Padmini Chettur

Arts Practice

Grant Period: Over five months

Padmini Chettur is an acclaimed contemporary dancer, based in Chennai. Initially trained in Bharatanatyam under the stalwart Pandanallur Subbaraiya Pillai, she later was deeply influenced by dancer-choreographer Chandralekha and soon became part of her company, performing in some of Chandralekha’s most significant works till 2001. Subsequently, she created several solo works. Her earlier work called ‘Beautiful Thing 1’ was supported by an IFA grant in 2008.

This grant to Padmini supports her to create a performance piece that critically interprets a traditional Bharatanatyam varnam called Mohamana. The varnam in the traditional repertoire of Bharatanatyam occupies the central position of any performance. It is a masterful coming together of the narrative and the abstract within the form. ‘O, Beloved, how can you treat me like this.....’ says the Virahotkanthita Nayika (the heroine separated from and pining for her lover) in Mohamana – set in Bhairavi raga composed in the early 19th century by Ponniah of the Thanjavur Quartet.

It is extensively known how Bharatanatyam constructs the woman’s body and mind through the male gaze. Post-independence when sadir was reconstituted as Bharatanatyam, the eroticism, romance and devotion of the sadir was “stuffed in new bottles of divinity, virtuosity and unquestionable sanskritised discipline (was exerted) on the body and intellect of the dancers”, Padmini says in her proposal. She points out to how the form that was already laden with sexual objectification and heteronormativity, instead of being relevantly critiqued, was imposed with a new moral justification. The woman was essentially denied the right to express herself as an active human being with personal sexual preferences. Since then these layers of objectification have existed in the practice of mainstream Bharatanatyam.

Padmini learnt Mohamana as a child of seven and since it was the varnam she performed at her arangetram at twelve, she shares a special connect with it. However, at this juncture in her life, a revisit to Mohamana for Padmini is very significant. After many years of being a contemporary dance practitioner, she sees this as an attempt to find a meaningful process of de-objectification of the body. It is an attempt to approach and engage with the debates on aesthetics, sanskritisation and decolonisation. Questions are raised from the perspective of a collective of contemporary women dancers, as members of the larger society, in response to the existing stylisation in traditional movements, deeply embedded in the representations of Indian feminity in performance and in everyday life. It aims to explore a space devoid of hesitation or fear, where the woman dancer can discuss, debate and express her sexuality regardless of moral restrictions prescribed by tradition or text; where she can freely identify with certain parts of the traditional vocabulary and dispense with the others; where she can interpret and fuse these sections to fulfil her sense of creative synthesis. Hence this is an experiment to bridge the gap between the classical form and contemporary concerns of Indian culture and womanhood through critical observations.

In her earlier works, Padmini mostly focused on the ‘external’ space of the body and its abstract potential. Here she finds herself digging from within and reclaiming the narrative potential of the body.

Padmini will create this piece along with two Bharatanatyam dancers, two dancers with no background in Indian classical dance and one Kathak dancer. While in the traditional form, the dancer and the music narrate literal stories, here the performers search for the parallel - often dissonant - voices. The singing and the movements provoke a conversation about the history of dance, where the traditional movements of the varnam are eventually replaced by a contemporary body vocabulary. In order to reinterpret the text musically, Padmini is working with singer Brinda Manickavasagam. Brinda is not an accompanist for dance, so her interpretation of the text would add a fresh perspective to the existing traditional music framework. 

The work will premiere in December 2016 at the Kochi Biennale. Every cycle of the varnam is expected to be 30 minutes long. Six such cycles per day over a few weeks will be performed at the Biennale over a period of three months.

The deliverables from this grant to IFA will be still and video documentation of the performance.