In the Making - Preethi Athreya
Duration: 00:39:09; Aspect Ratio: 1.250:1; Hue: 36.092; Saturation: 0.226; Lightness: 0.540; Volume: 0.173; Cuts per Minute: 0.204; Words per Minute: 107.369
Summary: In 2010, as part of the Ignite Festival of Contemporary Dance, Gati organised a research seminar where several people presented papers on the work of emerging Indian choreographers while being in conversation with those choreographers. Here, V Padma (Mangai) presents a paper on the works of Preethi Athreya.
Preethi is a Chennai-based choreographer-performer. She trained in Bharatanatyam with the Dhananjayans. She has worked with choreographer Padmini Chettur for over a decade. She has also created her own performance work. She holds a postgraduate degree in dance studies from Laban. At Ignite, she performed Sweet Sorrow, then her latest work. Combining dance, text, film and music, Sweet Sorrow plays with the intersection of universal icons and well-known clichés about loss and longing with the more obscure personal narratives of the same.
Mangai's paper on Preethi talks about her roots in dance, her years with the Dhananjayans, her work with Padmini and the influence of Chandralekha, and a chronology of Preethi's solo work, including July 2001, Kamakshi, Porcelain, Inhabit, and now, Sweet Sorrow.
Mangai: Preethi here is a Chennai girl born in an upper-middle class family background. The women in the family on mother’s side were concert- level singers. Preethi however was sent to dance when she was eight years to make her physically active in order to reduce her weight. That is something I never. But she has photographs. She recalls that it was only when she became thirteen or fourteen that dance it picked up for her. But the proximity to the Dhananjayans, which is just two houses away, led her to watch many senior students practice and rehearse. Bharatakalanjali provided an all-round learning with Sanskrit, music and theory. She took up English Literature as her subject of study for graduation and was also interested in writing. Words and language still hold a great deal of interest to her.
Dhananjayan, though a stickler for conventions was also open to a variety of new venues, dance forms etc. They have performed in conferences and contract shows at hotels, luxury cruise liners, both in folk and classical styles. In the mid-nineties, I had a chance to work with Satyajit, Dhananjayan's son, and a dancer on a play of ours which was a dance-drama. Dhananjayans were present for the performance. The unease with the content (if it had been for Dhananjayan) did not affect the perfection of the production. I also met Anupama, a trained dancer, later to become Satyajit’s partner during this time. She went on to commit herself to work with Rasa which works with spastic children. Preethi was in the thick of all these and more when she did pantomime. She also did a movement workshop for our group Voicing Silence in the production of Avvai. When she met Chandralekha, she was directed to Shaji’s Kalari class. And there began a quest for a new discipline of the body. Right at that moment Padmini invited her to work with her in order to substitute Krishna Devanandan. The two-and-a-half months' work with Padmini was truly a bend in the road. In Preethi’s words, “I was hooked”.
That led her to do M.A. Dance Studies at Laban. Her dissertation submitted to Laban “A Discursive Inquiry into Rhythm, Movement and Perception” in 2001, actually contains in a very nascent stage most of what her pre-occupations are today.
At Laban, she realized that much of what she knew till then was scriptural. History and process were often replaced by body- conditioning. First time away from home and country, this was an excruciatingly lonely period for Preethi. It therefore also became the most reflective period as well out of necessity. She auditioned for many shows just to know where she stands. She rates herself as having been ‘average’ in terms of skills. But most importantly, the realization that she can at best remain only as an exotic ethnic variant of the ‘norm’ blew on her face. In many ways “Sweet Sorrow” was sown at that moment – a moment of questioning the body and its images in a world schematically understood as clearly defined racially, nationally, sexually and formally, while gloating over universality!
