Chandralekha was a radical and innovative dancer-choreographer, who began in the tradition of classical Bharatnatyam but moved out of it to create her own distinctive style.
Born Chandralekha Prabhudas Patel, she spent her childhood in Saurashtra, then moved to Pune, then Aden. Her father, a doctor, was agnostic and fostered in his daughter an intense passion for reading and books. Her mother was very religious and often took her daughter with her on visits to temples, which exposed the young Chandralekha to classical sculpture, an influence that was to appear later in her dance. At the age of 13 Chandralekha had her first quarrel with her family and under pressure from them she went to Bombay to study law. However, this did not last, and aged 17, she left for Madras to train in classical Bharatnatyam as a student of the guru who had taught T. Balasaraswati (q.v.). A major factor in this decision was her meeting in Bombay with the actor and poet Harindranath Chattopadhyay, brother of Sarojini Naidu (q.v.) and for a short time husband of Kamala Devi Chattopadhyay (q.v.) and she remained close to him all her life. The two great influences on her dancing were Rukmini Devi Arundale (q.v.) and T. Balasaraswati. They represented the two poles of Bharatnatyam: the cleaned up middle class version and the original dasi attam, the dance of the servants of god. Chandralekha’s independent mind led her to move closer to the form which Balasaraswati practiced.
In 1959 she choreographed a piece called Devadasi, in which she attempted a historicizing of classical dance in order to reinstate dasi attam at the heart of it. She took up writing in the 1960s, even publishing a book of poems titled Rainbows on the Roadside: Montages of Madras. In 1972 she produced the startlingly original Navagraha, but was by now disillusioned and took an extended break. She became an activist, campaigning for women’s rights and the environment.
She set up the Chandralekha Dance Group and began to experiment with choreography, producing a number of revolutionary compositions such as Angika (1985), Lilavati, Prana, Sri, (1992) Yantra (1995), Mahakal, Raga (1998), Shloka, and Sharira (2000). Angika, her first piece, combined kalaripayattu from Kerala with classical dance. In Yantra, said to be influenced by Shankaracharya’s Soundaryalahari, the dancers move in patterns that evoke the triangle, the ancient symbol (yantra) of the goddess. The world of Indian dance had never seen anything like it, and an immediate storm of controversy arose over her work. Sri was shown at the House of World Cultures in Berlin in 1992 during the Indian Festival. She set up her own centre for the cultivation of dance, Mandala, at Elliot’s Beach in Madras (Chennai).
Chandralekha received for her work many prizes such as the international Dance Umbrella Award in Great Britain, the GAIA Award in Italy in 1990 for her work for environmental causes, the Sangeet Natak Academy Award in 1992, and the Kalidasa Samman. She was invited three times to the Tokyo Summer Festival, twice to the Festival der Frauen (Women’s Festival) at Hamburg, and many other major international venues. She never married, but had a long term relationship with the writer, critic, photographer and stage lighting designer Sadanand Menon. She died in 2006 from cervical cancer and was cremated in a secular ceremony by Sadanand Menon and the painter Dasharath Patel.
The theatre personality Rustom Bharucha wrote her biography, Chandralekha: Woman, Dance, Resistance.