Defying Rasa, Defying Melody: Body and Sound in Beautiful Thing 1 by Padmini Chettur
If one takes note of the terms ‘jerky’, ‘fluid’, ‘strained’, ‘minimal’, ‘continuous’, ‘still’, ‘repetitive’, ‘immersive’ as examples that one may often encounter in contemporary dance spaces, such as in rehearsals, discussions, and scholarly writings, which then could be well be well be registered as the textual vocabulary of contemporary dance-making practices, are also in effect terms referring to the sensibilities of rhythm-making as embedded in these practices. In that respect, the expression of critique or resistance that a critical viewer would like to trace in some of the contemporary choreographic works emerging in the Indian dance context has a lot to do with choreographers’ and dancers’ subjective methods of interpreting the notions of the ‘sonic’. So what I propose through this paper is a methodology of studying contemporary dance practice, in that its relationship to the embodiment of critique, vis-à-vis its distancing from the employment of ‘harmonious’ and ‘melodic’ sounds in the process of choreography. I choose Padmini Chettur’s choreographic work Beautiful Thing 1  as my case study, for I see it directly challenging the traditional idea of ‘music-accompanying-dance’ while aligning the extremely taut and edgy movements of a group of female dancers to sounds that may be called metronomic, acoustic, even silent or absent. My motivation is to investigate and describe how the sound-scape that Beautiful Thing 1 spans, as it lets the movements of female bodies emerge in a much exposed and matter-of-fact manner, effectively replaces the idea of rasa with friction as a proposed affect for the onlooker.
Historically, performance traditions, including the classical and folk, both in indigenous and western cultural domains, have quintessentially prescribed dance as an act performed ‘to’ music wherein a sense of theatricality would function as a necessary glue that would conjoin the two acts- dance and music- into a single frame of meaning and reception as codified within forms like musicals or dance-dramas, and in that project the dancing body as an entity dependent on music. Given that my focus here is dance in the Indian context, I would say any significant instances of shifts in the relationship between the dancing body and music owing to departures made from classical and folk frameworks could be identified only in the second half of the 20th century within the practices of artists such as Uday Shankar and Chandralekha. While Shankar had been constantly engaging with ‘experimental’ music alongside movement improvisation, responding to the political state of affairs in his works such as Labour and Machinery, and Rhythms of Life; Chandralekha’s choreographic works such as Sharira and Sri could encourage a re-imagination of the role of music in dance given how these works urged the employment of music as an instrument of time that would facilitate the experience of ‘endurance’ in dance movement and bring out Chandra’s insistence on the materiality and sexuality of the female dancing body. The artistic practices of both these artists, therefore, can be read as considerably distanced from conventional structures of choreography in Indian classical dance, in the way these artists visibly refrained from the reproduction of religious codes via narrative music and allowed for, in my opinion, a freely moving and self-aware dancing body.
Padmini Chettur (b. 1970), one of Chandra’s dancers and a leading female choreographer from the contemporary Indian context, has been consistently researching movement and sound as configurations of time and space in her choreographic practice. In an interview, when I urge Padmini to comment on the significance of sound/music in her work, she said, “My early conditioning in dance tells me that dance must have sound. In my work, there is often a need for precise timing which then makes sound a necessity, since dancers must be able to hear something in order to make connections between them. Sound for me supports my process of layering of movements, creating more dynamic tensions between the dancers as well as within parts of a movement phrase. I have also been fairly interested in complex rhythmic calculations, ways of building structures, and resolving looped patterns, which is where I find the research that sound composers such as (John) Cage and (Steve) Reich have articulated far more complex and philosophical than that attempted by some choreographers.”
John Cage’s 4’33” (1952) was a three-movement composition where the score instructs the performer not to play their instrument during the entire duration of the piece throughout the three movements.
Cage and Reich are two composers who seem to have exerted a great influence on the choreographic research of the last few decades through their essentially ‘minimalist’ sound explorations. In the ways that Cage and Merce Cunningham interdependently developed their artistic practices of sound and movement have been heavily documented as one of the strongest collaborative relationships within the arts which have inspired many choreographer-composer collaborations ever since.