Through all these, she also had to face what any of us would, growing up in a family that is quite concerned about ‘settling down’. As a colleague and a friend of Preethi’s mother, I have sensed the ongoing tension within the family circles about Preethi’s life-choices, both career and personal. It must have been quite difficult to make everyone accept the fact that Preethi is going to be nothing but a dancer, worse still a contemporary dancer! Making it more difficult was Balu, her dad’s, prolonged illness. For someone with an obsession about training the body, it must have been an impossible task to see her dad lose coordination due to Parkinson's. I have witnessed days of Preethi holding her dad and making him walk on the pavements of Elliot’s beach. In fact, this has been a major organizing principle she has explored in Sweet Sorrow. It deals with pain as a sustained emotion that runs like a low fever, not letting you rest, even though you go ahead as if nothing has changed.
Both of us live and work in Chennai, a city considered paradoxical with its development lingo and conservatism almost co-existing. To performers and art lovers the haven was Skills, as it was called at that time, which was Chandralekha’s studio.
2007 early January. Days after Chandra’s death. The neem trees she had planted which according to her are her best achievement were adorned with sarees of various hues. Each tree spoke. They were voices of many people over the years, all over the world, that recorded exchanges about her or were freshly recorded to recall working with her. We walked into the Mandala and heard fragments of Chandra’s voice from different occasions. Did her voice assume a body? Her presence filled the space – now called Spaces. It was anything but nostalgic with Chandra’s laughter and irony lighting up the space. It left us wondering - what is a body? Is it what it does? Says? Or leaves behind? A memory – not abstract but present in specific time and space? What senses do we privilege? What emotions? What truths? The questions are rhetorical but the big challenge facing us is how to explore an embodied territory with its roots, branches – old and new!
As a choreographic work, the conditions under which the choreographic practice takes place in seen as the site of its negotiation with an ongoing order. The body of negotiations is made up of decisions in design, choice and treatment of space, manipulation of movement and vocabulary, treatment of bodies in space, collaborations with sound filming and orientation. Each of these choices has its constituents in a host of surrounding entities like culture, social practice, aesthetics, history, relations of power and authority and at another level on practicality and resources (Athreya, Preethi., 2001-8).
Mangai describes the beginnings of Preethi's work with Padmini and goes into a few details about Padmini's work.
July 2001, a choreographic film (2001), Kamakshi (2003), Inhabit (2006), Porcelain (2007) and Pillar to Post (2007) precede Sweet Sorrow (2010) in Preethi Athreya’s body of work till now.
I would like to introduce them briefly with visual material in order to foreground my discussions.
Kamakshi was part of the lecture- demonstration at the Natyarangam seminar in 2003. She introduced Kamakshi as part of a regular repertoire and in the seminar that followed the performance she explained her effort as trying to push the boundaries between symbols in classical dance language and their function.
(It is not difficult to imagine how the responses would have been. Taking the namavali offered to the goddess that describes the various body- parts, Kamakshi brought to fore the process of shifting the balance. The tilt that accompanied the neck movements and the postures adopted did not go down well with the predominantly traditional dancers who were present at the event. For Preethi, this was an open statement of the signification process of a female body. )
Video of Kamakshi
Video of July 2001
From Mangai's paper -
(July 2001 was shot by a static camera with bodies moving in and out of the vision of the camera or the gaze. Performed in a Gothic style classroom at Laban, the mirrors that multiply the image of the dancer with varied depth creating a three dimensional effect is a preliminary exploration of the dancer and the image in Preethi’s work. The effect of shadow caused by natural light in the film becomes almost a co-performer, later fully realized and played out in Natesh’s lighting in Inhabit. What is crucial in this work in the use of ball and the rhythm and sound it creates and the real life space used as part of the choreography. Her team in the film continued to have links with Preethi and Porcelain was produced out of the works of Tobias Sturmer’s father, Walter Sturmer, who is a porcelain sculptor. Simultaneous movement of the ball, shadow, dancer and the musician offer an experience that demands the viewer to move from everyday to art world and vice- versa. Looking back, I find it a challenging task for any artist, to hold on to interiority while the world seems to go its own pace and to do it without grudge but with critical insight.)
Inhabit - Video clip
From Mangai's paper - Inhabit renders Bhairavi raag in its most abstract form. To Preethi it was an exploration into realizing how inhabited one’s body is; for the viewers it is the reading of light and shadow creating images that are abstract. Preethi also refers to a line from Octovia Paz, “Dangling from the cage of time” and Ben Okri’s Birds of Heaven as the two major associations she had while working on this piece. Silences and the exploration of time as minute as the time between two beats are major aspects of this work. They help to create a stark intense moment of ‘hanging in the air’ feeling. This is one of Preethi’s favourite works and she talks about it with intensity even today.
