By: Sarita Manu
When I entered 1 Elliots Beach Road in Chennai, I had to sit myself down for a few moments, to grasp the beauty and warmth that the place exuded. SPACES, as 1 Elliots Beach Road is known, was the late dancer-choreographer Chandralekha’s abode: a reflection of everything beautiful that Chandralekha embodied.
Chandralekha was the legendary Indian dancer and choreographer. With her rigorous training in classical Bharatnatyam, she went on to explore and define contemporary dance for India. Angika: Traditions of Dance and Body Language in India (1985), marked Chandralekha’s return to dance after over a decade of withdrawal. With Angika, the human body was celebrated for the first time in the vocabulary of dance combined with martial arts (Kalaripayattu) and yoga. Chandralekha’s question – “Where does the body begin… and end?” — resulted in many other productions following Angika. These included Lilavati: Traditions of Natya, Kavya, Ganita (1989); Prana: Traditions of Natya and Asana (1990); Sri: Traditions of Women and Empowerment (1991); Yantra: Dance Diagrams (1994); Mahaka: Invoking Time (1995); Raga: In Search of Femininity (1998); Shloka: Of Self And Renewal (1999); and Sharira: Fire/Desire (2001), all hailed as landmarks of contemporary dance in India.
SPACES Arts Foundation, a lush green sanctuary bathed in ample sunlight that breathes life into its many trees, was founded as a trust in the year 2000. The founder-trustees were Chandralekha, the late artist Dashrath Patel and Sadanand Menon. I was waiting to meet Sadanand Menon, the managing trustee of SPACES and a long-time associate of Chandralekha. (Sadanand Menon is also a Board Member at Hri.) After greeting me, Sadanand excused himself briefly to oversee the cleaning of the courtyard-theatre with a covered stage. Looking at Sadanand, one could sense how the place not just absorbed him, but owned him.
Sadanand walked me around, speaking to me about the courtyard-theatre, ‘Chandra Mandala’, a platform available and often used by theatre artists and other performers for practice sessions as well as the final show. Originally built in 1982 and named ‘Mandala’, Sadanand remodelled it with additional features after Chandralekha’s demise in 2006 and re-named it ‘Chandra-Mandala’. ‘Chandra-Mandapa’ is the Kalaripayattu venue. To enter it one had to take several steps down — it seemed to be growing out of the ground towards the sky, designed as it was keeping in mind the tradition of building such areas below ground level. The mandapa was built and inaugurated in 2007, marking the first anniversary of Chandralekha’s death.
Following the walk, we sat down in the charming indoor space to talk about the aesthetic treasure left behind by Chandralekha. Chandralekha’s personal collection of books, photographs, audio and video recordings of her performances abroad and in India is of immense value, a potentially significant resource on the forms of dance practiced for years by Chandralekha and her dancers. Sadanand and a few of his close associates have been painstakingly working to catalogue this collection and set it up as a library/research centre in order to have it in the public fora. This is an effort undertaken by Sadanand himself, despite the reality of minimal concern shown by the art and dance enthusiasts, students, researchers, art institutions or even the government in knowing more about Chandralekha’s treasure.
Sadanand laments how curiosity about such private collections is nearly non-existent in India. The lack of interest shown by the media, too, adds to the sorry state of artists’ archives. He fondly reminisces about his times as a young journalist when they used to work hard at having at least 200 obituaries ready for use, any time they were needed. In his opinion, these days, even when an artist like M.F. Hussain dies, the media seems to make a hasty dash to collect whatever they can find. In the present day, when the media is dominated by political and economic interests, and science and technology, there is very little meaningful space left for coverage of art and artists. In his story ‘Sound of Silence’, published in The Indian Express on 1 January 2012, Sadanand writes about the loss of some of India’s best artists: musicians Bhimsen Joshi, Bhupen Hazarika, Sultan Khan, Asad Ali Khan and Jagjit Singh; artists MF Husain, Jehangir Sabavala and Mario Miranda, and theatre persons Badal Sircar and Satyadev Dubey, among others. He discusses the failure of archival mechanisms in our academic and artistic institutions. Even cursory mechanisms are absent, forcing many artists to try and archive their own work with almost no support from any institutional quarters. Works of artists are often showcased, heard or shared — but there is no curiosity around or documentation of other valuable material that they may have collected or owned. Sadanand writes that when the national media makes an exit from serious writing about art and artists like M.F. Hussain, it is no longer a crisis but a ‘catastrophe’. In his words, the media seems to have ‘de-skilled’ itself in covering art and culture.
In the months following Chandralekha’s demise, Sadanand was approached many a time by universities from outside of India who were willing to buy the collection at any cost. The institutions wanted to preserve the collections and works of Chandralekha and to use the material as a starting point for their own engagements with dance from the region. His refusal for the material to be housed outside India was clear: he felt that Chandralekha’s work was created in the context of India, and best understood when housed within India. Even as her materials are set to be documented, catalogued and made available to the public, Sadanand is sceptical about public reception to this endeavour, perhaps rightly so.
Public reception to archives may not be encouraging today, but I believe that the onus of this also lies with the archivists and collectors. Often, private collectors are unwilling to provide public access to their materials.
While it is understandable that making private materials public may often raise various copyright issues, accessibility plays an important role in keeping such archives alive. The ‘art of archiving’, as we at Hri call it, provides important tools for preserving material in various forms, for building collective memories, and for providing a foundation for rigorous historical analysis. Archiving is so crucial because it can be an intentional activity that can render itself useful in the future. Having access to primary materials puts the user at the centre of archives, and allows the user to be responsive to it.
When museums in India are hard-pressed for funds, one can well imagine the status of small and private collections. The dismal funds available for museums are grossly underutilized, as pointed out in this article in The Hindu. Despite the apathy within the government and sometimes even the art fraternity in valuing collections by individuals, we anticipate that Sadanand’s efforts in making Chandralekha’s collections accessible to public will effectively showcase the value of private archives, and increase public awareness about their importance.
- All images: Sarita Manu