A contemporary choreographic performance, looking at the relevance of the mudra (hand gestures) – seeking out their contemporaneity. A varnam is the central section of a Bharatanatyamdance 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 dancers sing the words, developing a particular body language with the jathis, created by an investigation of the inner distances and proximities of time and body-points.

‘Mohamana Varnam’ 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 this work, this Varnam that re-engages this iconic material and music, 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. Whereas in its traditional form, the dancer and the music tell simultaneous literal stories, here the performers search for parallel, often dissonant voices. Eventually the movement language that has been recognised for decades as the Varnam is replaced by a ‘body-vocabulary’ that matches the rawness that the music holds. It leads us closer and closer to an understanding of what Bharatanatyam is, when removed from its traditional context.

Duration : Film – 22 minutes, Performance – 3 loops of 60 minutes.


Music – Maarten Visser
Singer – Brindha Manickavasakan
Performers – Padmini Chettur, Aarabi Veeraraghavan, Aditi Bheda, Ramya Shanmugam, Sravanthi Vakkalanka, Madhushree Basu
Introductory text excerpts – Zasha Colah

Video Credits

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