Philosophy meets physics in Padmini Chettur’s world-premiere choreography ‘Philosophical Enactments 1’

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

Padmini Chettur

Padmini Chettur is coming to Toronto. The boundary-stretching contemporary dancer based in Chennai, India will premiere ‘Philosophical Enactments 1’ at Contemporaneity 3.0, a new presenting series by Anandam Dancetheatre in partnership with Toronto Dance Theatre, which features new works and works-in-progress by artists practising in Asian, African, Latin American, Arab and Indigenous dance forms. Anandam’s Artistic Director Brandy Leary has conceived the series to “reclaim contemporary dance to mean contemporary dance, as in current, present-day, and not limited to the Euro-centric picture”. In addition to ‘Philosophical Enactments 1’, the program includes ‘Reclaiming My Time’ by the Toronto-based intersectional collective Mix Mix, as well as ‘Svāhā Study’ by Nova Dance, led by Toronto dance artist Nova Bhattacharya.

Seeing Chettur’s works in this context will be revelatory for many, not the least for audiences whose ideas of Indian classical dance involve kohl-eyed, bejewelled dancers in vividly-hued costumes, elaborating narration through precise mudras and intricate footwork to propulsive music. Chettur’s work is something else entirely. Trained in Bharatanatyam, she began her contemporary dance career with landmark choreographer Chandralekha. Chandralekha’s dance philosophy and melding of Bharatanatyam with yoga and kalaripayattu, a martial art originating in Kerela, deconstructed the classical dance form, making her choreographies both startling and avante garde. Chettur co-created Chandralekha’s final and choreography, Sharira, with kalaripayattu artist Shaji John in 2000, one year prior to embarking as a solo artist.

Her unique choreographic practice is grounded in extensive research, and concerns the constant refining of form, characterized by a minimalist aesthetic far removed from preconceptions of Indian classical dance. So audiences of Chettur’s works should prepare for a refreshing departure: they will not see a classical dance from India. Instead, they will witness a process which focuses on the form and movement of the body – its geometric and physical possibilities encountering time and space. Set to a sound score by Maarten Visser, ‘Philosophical Enactments 1’ explores the body’s capacity to expand and retreat. Deriving their vocabulary from diverse sources (phenomenology, cultural studies, insect movements, astronomy, physiotherapy, and sport for starters), her works embrace the abstract and economical. They both repel and reference her classical training, resulting in a dynamic tradition uniquely her own and rooted within the cultural fabric of Chennai’s dance community. Ahead of her anticipated performance in Toronto, Chettur spoke with us from Chennai about ‘Philosophical Enactments 1’, Chandralekha’s influence, and the perceived burden to be politically relevant.

Photo of ‘Varnam’ courtesy of Padmini Chettur

1. How did your participation in Contemporaneity 3.0 come about, and what would you like us to know about ‘Philosophical Enactments 1’?

I think that Anandam’s artistic director, Brandy Leary had been following my work for some years. Brandy has a long and deep relationship with movement practices in India, and through the platform ‘Contemporaneity’, it seems that she seeks to open up the aesthetic and political lenses that frame contemporary dance to include the non-Eurocentric.We seemed to be a good fit.

‘Philosophical Enactments 1’ is the first of what I hope will be a series of works with writers, thinkers, anyone who is preoccupied with the activity of creating discourse around practice, of looking for the ‘meaning’ of things. It is at one level a highly constructed, completely non-narrative solo. A body moving within a set of parameters, yet always evoking or hinting at image. In parallel, the text of the work allows entry points, references, and eventually points to the futility of the exercise itself.

2. I’m curious to know how your training in Bharatanatyam informs your choreographies. Can you speak to us about how the ancient classical and the current contemporary intersects and finds expression in your work?

I’ve written about this at great length in my essay ‘The Body Laboratory’. I hope you can find this on my website.

10 years of Bharatanatyam training prepared me to work with Chandralekha, and my 10 years with her were the foundation, or the propellant into my own search. I don’t think the Bharatanatyam ‘body’ exists at all in my work today. However, a sense of rigour, the detail and precision, the relationship to time, a certain looking at the body’s geometry and line, being grounded…This is where my understanding of Bharatanatyam is contemporized in my work. It is also my eternal point of reference – that which I move away from, but for which I am eternally grateful.

