In conversation with M. Natesh for ‘Seminar Magazine’. Natesh is a visual artist, who has worked in the performance arts. Chettur and Natesh both live and work in Chennai and for the last two decades have followed each other’s work and exchanged thoughts and ideas on contemporary practise.
Natesh : Do you remember the moment that pushed you to make ‘your own work’ either at variance from your current practice then, or something totally fresh? What were the factors? [Mine was banal… the final years at college to do ‘creative’-hahaha-work when six years is way too long of an epic college life.]
Padmini : In 1990, I started my work with Chandralekha. My experience as a dancer in a group, under the gaze of an astounding visual eye, was of a body becoming the image. There was so much attention to line, to the space around the body, to the source of spine. At a certain moment I started to feel a similar disconnect (which ironically was resolved in my later work with Chandra) to the one that led me away from Bharatanatyam. I had a sense that I wanted to feel my humanity again within the form. I wanted to explore areas that were not about ‘power’ and strength, perfection and wholeness. This is what eventually took me to ‘Fragility’ in 2000, a quartet in which all the dancers came straight out of a Bharatanatyam practice. A work that very much looked at discomfort, a tension of asymmetry, almost a stopping of time, a fragmentation of phrase. I think this was a turning point, and it was also the last work where I actually ‘gave’ movement to dancers. After this from ‘Paperdoll’ in 2005, I started to look at more collective processes of vocabulary building.
N : Do you have specific list of productions?
P : In 2008, I created ‘Beautiful Thing 1’, and then ‘Beautiful Thing 2’ in 2011. These were years in which I felt that the obvious political/social commentary in dance would actually have no impact. It was a moment for me to see the body more essentially for what it was and to focus on
the visual and compositional elements of my practice. In my text I said that all I wanted to do was to create a Beautiful Thing. Later of course the study of the nature of ‘beauty’ in the work was something that led to its own political ideas, and those persisted through ‘Wall Dancing’ (2013),
which is a durational work that looks equally at time and performativity in ‘radical’ ways.
N : Can you discuss in detail the creative mobility of the end product? I presume that intellect which is actually archiving the results of human-intelligence’s efforts focuses on the product’s process in all its mushy organic nature… I mean series by series or production by production. We need to do it as some kind of a fun trip instead of going into the right or wrong of it. You know I disown ‘the self’ called Natesh immediately after my shows open – hence failing to promote them.
P : I’m not sure the words ‘creative’ and ‘mobility’ work together to describe what in actual fact is for me the most tedious aspect of my work – the touring. In the first 10 years or so of my career, I think that my definition of ‘success’ was to do with emulating a model that I knew well. Being invited to festivals and theaters, being able to afford a space, paying the dancers’ salaries etc. A few well-meaning, but fickle European curators falsely held up the entire economic premise of my work. The problem was that there was no real support or foundation for the practice to survive like this. It was like simultaneously running a free training studio, working to train very raw bodies for years, throwing them onto the big stages of Europe and then starting all over from scratch.
At the same time, nothing much was changing within the country. The IFA remained as problematic as a funding body, institutions like Kalakshetra remained as closed and suspicious of the contemporary, and our rich patrons of the art prefer to invest in foreign spectacles.
So, since 2010, I have stopped trying to be a one-person institution. That I have no overheads means there is no pressure on my pace of work or its content. The small handful of people who have always followed my work continue to and I’ve stopped thinking about ‘selling’
and marketing my work or myself.
N : Till you started traveling abroad, I was doing the lights and some backdrops for you. So, what’s your take on such interference aka collaboration? Special directives (sets etc.) and light as a major punctuation/interference/intrusion/moment/definition and moment-memory-registration in audience. How do you rate it? How much do you wish to collaborate?