Padmini’s relationship with sound composer Maarten Visser, who is also her husband, is as old as twenty years. Maarten, originally from the Netherlands, is a saxophone player who has been consistently experimenting with metronomes and music boxes for the compositions he creates for Padmini’s works. As Maarten shared in an email conversation with me, “In principle, I always work with musical instruments – sometimes self-made; no electronics and generally no found sounds! The more inefficient the musical instrument, the greater the joy of the noises in between.” For Padmini, some of her initial works that Maarten composed for, one could find some senses of harmonic or melodic aesthetics, but as she adds further, “Very quickly, he realised that he had to let go of that and instead develop a system of making sound that would not aesthetically bind my work in any way, rather respond to my focus on building and releasing tension, studying the notion of the elasticity of time with reference to moving bodies.”
Beautiful Thing 1, the collaboration between Padmini and Maarten that I have proposed to analyse here opens with a sound, seemingly of an object being chopped up on a chopping board. Within about seven seconds of this playing of a sound that resembles chopping, or perhaps the tap of a pencil on a hard surface, one also begins to hear a much slower drumming alongside, each beat of the drum played almost after every four beats of the chopping sound. And within the next few seconds, four female dancing bodies appear on stage making the contrast (fast and slow) in the varying tempo of the two sounds visible to the audience’s eye, as two of them move at the pace set by the tapping/chopping sound, while the other two move to every beat of the drum. Gradually, all four dancers arrive at a common speed while the chopping sound fades away. Soon after, one hears one of the dancers speak into a microphone she is wearing as she continues to move her body. The dancer’s own voice that now comes to frame another layer to the sound score, which by now has boiled down to a slow-paced beat of a drum.
The task that Padmini had set for herself in the making of this work was to look at the processes of speeding up and slowing down via body movements originating in the isolation of very specific body parts – right shoulder, left hip, elbow, right foot and so on. The rehearsal space had no ‘music’ ever played, which is to say, that the rhythms of the movements were identified not in response to any sound qualities but in response to “a sense of time” that Padmini had built using a metronome. The sound score created by Maarten was then brought in only in response to already existing movement graphics that Padmini along had phrased. There are several important points to be made here in order to observe how this work offers a strong critique to conventional musicality in dance, thus exemplifying a choreographic process that foregrounds a critical questioning of meaning-making, tradition and identity. Firstly, unlike the conventional process wherein dance is seen as an interpretation of music , it is music in this case that is created as the interpretation of dance. What such a process does then is it challenges the traditional binary between music and dance as has existed in forms such as Bharatanatyam, wherein music would be seen as the rasa or the affect-motivator and the dancing body merely as its visual representation, and by way of that it brings agency to the moving body, allowing it to command its own rhythmicality. In the way that the moving bodies in Beautiful Thing 1 create patterns of push and pull, expansion and contraction, stillness and speed, they make the inner contours and textures of the sound score visible for the onlooker while the sound score restricts itself to maintaining an unobtrusive presence that directly insists on the movement of the bodies.
Secondly, what the sound score can be observed to be playing alongside is not simply the visuals of bodies moving but very importantly bodies moving with a sense of neutrality. Alongside the chopping sound that opens the work, one witnesses two female bodies performing the same dance phrase, in which each movement finds a new point of initiation in the body. The following description of a fragment of the movement phrases that these dancers dance may elaborate the argument I am trying to make here: As the right foot flexes above the floor in front of the body and circles the leg around to come back to the floor, left shoulder pulls up to bring the whole arm up and forward, the right shoulder rolls in to bring the upper back to bend forward, which is followed by the left side of the pelvis to push forward leading the left foot to step away from the body and return, while the right elbow has lifted itself up behind the body, the left elbow has stuck itself to the left side of the waist with the forearm lifted up and forward as the hip circles around only to be followed by the left knee to lift up to allow for the left foot to step back which also calls for the other foot and the whole body to take a step back.
What such movement phrases (variations of which constitute the movement vocabulary of this work t) tend to produce both for the doer and the onlooker are a sense of disjointedness of the moving body, as if each body was nothing more than a set of puzzle blocks, or units of a machine that hinge, twist, and turn in their own time while still functioning in connection with each other under their skin. As the onlooker’s eye gets absorbed in tracing this disjointedness of the moving body, with its focus shifting from one body part to the other, what reaches her/him as the affect of this disjointedness are the senses of neutrality and friction. What the audience is then invited to read in the work are the finer principles and decisions of the moving body, rather than any literal meanings and metaphors.