3. I’m interested in your view about the reputation that dance has, especially contemporary dance, as somewhat isolated and esoteric…. My sense is that many people shy away from engaging with it out of fear that they won’t really “get it”. Have you experienced this?

Yes, of course. Perhaps my answer to your first question addresses this already. For many years, contemporary choreographers have battled with this question of accessibility. Whereas for some, the solution was to deliberately rethink form itself, for many a moving away from form. My question now is, how do I retain the complexity and density of my physical enquiry, not dilute this, but rather find other points of access? And this is precisely what I try to do with Aveek Send in ‘Philosophical Enactment 1’.  

However, I’ve always felt that someone must also make work for sophisticated viewers who have done the work that enables them to receive ‘difficult’ work! Spoon-feeding can never be a solution, and as Chandralekha always said, “the audience must meet me halfway”.

Photo of ‘Varnam’ courtesy of Padmini Chettur

4. I read in your profile that you “took a very conscious decision not to train formally abroad…” Why was this? Over the years, you’ve presented your work all over the world as well as in India. Is there a difference in how your work is received in India as opposed to abroad?

During my years with Chandralekha, I had already and clearly understood that physicality was specific, of a specific context, and that choices around technique even, were political. There was also a very obvious knowing, in every encounter with a dancer from the West – by way of workshop, or class – that the information was interesting, attractive, not to be rejected, however, had necessarily to be deeply digested in a way that would trigger my own research rather than be appropriated.

In addition, at twenty, I had a Master’s in Chemistry (so academic education was over!), and I was touring and working with Chandra, who taught me not just about dance, but about life, living and history. Why would I swap that to go to the Laban School of Dance and do a shoddy imitation of release technique??

To answer the second part – yes and no. Certainly Indian audiences have a better knowledge of my history and context (sometimes), and are far less cynical, have watched far less contemporary dance, etc. They are open, yet often have not many references, and struggle with the proposition of my work.

Western audience are hard. Have seen a lot, are saturated, but still struggle with the persistent ‘formal’ approach in my practice. So this is always complicated, as we realize work from other contexts need to be framed. One has to think deeply about this habit of displacement and export in an artistic context. All of this preliminary work that Anandam is doing is rare, but terribly important.

5. Who is a dancer right now that intrigues you?

I am more intrigued right now by writers and visual artists. Last week I was at the retrospective of Prabhakar Bharwe, an Indian artist who’s enquiry over a lifetime into object, time and space deeply moved me.

6. The final word is yours. What would you like to add that I haven’t asked?

I’ve been thinking – and especially in the current political climate in India and several other parts of the world where fundamentalism and bigotry seem to have taken root – how can art and artistic contexts affect small change without becoming ‘ activist’ by nature? I wonder if the burden on today’s artists to be politically relevant leads us away from small, poetic and aesthetic spaces… Spaces that address questions of humanity, that centralise the body rather than brutalize it.

But enough from me. Knowing when to stop is key.

Padmini Chettur

News You Can Use

What: Contemporaneity 3.0, presented by Anandam Dancetheatre; Artistic Director: Brandy Leary; Artistic Producer: Briana Brown

  • ‘Philosophical Enactments 1’: Choreographed and performed by Padmini Chettur; Composition by Maarten Visser
  • ‘Svāhā Study’ by Nova Dance: Choreographed and Performed by Nova Bhattacharya; Composition by Ed Hanley
  • ‘Reclaiming My Time’ by Mix Mix: Directed/Choreographed by Emily Law and Ashley Perez
    Performed by and created with Kristine Flores, Jelani Ade Lam, Sze Yang Ade Lam, Jasmyn Fyffe, Sarah Tumaliuan; Original music by Toronto based rapper, producer, DJ and visual artist Myst Milano

When: April 3 – 6, 2019, 8:00 pm

Where: Toronto Dance Theatre, 80 Winchester Street, Toronto, ON

Info and Tickets: anandam.ca

© Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya/SesayArts Magazine, 2019

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