P : Again, I think as choreographers, we inherit so much baggage and we spend a lot of our professional lives doing things a certain way because of the ‘marketability’ of that way. Between 2003 and 2013, I created 9 or 10 works for the stage. I never worked much with sets; a few works had backdrops created by Sumant Jayakrishnan with whom I closely collaborated in 3 Solos (2003) and Paperdoll (2005). The need to ‘dress-up’ the work was also an expectation of the mainstream spaces. And so, through Pushed (2006, lit by Zuleikha Allana), and Beautiful Thing 1 and Beautiful Thing 2 (both lit by Jan Maertens), the work with light became more and more complex and present.
Of course, one chooses these visual/aural collaborators for a reason, and then one is open to their interpretations of one’s work. With BT2 in 2011, it became evident that I also needed to create simultaneously a stripped down ‘studio’ version. I didn’t like to be living in this context, dependent on certain unsustainable technological requirements. I like to work in parallel like this. In very bare spaces and sometimes, in very over-lit ones!
Since Fragility, my most stable collaborator has been the composer Maarten Visser – his work on sound has been a very important part of my own aesthetic. I think it was very important for me to do this work on sound with someone who was equally interested in developing new
techniques in his own work and someone who would really spend time following the processes in my studio. I’ve always created my work in silence with normally a very strong rhythmic grid. Maarten has over the years found a very beautiful way to translate the visual into the aural in a
way that they both read as two voices together. All his work is acoustic, and he works with instruments in ways that retain a real rawness and grittiness in what we hear. The result together with the movement creates huge tension in a space, and also an incredible silence in moments.
And finally, though I speak more about this later – the dancers who interpret my work. I’ve never been very attracted to creating solos. A large part of my choreographic thinking on structure has had to do with looking at tension – tension between bodies, between the larger collection of bodies and the surrounding space. I love the very particular harmony of bodies being together, and the potential dissonance when they aren’t. Dance is for me essentially about these narratives between the multiple presences of bodies in a space and therefore to tell the narratives well, the interpreters have a huge task. And I think that this is much greater when the score is abstract. I’ve been very lucky to have worked with some special minds – Krishna Devanandan, Preethi Athreya, Sujata Goel, Anoushka Kurien, Akila, Aarabi – to name a few.
N : Do you remember emotion turmoil with particular actors or dancers? Does that or did that make you restructure the dynamics of your work? Do you see it as a compromise? Are you unhappy with a few productions when you recollect. All my installations are failures. I regret doing them and having to do them. Though the product makes me happy… a few of them because of the memories from the process, from building them.
P : With every dancer there has been some kind of struggle. I don’t see this as a struggle between the dancer, and myself but I am more a catalyst for them to undergo a process of struggle within themselves. At first the physical language of my work often asks them to forget their past, to re-imagine the body. To rethink their alignment. The simplicity of the form I work with looks for a certain de-cluttering not only of body, but mind as well. To be still, to concentrate, to remain precise, to be open to fellow dancers.
From one production to the next, I think I’ve also been evolving and adapting my way of working and communicating. We are living in a time when the old guru-shishya hierarchies and feudalism will not work. We can’t just demand and expect results; we must convince and individualize the processes. It’s also always been my choice and preference to work with more mature ‘thinking’ dancers, and therefore questioning and conflict is part of the studio dynamic.
Compromise? Yes, there have been moments when it could have been better, but on the other hand I’ve never been that interested in perfection. And especially in this context where there are no ‘ready-made’ dancers, where the technique and form are being created together during the choreographic process. At a certain point one realizes that that particular investigation is complete. The concerns that are left over are carried to the next work, or even maybe to the next series of performances. So perhaps, unlike for many visual artists, performative work is more ongoing, not so much about the finished product. And one is always prepared for the numerous erratic factors that make some performances special and others not!
N : Any memory of public life/events/angst that shaped a particular work?
