Listening to the Past

"Paper Doll" (2005) by Padmini Chettur

Jens Knappe

Can one evoke history without recounting it? You can, says Indian choreographer Padmini Chettur. As the ruins of the past may not tell anything, they are showing, like a human body, the traces of bygone violence. Such colonial harm affected India. Its traces are reaching from the noisy metropolis of Chennai up to the rolling hills of the southwestern English county of Devon.

Dancer and dance researcher, Munich

The waters of the Krishna River feed the gigantic Nagarjuna Sagar dam in southern India. Inaugurated on 10 December 1955 by the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, this mega construction figured among India’s major modernization projects within the framework of a “Green Revolution” Ever since its independence in 1947, India’s overriding objective has been, and remains so, to tackle the subcontinent’s enormous food problem by mechanising the agricultural sector.

During construction of the Sagar dam, the ruins of a Buddhist temple complex complete with a university and an amphitheatre were discovered, thus presenting planners with formidable challenges.

Thanks to enormous efforts and a logistical approach, part of the historic complex was removed from the site and rebuilt a few kilometres south of the new dam in a valley close to the village of Anupu. The vestiges of the religiously based complex were thus to herald a “modern temple” of Indian engineering. The nation’s cultural heritage had been shielded from flooding and preserved as a memorial. Today, one has the impression that this 1st century AD complex, founded by the Buddhist teacher Acharya Nagarjuna, a philosopher and chemist, has been there since time immemorial. Meanwhile, it has become popular tourist magnet. From the steps of the amphitheatre, one can look down on a rectangular arena with bright red soil and further afield to the huge man-made reservoir.

Laura Fiorio/HKW

“Sound is also found buried under layers of time.”

In 2015, Umashankar Mantravadi, the Madras-born (now Chennai) pioneer of acoustic archaeology, visited the Anupu excavation site. The centre of the site forms a mandala surrounded by ruins, which were formerly sleeping quarters for the monks and students. A meditation centre and burial stelae (stupas) as well as a temple of the goddess Harathi can still be found. His focus was on that amphitheatre which once served as a forum for the intellectual community. Here, Mantravadi and his team took measurements. He used self-made, so-called ambisonic microphones in order to record three-dimensional sound spheres. As early as the mid-1990s, he had already begun investigating and measuring the acoustic properties of other, premodern performance venues and spaces in order to acquire a better acoustic understanding of ancient buildings. Mantravadi’s ultimate objective was to be able to preserve the acoustic sphere of erstwhile performance venues. Additionally, there would also be sound archives with which to explore the past in other ways than the usual, visual level.

Portrait Padmini Chettur

Padmini Chettur. Photo: Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute

Five years on, in 2020, the choreographer Padmini Chettur, born in 1970 and a prominent exponent of contemporary dance throughout India, visited the site at the invitation of curator Nida Ghouse. During here three-day stay there, she created her cinematic sketch A Slightly Curving Place [A Study]. [A Study] In it, the choreographer reflects on the fact that this archaeological site had been reconstructed in a new environment and that the site reconstruction must effectively have led to changes and interventions in substance. As Chettur remarked:

„Beautiful Dance 1“ (2009), Photo: Sara

The site relocation is not just a historical fact: This site transfer, beyond being a narrative, is also tangibly evident and visible in the space itself. On one level, the history of dance in India is also one of rupture, reconstruction, several meetings of the past and present. In this sense, as it is now, this space with its strange combination of old stone and ugly new granite, and also quite removed from a huge legacy of meaning and religiosity, was one of the reasons I chose this site over those where Uma [Umashankar] and Nida [Ghouse] had researched. Also, it is a site for physical activity – martial arts, for Buddhist discourse and conversation; it has a history of being a space for learning, for generating knowledge. And ultimately, it has the architecture of a mandala, with incredible geometry and proportions which humanize and frame the human body with ease.

Chettur artistically engages with the history of this site; she picks up on it with her entire body. It becomes a camera, so to speak. The upshot is a video work of immense appeal. Two parallel projected films featuring clips of the dancer reveal her amidst the vastness of the site, cultivating an effective visual language through the juxtaposition of close-ups, enhanced by the extreme slowness of her movements. It is a meditation on time and space. The dynamic pause in a pose, the stillness in movement, are often recurring sequences in Chettur’s choreographies, notably here in Anupu. We can see cracks in the ancient walls, a hand stretching toward the sky, her body doubling in drawn-out shadows.