Maarten values the aesthetics of neutrality and friction in a parallel sense within the sound score he creates. Even though he uses conventional instruments such as the saxophone and santoor, besides using spring drums and self-made music boxes with wind-up motors, he does not seem inclined towards producing melody from these instruments. In fact, for a listener, it is hard to tell if these instruments are being employed in the sound score at all. What one hears are in moments, the ticking, tapping, and clanking sounds as if being produced from every-day objects, racing sounds of a motor engine, or in other moments, hollow sounds that are reminiscent of metal pots being breathed into. This leads to an aural experience that the description of Beautiful Thing 1 on Padmini’s website alludes to as: “It is sometimes quiet, sometimes noisy.”
Thirdly, a key observation to be made here is that it is the neutrality of ‘female’ bodies that constitutes the abstraction in the work. In one of her essays, Padmini writes, “I wanted to envision dance as an uncluttered set of physical ideas- truthful and devoid of sentiments”. And as one watches Beautiful Thing 1 or any other choreographic work by Padmini, one can identify an extremely mathematical and objective treatment that Padmini gives to the dancing bodies, as a result of which these bodies appear starkly non-sentimental and only fully absorbed in experiencing the details of their movement vis-à-vis speed and direction. I argue that the pursuit of a non-emotional body situates Padmini’s choreographic methods in a feminist critique, simultaneously problematising the de-eroticised dancing body of Indian classical forms and the re-eroticised dancing body of commodified physical practices. Neutralising the emotiveness of the performing body then becomes a method of ‘deconstructing’ the sacred and the consumable body. Additionally, these bodies, even as they remain neutral and visibly distanced from their performative selves, continue to exert an agentive presence by resisting being objects of rasa or pleasure for the onlooker.
Once we register this neutrality as a feminist statement, we need to observe how it then begins to challenge and recontextualise the minimalist sound score of the work which in the absence of these moving bodies (which as dance scholars such as Susan Foster and Ramsay Burt among various others have suggested always produce, reproduce, and perform gender) may be read as a-gendered and therefore may not fully realise its disruptive form. I may mention in this regard that musicology, including minimalism in music led by artists such as John Cage and Steve Reich has been at the receiving end of strong feminist criticism, which has argued how musicology has inherently resisted confronting issues of gender in its own making. Beautiful Thing 1, in that sense, becomes a situation wherein its sound score acquires signification vis-à-vis the production of “physical human experience” (of the bodies dancing in this case), which, as feminist musicologist Susan McClary has argued, “music theories and notational systems do everything possible to mask”. In that the disharmony and ‘melody-less-ness’ in the sound score begins to contribute to the construction of the feminine in the shape of these provocatively slow, taut, and non-emotive dancing bodies as against the reiteration of the masculine which music scholar Peter Shelly equates with minimalist music’s presumption of neutrality and abstinence from directly committing to any political or cultural statement.
Paradoxically, Beautiful Thing 1 mediates the a-gendered neutrality of its sound score not only with the object-like neutrality of the female dancing bodies, but also with their very subjective vocality. A large part of the work comprises bodies reciting text which brings out their sonic, also verbal, persona, amplifying their physical presence and challenging the general muteness that dancing bodies are most often attributed with. It first begins with the naming of body parts such as “left shoulder, right foot, left shoulder, right hip” which are spoken in a manner that creates accented rhythms for the body movement. These words then transform from movement instructions to words that seem to have been picked from general conversations in the rehearsals such as hair, bird, handbook, Akhila (one of the dancers’ names), girl, babies, breast, pain, push, and so on. As the word ‘push’ is uttered, dancers shift from speaking clearly meaningful words to blowing breath into the microphones in a strong, accented fashion, in response to which their movement accents become visibly sharper and further assertive.
Thereafter, what follows is the evolution of spoken text into utterances of third-person to first-person narratives, such as, “She was named after the heroine of a movie,” or, “She wasn’t named after anyone,” to, “I like my left hip; I do not like or dislike people who are watching this. I like what a woman looks like, moving in a crowd. Even on stage, we like to look at each other and smile. I was born in Madras. I don’t have kids,” and so on. Notably, while the text is being spoken, the sound score remains silent. The ticking sound reappears soon, alongside which the dancers begin to say numbers, such as “one, four, one, five” as if calculating and measuring their movements as the ticking sound gradually heightens to suggest a build-up of speed. Later, a sound score of single words returns, with which the dancers time their very precise hand gestures which they perform standing in a line.
