December 12, 2017
One of the six works presented at the inaugural edition of Asia Focus, at Museum of Modern Contemporary Art (MMCA) Seoul was Varnam by Chennai-based choreographer Padmini Chettur. This choreographic piece of six dancers marks the first time for Padmini to revisiting Bharatanatyam, an Indian dance form that she trained for years and yet which movement vocabulary – bafflingly – barely traceable in her previous contemporary choreographies.
If I jolt my memory, I still remember rather vividly my own impression watching Padmini’s work for the first time in 2006, when she performed 3 Solos at Indonesian Dance Festival (IDF), in Jakarta (Indonesia). 3 Solos struck me as an abstract dance, a rigorous study of movement in its minutiae that seems to stretch the time than a Bharatanatyam-informed choreography with its distinctly known rhythm. Unlike the expressive Bharatanatyam, 3 Solos looks more like a flowing movement meditation. I enjoyed every gesture in that piece and relished how my body and breath, too, slow down in effect. Afterwards, her subsequent body of work was circulated more elsewhere – Europe mainly – and by 2007 when I listened to her talk at the Asian Dance Conference in Tokyo, I was among those few who feared that we lost her to the other side.
Varnam was first a three-screened dance film commissioned by Steirische Herbst festival in Graz, Switzerland. It was then reconfigured to be a performance premiered last year at Kochi Muziris Biennale (India) as a durational piece that loops for three hours inside what I would imagine a closed-, intimate gallery space where audiences were free to come and go as they pleased. For Asia Focus at MMCA Seoul, the piece reincarnated into another version of gallery setting of the previous, but, instead of being performed in a boxed gallery, it took place at the main open hall connecting the galleries – a high-ceilinged space flooded by natural light where people pass by. At this high, open and in-between, transiting space, Padmini set Varnam to be an hour piece adapting the clear structure of the durational version but with omitting the loop. Audiences were seated either on square cushion on the floor or on the low stool.
At the heart of Varnam lays four read-out texts as the bone, interlacing with the movements that frame the structure and the overall rhythm. Spoken out in clear utterance and calm tone (with Korean subtitles on two TV screens), the original text reveals the subversive trait of the original, South-Indian, pre-Bharatanatyam dance form which is called sadir/attam/kuttu in its various regional names. It is rooted in the practice of devadasi – the temple dancers – baby girls of low caste who were offered to the temple and symbolically marry with the deities. They were used to have the king as their patron, until the British stripped off this patronage, causing their social/cultural status to descend and shatter at the feet of Indian’s colonial modernity. Through a very intricate complex history of devadasi figure – of destruction and resurrection – sadir reemerged as Bharatanatyam (literally means Indian dance), right at the height of Indian nationalism of the 1930s. By the 1960s, the new dance was rigorously promoted to the West as Indian dance par excellence as part of the national project. It is a dance form with such a complex-at-times contentious history, and I am not going to pretend that I am well-versed in it.
Modern Indian dance historians hailed Bharatanatyam as “the quintessential national dance of Indian nation” (Meduri, 1996); it wasn’t until the mid 1980s/early 1990s, scholars like Meduri requestions its transformation. As a dance and choreographic language, Bharatanatyam has been adapted, borrowed, fused and transformed by many modern and contemporary choreographers. Much attention has been paid into its movement vocabulary, the mudras, and even to abhinaya (the facial expression), but the core of its narrative and dramaturgic language embodied in varnam has probably been barely addressed.
My quick and superficial reading on varnam – the embodied sung lyrics rooted in Carnatic music tradition and central to Bharatanatyam dramaturgy – is far from sufficient to offer a rich interpretation. But Padmini’s Varnam struck me as about putting this subversive narrative back to centre, which eventually leads back to the painful erasure of the erotic elements in devadasi dance (temple dancer). Historically, this moment was symbolically embodied in a rare encounter of Balasaraswati and Rukmini Devi in one panel discussion that my Ph.D supervisor Avanthi Meduri once told me, during which Bala, it was said, asked Rukmini about the erasure of the erotic. The celebrated Balasaraswati belonged to a devadasi line whilst Rukmini is the embodiment of the cosmopolitan Brahmin, both are accorded to the resurrection of Bharatanatyam.
In Varnam, Padmini has resurrected this silenced erotic articulation through the enunciated texts read by the dancers. She has carefully selected two key texts: the original varnam titled Mohamana by Ponniah Pilai (early 19th century) and Ninnu Juda, a kshettrayya padam taken from a Bharatanatyam repertoire – both newly translated by a contemporary poet Vivek Narayanan. Then in each version of Varnam, she juxtaposed these two with a selection of women authors chosen by the dancers themselves. For the one in MMCA Seoul, they chose Lilith by Anais Nin and Ten Dancing Princesses by Jeanette Winterson.
Varnam still retains all traits attributed to Padmini’s body of work. The movement is clean, the structure is clear. Its abstract quality is maintained, even in the rhythmic repetitive mudras; the pace and timing are carefully measured. The body emerges, although not stripped bare down to its minimal movement. It seems that using Bharatanatyam as a language lends certain accessibility to the work, perhaps even for those who are not familiar with it. As I commented so to her, Padmini gave her nod but also quickly asserted that not all of her dancers trained in the dance form, or knew more about Bharatanatyman than the average audience in India. Thus, this piece provides her a chance to introduce the dance form to her non-Bharatanatyam-trained dancers whilst at the same time, it also reintroduced her to the Indian’s apparently fragmented dance scene (of classical versus contemporary), especially to its even smaller contemporary dance community by opening that slight door into her creative source that is actually always rooted at home.
In retrospect, as I write now – weeks after watching the performance in Seoul – it dawns on me that Varnam somehow resonates an embodied, choreographic vibration of Chandralekha’s Sharira (2001), now a historical piece originally created with Padmini Chettur as one of the main duo. Both Varnam and Sharira centre on the female sexuality and eroticism but approaching it through different path: one through Bharatanatyam and the other through yoga/kalaripayattu.
 I solely rely on my fading memory of the classes I had attended back in University of Roehampton between September 2008 to 2010. There is no recording nor notes to pin down the details.