Padmini Chettur is not a dancer for lazy audiences, says Poorva Rajaram
PADMINI CHETTUR, 40, has gone past simply discarding her classical training. Her work now raises eyebrows even on the seemingly permissive contemporary dance circuit. At a recent performance of her production Pushed held at IGNITE Festival of Contemporary Dance in Delhi recently, some audience members walked out in sheer bemusement while some just slept.
Dance critic Sadanand Menon says she is a challenge to “audiences who are used to being spoon-fed what they like”; a state she is strongly aware of. Chettur, a Chennai-based dancer and choreographer, was trained in Bharatanatyam, graduated from BITS Pilani in 1991 and between 1991 and 2001 performed in eight of Chandralekha’s dance productions. She carries on in the iconoclastic vein of Chandralekha, who famously resisted being straitjacketed by Bharatanatyam. She performs occasionally in India and quite frequently in Europe. As a result, her pathbreaking work has barely been covered here.
Pushed is her fourth major production, an 80-minute piece performed by six dancers that leads viewers through “anger, pleasure, pain, happiness, sorrow, love and lust”. An atonal score by composer Maarten Visser uses traditional Korean musical instruments and alternately sounds like modern beat-boxing, alien landings, creaking door hinges or the roof collapsing.
Dimmed lighting was set to indicate the beginning of the show, but due to the slowness of the movement, it took the audience about five minutes to realise the performance had begun. Pushed can get excruciatingly slow, as Chettur herself offers, “Some people end up thinking about what to make for dinner.” It strips choreography of any floweriness to the basics: breath driving movement. The stillness provides gritty sightings of muscle tension and bodily strain. Her work displays immense internal coherence — abstraction is not made an excuse to be whimsical. “It is truly Indian contemporary dance because the slowness and detail require rasikas,” says dance columnist and a rare Indian fan of Chettur’s work Joshua Muyiwa. “There are no excuses for uninformed viewers. With YouTube, one can learn about contemporary dance,” says Chettur.
She is barely destined to be a crowdpleaser, but there is a backhanded compliment in the confusion expressed over Chettur’s work. Her attempt to “convince, not seduce” is a point of discomfort for viewers used to gorging on highstrung profundities. “I’ve stopped engaging with the form of Bharatanatyam, I get bored now at the sight of an aramandi (the basic stance of Bharatanatyam),” she says while shrugging away any interest in the dance form.
Her work is a gaping oversight on the part of adulatory dance reportage. She does not work on the premise that our cultural traditions are brittle; they need constant rehabilitation. She briskly goes about creating new work in an alternate movement vocabulary. “I thought cultural revival happened in the 1950s and 1960s but it is fashionable again now. Fortunately, I had a good teacher. It’d be silly for me to start twirling around now”.