Chowk Productions presents their new work, Pallavi through Abstractions, as part of Esplanade’s Kalaa Utsavam – Indian Festival of Arts, taking place online from 20 to 29 November 2020.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I recently had the pleasure of chatting over Zoom with Chowk Productions’ Founder and Artistic Director Raka Maitra, Associate Artistic Director Sandhya Suresh, and Marketing Executive Caroline Chin, all three of whom perform in Pallavi through Abstractions. The work’s conception and creation process fascinates me on more than one level – from the perspective of deconstructing art forms and challenging boundaries, and also in the context of an ongoing pandemic and the shifting of performance works to the online medium.
This is the final work in the company’s Pallavi Series. It began in 2016 and encompasses three earlier works. The first work in the series, Pallavi and Space (2016), focused on the chowk – the basic stance of Odissi. The second, Pallavi in Time (2017) worked with the bends of the body. The third, Pallavi with Stillness (2019), was about the torso, the gaze and the stillness in the dance form. Pallavi through Abstractions combines all these elements, bringing everything together, completing the series.
In hearing Raka talk about her impetus for the Pallavi Series, I get a clear sense of the driving force behind the company itself – a desire to question conventional boundaries and classifications within the performing arts. Raka describes what Chowk does as somewhere between theatre and dance. She shares her observation that audiences of the company’s previous work have sometimes been confused about the vocabulary being used, finding it difficult to understand how the company was using or combining Odissi with “Western” techniques.
These observations led Raka to decide to do a work that explicitly deals with the company’s vocabulary and how they were deconstructing Odissi, in contrast with Chowk’s other work, where artistically she never felt the need to show their vocabulary. I understand the Pallavi Series as a tribute to the form; it comes from a complex, curious relationship with an art form that one deeply loves and respects – Raka explains that the classical vocabulary is so wide and broad, and just using and learning it, you could spend your whole life, without the need for other forms. As a performing practitioner myself, I certainly relate to the sentiment.
But more than that, I am always excited to see practitioners deeply interrogating their own form and negotiating the relationship that they have with it, a process central to the continuing evolution of the myriad dances that we hold dear.
When we talk about sharing the work online, it is clear that all three Chowk dancers have mixed feelings. Abstractions was conceived to be seen live, and physical, on stage, and indeed was meant to be staged in March 2020 — right around the time all live performances had to be put on hold. We don’t dwell too long on these upended plans. I learn that Raka and the dancers see the version of Abstractions at Kalaa Utsavam as a rather interesting way to document the work through a recorded medium. They plan to eventually stage it, live and in the flesh.
When I asked, “what were your experiences with recording this version?” This was what I heard.
Chin: It was new and different; we had to get used to the energy of filming different takes, versus the adrenaline of performing for a live audience. Replicating and sustaining the same energy as a full live performance across the whole process of filming was a challenge.
Sandhya: It’s a different experience not only for the artists but for the audience as well. Especially since the most important elements of Chowk’s work are the gaze, and the presence. I feel it is most effective when the audience and the performers are in the same space at the same time experiencing the same things together, whereas that journey and that experience is perhaps “lost” in digital form.
(Indeed, this connection between the performer and audience is one of the things I miss most when watching performances through a screen, particularly for dance, where the visceral experience often contributes a large part to meaning-making.)
Chin also points out that in Pallavi with Stillness (2019), where she played the violin, the use of live music meant that dancers and musicians played in the moment, with space and time, and every run would be a little different. In this filmed version of Abstractions, the dancers work with a pre-recorded track, which took getting used to. Raka agrees, adding that Chowk mostly works with live musicians responsive to the dancers and supporting them in pieces that are usually very physically demanding.
Nevertheless, the artists are still positive about this opportunity to produce Pallavi with Stillness as filmed documentation, before staging it as a live performance. I am curious to see how the experiences might influence each other. Much ink has already been spilled on the topic of physical versus online performances. The fact is that we (performers and audiences) are still continuing to navigate the uncertain terrain ahead, as this wide field of live, performing arts, with its time-honoured traditions and preference for human intuition, makes sense of our increasingly-digitalising lives. It’s not for nothing that performing artists working regularly with technology say that the best “technological tools” are still the live performer.
As we near the end of our conversation, the artists come back again to the idea of defying categorisation and boundaries in the arts – a conviction that is evidently close to their hearts. They invite the audience to come and experience Pallavi through Abstractions as it is, leaving our preconceived notions at the metaphorical door. As I have often done in the past few months, I will be grabbing a drink and a friend, just to feel that much more connected to another human being. I am eager to simply experience this movement treatise on the “pure dance” that is pallavi.
Chowk Productions present Pallavi through Abstractions with Kalaa Utsavam, 20-29 November. Tickets are on sale at SISTIC.
This post is sponsored by Esplanade — Theatres on the Bay.