And, until now at this point in the text, dear reader, you have been listening to the sound of Anupu. Perhaps you have not been aware of it––this almost inaudible sound has emanated from your device––a sample of Umashankar Mantravadi’s archaeological sound recordings.

“I feel that perhaps the body itself exists as an archaeology of itself,” noted Chettur, who created her video work A Slightly Curving Place [A Study][A Study] for the 2020 exhibition bearing the same title at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin. For her, “it’s a study of how to frame space, how to bring different temporalities–ancient and contemporary–onto the same plane, how to evoke history without telling it.”

The various shifts in lighting played an essential role in this process. For the longer sequences, shooting took place early in the morning and the evening of the following day. Chettur’s intention was not to produce a dance film in the strict sense of the term or to stage a choreography against a historical backdrop. Rather, she meant it as a reflection on the inner nature of the body and its relationship to external space, which she explored with minimalist movements. She refers to this process as “listening to the past.” The body becomes a resonating space for the site’s vibrations and moods.

„A Slightly Curving Place“ (2022), Photos: Sara

„Beautiful Dance 1“ (2009), Photo: Sara

Together with her crew, Chettur revisited Anupu in 2021 and filmed there once again. The film project, originally conceived of for six dancers, had been turned into a solo, a dialogue with the surrounding space and landscape: “After viewing the ‘study material’ and having been in the space, it seemed conceptually and artistically more consistent to stick with a single body. This way, there was no danger of it becoming a spectacle and in no way did I want this film to be about anything other than the space itself, and the dilemma of a body moving through multiple historical moments.”

Her reworked version of A Slightly Curving Place was screened as part of the program at the 2022 March Dance festival at the Goethe Institute/Max Mueller Bhavan in Chennai, organized in collaboration with artists from the Basement 21collective. Among the co-founders of this company are Chettur herself and the musician-composer Maarten Visser. Since 2011, workshops, lectures, improvisations and performances have regularly taken place under the label Basement 21. This makes it part of Chennai’s vibrant dance scene, in a city that looks back on its deeply prolific dance history.

Rukmini Devi Arundale, 1940. Photo: The Hindu Images

Dance Metropolis Chennai

Located on the Coromandel Coast on the Bay of Bengal, Chennai, formerly Madras, is a good four-hour drive east from Anupu. In this highly populous city and capital of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, the dancer and theosophist Rukmini Devi Arundale (1904-1986) made major contributions both to the revival and renaissance of the South Indian temple dance Bharatanātyam during the 1930s, helping it to achieve nation-wide recognition. Nowadays, Bharatanātyam is the best-known Indian dance; until that juncture it had gone under various names such as Dāsiāttam, Nautch, Sadir, and Chinnemelam. The dance practitioners, once highly respected, had lost their erstwhile lofty cultural status during the British colonial occupation. The colonial rulers suspected them of being involved in creating a front for prostitution and thus stripped them of their honored reputation. Rukimi Devi, herself a Brahmin, faced considerable hostility in her initiative to revive the rich Indian dance culture. As members of the highest caste in Hinduism, however, she and her husband were jointly able to found the Bharatanatyam Dance Academy in 1936. Today it is known as the Kalakshetra Foundation so that it can reconnect with the dance tradition that was wiped out as a result of the British occupation. Mohan Khokar (1924-1999) was the first male pupil to enroll in this academy in 1940. He subsequently was to become a dance scholar and critic as well as a collector, photographer and author of numerous books on this classical dance form. He bought up anything and everything connected with Indian dance culture, making no distinction between kitsch and art, old or new. Even the New York Public Library and the Dansmuseet in Stockholm showed interested in his estate, which was finally able to remain in-situ in Chennai, because: “The value of this collection is that it is not only dance history but also our social history.”

Chandralekha, Photo: Sadanand Menon

SPACES, another venue for performance arts, was also launched in Chennai. This space dates back to the choreographer Chandralekha (1928-2006), who lived and worked in Madras (now Chennai) since 1949. Here she initiated the Mandala Theatre and her vision to “create alternative artistic and human spaces in the city.” Designed in an architecturally indigenous idiom, SPACES is now a locally conceived performance space for experimental dance. It also houses the archives of the renowned choreographer, for whom the very idea of archiving was incompatible throughout her lifetime. Still, Chandralekha also contributed to making Chennai the dance metropolis of India. Since 2000, her long-time partner and collaborator, the photographer Sadanand Menon, has been the managing trustee for the Kalakshetra Foundation.

