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Notions of beauty

HARSHINI VAKKALANKA
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INTERVIEW Padmini Chettur says her work stems from a resistance politic, a refusal to follow norms, a refusal to entertain, and a refusal to seduce

THE BEAUTY OF IT ALLSeeing the space within the bodyPICTURE COURTESY: SINGAPORE ARTS FESTIVAL
THE BEAUTY OF IT ALLSeeing the space within the bodyPICTURE COURTESY: SINGAPORE ARTS FESTIVAL

Minute, physical and slow are three words that have been used to describe (the movements in) Padmini Chettur’s recent performance of Beautiful Thing 2 as part of this year’s Attakalari Biennale.

The performance is characterised by these movements that Padmini executes in her latest and first solo project since 2003. The project was originally commissioned for the Singapore Arts Festival.

“I was reading something at that time that started to talk about how the object is that which is containing space. So with this idea of creating form, I started to look for very particular possibilities to visually see space within the body,” says Padmini who worked with dancer Chandralekha for ten years before starting off on her own.

She describes how she built the work to be seen in nine lines where each line was an approach to movement with the objective of retaining space. “For instance in the second line, I held a triangular space between my arm and the body and all the movement is tailored so that you can always keep that space. It was also about the idea of keeping parts of my body static and only allowing parts of it to move,” explains Padmini who has a background in Bharatanatyam, but is known to have stripped away all the embellishments of dance until what remains is movement.

“If I actually have to do the movements, it’s a very simple idea. But the idea of breaking it down to this minute detail takes time because I think there are a hundred things to do from here to there.”

Padmini, who is known for works like Pushe d, Beautiful Thing 1, and Paperdoll is always open about the different responses that her work receives — some tell her that the work is meditative while others get angry because the work unfolds slowly and they cannot handle it, being used to the fast pace of their lives.

“For me it says something about who we have become, and we have become surrounded by too much. So to just focus and allow ourselves to accept a simple visual proposition is difficult and I’m fully aware of it when I create my work.”

This is why, Padmini explains, she prefers to perform with smaller audiences who know what they have come to see, and come prepared. “My work totally falls apart if the audience is too cynical. This work has been so much more successful in India, oddly enough, whereas I have a reputation of always touring abroad. I feel things are changing for me with this work in India, where people are not cynical about performance.”

Padmini does not really like to talk about any messages that her work sends out because she believes that artists easily become didactic.

“I can sit here and say this is what I want to communicate. But it’s just words and what I want to communicate is there in the performance. The politic of the work is apparent, it’s a resistance politic. Many people define my work as being a refusal of things, that I refuse to go a certain way and follow the norms. I refuse to entertain and I refuse to seduce.” She says it’s now time for this resistance politic to seep into Indian society.

Padmini finds that her individualistic perspective does not easily lend itself to collaborations and though she recently worked on a collaboration with Germany’s Sasha Waltz in India, she was not entirely happy.

“I’m a little worried when I see these projects with the big embassies because I feel it s important at this stage for India to control somehow its own growth of contemporary dance so we don’t immediately become intimidated or get into this whole system of looking at what’s fashionable and what’s trendy in Europe,” she points out.

“But it has to be political, we can’t dissociate the post-colonial politics even today, it’s a sad thing. I say this because I came back from this Indo-German project. There were wonderful moments, but at the end of the day we’re left facing the facts that they’re coming with lakhs of German money and we don’t have anything.”

HARSHINI VAKKALANKA

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