Project Description

Varnam (2016)

The project ‘Varnam’ began as a work for film, commissioned by Steirischer Herbst (Graz 2016). It was then reconfigured into a three-hour performance work, premiering at the Kochi Muziris Biennale (2016). Now, in its third form, it will become a shorter work for stage.’

Varnam’ is a multi-layered deconstruction of a composition from the traditional Bharatanatyam repertoire. A weaving together of a narrative of an estranged lover with an abstract rhythmic poetry of syllables. This work, while retaining elements of the original, re-imagines the physical aesthetic of the classical, as well as drawing other texts of iconic women writers as a strategy to subvert the image of the tragic heroine that has become a problematic symbol of culture – traditional and popular.

Performance Credits:

Music – Maarten Visser
Videography – Manoj Leonel Jahson
Photography – Maarten Visser
Dancers – Aditi Bheda, Ramya Shanmugam, Madhusree Basu, Aarabi Veeraraghavan, Sravanthi Vakkalanka, Padmini Chettur
Supported by – India Foundation for the Arts

Varnam Film 

A film on a contemporary choreography, commissioned and produced by Steirischer Herbst and curated by Zasha Colah.

A 3-channel video projection, 16:9, 22 minutes, sound, colour (2016)

Excerpts of Curatorial text by Zasha Colah

“…Chettur has created a contemporary choreographic performance especially for video, looking at the relevance of the mudra gestures—seeking out their contemporaneity. A ‘varnam’ is the central section of a Bharatanatyam dance performance, made up of two types of dance: one narrative, made up of sung words; the other—the ‘jathi’, an abstraction of voice and rhythm, for pure movement. The first is shot in colour, the dancers sing the words, in costumes made up of shades of dull red, the second is shot in black-and-white, and is the development of a particular body language created by Chettur’s investigation of the ‘inner distances and proximities’ of time and body-points. Chettur interrogates the ‘Mohamana Varnam’ which is set in in Bhairavi Ragam, composed in the early-19th century by Ponniah of the Tanjore Quartet. It enters the complex psychology of the heroine, a pining figure, with longing words of love. Drenched in romantic and unabashed erotic language, it opens: ‘O, beloved, how can you
treat me like this…’. The heroine is the ‘Virahotkanthita Nayika’, one separated from her lover, a story of lost love, abandonment and suffering commonly found in the Indian classical dance repertoire; or in some interpretations it symbolises the relationship of the devotee with the divine. ‘‘In my work on this Varnam that re-engages this iconic material and music, a group of five dancers—some classically trained, others not—begin to unravel and re-physicalise the meaning of the text. The dancers bring references of contemporary texts and contribute their own personal voices of womanhood, body and sexuality, at the same time keeping in mind the long history of a distinctively stylised ‘physicalisation’ associated with the original text. Thus this contemporary process of revisiting ‘Mohamana’ involves critiquing the content, welcoming or ignoring references as per relevance and proposing compositional possibilities that lay bare a musical masterwork for the audience, far removed but not decontextualised from its traditional content.’’ (All quotations, PC, email, 2016)…’’

Film Credits

Music – Maarten Visser
Singer – Brindha Manickavasakan
Introductory text excerpts – Zasha Colah
Voice – Gayatri Ramesh
Sound recording – Sean Bout at the Outhouse Studio, Chennai
Direction – Sara
Photography – Sara, Maarten Visser
Cinematographer – Sripad
Assistant cinematographers – Anujan, Vijay Sundararaman
Editor – Rahman, Evanescence Studios
Commissioned and produced by Steirischer Herbst
Curated by Zasha Colah
Performers – Aditi Bheda, Ramya Shanmugam, Madhushree Basu, Aarabi Veeraraghavan, Sravanthi Vakkalanka