Firmly underpinned its own dance heritage and Rukimi Devi’s legacy, Chennai can boast of a vibrant dance scene, even though its contemporary dancers and choreographers still have to face challenging conditions when it comes to producing a work. In India, their native land, they virtually receive no support or funding. Chettur, an established figure in the West, thus characterized the dilemma:

Unfortunately, we are still highly controlled and cater to the ‘European’ market in some ways, even indirectly. Even today, most money for contemporary dance in India comes from institutions like the Goethe-Institute and from other foreign co-producers. So, there is no real interest, support or money from within the country for someone like me. I feel we need to collectively reflect about this and consider what such economic pressure on artistic life means in the Third World. And artists in India––as I’ve been doing– increasingly need to seek out an Asian network.

„Paper Doll“ by Padmini Chettur, Photos: Jens Knappe


Chettur’s video work Varnam was also commissioned and produced overseas, namely by the Graz festival Steirischer Herbst in 2016. In this contemporary dance choreography conceived for six dancers, Chettur draws on classical dance styles with which she is familiar and a juxtaposition of elements drawn from the 19th century: that of Bharatanātyam, the most-well known of the eight classical Indian dance forms. Chettur had already learnt this artform as a child; she decided against training overseas, as had long been the custom for many aspiring performers.

Her artistic career began in 1990 with Chandralekha’s dance company, whose founder was not only a key exponent of new Indian dance, but also a champion for women’s and human rights. She stayed put with Chandralekha for ten years before she took flight, experimenting with her own solos, and ultimately establishing her own dance company in 2000. Her mentor was constantly in conflict, notably regarding the West’s attitude toward an exotic India. For Chettur, however, “this particular debate had to move beyond the post-colonial, nationalist one in order to honestly make sense of the multiple influences in my own life.” She is well-known for the abstract minimalism that characterizes her work. She nevertheless remains connected to the Bharatanātyam dance tradition, adopting its lexicon of movements in a highly individual fashion. She has freed this classical dance form from all its decorative trappings and rid it of its exoticism. She did retain, however, its technique, its formal rigour, and the geometry.

Furthermore, her contemporary dance style dispenses with the storytelling customary in Indian classical dance. In her video work Varnam, she draws upon a core musical component in the traditional repertoire of Bharatanātyam dance performance, namely singing, along with a composition from the early 19th century of the same name by the Thanjavur Quartet. Chettur at once explores and deconstructs this composition, enhancing it with contemporary texts and abstracting the classical canon of movement.

Asked about the recognition of such contemporary choreography in present-day India, she replied: There are no barriers for thinking through the ‘contemporary’ in Indian dance. This is a very big question, for this country is so large, and dance practices so diverse. We have multiple ‘classical’ forms, but we also know that there are several dancers and choreographers who don’t come from this environment,… who study at ‘contemporary dance’ schools, or have a background in hip-hop or film dance (such as Bollywood). These PR actioners, too, have to be taken into account.

In hoop skirt: Chandralekha


American Artists in India: E. A. T. Experiments in Art and Technology

During the mid-1980s, a major debate concerning the contemporaneity of dance was first launched in Chennai. From a Eurocentric perspective, Indian dance has been regarded ––somewhat cliquishly––as an ethnic form of folklore. In contrast, the Indian dancer, choreographer and feminist Chandralekha has succeeded through her works in forging a synthesis of old and new. She set about questioning dance’s social function throughout Indian society, while also testing out new role models. She revitalised the traditional dance style Bharatanātyam, with which she had already made her debut in 1952. Yet, time and again, she abandoned her role as a choreographer and turned to activism, poetry, and painting. In 1984, she again forsake choreography and together with twenty other national and international dancers took part in The East West Dance Encounter, an event in Mumbai on the west coast of India which generated a powerful impact. Among those featuring in the cast from Europe were Susanne Linke, Dominique Bagouet, and Gerhard Bohner. Before long, Chandralekha was also to develop a long-standing friendship with Pina Bausch. In 1988, she was invited to Bausch’ festival in Wuppertal. They met again when Bausch toured India with her successful piece Carnations (Nelken,1982).