As Padmini explained in an interview, this text was produced from questionnaires that the dancers were asked to fill, that would exhort them to think about their lives and choices, thus putting them through a self-reflexive exercise. As a result of this, the text, as one can tell from the lines I have quoted above, is indeed loaded with meanings pertaining to the dancers’ relationship with their own bodies, their identity, and their acknowledgement of the spectator. That these are personal testimonies gets reiterated as the bodies of these women continue to move in much the same fashion while the text that they say remains individual to each one. Here it is important for me to underline that to not have these bodies recite the same text collectively is a strong choreographic decision Padmini’s part, for the way in which it preserves the “individual uniqueness” of each performer- both through the specificity of each one’s text but also through the individuality of each one’s voice. At the same time, as these dancers attempt to co-embody the flow of the words with the flow of their movements, as much as the ambiguity of the movements contrasts the literary-ness of the words, it also leaves their meanings thoroughly disturbed. Later, the use of breath diversifies the ambiguity of this performative situation as it marks a transformation in the vocality, into conveying the internal effort of the body which has no language.
At this point, I invite the reader to consider the two kinds of vocality that the work employs. One is textual and also brings out the variations in individual voices, while the other is only physical and is produced in the same way by all the performers. Ryan Dohoney in his essay titled An Antidote to Metaphysics: Adriana Cavarero’s Vocal Philosophy analyses Italian philosopher and feminist Adriana Cavarero and American composer and vocalist Meredith Monk’s common understanding of the differentiation between word and voice, wherein they both view the voice as the bodily faculty capable of abstraction while the word remains a semantic and also a masculine category. This being stated, the use of text in Beautiful Thing 1 remains a matter of critique. But only till the point one does not consider the corporeality of these acts of utterances, which given that the work is categorically movement-based, becomes its central intervention from the point of view of both musicology as well as dance. Adding to that, when a dancer speaks in the work for the first time, what perhaps catches the audience by surprise is her act of vocalising with dancing, in which case one does not immediately register her act as ‘saying something’. Even as the performers begin to recite personal narratives, these narratives, besides producing meaning, also produce sounds. And it is with all these layers of their vocality that these moving bodies challenge their own neutrality and therefore triply assert agency in the work by becoming sources of movement, sound, and also reflection/perception.
To read resistance in Beautiful Thing 1 is to read its interventions at the levels of form and process of choreography, wherein it brings dance and music to a juncture of self-critique and by way of that generates important criticisms of the ‘given-ness’ of structures vis-à-vis performing, watching, and listening in a dance performance. As it allows for the moving body to embrace disjointedness and for the sound to embrace disharmony, it invites the spectator to embrace tension and friction while it strips off any possibilities for groove, melody, rasa, or spectacle to emerge. As the binary of music and dance is questioned by the speaking, breathing dancing body, all the other associative binaries such as mind-body, object-subject, and even masculine-feminine, as they function within the conventional structures of art as well as art-making, stand challenged. In all these respects, the politics in Beautiful Thing 1 is the least of an activist’s statement but must be read as a philosophical statement directing one to think about the aesthetics and paradigms of political resistance.
Meghna Bhardwaj is a Delhi-based dancer. Trained in ballet, modern, and contemporary techniques, Meghna has been a resident at Facets, Attakalari Biennial 2017; Gati Summer Dance Residency 2015; Choreolab, Singapore, 2015; American Dance Festival, WDA, China, 2014; and MASA Dance Journey Program, KCDC, Israel, 2014. Her most recent performances include 'Here There' at Asia Culture Centre, Korea, 'Edges' at Dance Round Table 2018, Taipei; and March Dance 2018, Chennai. Meghna has recently finished her Doctorate at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU, Delhi. She has presented her academic writing at the IFTR conference, Stockholm, 2016 and has published herself in JEDS (Journal for Emerging Dance Scholarship) WDA, and Ligament, Attakalari.
