Although the well-known Bharatanatyam dancer Padmini Chettur is a professional in classical dance, she is more into experimenting with the dance style. Her previous productions Wings and Masks, Pushed, Wall Dancing and Kolam prove that! In a chat with DC, she opens up about Varnam — one such
“I am trying to convey many things through Varnam,” she starts. “First of all, my idea of working with Varnam came with a few starting points. One of the starting points was the growing concern that the larger contemporary dance movement in India seems to have either forgotten the traditions or don’t care about it. There seems to be a kind of mindless adoption of western contemporary practices, which I feel doesn’t connect to the country at all,” she says.
The second concern for Padmini was that the Bharatanatyam community itself has become more and more closed within themselves. “I have felt it since the time I started working with dancer Chandralekha in the 90s. It doesn’t engage with contemporary works. And I hoped that, by taking one of the most iconic pieces from the repertoire — Mohamana Varnam — and radically departing from its form, there would be some response,” she says.
“Also, the problem in this country with traditional art is that it seems to be closed off to certain communities. For instance, if you are a North Indian living in Chennai or a Syrian Christian, it is not easy to go for a Bharatanatyam class. There are certain communities in the country which have become so urbanised and westernised that I felt that I wanted to use the process of actually approaching the Varnam itself as a meeting point where this kind of encounter and discussion can take place,” she adds.
Padmini has adopted a unique mode of narration for Varnam. In the Sahithyam part of the Varnam, she has taken a popular song and has used the translated text of that song during the performance. “The text is talking about the lover the lord had abandoned for another woman. She asks how he can treat her like this. And she is explicitly talking about her longing for the lord. That was the starting point for the emotional ground of the piece,” she explains. Abandonment or loss is the core theme of the performance and Padmini has taken four to five texts by contemporary women writers, which are in tune with the theme. And, the dancers read the excerpts in between.
Besides, she has totally reconstructed the gestural movements in the piece. “In Varnam, you have jathis where you do the nrithya part, which is fully abstract. I have tried to replace the vocabulary of Bharatanatyam with a different physical vocabulary. It treats the body as an anatomical instrument and that part is shown on the dais. All the elements of jathis have been reconstructed and reassembled for Varnam,” she asserts.
Padmini is not worried about the responses. All she wants is to create a new dialogue. But, she is happy about the positive responses she received from Kochi. “Since the performance is three hours long, many people tend to leave in between and hence I don’t get to talk to them. But, there was a local gentleman who came to watch the performance two days in a row and his response really pleased me. He found it mesmerising and was happy that he could come and watch it easily since, usually, these are meant for the elite,” she concludes.