Chandralekha, legendary dancer from south India, discards the devotional elements of dance for passionate, body-oriented movements. And the effect is electrifying

What would you call a dancer who is iconoclastic? Who exudes raw power and pathos, the earthy and the sublime simultaneously? Who unites Bharatanatyam, yoga and kalarippayyat in a single mind-blowing step? Chandralekha, of course.

You can't escape the charm. Silver hair. Dark kohl-rimmed eyes. A bright vermilion dot on the forehead. There is motion in the deep lines of her face—smiling this instant, frowning the next.

Not that it makes any difference. When you meet Chandralekha, all you notice are the fiery eyes, throbbing with restrained power in her lithe body. Dancer she definitely is—it ripples around her as she moves.

Student of renowned Bharatnatyam teacher, Guru Kancheepuram Ellappa Pillai, Chennai-based dancer-choreographer Chandralekha has been known for reinterpreting classical traditions in dance and developing a unique sequence of signature movements. You can't mistake a Chandralekha composition. Stark sets, often set off by a single object—giant projection of a blinking eye, geometrical figures, a Shiva lingam, a scarlet rectangle representing the universal menstrual flow of creation. All these while her troupe of male and female dancers position themselves in intimate postures.

It could be called obscene but for the masterly execution of each step, the subtle beauty of restrained erotica. In Yantra, inspired by Adi Shankaracharya's Soundaryalahiri and appropriately subtitled 'dance diagrams', the perception of beauty is related to an awareness of the body, both in its spiritual and sexual manifestations, and is expressed through geometrical patterns created by the dancers, signifying male and female energies.

Chandralekha, a dancing legend in the '50s, moved away from the performing scene after adecade of success, rejecting the sublimated brahminical content of post-Natyashastra dance and its market entertainment value. During this period, she busied herself with writing, designing, multimedia projects and women's and human rights movement. Her return to the stage was marked by the East West Dance Encounter in 1984 in Bombay, western India, where she presented three of her productions with the help of students from Kalakshetra.