Chandrabhanu in a 2010 performance of Dancing Sun and Moon.

Chandrabhanu in a 2010 performance of Dancing Sun and Moon. Photo: Prashaanth Ravindran

If you were going to compare Melbourne dancer Dr Chandrabhanu to Hindu iconography, an apt choice would be Durga, the 10-headed warrior goddess.  

After all, he is at once a beloved teacher, contemporary choreographer, Indian arts advocate, proud Melburnian and pioneer of the gay movement in a notoriously conservative community.

Religious images aside, it is fair to say the 64-year-old Malaysian-born Chandrabhanu has in his own words, never made it easy for himself.

In the '80s and '90s Chandrabhanu and his partner the late visual artist Geoffrey Goldie, headed up the commercially and critically successful Bharatam Dance Company. Since its dissolution in 1994, his performances have become fewer and less well publicised.

His school, the Bharatalaya Academy, on Richmond’s Swan Street, continues to produce dancers (of which this writer counts herself a graduate) and today a new generation are trying to make their mark, with a youth company formed - the Jambudvipa troupe.

For Chandrabhanu, who is starting to wind down performing to spend more time choreographing, the old fights are still well and truly alive. “I don’t think of it as Indian dance. To me, it’s just dance,” he explains, backdropped  by Goldie’s paintings in the mid-19th century cottage they shared in Richmond.

“In the early years, that’s the thing I had to fight. Famous choreographers like [American] Merce Cunningham would admit that they have got things from other cultures, but I had to take offence to that word 'other cultures'. It’s not other cultures, it's just cultures.”

Has much changed? Has the war been won? “To be honest, I don’t think those views have changed that much,” he says.

Chandrabhanu admits that until he met Goldie at the age of 22, Australia, the country he had come to complete his master's and later his PhD in anthropology, did not feel like home. “It was only when I went out to Port Fairy, to the farm where his mother had raised eight children including Geoffrey and his twin brother, that’s when I realised what Australian culture was about. The pioneering spirit, the life on the farm.”

With Goldie’s support, Chandrabhanu set up the school and later the company. “Nothing would have been possible without Geoffrey because he was the one who came to one of my early performances and said to me ‘you’re wasting your time with anthropology, you’re a dancer'.’’

Goldie, who had studied under modernist George Bell, later adopted Indian themes and motifs that became part of the Bharatam dance company’s signature sets.

It has been seven years since Goldie passed away but the loss is still clearly felt by Chandrabhanu. Goldie’s portrait adorns the school’s studio and every performance Chandrabhanu puts on.

“I don’t miss working so hard, but I do miss having someone to talk about my projects with. Now I have to think, ‘What would Geoffrey think?'”

The pair were also at the vanguard of gay acceptance. Chandrabhanu notes they were the subject of an article about relationships in The Age in 1974, a time when homosexuality was still illegal.

“In a way the openness that Geoffrey and I had helped a lot of people especially Indian parents to come to terms with homosexuality,” he says, “you’re not evil and you’re not criminal.”

Chandrabhanu's self-acceptance and self-belief is something one gets the sense has been crucial to his success; his was a fully formed identity at a time when there was no one like him in Australia.

“What do you see when you come to one of my shows? You see an androgynous dancer on stage. That was very important for me to preserve. I’m both male and female, and I think all of us are.”

This androgyny is a style his mostly female students have inherited and it's something he hopes comes through in a new performance of The Navagraha being staged by Jumbudvipa.

“We premiered this show at the Arts Centre in 1991 and then restaged it in 1996. I’ve completely reworked it this time, because we have 18 dancers, a big cast for us and I’m actually quite proud of it.”

On top of the young cast, Chandrabhanu himself will be putting his 64-year-old body through the paces to revive a dance about Saturn, the planet he was born under.

“I can’t let anyone else do that dance. People are scared of Saturn [a planet with a dark reputation in Indian astrology], but they shouldn’t be.”

Navagraha: The Planets of Destiny is at the Darebin Arts Centre on July 19 and 20. www.darebinartscentre.com.au