In her choreographies, Chandralekha devotes herself especially to the themes of eroticism and sexuality, themes that had been incriminated by the British. Furthermore, she fused Bharatanātyam with martial arts and yoga, devising an innovative abstract body language based on geometric dance forms. In 1970, she collaborated with the non-profit organisation E.A.T. (Experiments in Arts and Technology), a collective of artists and engineers in the United States founded by Billy Klüver and Robert Rauschenberg, among others. Billy Klüver and Julie Martin got to know Chandralekha in India. Andy Warhol shot a film in New York in which Chandralekha demonstrated a series of symbolic hand gestures, the so-called Hasta-Mudras.

Harry Shunk / Janos Kender: Chandralekha’s hand gestures from classical Indian dance. 1970

The artist-photographer duo Harry Shunk and Janos Kender were present during the shoot and photographed her hands. Tom Gormley selected one of these mudras as the poster motif for the American Artists in India project initiated by E. A. T. and funded by the John D. Rockefeller Foundation. It fostered the idea of sending American artists from this collective to India for a month for an exchange of views with their Indian colleagues. Among the first nine participants were such prominent representatives of postmodern dance as Trisha Brown, Steve Paxton, and Yvonne Rainer.


Dartington Hall Experiment

Rabindranath Tagore – Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst

While European choreographers in Mumbai and American choreographers in Madras have been acquiring new experiences under their Indian colleagues, some fifty years earlier in England, dance artists already had the opportunity to be invited to Europe, as guests to a medieval estate in the southern English county of Devon. In 1925, the British-American couple Leonhard and Dorothy Elmhirst acquired the Dartington Hall estate, where they laid the foundation for the Dartington Hall experiment, an outstanding example and model for international artistic networks and collectives influenced by modernism. At best, it is comparable to Monte Veritá in Ascona, albeit it had to endure completely different pre-conditions. Dorothy Elmhirst endowed Dartington Hall with a start-up capital of five million sterling from her family fortune in order to launch an interdisciplinary project closely modelled on Santeniketan, the exemplary educational and cultural centre which the poet and reformer Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) ran on his estate near Calcutta (now Kolkata).

Dartington Hall, Photo Andy Lovell/Alamy Stock Photo

Dorothy (Payne Whitney) Elmhirst, 1915

In 1913, Tagore was the first non-European to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, which led to great worldwide interest in his literary output, his person, and his country of origin. On Tagore’s bidding, Leonard Elmhirst first set up and directed the Institute for Rural Reconstruction in Sriniketan in West Bengal and accompanied him on his international lecture tours between 1923 and 1925. All the experience he acquired in India went into fleshing out the Dartington project. Thanks to the restoration of historical buildings, the estate gradually saw the emergence of an educational reform school, a kiln, a glass workshop, a dance studio and modern buildings and converted structures, such as the barn converted into a studio stage by Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius. The performing arts were particularly given the spotlight and promoted.


Uday Shankar – Kurt Jooss

Dartington Hall rapidly evolved into an international rehearsal stage for social transformation processes far from the global metropolises. In 1933, the Elmhirsts saw the award-winning anti-war ballet The Green Table by Kurt Jooss (1901-1979) in London. The following year , Dartington Hall was to become a refuge and a new hive of activity for Jooss, his family and dance company. He was one of the few German choreographers who, under pressure from the Nazis, did not sever links with their German-Jewish collaborators, among them the composer Fritz Cohen and the stage designer Hein Heckroth. Shortly afterwards, Jooss’ colleague and artistic partner Sigurd Leeder (1902-1981) followed in his footsteps and fled Nazi Germany. The Jooss-Leeder School of Dance was thus founded in the Devon countryside.

In that same year, the Elmhirsts invited the Indian choreographer and dancer Uday Shankar (1900-1977), acclaimed in dance circles throughout the West, and his Hindu ballet troupe for the first time for an open-air performance. They subsequently become key supporters for Shankar’s future dance academy project at Almora in British-ruled India. In the wake of his 1930 performance at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris with, for the first time, his own Indian musical troupe and company, he successfully toured in Europe and the USA. He was also to find another committed patron in the Swiss artist and later Indologist Alice Boner (1889-1981). She directed his dance troupe from 1930 to 1935. An extensive photo collection and correspondence in both Dartington and Zurich bear witness to this long-running relationship. Nowadays, Shankar is considered a pioneering figure in modern Indian dance, and, jointly with Rabindranath Tagore, exemplifies the revival of the performing arts in his native land. He combined the dance styles of Bharatanātyam and Kathakali with folk dance, as well as elements from German expressive dance and American modern dance.

