peep into the house at the entrance, which is nothing short of a museum. Huge wooden swings hang down with solid brass links delicately carved, walls ornate with simple day-to-day items like hand-woven dustpans, brass and copper pots, carved brass lamps and yet so beautiful. To a large extent this inspired me when I renovated my house too.

The story behind how this happened was very interesting. She came to observe that over the years as Madras started growing from being a big village into a large city, people from various small villages around started descending here with big dreams after having given up their traditional vocation – farming – as it wasn’t lucrative anymore.
Hutments turned into slums and grew larger and filthier; greenery soon vanished. She observed how skilled farmers came into the city with valuable belongings to face the wrath of poverty. In desperation, they started to pawn their belongings for money – belongings like hand-crafted brass and copper utensils, bronze pots, artistically hand-woven silk sarees with gold thread work and so on. Upon non-repayment pawn-brokers sold these away in places where they were melted down to be made into other items. She realized that we were going to loose out on art history and came up with a plan – every Friday she would catch hold of some one to drive her to the local market, bargain, and collect items that she could afford just to preserve them for art’s sake.

Why Chennai?

Someone once asked her – why live in Chennai, where people don’t recognise your value, as against other places where your works are celebrated? 

“Whoever you maybe, Chennai cuts you down to size”, was her response. Yet another hard-hitting concept to think about.

The lecture ended with a brief documentary on her choreographic works, which only added to her already effervescent character. I was really glad I could attend this talk.

Mr Menon is now working on a museum library in ‘Spaces’ to showcase her works and keep her alive in our hearts. Everyone she met felt a soulful connection with her and this library promises to keep that connection alive.

Thankyou Mr Menon!

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