Asian Music and Dance


Chandralekha (1928-2006), a Chennai-based choreographer, poet and graphic designer, was a pioneer of modern Indian dance. Never one to shy away from provocation or controversy, she consistently flouted notions of ‘tradition’ in Indian dance. Her work was driven, instead, by a ‘politics of the body’, which sought to challenge normative constructions of gender and sexuality. 

In Sharira (2001), her last choreographic work, Chandralekha tackled head-on the question of femininity and female power. A duet between Tishani Doshi (trained in yoga) and Shaji John (trained in kalaripayattu), Sharira follows Raga and Sloka in a trilogy exploring erotica through the duality of male and female energies. 

The piece opens with a striking image of Doshi in a finely balanced yoga asana. Seated centre-stage with her back towards the audience, Doshi begins to unfold, stretch, and bend her limbs with a concentrated slowness. Nothing is rushed; no movement taken for granted. Time is given to meditate on the minutest articulations of the body – the splaying of fingers and toes, the tensing of a calf muscle, the restrained sensuousness contained in a gentle, unexpected encounter between foot and hand. In an age where speed and surface are king, the deliberate slowness and pared-down minimalism of Sharira is in itself a compelling political statement; it forces us to consider the female body in terms of its complexities and layers instead of being dazzled by mere spectacle.

One of the most memorable moments in Sharira is when Doshi eventually turns to face the audience. Her gaze, uncompromising and unflinching, penetrates to the back of the hall. For so many centuries, the female Indian dancer has been seen within the parameters of an orientalist, male gaze as an exotic, sexualised object to be looked at. In Sharira, Doshi returns the gaze and demands to be viewed not as an object of pleasure or entertainment but as a source of power and strength. 

John emerges roughly half-way through the piece and begins an intimate duet with Doshi in which their bodies collapse, fuse, and fold into and out of one another, at once consuming and giving birth to the other. Where the body begins and ends is unclear, the distinction between gender made irrelevant. After a sharp, kalaripayattu kick, John descends into a deep plié in front of Doshi’s outstretched limbs; later, he emerges headfirst from between her legs. Despite the seemingly sexual nature of their interactions, very rarely do Doshi and John actually touch. In fact, it is in the almost-but-not-quite touching of their bodies that the eroticism of Sharira is most palpable.  

I did wonder, however, about the rather stereotypical representations of male and female energies with John kicking, lunging, and bouncing in an upright position, while Doshi remained close to the ground, stretching and opening her legs horizontally across the stage. For a choreographer who constantly played with the performance of gender, this distinction seemed like a curious choice.  

The Gundecha Brothers provided a hypnotic soundscape of dhrupad music. With its abstract syllables and stretched out alaps, dhrupad was the perfect counterpart to the pared-down yogic and martial movements of Doshi and John. Sadanand Menon’s lighting design was particularly effective, heightening the erotic tensions between the two performers like the chiaroscuro of a classic Caravaggio. The side lighting during Doshi’s extended beginning solo accentuated the musculature of her calves and forearms and the detailed articulation of her toes. 

The last time Chandralekha’s work was shown in the UK was in 1992 with Angika. Let’s hope that tonight’s performance heralds a new era of transnational awareness, appreciation, and collaboration in contemporary South Asian dance. 



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