P : My own personal life has been the space within which most of the movement towards dance has happened. When I was six, I lost my father and my family moved to India. I’d say that my early engagement with dance was escapist, a looking for a world as different from the more academic home I grew up in. At 17, I decided to study chemistry. For the next four years, I was immersed and excited by the logic and sense of patterning I discovered in organic chemistry. At 20, meeting Chandralekha was a huge turning point. I’d say that being with her was the only way I understood what it meant to be an artist. To live the life of the arts. In her work space I understood how the internal and external live together in dance.
In 1992 (I was 22) I was the victim of a very violent physical assault, which perhaps led to my first solo ‘Wings and Masks’. It was Chandra at the time that helped me to understand that this experience could be processed rather than me becoming closed through it. Another important time for me was in 1998. I decided to have my first child as a single unwed mother, in the same year that my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
I began work then on ‘Fragility’ (2000), a very quiet work looking very deeply at this line between balance and imbalance, control and the loss of it.
For the next few years, I was very busy with looking at ways of developing the language. I think this was always more important to me than the specific content of a particular work. Some people call me a structuralist! I have to agree with them. I strongly believe in the power of structures to express and communicate something that’s far more profound than a literal point of view or a ‘theme’. And in dance, there are so many layers of structure to deal with. The internal structure of the body, the structure of relationships between bodies, structures in time, even the performative qualities of a work have to do with structures of tension and emotion.
In 2008, after the birth of my second daughter, I unapologetically made ‘Beautiful Thing 1’! This is a moment when I felt I could very openly and without embarrassment state my artistic intention. To work on the skeleton of dance in its most pure, unadorned form. To look at this space between beauty and radicalism. To externalize the interior.
N : Which major ‘ism’ or social imbalance finds a place in your work – triggering or remaining as a residue? Or just entertainment?
P : In the early 1990s, the workplace of Chandra was a space where German expressionists would visit frequently, and as a young dancer, hungry to learn, I would constantly look at the systems of movement they worked with. So I’d say that initially people like Suzanne Linke, Reinhild Hoffman were very big influences. I’ve always said that those 10 years of working with Chandra was my school. Wherever we travelled she made sure we saw the right things, visited museums and archival spaces. At the same time at her rehearsal space in Chennai, artists like Dashrath Patel, Vishwanadhan were a part of the ongoing development of work. The women’s movement was also a very large part of the discourse for Chandra. After these 10 years of assimilating, when I began to articulate my own practice, I was very drawn to abstract expressionism in the visual arts, and to the minimalist composers. I was very excited by movements that relied less on information, more on a kind of non-virtuosic form through which
something beyond what we can express through language was being communicated. So, I drew a lot of my understanding of composition from music and writing. For me this notion of translating from the other arts made sense, also because beyond a point, there were very few choreographers
whose works I found inspiring.
I’ve never been drawn to the idea of an obvious political agenda that attaches itself to works of art almost as an afterthought. Or as a way to describe the intention of an artist. As artists, we live in a world constantly trying to make sense of our positions within it, and our final response is often through our art, in my case the performing body. And I hope that the politics of my performing body becomes apparent through its own presence. Starting from the departure from classical narratives, to the persistence of an alternate temporality. From its anti-seductive muscular physicality to its un-aggressiveness.
I think that in India one is also constantly dealing with the politics of colonialism and exoticism. So in a sense, what makes the work so much about the navigation of tension. Why the work confronts so many stereotypical expectations. Entertainment? The predominant elements that re-occur in my work have been what people refer to as a ‘reductionism’. An intense engagement with slowness of time. At the same time for me, I’m constantly trying to sustain tension. The viewer can never just sit back and be ‘entertained’. The viewer must remain active in a certain way, if not they cannot ‘enter’ the work. So for a majority of people my work is dismissed as too hard, or too boring. I’ve since a long time reconciled myself to not being a mass entertainer…! And I don’t apologize for this. The Akram Khans of this world fulfil this need and they do it really well.
N : Do you remember what physical object/person/event/encounter shaped a particular work? I say, ‘mating’ is the only physical thing; the rest is metaphysical? What about fighting?
