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Making untraditional dance

Tishani with the legendary dancer Chandralekha and (right) in 'Sharira'

Poet, novelist and dancer Tishani Doshi on how her life was never quite the same after she met the legendary Chandralekha

They say timing is everything in life, and luck. I've always felt very lucky to have met and worked with Chandralekha in the last years of her life. But I've often wondered how it would have been if I had met her before that sheen of legend touched her. If I'd met her when she was a rebel, on her way to becoming a legend.

I met Chandra in Madras, in October 2001. She was 73. I thought she was the most powerful woman I'd ever met. She was tiny, but she knew how to fill a room. And she was charming. At least, I was instantly charmed. I'd never met any real-life legends before, or any artists or rebels for that matter, so to encounter someone who embodied all three was slightly overwhelming. "What are you doing these days?" she asked. "Trying to write poems," I replied. "Wonderful, what else?" "Nothing." And that settled it. At 26, I, who had no real formal training in dance, but who had been at various times in my life, a flower, a peacock and a prince on stage, began working with Chandra on what became her last choreographic work, Sharira.

For the next five years, I spent most of my mornings at Chandra's place on Elliot's Beach Road. To say that I knew dance was going to change my life makes it sound very lofty, but in a way, it was exactly that. My body changed, for a start. I had never been chubby (at least, I didn't think so), but six months into dance a different body emerged - whittled away, strong, energised, capable of doing splits and headstands and other previously unimaginable things. And there was a change of consciousness as well;a recalibration of the thing I thought I was.

Not that it's easy to start thinking of yourself as a dancer. It's about as abstract as thinking of yourself as a poet. But in those years, I was seeking things out, testing possibilities, and it was Chandra who allowed me the platform to explore those things, and who in a way, encouraged it. She herself had moved fluidly between haikus and design, dance and choreography, painting and street theatre. She rejected traditional expectations of marriage and lived life categorically on her own terms in her house by the sea. For me to have travelled all around the world only to come back home and discover her was a sweet kind of irony.

But then, so much of life is irony. When I started working with Chandra she was being loved up by the very establishments who had been so critical of her work in the past. Awards and accolades were handed out with alacrity, titles like "living legend" and "national treasure," were par for the course. Chandra's reaction was that of slight bemusement. I hadn't been privy to just how much of her life had involved resistance. Only through anecdotes, tapes, interviews and texts like Rustom Bharucha's Chandralekha: Woman Dance Resistance, did I realise the extent of hostility she had faced in her past. The list of persecutions was long: she was damned for being beautiful, unmarried, outspoken, subverting tradition, bringing too many beards on the stage, manipulating the press, having friends in high places, working with rejects, being too dramatic, not dramatic enough. . . you get the picture.

Chandra's response to criticism was defiant. "I exist in spite of you," was her common charge. I heard from other dancers and friends that the Chandra of that time was a dynamite brand, and I believed it. I had watched old videos, seen the vitality and the indignation in her body, spine and voice. When I met Chandra, she seemed softer. It might have been because of her setbacks with health issues, but I think it was also because she had reached a stage in her life when she had passed on many of those "indignations" to her dancers, and was at a more peaceful place.

During the many years I worked with Chandralekha, I caught glimpses of that dynamite Chandra in varying hues. My favourite anecdote is when she had to undergo a bypass surgery and she challenged this city's most respected heart surgeon about his ideas of the heart. "My heart does not look like that," she said, referring to the ugly poster on his office wall. She then proceeded to tell him in great poetic fashion how the human heart was so much more than just an organ that required internal plumbing. So convincing was she in her argument that very soon we were performing Sharira for an entire convention of heart surgeons.

Whenever we've performed Sharira, be it for heart surgeons in Madras, large audiences in Taipei, Tokyo, Frankfurt and Heggodu, or intimate rehearsals in Chandra's theatre, the response has always been strong, immediate, visceral. People have come to me with tears in their eyes saying that they felt like they were falling in love, like their soul was shooting out of their body, that it was like watching sculptures slowly moving. In London, more recently, the dancer Akram Khan's mother came up to me after the show and touched my arms, "I'm just checking to see whether you have any bones in your body," she said, "It's amazing what you do."

It has been nine years since I first started working on Sharira, and nearly four years since Chandralekha passed away. The fact that I am still working on the same piece with the same small group - my dance partner Shaji John, the Gundecha Brothers (live accompaniment), and Sadanand Menon (lighting and stage) - is testament to the power of Chandra's vision. From time to time, I still wonder how it might have been if I had met her earlier, when she worked with large troupes and went all over the world, when she was rebel Chandra, not legend Chandra. Mostly though, I think of all the trips we made and all the talks we had sitting on her parapet watching the sea and the flower girls go by. It was a beautiful time, and I was lucky to have had it.

Tishani Doshi's first novel 'The Pleasure Seekers' was recently published by Penguin India

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