The earth is dark. Gley soil mixed with alluvium, made heavy by the monsoon rains. Dusk is falling. Amid the quiet all is not quite still. A circling of birds. Wisps of smoke of wood fires drifting from nearby kampungs. The call to the maghrib prayer as the last light leaves the sky to the west. And this earth shimmers green with the maturing padi – the grain of life marking the passage of time and season, as it always has done in this part of the world.
From this fecund domain – from the soil and from the stalks the farmers have (re)planted and made and cared for and eventually will harvest – emerges a single figure. She is Aida Redza. She is, for a time, the embodiment of the semangat, the spirit, of the padi.
Aida carries us through the imaginative cycle of the padi. Her body is still for a while, a pause, and then moves. A creature with spare movements burrowing through the earth, acknowledging the real space and the symbolic space that exist for a while in those fields on the far side of the island.
She moves slowly, her body streaked with glistening stains, her eyes focused in concentration, her arms raised in supplication. The dance has begun. She has entered. She is becoming. Music – quietly propulsive – offers a murmuring undertow for the emotional movement, journeying through different states: wakefulness and sleep, fear and playfulness. The spirit of the padi carries all before her.
Rice has been cultivated in South-East Asia for more than five millennia. Such is its centrality to life that its growth rhythms find direct expression in the rituals of human life: from the young rice plants called anak padi, rice children, to the consumption of the heavy grains in the ceremonial and in the everyday. Yet rice is almost always taken for granted, save for those whose lives depend on its bounty, those whose hopes (and fears) are rooted in these pockets of earth.
We are disconnected, out of balance. Yet the padi still tells a story that attaches us. So as she moves with the stalks, Aida now moves again. This time she and the padi relocate – to overcome the separation between fact and imagination, event and feeling, protagonist and narrator, rural and urban. To (re)create that earth, that field – to inhabit the city, however incongruous that may seem. Here the soil is thin, the noise unceasing. And yet life is possible anywhere, isn’t it? The unwelcoming earth is turned to new use. The seeds are chosen and scattered. The new plants are veiled for protection.
John Berger once wrote that to cultivate the soil “is a continual struggle to encourage the vertical.” In the background vertiginous apartment blocks break the skyline. But, like a small miracle, another world is on its way, shimmering green pushing upwards. In a quiet moment, you can hear the sound of the rice growing.
Moved By Padi, a mixed media dance performance – with Aida Redza, Mao Arata, Lisa Foo, Ng Chor Guan and Siti Sarah Ameera
The prepared padi field at the junction of Gat Lebuh Macallum and Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu Expressway, George Town
- August 20, 6.30pm: Installation opening with movement presentation
- August 27 and August 28, 8.30pm: Contemporary dance with visual projections, installations and music performance
Part of George Town Festival 2016
Phin Oswald is a fine art photographer, writer and arts worker.
Gareth Richards is a writer, editor and bookseller.