P : In 1993, my first solo ‘Wings and Masks’ used a canvas of C. Douglas by the same name as a starting point. K. Pravin who was from theatre directed the piece. We played with these images to create a long improvisation that was probably very bad! My next few works, ‘Brown’,
‘Unsung’ all had some similar starting image, or text. When I look back at this phase between ’93 and ’99, it was the moment when I was really just looking for a way to work. Re-orienting my body to the kind of work I later did. So somehow, the starting points weren’t so important, where they took me in terms of my physical research was. In ‘99, Fragility was the beginning of the next phase where the concept and form of the work were intrinsically linked. ‘Paperdoll’ (2005) used the metaphor of a thin strip of paper-dolls to deal with the tenuous link between bodies within the
frame of a fixed space, so physically dealing a lot with ‘dependence’ and the idea of connected bodies. Pushed (2006) explored a certain way of categorizing emotion. My starting point here was a lot of personal text on emotion that came from the dancers themselves. Beautiful Thing 1 (2008) was a collaboration with poet Vivek Narayanan. Here the spoken word became the ‘object’ of the work. Some works have grown out of circumstance. In 2013, I found myself in a very small rehearsal space, with many interesting corners and wall surfaces. The only piece I could make there was Wall Dancing, which is a work in which the performers stay in contact with the periphery of the room. Often I start work with a question. For my solo
Beautiful Thing 2 (2011), I asked myself how the body could carry its internal spaces from one point to another? This question is often enough for me to created the material for the work.
N : Have other aspects like smell and touch made you build a particular part of any work?
P : No. I think I’m quite primarily a cerebral maker of dance works. In actual fact, most of the time, I’m not so interested in what the movement is. Therefore, in my processes, I offer a question to my dancers. A very simple question, that doesn’t allow for too many things to go wrong. It’s what I make of the material, and then later, the quality with which that material is performed that makes the choreography work – or not. Of course, at this interpretive stage, performers might make their own associations between the movement and their personal memories/sensory experiences. This is not important or necessary for me to know. It’s perhaps what helps them to own the dance; it is their point of view.
N : Looking back, are there aspects of prime of youth that decided the ‘quality’ of your work?
P : Between the years ‘95 till ‘99, in between the productions with Chandra, I spent a few months at a time every year in Europe. Sometimes just attending classes and workshops, a couple of times working with choreographers. I didn’t necessarily enjoy these times and the work was mostly mediocre. Yet, this time was an important one because it put me in an environment of discomfort. The physical knowledge I had already felt a little shaky. The much more analytical, anatomical pedagogic methods of the west were intimidating. Yet this period gave me huge clarity. I knew then that to merely adopt and assimilate the western practices into my own would be of no use. I also knew that for my own personal reasons of usefulness, that several things I knew had to be unlearnt in order to open up possibilities for myself in terms of form and vocabulary. This was the starting point of a four-year research period with Krishna Devanandan that led to Fragility in 2000.
N : What aspect of ‘physicality’ is primary for the animalism of your rigour?
P : I’ve always wondered about the ‘need’ to move. In this context I’ve always found it necessary to clarify constantly this ‘need’ within my own dance space. In order to find this clarity, I define and specify as many parameters as possible. So in other words, the body moving is defined as precisely as a scientific experiment. The starting and ending point, the line drawn, the qualities and most importantly the visual space that movement displaces attempt to be precise.
This search is also limitless, for the body has perhaps a thousand possibilities of performing any action. So, in this context the rigour has partly to do with choosing and knowing the mechanics rather than relying on a mechanical virtuosity or habitual patterns.
I’ve also always felt that the body can only express its own ‘bodiness’. This is the ‘animalism’ of body quality as well as the animalistic logic that is often commented on in my work. A sense of ‘moving’ without trying to express. The anatomical research together with a more unscientific thinking of what the body actually is. These potentialities of the body in movement, unmoving even, are what propel me to work. This is perhaps far more urgent than the making of dance performances.
Image credit : M. Natesh