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She was awakened to traditional Indian dance through the sophisticated practice of bhrata natyam. She discovered contemporary movement by joining the company of the famous dancer Chandraleka. This experience led to her desire to create a personal style in which no one form has supremacy. In her home city of Chennai (Madras), Padmini Chettur is now developing a remarkable synthesis of tradition, which she both cultivates and restricts; modernity stripped of all devices, a synthesis which is minimalist, repetitive and organic. She is presenting three solos here, all of which are marked with inner essence, subtlety and richness.

Choreografie & dans/Chorégraphie & danse/Choreography & dance: Padmini Chettur

Muziek/Musique/Music: Maarten Visser

Licht/Lumières/Lighting: Sumant Jaikrishnan, Frank Vandezande

Presentatie/Présentation/Presentation: Kaaitheater, KunstenFESTIVALdesArts

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Chennai, February 2004

In response to our questions, Padmini Chettur wrote the following:

What has been the most significant personal baggage you have been carrying from the long time you spent practising the Bharata Natyam?

At both a physical and an intellectual level, Bharata Natyam[1] left me with baggage: the idea of seduction, artificial mannerism that border on acting, a very rigid geometricised usage of body, especially the spine. These are a few of the 'rules' I was relieved to get away from. In fact, beyond the age of 15, I never performed Bharatanatyam and I only returned to dance when I discovered Chandralekha[2]'s work in which she had 'got rid' of all the qualities that made Bharata Natyam a difficult proposition for me.

What was the most fundamental discovery for you during your experience with Chandralekha?

From Chandralekha I learnt the most important quality of 'honesty' with my own body. I try to retain this in my work. I also learnt that when we dance 'honestly' we become transparent, and therefore the importance of 'who we are' and not just 'what we dance'.

Did the discovery of contemporary dance in Europe teach you something? If so, what?

I learnt that though we dancers in India are constantly boasting and riding on the wave of 'ancient traditions'. We have stopped actually trying to understand our bodies and their potential within our present context. Ultimately one's own physical choices become so much more powerful if one has a larger perspective. For instance, in my own work the emphasis on stylisation of hands for instance is now conscious as opposed to merely being a 'learnt' and unquestioned characteristic. My time in the West and my interactions there also made it clear to me that it would be pointless to merely learn a western technique, mix it with a classical one and call it contemporary Indian vocabulary. It was important to develop out of my own physical understanding and aesthetic, to define our own 'modernity'.

How would you define your research through dance?

I am very involved still with the 'formal' evolution of dance in my work. Since I have no 'formal' training as a 'contemporary' dancer, my choreography is constantly to do with evolving form rather than rearranging pre-existing ones. Therefore I'm very interested in the body's capacity to express, and the potential of movement and stillness to create tensions that release emotion.

What was it exactly that you experienced that triggered off the idea behind your Solo creation?

Solo brings together three different solos. They have evolved slowly, literally over a period of four years. I created them piece by piece at various moments of huge change in my life - the birth of my daughter and the death of my mother being the two most important moments. These were times when I started to see life consistently as moments of separation - departures and arrivals - a constant negotiation of connected emotions.

Is the project positioned literally or metaphorically in the context of the society in which you live?

As with all my work, I hope Solo is positioned in the context of India. The most important translation of context is, I feel, in the way that the work deals with 'concept'. The fact the 'concept' is much more than 'ideas' or images but carries an entire philosophy of life and movement with it. Also at a 'technical' level, more than any of my previous work Solo returns to a very intricate detailing of hands and feet. They are also very 'mathematical' in the way they deal with time which is also, I think, a 'culturally specific' way of thinking of time. Ultimately my work philosophy and its uncompromising quality is surely the result of living in this world and constantly battling for the smallest artistic space and acceptance. The irony of 'Modern India' is that its sciences, architecture, literature and social norms are allowed the possibility of modernisation, yet people almost cling to traditional dance and music as though they are our last link to the past and therefore to be preserved, fossilised at all cost.

How is the performing arts scene organised in your country?

We have no organised theatre or festival system/network here for the contemporary arts. To show my own work here, I have to look for private funding/sponsorship and therefore I perform in India very rarely (perhaps once a year in one city). The Indian dance audience is still predominantly supportive of 'traditional' forms and my work remains very marginal and obscure.

What do you feel about the artistic dynamic of your own city, Chennai?

There is no united artistic dynamic in Chennai. Different groups of artists operate in small pockets and remain largely amateur. It is so difficult for artists to make a living from their arts here that most end up in commercial areas like popular cinema, theatre, advertising - art is still the privilege of a very few. The dance community in particular is pre-occupied with the departure from tradition, the 'westernisation' of indigenous forms in the process of modernisation. Largely, I would say we are very 'threatened' by globalisation and are starting now to exploit our own exoticism more and more.

Where do you fit in this scene?

For me, performances in Europe provide many challenges as well as privileges. I always ask myself: what can I actually take to this community that has already such a history of modernity, that is filled with such dynamic artists, where every performance will necessarily be larger, fuller, more virtuosic and more technical than Solo. And each time, I come back from Europe valuing even more the fact that my work relies only on the smallest yet most timeless truths. The fact that I work in such isolation, that I don't have to 'compete'. There are no 'trends' or fashions.

What are the qualities in a dancer that affect you the most?

I've always loved watching very mature dancers on stage, especially soloists like Susanne Linke, dancers who can balance 'technique' with the idea of not hiding behind it. I tend to dislike 'spectacles', mindless virtuosity and most of all the current trend of cultural exploitation.

What kind of relationship do you want there to be with the audience?

My work tends to demand a patient audience. I don't entertain or seduce. I tend to create a lot of silence that almost borders on nervous tension. My worst audience is one that comes looking for mysticism or 'exotic' India!

[1] Bharata Natyam dance originated in the Hindu temples of southern India over 3,000 years ago. It combines the two main aspects of nritia (technique) and nriiya (the display of emotions through hand movements or mudras and facial expression or abhinaya), both at a conceptual level and through performance. Though it has become known worldwide, Bharata Natyam has retained its spiritual essence, manifested in the dancer's mystical identification with the divinity.

[2] Dancer-choreographer Chandralekha is one of the most important voices of the Indian counter-cultural movement today. Trained in Bharata Natyam, she shot to fame as a solo dancer in a style known for its musicality and intensity of abhinaya. After a brief, decade-long career in the fifties and early sixties, during which she was among the leading dancers of her time, she gave up performing and moved away from classical dance rejecting its sublimated content and its commercial/market entertainment values. In subsequent years she wrote, designed posters and books, worked onmultimedia projects and was involved with the women's and human rights movements. In 1985, she took the dance world by storm with her acclaimed production Angika which explored the related disciplines of dance and physical traditions in India and postulated a new, non sublimated content for dance. A firm believer in the need for resuscitating traditional forms with contemporary energy, Chandralekha works towards exploring the structures and internal strengths of Bharata Natyam, martial forms like Kalari and therapeutic forms like yoga, to comprehend and interpret the body in a modern sense, while demystifying traditional content. She lives and works in Madras.

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