The Body as the Brush

Using the body as a brush to convey emotions, while perplexing to most, is what Anitha Santhanam is trained to do. A proponent of physical theatre, which she describes as, a total theatre experience, is where one uses the body actively. “Not just the face and voice,” she pointed out. “It’s not just the characters we play. We can also embody landscapes, sensations and sounds.”

Gearing up for her performance What’s the Matter, Santhanam talks of expressing complex and layered emotions of grief, trauma and personal journey through physical theatre. In elementary physics matter is a substance that has inertia and occupies physical space. As a language, the connotations are different. But for Santhanam, it is the ‘matter’ that has shaped her so far, the pain and loss which invariably imprint the physical and mental being of the person. Using dance, song and dialogue, the performance unfolds as an intimate and interactive piece.

As she asks in a poetic manner: “What matters? What doesn’t matter? Who decides? Who matters? Who doesn’t matter? Who decides?  Is it me or is it patriarchy?” These are just some of the questions that have fashioned the solo performance which took her a year to write and six months to create it. But it is patriarchy that was the starting point or the impulse to make the piece. She noted that, “it came from a personal experience of being measured all the time starting from childhood by the men in the family. The patriarchal standards that drove me to achieve more and more, without pausing to see how this drive for perfection was destroying my body. The continuous ‘measurement’ was destroying my ‘matter.' I have used my personal experience of displacement as a quirky start to this exploration.”

Santhanam has been trained in the physical theatre pedagogy of Jacques Lecoq who was one of 20th century’s major figures of Western theatre known especially for his teachings of movement, play, mime and improvisation. “I trained at LISPA, London. This is the bodywork you will see in the piece. Not choreography but physical theatre.” Prior to this, she had trained in Bharatanatyam, Kalaripayattu and choreography. As a dancer, she had performed extensively with Maya Rao’s Natya Stem Dance Ensemble. Talking about her experience with the Rao, she said, “Maya Rao was a fabulous guru and mentor.Her choreography was detailed and subtle. Her aesthetic refined and understated. I was part of her performing unit and also a student of choreography under her. She encouraged us to explore and be influenced by all arts not just dance.”

However, her transition into theatre happened after twenty years of being a professional dancer when she was cast as Kunti in Vanaprastham in 2006. It was a solo play on Kunti’s life, the mother of the Pandava princes. “Being able to speak in my own voice and act was wonderful. And I loved it.” It was then that she got the Charles Wallace India Trust scholarship to pursue physical theatre. In fact, she got the scholarship twice, in 2007 and 2012 and since then, has been into theatre fulltime; acting in and directing plays.  She has acted in plays like Ms Meena and To See on a Sieve as well as created the critically acclaimed An Arrangement of Shoes. So, which role has been more interesting; as a director or performer? “Both are equally interesting,” she replied. “As a director, you can also be the audience of your work, which you can’t be as a performer, but it is more responsibility. As a performer that feeling of being on stage and interacting with a live audience is electrifying.”

But no matter which cap she dons, physical theatre is a strenuous genre that requires a certain degree of fitness. For Santhanam, who is also a trained yoga practitioner, it is Pilates and strength training that has kept her on track.

Coming back to What’s the Matter, her unique form of expression has been able to encapsulate her dreams and reality to knit an imagery of the universal human condition of being uprooted and then resurrected. It is probably not an easy feat but she has managed to convey it all through her voice and body. And as she noted, the city is the right place to showcase it. “Theatre is thriving in this city with more and more professionals are entering this space.  There are so many venues, producers, groups. Importantly, more and more experimentation and original work happen here.”

What: What’s the MatterWhen: June 22, 7.30pmWhere: Untitled Space, J P Nagar

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