The title of Padmini Chettur’s choreographic performance ‘Varnam’ references the taxing central piece in the Bharatnatyam repertoire. The varnam, considered a measure of the dancer’s ability in – and fidelity to – the form, literally means ‘letter’. Chettur reinterprets this to compose a language of the body.
“I have tried to transpose a physical vocabulary into the traditional Bharatanatyam lexicon. The body is an anatomical instrument in Varnam with the individual jathis (voice-movements), reconstructed. While there are many elements to the performance, it is really a work of bodies in spaces and of things that happen to bodies, between bodies and the space,” Chettur said.
If the conventional intent of the varnam is to convey the beauty, grandeur and soulfulness of worship in love, Chettur’s composition – which premiered during the ‘Opening Week’ of the ongoing third edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB) – loses none of the profundity in its explorations of eroticism, longing, loss and romantic love.
In a critique of the rigidity of classical Indian dance conventions, the new iteration explores the suffering and strength of the heroine who is abandoned by her lover. Using slow, deliberate movements, the performers mimic the sense of distance and longing while departing from the narrative of chaste victimhood.
The three-hour performance installation saw the Chennai-based Malayalee artist and her group of five dancers seated on chairs in David Hall with no restriction on audience movement. The week-long series followed a unique style, using specially created gestures and steps, popular songs as well as narration from texts by a number of contemporary writers that were in sync with the performance’s theme and tone.
Varnam has since been reconfigured into several 22-minute performances and displayed as a three-channel (16:9) video projection at David Hall for the duration of the Biennale. Despite the limits imposed by the format, Chettur said the video was sensitive to the multi-dimensional nature of the performance – a mixture of sound, energy and image.
“I present a radically altered take on the Mohamana Varnam, one of the form’s most iconic pieces, and added text. There are also sounds, visuals and the movement of the dancers in their own spaces,” said Chettur, who pointed out that the invocation of the dance form’s pièce-de-résistance and the upturning of its meaning is intended as an act of resistance.
No less structured or rigorous than the classical form, Chettur’s interpretation rejects the mythos and seductive aspects of Indian classical dance traditions in favour of a taut radical vision for what contemporary dance of India should be and look like.
“I don’t work with narratives anymore. In the last few years, I have been specifically interested in working in spaces such the Biennale: really taking the practice outside tradition and form to work with the walls and emptiness and deal with the idea of projecting energies,” said Chettur whose previous piece ‘Wall Dancing’ was created to be viewed in museums and galleries.
“It was a real challenge for me to bring the piece to the Bien
nale, to remove the formality from a very formal work, but it was eventually my choice and strategy to do it. In a way, this is exactly the platform to challenge the notions of putting live bodies into a space that is traditionally reserved for objects and images,” she said.
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