Porcelain - Video clip
From the paper - Porcelain is by far the most popular of Preethi’s works. In it the images created by the film at the back screen and the shadows created by the dancer’s body are at times superimposed, paralleled, encountered or juxtaposed at different points. The exploration with shadows that began in July 2001 seems to have culminated in this work. What grips one most is the texture of the porcelain filmed almost as landscape and the dancer’s interaction with it and away from it. The backdrop seems to have a story to tell. Preethi says that exploring the curves and lines of the porcelain and sound and image with movement was the engaging factor of this work.
Sweet Sorrow began with words. In this work for the first time words play a major role. As one trained to enunciate words through gestural meaning, it was difficult to decide if she can trust herself with the words, ‘without pegging gestural meaning’. Use of words literally notates this work. Beginning with recorded voices in three different languages, without necessarily gesticulating the words but trying to emote pain and pleasure through vocal sounds punctuating the metronome, she moves onto expressing through mudras the nayika bhava in the song The Man I love and finally actually utters the English translation of Payyada, a padam more like compere notes that soon
becomes the race between mudras and words, not in sync with each other purposefully.
Pravin, a painter and theatre person who has worked on the technical aspects of the production, recalled the varied responses to this scene. “It was received as an announcement through words. Then the gestures are added, creating giggles among the audience. The satiric tone turns into hysteria and the giggles turn into sharp high- pitched sporadic laughs and slowly drops. And then the repetition comes and comes and comes again. It hits you. It dawns on the viewers that the dancer is laughing at one’s self. When this section is followed by the thattadavu steps, stern and strong, the question that comes to us is ‘How do you break the construct, unless you break your body?’” Balasaravanan, who has designed and executed the lights for the show, mentions how he struggled to grasp the agitated emotion of this scene through his lighting.
Another new entry into Preethi’s repertoire in this work is the Chair which is used as a property as a remnant of a memory that hangs on her head. Pravin recalled how when Preethi decided to use the chair, his initial reaction was to warn her of the ways in which Chair has already been used in contemporary dance. He felt that it should come alive if brought on stage. During the process of rehearsals, the chair almost became a co- dancer. To Pravin, the analogy is that of puppetry. The puppet and the puppeteer work in such a way that it becomes difficult to make out “who leads whom”, says Pravin. For him the image of the chair suspended is actually, the character called loss- the protagonist of this show. “One can suspend it but not do away with it”, he adds.
(Commenting on this work, Sadanand Menon says “the use of quotations – Swan Lake – Chandralekha, Pina Bausch’s use of The Man I love for the hearing impaired and Merce Cunningham’s Chair – is pronounced in this work.” Partly as homage, partly as heritage, these quotations speak without nostalgia. There is not even an effort to refer to them. It might or might not resonate as quotes but they become part of Preethi’s statement to us.)
In some sense Sweet Sorrow is moving towards dance theatre in terms of genre with the introduction of words, a loose but decipherable structure that can be discerned and varying moods and tones of expressing the sweet sorrow. She had already been dragged into a dramatization of Plath’s Bell Jar a few years ago. In a way, that must have helped in trusting words in this production.
In terms of body, this work seeks to perfect the tilt that began in Kamakshi, thereby defying symmetry as the norm. To me, it also brings to fore the body that does not comply with definitions of ability and skill. It is the vulnerability of the body exhausted in keeping to a pose, or rhythm or movement that questions gravitation that is explored. The chair becomes a memorial object of times when the body had to sit upright for almost 8 hours a day, noticing the passing of time through the shadow caused on the floor. The effort was to keep one’s back straight for that long. Three months on the chair become the trope against which one can see the swing in the body before being thrown down on the floor. In fact the dancer ends with the conscious, painful thattadavu in araimandi pose. The dancing body is drawing our attention to a body that is at least temporarily not able, a body in pain, a body that is dying with looks that are poignant and a body that is being ‘disciplined’.
