I’m rather fond of the Clark House Initiative, and not just because I know one of its members. Started by 4 young things who are artistically inclined in different ways, the hope of Clark House Initiative is to put up unconventional, uncommercial art shows. Their first project was Right to Dissent, for which Tushar Joag cocooned himself and which had the wonderful Shilpa Gupta and Reena Kallat pieces. Padmini Chettur’s performance today — technically yesterday, i.e. Saturday, Sept 10 — was their second (this time organised in collaboration with the Mohile Parkih Centre which does its bit to promote art, usually through lectures and screenings). There are two things that can now be considered trademarks of a Clark House Initiative show: a fantastic, decrepit space and some deeply philosophical art.
Beautiful Thing 2 was held in the belly of Laxmi Mills Compound. The Clark House guys set up signs that made the whole exercise of reaching the performance space great fun. It was like you had to spot the clues to find the treasure. I loved it. Laxmi Mills is made up of some little offices and shops, as well as offices with broken window panes and moss-licked brick walls. It’s industrial, gritty and a wonderful setting even though the muggy heat of the performance space meant that I was radiating some seriously unpretty body odour by the time I left. Padmini Chettur is a contemporary dancer (you can see her bio in the Clark House Initiative page) who is well known for choreographing pieces that demand a fair degree of patience and attention from both the performer and the audience. Apparently she was recently booed when she performed in Singapore. The last time dance critic Sunil Kothari attended a Chettur performance, he apparently fell asleep within two minutes. At Laxmi Mills Compound, Chettur would do 3 performances of about 30 minutess each. After each performance, there was a Q & A session. I was there for 2 performances and one Q & A session. During the second performance, one member of the audience actually lay down, as though sleeping. I’m not sure if she was snoring or had been so moved by the dance that she had to adopt a near foetal position since her bottom, and not her face, was in my line of vision.
I’m always a little dubious about performances like Chettur’s because I’m reasonably certain I won’t understand a damn thing. Walking in late doesn’t help. Neither does looking at the handout and seeing a quote from Heidegger right on top. A glance below showed the word “displacement” sprinkled all over the page that had sentences like “Displacement equals the original velocity multiplied by time plus one half the acceleration multiplied by the square of time”. As far as I was concerned, all hope of understanding what Chettur was performing went flying out of the window. I resigned myself to hopefully finding some striking imagery.
Chettur’s “Beautiful Thing 2” is full of movement, but movement that is slow, graceful and often almost imperceptible. Her body is straight and still, slicing through the breeze-less air with precision and control. She stands strong, as though rooted into the tiled floor. Behind her were 4 (or maybe 5) fans, the mottled wall, the straight lines of a vent near the ceiling and an unbending, perpendicular steel…column-like thing. Watching her align herself to the geometry of the space only to break that grid with her body and create a new, invisible grid of her own was strangely fascinating. I say strangely because Chettur’s choreography is very non-traditional, despite her solid grounding in classical Indian dance. Every move is tiny, measured and slow. Many gestures and shapes are repeated, creating a pattern whose predictability makes you notice things beyond the movement itself, like how straight her every line is, how she’s uncamouflaged herself out of that space. When walking in, I’d seen some scribbled wall text. It had words like ‘dog’ and ‘Sharapova’ on it. While watching her, I realised they were like touchstones for the performance. She was taking actions and body language from the world around us and abstracting them into the geometry of her performance.
If there was a story to “Beautiful Thing 2”, then I didn’t see it. Chettur said that the piece is very emotional for her, which is very ironic considering how expressionless her face was for the 2 performances I saw. What does work rather well is the notion of displacing space and the sense of breaking and creating grids. The shapes and sounds of the mill area appear in Chettur’s work (the sound of turbines, circles, revolutions). There’s an added poignancy because the industry the mills once housed has been displaced by a new era. Chettur tries to fill this emptied space with her abstract, narrative-less movements. There were stretches that felt a bit too slow but by and large, I quite enjoyed the show even though I didn’t understand much of it, I’m sure.
Notes taken from her answers taken during the first Q & A session:
A lot of the thing was towards the gaze and voyeurism. … How the feminine body is viewed.
The question was also about how to be present but not entertain, how to position myself.
The idea is to distract the gaze. After a point, you’ve seen the body. What changes is the balance of left and right, of the stage as much as of the body. Balance is as important an entity as the body itself.
Space is a very dense reality that I have to maneouvre through.
When the audience is restless, you lose the sense of time.
With the slowest movement, in the mind the body is working very hard. The movement is also slow because I need the time to complete the movement. The body is elastic but with a lot of tension. (Note: This woman is the mother of two and born in 1970. Which makes her 41-ish. Gasp, swoon.)
At the end of the handout, Chettur writes,
In 2008, I don’t think one can fight the big battles of culture, identity or politics through dance. The beauty of small simple wasteful things. i want to be economic and precise. To create a ‘beautiful thing’.
In this, at least, she was successful.