Deconstructing the classical

Screen to life: Varnam began as a work for film and later evolved into a longer choreographical work

Screen to life: Varnam began as a work for film and later evolved into a longer choreographical work  

Choreographer Padmini Chettur investigates the compositional structure of the Bharatanatyam varnam in her eponymous work

The varnam is often the longest piece in a Bharatanatyam recital. Through sparse text, the dancer constructs a narrative that is bolstered by emphasis, repetition and elaboration. The sung verse is interspersed by oft-unrelated sections of pure dance that showcase the strength and clarity of her technique. In a speech, the dancer Balasaraswati likened the varnam to the sanctum sanctorum of a temple, a continuum that simultaneously allowed for creativity and tradition, offering the dancer a space for artistic self-fulfilment. It is this compositional structure, so central to Bharatanatyam, that choreographer Padmini Chettur seeks to deconstruct into several layers in her performance work Varnam.

As a Bharatanatyam-trained dancer, Chettur worked with the choreographer Chandralekha through the nineties. She brings a frugal aesthetic to her own work as a choreographer, creating dynamic images in space while emphasising on the precision and economy of form. Varnam began as a work for film, a triptych that combines crisp movement studies with the recitation of rhythmic syllables, fragmented snatches of movement from the Bharatanatyam choreography of the Mohamana varnam, and readings of texts by women writers, among other layers. The 22-minute film later evolved into a longer choreographic work. Instead of standing with their feet together, taut-backed, with their senses on edge – a basic stance from Bharatanatyam, in Chettur’s iteration, six dancers sit on chairs, their arms resting on their thighs, retaining a formality of stance even as they subvert it.

In choosing to work with tangible form and content from Bharatanatyam, Chettur was curious to see if it was possible to evolve a contemporary idiom out of something that felt “old and set in stone”. She says, “I can’t say I was eager or excited by the idea of looking at narrative again. I just feel like there is still so much potential (in the classical vocabulary). I might not be the person to do that work. People are always talking about the narrative versus the abstract in Bharatanatyam. They are displayed next to each other but they don’t intervene or interfere with each other. Nobody questions that; they’re just so compartmentalised,” she says about the structure of the varnam.

The senses are on edge in a different way as one watches Chettur’s work. It’s rather like watching a thriller on an old black and white television set, with its constant, rippling static. You willingly submit to a test of patience. Something is constantly changing, though it takes you a while to recognise these shifts. There are no grand or expansive gestures. There are long pauses. There are faces, clinically devoid of emotion. There is intimacy in the detail of their physicality. Alienation is a powerful device – translated into English, the text of the varnam – “sybaritic Tyagesha”, who inhabits a “refined, divine realm” – highlights its separation from its usual contexts.

In working on Varnam, Chettur tried to arrive at the essence of the narrative. “If I had to look at it as one emotional quality, it’s about a certain kind of loss and distancing. The distancing of the lover, or of the body from its emotions. In the process of making the piece, I allow for that emotional quality to conjure certain moments. I urge the dancers to look for the feeling of the narrative rather than expressing it narratively. At other moments, I stay with the gestural motifs of the original varnam. I often try to create a separation between all the elements. I don’t ever allow the emotional intention to be along with the mudras, the way we would normally see it,” Chettur explains, while talking about layering elements and motifs from the composition in her work.

It is hard to resist comparing the short movement studies, performed solo by various dancers, to the jatis or pure dance interludes found in the compositional structure of the varnam. While the text of the varnam allows for a continuity of narrative, the jatis are time-outs from the act of making meaning – an opportunity for the dancer to disengage from the emotional essence of the narrative.

Yet, in the act of deconstruction, Chettur is particular about wanting to retain a clarity of language. “I could have played the jati and asked people to spin or jump or run,” she says. But none of these actions are imbued with an even tenor. To replace the original aesthetic of the Bharatanatyam varnam, Chettur needed a new, equally cohesive movement aesthetic that could be sustained for the duration of the piece.

While the chairs and the dancers create a constancy of image in Varnam, the sectioned structure of the varnam allowed for discontinuous viewership, accounting for an audience that might not watch the piece from beginning to end. “The piece was created for a longer format showing but has never converted itself into a work for the proscenium. It is still very much about its sculptural potential and about the, image,” she points out. In adapting a piece made for film to a live performance work, Chettur’s work on Varnam also broaches certain questions about spectatorship.

Varnam will be performed on January 27 and January 28 at the MMB Gallery, Kala Ghoda at 6.30 p.m.; entry is free but limited; email Anne-Sophie.Ritscher.extern to book a seat

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Printable version | Feb 20, 2020 11:34:04 AM |

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