Do not ever make a warrior out of Asian, a faithful of an African, an impious of a Persian, a truthful of a Greek, a subtle of a German, a modest of a Spaniard, nor an uncivilized of a French. (Quoted in Marta E Savigliano, Tango and the Political Economy of Passion, 1995 from La Mesnardiere (1639) and cited in Paquot (1933) ).
While Marta quotes this to discuss orientalism, I would like to extend it to any given notion of representation that has almost always been taken as ‘given’. Especially in dance and performing arts, the more fixed the codes are, the more classical they are considered to be. While every one agrees that theoretically the treatises are descriptive rather than prescriptive, the agenda of purity rests on strict following of the rules laid out. While I do not want to underestimate the rigourous training that these forms demand, the criterion of aesthetics appended to it is what becomes questionable. In fact the whole back and forth debates between Balasaraswathi and Rukmani Devi seemed to have been based on such insistence on the part of the latter. Of course, given the social context of the day, the debates were mired in notions of ‘respectability’. (Ref: Lakshmi, C.S. Mirrors and Gestures, 2003 xxiv - xxvii). Today, the issues of respectability, dress code and cultural identity have taken on a fundamentalist turn. And for a female dancer, respectability is coded in heterosexual desire and articulation.
On trying to arrive at a neutral state:
Preethi refers to how while she entered the stage to perform Kamakshi there were no wings and she stepped out – and there was the stage. “I stepped out of the green room only to find myself facing the audience immediately. It made me wonder who I was supposed to be before I took on the role of the dancer,” she reminisces, “I began to seek the need to reunite my neutral, off-stage persona and my onstage self.” (Vincent, Anusha., Times of India, 26.10.10: 25). As a result, she attempts to let the face get as neutral as possible and allow “the body to take on the expression”. For her it was an effort at “unlearning the artifice” since the face became a mask in traditional Bharathanatyam practice. She says, “I did not miss it”. I am in agreement with her observation that the facial gestures / bhavas can be stretched to absurd limits and some of them are so clichéd that it gets unbearable to be convinced by them. But I am not very sure if neutral is devoid of pleasure - erotic or otherwise. Again, there is an added dimension of a neutral, non- gesticulating face ascribed to Western ballet practice. What I miss as an audience- member is the pleasure of dance spreading through the face. In Sweet Sorrow, especially in the first sequence when the sound image is almost ambivalent and could be that of pain or pleasure of ecstasy, the visual leans more to the former than the latter.
Marta’s study comes down heavily on how feminists have thrived on Third Worldism that helps to stereotype the ‘other’ women (227 – 229). In the same vein, contemporary dancers in India, in order to question the element of spectacle, have resorted to neutral facial presentation, which inevitably becomes the importing of Western classical mode. The primacy of verticality with the head surveying the body and space certainly can not communicate neutrality of an unproblematic kind. While the intentions are genuine and valid, the recourse finally ends up as a contemporary method of gaining ‘respectability’. While one does not want to be exoticised, one does not want to be immaculate either! At the same time, I am quite aware how the contemporary dancers can come across as almost blasphemous to traditional Bharathanatyam / any other classical dance practitioners. To avoid accessories and costumes that are glittering is one thing; but to appear in black and black can be truly considered ‘no, no’.
The way the body moves and the way the movements are presented in Preethi’s works privileges process over the product. She talks about how earlier it was difficult to edit her movements. But in Sweet Sorrow she says that she cut down nearly 75% of the work. What Preethi’s work shares with us is the way the moves take on shape. The ‘how’ is presented to us. At times it comes across as watching improvisations. To me, it is a very important aspect of Preethi’s work. She does not present any magical moment of visual bonanza to the audience. Like Padmini Chettur, Preethi would like the viewers to be ‘informed’ and ‘knowing’ of the various methods through which she has arrived at where she is now. In other words she does not show the destination but takes us through a journey. In Sweet Sorrow the swinging movement that leads to the floor section actually reveals the working of different parts of the body inch by inch. The same done in a faster rhythm might become the basis of the most vibrant sexualized dances one finds on the screen. In fact it could be read as a parody of the kind of dances that sell like hot cake, actually highlighting the energy, labour, control and practice required for them.
