CHANDRALEKHA GROUP'S "SHARIRA – FIRE / DESIRE" AT REPUBLIC
by Kate Mattingly
Provocative, esoteric, familiar, sensual – some of the words that came to mind watching Chandralekha Group's "Sharira – Fire/desire." These impressions, both contradictory and strong, led to deeper thoughts about appearances, references and cultural exchange.
Chandralekha's performance at republic in Salzburg, part of the China/India festival, is one element in a multifaceted presentation of two very different places. As Wu Wenguang, one of the artists from China, said during a panel discussion the next day: "How is it that this bridge between our two cultures has been built in Austria?" As close as the countries are geographically, they experience almost no exchange of contemporary performances and exhibitions.
How much do we understand?
But how much do we really understand about a culture when we watch a performance or visit an exhibition? I see a glimpse of one perspective, but in the case of Chandralekha Group, it was a glimpse that I savor, for the intensity of the performers Tishani Doshi and Shaji K. John, the simplicity of the offering, the music created and performed by the Gundecha Brothers which thread a vocal landscape through the performers' intertwined shapes. It was poetic and sincere and very different from performances I have seen recently at Republic.
It made me think of an essay I read by Mårten Spångberg which suggests that research has in a sense "homogenized" contemporary performance, that there are certain paths and processes artists pursue in making work and analyzing its outcome. Watching "Sharira – Fire/desire" was inspiring because it introduces a different view: it embraces movement that defies human limitations, it uses music to set up an acoustic layer that complements the fluidity of the body, it shows a relationship between the two people which is organic and layered with the relationship between music and movement.
She melts into the floor
The piece begins simply: the musicians, three men and two women, walk on stage and sit downstage left to tune their instruments. Their actions are matter-of-fact but informal; they take their time.
When the lights lower, and a spotlight appears center-stage, it is centered on Tishani Doshi. On her stomach, her hands holding her ankles, her legs apart, her back arched, she appears like a huge bow. Her eyes face away from the audience, upstage, so the most central view is directly between her legs. But to me, watching her there motionless for a while, she looked more sculptural than sexual.
Slowly she melts into the floor, every action revealing how soft and pliable her body can bend, in a way that verges on contortionism or circus.
"Sharira – Fire/desire" lasts for 70 minutes, but it evolves like a long exhale. Slow. Very slow, but smooth and unwavering. One position morphs to the next. Tishani rarely stands, but sitting or lying, when she faces the audience, her gaze is resolute and inquisitive.
Shaji John introduces an altogether different quality with his entrance about half way through the piece. Is it that he was a man so he did the percussive, strong kicks, his hand slapping his foot? Perhaps this is my skewed Western perspective. Although Chandralekha passed away last year, she is regarded as India's most controversial female choreographer. She said of the genders: "Today, women are subject to all kinds of domination, yet we have images in terra cotta and stone that tell of a time when our society was woman-centered."
Just as "Sharira" depicts contrast between male and female, it also presents interplay between vocals and visuals. In a quick conversation we had before the show, Tishani said that the musicians do not rehearse with the performers prior to the performance. On stage, while she created this slow, sustained quality of twisting and reaching – her calm concentration belying the intricacy of her poses – the musicians riffed through vocals, sounds rebounding from singer to singer as if in conversation.
The musicians' gestures were sometimes imploring, a hand seeming to beckon a sound to go longer or deeper, and I enjoyed this contrast between their subtle actions and the abstract shapes on stage. Tishani created positions familiar from yoga such as Akarna Dhanurasana or Archer's pose, but on her body, this became a defiant stance: the steady gaze of the eyes and controlled pull of her foot towards her ear, as if aiming. In another similarly simple but powerful moment, she held her palms to the audience and spread her fingers. Such a small movement but in the context, dramatic. Given the austere physicality of the piece, such a moment resonated.
Secrets of life in a woman‘s body
Chandralekha said of the piece: "‘Sharira' depicts the secrets of creation, the secrets of life in a woman's body. It is about the living body without compartments where sexuality, sensuality and spirituality exist together. The yoni hasta is crucial to it. The geometric forms, the story as told by the body which we take for granted make us aware of the body as a path towards a return to vast inner spaces of hidden resources."
I think that understanding "Sharira"'s different layers and impressions depends on our inquiry, on our frames of reference, perhaps our knowledge of yoga and Kalaripayattu, but the piece exists also as a visual and acoustic experience. In Tishani's first moments on stage she seemed to take a position and then change facings, like a jewel is rotated to admire its facets. I found it an apt metaphor for our different ways of seeing.