 To be noted here is that Padmini Chettur has created two works under the titles Beautiful Thing 1 (2009) and Beautiful Thing 2 (2011). The essay, given its limited scope, focusses only on Beautiful Thing 1. For watching the performance video, the reader may refer to the following link: http://www.padminichettur.in/choreography_pad/beautiful-thing-1/
 Prarthana Purkayastha, “Uday Shankar and the Performance of Alterity in Indian Dance”. In Indian Modern Dance, Feminism, and Transnationalism, Palgrave Macmillan: UK, 2014. (50-78); Royana Mitra, “The Parting Pelvis: Temporality, Sexuality, and Indian Womanhood in Chandralekha's Sharira”, in Dance Research Journal, Volume 46, No.2, Special Issue: Body Parts: Pelvis, Feet, Face, Hips, Legs, Toes, and Teeth. Published by Congress on Research in Dance, August 2014 (5-19).
 Van Stiefel, “A Study of the Choreographer-Composer Collaboration”. In Working Paper Series 22. Published by Centre for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies, Princeton University, 2002.
 See, Noël Carroll, Margaret Moore, “Feeling movement: Music and Dance”. In Revue internationale de philosophie, 2008/4 (No 246), (413-435). https://www.cairn.info/revue-revue-internationale-de-philosophie-2008-4-page-413.htm
 To be noted here as a side-remark is that feminist criticisms of musicology have acknowledged and examined the construction of ‘masculine’ in the instrumental music. For further reference see, Susan McClary. “Toward a Feminist Criticism of Music”. In Canadian University Music Review, Volume 10, Number 2, 1990 (9-18).
 Padmini Chettur. “The Body Laboratory”, in Tilt Pause Shift: Dance Ecologies in India, ed. Anita E. Cherian. New Delhi: Tulika Books, 2016. (158)
 See, Susan L. Foster. “Choreographies of Gender”, Signs Vol 24. No. 1, pp 1-33, University of Chicago Press, 1998; Ramsay Burt. The Male Dancer: bodies, spectacle, sexualities, London and New York: Routledge, 1995.
 I argue this on the basis of my reading of a compelling PhD. dissertation written by Peter Shelley titled “Rethinking Minimalism: At the Intersection of Music Theory and Art Criticism” submitted at the University of Washington in 2013. See: https://digital.lib.washington.edu/researchworks/bitstream/handle/1773/24092/Shelley_washington_0250E_12317.pdf?sequence=1
 McClary, 14
 Peter Shelly, 2013.
 For reference on the conception of individual uniqueness vis e vis voice, see Ryan Dohoney. “An Antidote to Metaphysics: Adriana Cavarero’s Vocal Philosophy”. In Women and Music: A Journal of Gender and Culture, Volume 15, University of Nebraska Press, USA. 2011. (70-85).
 Dohoney, 81.
Carroll, Noël and Margaret Moore, “Feeling movement: Music and Dance”. In Revue internationale de philosophie, Volume 4, No. 246. Pp. 413-435. 2008. https://www.cairn.info/revue-revue-internationale-de-philosophie-2008-4-page-413.htm
Chettur, Padmini. “The Body Laboratory”, in tiltpauseshift: Dance Ecologies in India, ed. Anita E. Cherian.Pp 156-168. New Delhi: Tulika Books, 2016.
Dohoney, Ryan. “An Antidote to Metaphysics: Adriana Cavarero’s Vocal Philosophy”. In Women and Music: A Journal of Gender and Culture, Volume 15, pp. 70-85. USA: University of Nebraska Press. 2011.
Kunst, Bojana. “The Voice of the Dancing Body”. In Frankcija, Zagreb, 2009. http://wp.me/p1iVyi-1V
Mitra, Royona. “The Parting Pelvis: Temporality, Sexuality, and Indian Womanhood in Chandralekha's Sharira”, in Dance Research Journal, Volume 46, No.2. Special Issue: Body Parts: Pelvis, Feet, Face, Hips, Legs, Toes, and Teeth. Pp 5-19. Published by Congress on Research in Dance, August 2014.
Purkayastha, Prarthana. “Uday Shankar and the Performance of Alterity in Indian Dance”. In Indian Modern Dance, Feminism, and Transnationalism, Pp. 50-78. UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.
Shelley, Peter. “Rethinking Minimalism: At the Intersection of Music Theory and Art Criticism”. PhD. Dissertation. University of Washington. 2013. https://digital.lib.washington.edu/researchworks/bitstream/handle/1773/24092/Shelley_washington_0250E_12317.pdf?sequence=1
Stiefel, Van. “A Study of the Choreographer-Composer Collaboration”. In Working Paper Series 22. Published by Centre for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies, Princeton University, 2002.