Padme: The Obscure Lotus-bud

Madhushree

Padme– brain-child of Netherlands-based contemporary (trained in Bharatanatyam) dancer, choreographer Kalpana Raghuraman and India-based contemporary (formerly Bharatanatyam) dancer, choreographer, dance-journalist, dance-producer-presenter Anita Ratnam– has been one of those long-awaited long-advertised contemporary dance productions all over the social (dance) media. December 25th, 7:45 in the morning, Chandralekha’s Spaces– the clay-court of Indian dance performances, looking onto the waves of the Indian Ocean at Besant Nagar, Chennai, was just the apt venue and time for the troupe first time visiting the city– the soft sun and the morning-breeze cleansing the Margazhi frenzy of last evening, the smell of damp leaves and wet sand welcoming us to the sweaty clammy weighty brain-racking physicality that dance is.

I had arrived to Chennai just the day before, after a desperate year-long hunger for watching dance performances. And there it was– fresh and fleshy to be pounced upon– the one that I have been often reading and contemplating about in last few weeks. Padme has been different in many ways. Result of a cross-continental collaboration between Ratnam and Raghuraman, respectively the co-producer along with Korzo Productions and the choreographer of Padme, as well as seven young Classical dancers from Bangalore, keen and excited to travel the new path– Padme has been, from the beginning to the end, a professionally commercial piece promoting the youth as a package along with all its components of freedom, freshness and arrogance, which is often a good thing to some extent.

padme

The program started with a music repertoire titled as Float performed by Anil Srinivasan on the piano and Krishna Kishor on the percussion. I am a regular back-bencher when it comes to music shows, but that day it was not just my intrinsic musical shyness but also the already packed rows of chairs replacing the more frequently present striped carpets at The Spaces. As it happens with music, it was possibly working for some and not for the rest. I was one of the latter. I repeat though– I am really a philistine when it comes to music; besides I might have been too distracted trying to save myself from nature’s well-directed droppings from the overhead greenery. Yet, what put me off that day was not that particular form of art but its presentation in a manner of calculated corporate nicety, even during the Jugalbandi. Somehow it did not fit as a justified inauguration to an experimental art-piece! But then there was the Narthaki booklet in bright red and black with thousand dance anecdotes as well as the inimitable enigma of Anita Ratnam herself with all of her five feet and eight inches to keep my eyes occupied. For such a long time she has been a name to look up to for so many young Classical dancers (including myself, ages back, in a workshop in Kolkata) all over India, providing some of them with space, money and most importantly inspiration to work differently within but at the same time out of the Classical terrains, to come out of the labyrinth of the guru-shishya parampara and claim one’s Art as one’s own. But of course after the claim comes the matter of accepting the responsibility of it. That is where Padme failed.

It rather remained a colourful assortment of pretty packages. Somebody asked the right questions, highlighted the right ideas, found the right constituents, looked after the right packaging and conceived the right selling points but ignored the duty of paying attention to the content with care.

It is true that Ratnam suggested to the audience at the beginning itself, once we settled down at the Kalari-pit waiting for the dance performance to start, to not ask (the dancers/ the choreographers/ oneself?) the question– ‘What does it all mean?’ May be that was the key– what is popularly known as going with the flow instead of thinking too much. May be it was a lesson of looking at dance as a ‘fun thing’ and not as a ‘subject’ or a ‘theory’ or that much unloved word ‘discourse’. And may be it was all work and no play that was making me a dull boy, but Padme certainly needed to get rid of a few contradictions between the declared and the perceived.

Among other right ideas, the one posed by Ratnam during the introductory announcement was that the Padme dancers did not have the safety net (aka saving grace, in many cases) of three important components of Indian Classical Dance– the beats, the lyrics and the costume. This was slightly vexing, because as far as I could understand the whole piece was set on beats that may not have come from Mridangam or Tabla but indeed were created by drums– that too pretty much in well-defined rhythms! As for the costume, it fell under the well-discussed politics of clothing the human body in the fields of Art and Entertainment in general. Short, tight-fitting frocks for the women (in this case, less short and less fitting for the heavier ones, but that might have been coincidental) and comfortable impersonal clothes for the men have been a very common dressing-trend among Indian Contemporary dancers, including those following the ‘Bollywood style’, for a really long time (and why so?). I deliberately refuse to use the word ‘impersonal’ for the women’s costume because their body-language and expressions were visually screaming out of their frocks to testify their training, if not for this particular piece, in the Sringara and the Lasya for years. Same goes for ‘comfortable’; for example one of the women dancers was vehemently trying to pull her frock down, which was clearly coming in the way of her movement as she simply sat down cross legged facing us. Most of them looked too much in awe still, having been dressed such; although that would possibly change with time.

As against Ratnam’s suggestion not to ask ‘why’, the piece raised way too many ‘why’s within the thirty minutes that it lasted. Why were the dancers not really moving in unison so many times while not stepping in rhythm? Though Padme was a ‘work-in-progress’, could that be a good enough reason for not paying attention to these professional details? Why was a single male dancer with his impersonal clothes in an impersonal all-black with an impersonal expression on his face randomly inserted (provided with a package of Kalari jumps and Laban twirls) in a group of six heavily-grounded women dressed in the ‘contemporary colours’ (the lawfully contemporary combination of red and black and a cream that syncs with the skin), provocatively or sarcastically smiling the ‘contemporary smile’, eyeing the audience with the non-uniform ‘contemporary intense angst’ or the ‘contemporary neo-feminist challenge’ for no apparent reason? These looks and smiles are nationwide socio-culturally replacing the classical expressions of self-effacement, enthrallment and coyness (which were earlier the socio-cultural benchmarks of representation of ideal Indian femininity) in the contemporary Indian women dancers, keeping track with the changing standards of feminine appeal, which are more globalized glamour-based in some ways.