From Mangai's paper, on lighting processes -
From the beginning they were conscious that the filming has to be quite fixed in frame. “There was no move to manipulate the image shot on film” he says. With no frills they tried to capture the rehearsal process. In the performance, the dancer watches her own rehearsal on film and moves from synchronized movements to non- sync. The size of the image on the screen too becomes rather small. Bala Saravanan says that he was not totally able to participate in the process. But he was aware of Preethi’s ideas. His lighting was to capture the spirit of the dance. He speaks of how on each stage the lighting was “negotiated”. They decided to project the film on whatever kind of background was available. “It was coffee brown at the Hertage centre in Delhi, a dull white screen in Kolkata, brownish yellow in Hyderabad and pane glasses that were Victorian at the Museum theatre in Chennai. In a way, the realities of such stages made sure that the dance was not performed in a magic box. At no point there was a black out”.
Pravin adds to the ‘Box’ story. When Preethi was in Austria to perform Porcelain, Kalaichelvan and Pravin had accompanied the show. Jan Martin, a lighting designer, who has done lights for Padmini’s shows and is already familiar to them met them and passed a comment, “Are you going back to black box?” a few days later, when they had a chance to pursue a conversation with him in Vienna, he explained how to him “black box represents the structure of a modernist era”. Coming from him, a Belgian socialist, his comment set them thinking. As a team they wanted to explore a non- temple based, open aesthetics. “Therefore, rehearsal was brought into the dance. Process was kept open. As far as possible the structures were self- consciously presented, making them comment on themselves”. Bala Saravanan adds how the symmetry projected in the shapes during the show was often muffled. Though each piece was a unit in itself, there were no clear closures. This documentation of how and what the team members bring to the performance is significant since contemporary dance / art form, if it has to be contemporary has to consciously work on collectivity.
"Where are we going to ground contemporary dance?"
In the case of contemporary dance, in my limited knowledge, the works are produced for an international festival model. Some of them commissioned so. At least in the case of Preethi, her shows are performed for Chennai / Bangalore audience before it takes off. Apart from the effort to be read against contemporary dance in the West, an acute sense of self- image – largely cut-off from the immediate realities of the society one lives in- seems to be the ground on which the productions are premised. Chandralekha describes how she toured the world on cheap tickets in the 70’s. About the U.S she says, “It was a beautiful time – there was Vietnam, the feminist movement, the beginning of civil rights movement, their protest against capitalism. All these artistes were expressing themselves in such a strong way. It was a rich beautiful period.” (Lakshmi, C.S. 122). Closer to our times, Sandra Chatterjee has written about D’Lo who does the ‘impossible hosting’ of South Asian, gay, trans-body diasporic identity. (Women and Performance, 16: 3, 2006, 445- 464). It is not surprising to me that Preethi was impressed with D’Lo and his work. Preethi performed one of his poems at the Commonwealth presentation. “The poem has overtones of Sri Lankan-Tamil history, reclaiming nature and the search for self”, Preethi had said to TOI. The playful overthrow of decorum by bringing in two shoes worn on her wrist as part of the performance is perhaps a strong response on a Government sponsored stage. D’Lo is a hip hop artist. He brings about a definite working class tradition and the hybrid identity of diaspora and sexuality.
With Sweet Sorrow, Preethi is ready to play with her form. Level grounds are not available. They need to be created. An art form that can claim the status of contemporary has to resist the patriarchal agenda of spectacularising or infantilizing the body; should confront the process of ‘othering’ or exoticisation of the colonial agenda; should be sensitive to the sanitizing, elite, hierarchic notions of taste set by the class agenda; recognize the sacred, purified version of brahmanical agenda; and face the de-politicizing, commodification of all things possible that has set in as part of the capitalist agenda. Marta imagines the decolonizing of Tango in such complex matrix. I am not sure, if we are ready as yet for such a dream. I only wish we are...