As a film director and producer, Shankar spent four years working on his groundbreaking dance drama Kalpana, which has since become a classic, as the “first Indian all-dance picture” (1948) at Gemini Studios in Madras, setting new standards for future choreographers and film producers. Dance sequences such “Labor and Machinery” are one of its highlights, reminiscent of Fritz Lang’s classic film Metropolis as well as Charly Chaplin’s Modern Times.

„Kalpana“ (1948) by Uday Shankar, Screenshot

Dance remained an integral part of Dartington Hall’s program over the ensuing decades. In July 1964, Merce Cunningham and Company give two performances at the Barn Theatre with John Cage, David Tudor, and Robert Rauschenberg. At that juncture, they were still at the beginning of their legendary World Tour, which they would continue in India in October of the same year. Cage’s long-standing links with the influential Sarabhai family of entrepreneurs, notably to their daughter, the singer and musician Gita Sarabhai, had led to this invitation. Cunningham’s company performed in Bombay (now Mumbai), Ahmedabad, Chandigarh and Delhi. It was during this visit that the friendship between Cunningham and Mrinalini Sarabhai, the renowned Indian dancer, educator and activist, began. She, in turn, is Padmini Chettur’s great-aunt.

Uday Shankar in „Kalpana“


During his stay in India, the sound researcher Cage recorded Chandralekha’s unmistakable laughter and had it played as a continuous loop over ten loudspeakers at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad. The Chennai-based poet, journalist and dancer Tishani Doshi, who had danced with Chandralekha’s company for fifteen years, has given an account of this episode. One could think of this – long-lost – laughter as a fitting piece to Umashankar’s virtually soundless sonic archaeology: as a continuous echo from a bygone era, constantly threatening to fade into silence.

Anna-Miriam Jussel, Vom Tempeltanz zum heutigen Bharatanāṭyam, Dissertation, Wien 2009
Begleitheft zur Ausstellung „A Slightly Curving Place“ (23.7.-20.9.2020) im Rahmen des HKW-Projekts Das Neue Alphabet (2019 –2021), Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin
Ketu H. Katrak, Contemporary Indian Dance . New Creative Choreography in India and the Diaspora, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011

MOUNT 2017
Kevin Mount, A History of Dartington Hall in Twenty-three Moments, hg. von / edited by the
Dartington Hall Trust, Dartington 2017

NICHOLAS 2007/2011
Larraine Nicholas, Dancing in Utopia. Dartington Hall and Its Dancers, Alton 2007, Taschenbuchausgabe/ paperback Binsted 2011


Abigail Sebaly, Esprit de Tour. A conversation on retracing the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s 1964 World Tour, 17.5.2016, URL: <https:// www. watch?v=4napust2Vhg> [aufgerufen am 18.5.2021].


E-Mail-Korrespondenz zwischen Sadanand Manon und Marietta Piekenbrock, Jamila Adeli und Antonina Krezdorn vom 14.11.2020

E-Mail-Korrespondenz zwischen Padmini Chettur und Brygida Ochaim vom 7. und 9.4.2022


Padmini Chettur im Interview mit Deepa Punjani, in: Mumbai Theatre Guide, 2011, URL: <https:// dramas/ interviews/ 26-padmini-chettur-interview.asp#> [aufgerufen am 25.5.2021].

DOSHI 2021
Tishani Doshi, Chandralekha, Seminar-Magazin

Srija Naskar, Remembering Chandralekha, whose work redefined Indian dance traditions,

Alka Raghuvanshi, Mohan Khokar Dance Collection: It was one man’s mission in life, now India’s treasure, in: The Asian Age, 20.8.2019 [https://www]

Elizabeth Thomas, Experimenting with tradition, in: Deccan Chronicle, 19.12.2016

Oral History Interview with Julie B. Martin, 2018, Nov. 7–8, Transkript des Gesprächs zwischen Julie B. Martin und Liza Zapol, S. 46, URL: <https:// collections/ interviews/ oral-history-interview-julie- b-martin-17613> [aufgerufen am 18.5.2021].