Why was the accompanying music an assortment of Rehmanish drums, Jazz and Tanpura? Was it to signify the style-wise mixed nature of the piece? But then why was it so unprofessionally edited, making it sound (and also look) like rally-dances in the college-fest competitions? Why did we not get to experience the pre-promised meaningful silence at any given moment during the piece? Why were the two women dancers made to circle around one another with the angry, competitive look (that bit reminded me of Delhi-based choreographer Mandeep Raikhy’s Inhabited Geometry, but in that piece there was a well-justified context for such competitiveness)? Why again was one of the women making the same circling move with the lone male dancer with a rather friendly smile on her face? Why the girl with the longest hair was choreographed to shake her hair just because she had it? Why after every few moves the girls were as if beckoning an invisible entity at a corner (communication with invisible entities at one corner of the hall– again a feature of the Classical) with their hand gestures? And since it came to hand-gestures, why were the Mudras that were used, used at all? Is that all a rule-breaking, tradition-breaking, static-inertia-breaking contemporary dance piece all about? Knowing how to hit Dhi Dhi Thai with the feet and holding a list of Mudras from Abhinaya Darpana or such like, taken entirely out of their contexts (except for the joined quivering palms in Alapadma, possibly to denote the Padme, the Lotuses)?

 

When I could not stop myself from asking what Padme did mean after all, I came home and read about it and this is what seems to be a summary in Ratnam’s own words:

Padme attempts to explore the hidden and the unhidden; the flowering and the unflowering…The lotus becomes the metaphor for the possibility of an expression and an experience. In this work, ancient Indian dance and Western modern dance coalesce and intersect to mirror the dancers’ specific experiences with religion and the relevance of spirituality in the world we live in.

Unfortunately for the audience Padme remained unable to represent the duality of nature and spirituality. All it could do was to assemble various technical and cultural tools into a jumbled pile of remote unclear possibility of something.

The need to break out of the boundary of the Classical dance can arise due to various reasons starting from the lack of freedom of thoughts, creative opportunities and means to voice contemporary thoughts to the lack of finance and exposure. It can also be pure boredom or a mismatch of temperament. But it does well for a dancer to know why she feels the urge to move her body at all. It gives her dance productions their purpose, without which they may often remain incapable in reaching out to a larger body of intellect. Indian Classical Dance has an enormous vocabulary of its own. Each style is a well-set language; and a product created borrowing from/ making use of a language without retaining its meaning or without alternately redefining its words systematically can turn out to be gibberish or worse.

But regardless of all that, Padme is not something to be ignored. A production raises so many questions only when it does have a certain amount of substance in it. Padme remains a matter of importance in the dance field by the choice of its physical as well as temporal coordinates, its presentation and its smart, corporate, if somewhat exaggeratedly cool professionalism. The Spaces is understandably a suitable venue for this piece as it has seen many path-breaking experiments in Art in its lifetime. But it is more apt because it is placed in no other city but Chennai and the time is none but the Margazhi season, when every nook and corner of the city is vibrating with the clink-clanks of the Classical Chilanga, many a tears of young aspiring hearts flowing due to unexpected allotments of items and sabhas. It is that time of the year when Chennai Classical dance world is most high-strung, closely watched, recognized, discussed and gossiped about. Coming up with a piece like Padme in the face of this artistic frenzy with a bunch of competent, young, inspired, excited dancers has been a neat move. But that is not all. The biggest claim made by the Padme team has been: tradition can indeed be dealt with careless fun; the lofty position of sacredness that Indian Classical Dance traditionally holds may no more be acceptable to one and all; the youth has a right and now an official means to use it in whichever way they want, even to expose it as a mere form of entertainment if need be. In another way too Padme has scored. It professes ‘collaboration’, which is unfortunately still sort of an unwelcome word in the field of Indian Dance for many. Last but the not at all the least, Padme presents to us seven young skilled dancers who are ready to identify themselves as contemporary beings and embrace the new. Must be the Bangalore air and possibly the Bangalore beer too!

Anita Ratnam has already proved herself as an efficient organizer, curator and producer of Indian Classical and Semi-classical Dance through Narthaki and Arangham trust. Could Padme turn out to be a trend-setter in the realm of Indian Contemporary Dance through its advertisements? Could Indian Contemporary Dance thus simply be portrayed as a way of having fun and freaking out, franchised by the Classical Main Branch, occasionally breaking into the Western– especially when it comes to costumes? How does a subject develop, how can a magnanimous animal such as Dance be tamed by mindless exercises of permutation-combination of existing materials of the commercial and the made-easy?

In this respect, Chennai December season may not have been such a great choice of venue and time for Padme. The Chennai dancers have been working in and out of the Classical form for too long. The technical questions roused by Ratnam and Raghunathan through Padme have been asked over and over again and are done with. The contexts of both Indian Classical Dance and Indian Contemporary Dance as a language and as a physical practice cannot really be lightly toyed with in this city without raising eyebrows. It may have been a different story altogether at its conception in Netherlands, produced by Korzo Productions; but however flexible a piece Padme is–  being equally enjoyable in ‘a gallery as well as a shopping mall’– it still has to be responsible for its existence within the frame of its place, its time and the Art in it.

Of course money is all that matters at the end of the day, and it is an object of importance as well as academic interest to understand where the sponsorships of dance come from and where they go, what sells and what does not. Then there is fun. And then there is dance that matters the most when it comes to dance.

  • Padme
  • Commissioned and Co-produced by Anita Ratnam (originally produced by Korzo Productions, The Netherlands)
  • Concept and Choreography – Kalpana Raghuraman
  • Dancers – Savio, Keertana, Meenakshi, Sukruti, Meghna, Ashwini & Vandana 
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