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Aniruddhan Vasudevan: Theatre has always been of interest to me
- Lalitha Venkat, Chennai

September 7, 2010

'And She Said...' is a dance-theatre work based on the poetry of Tamil women poets on love and conflict. The poetry of Aandal moves us with the depiction of her dream of union with Krishna, playful conversations with the kuyil asking for his whereabouts, and the pangs of separation from him. Separation from the divine thus forms the core of human suffering for Aandal. Pari Magalir's poem, on the other hand, is about the love and loss of the land one belongs to, the people one lives with, the mundaneness of life that one takes for granted. Karaikkal Ammayar's love for the divine is distinctly different from that of Aandal's, in that it is devoid of the romantic-erotic element found in the latter's works. Characterized by a negation of the body, its pleasures and its anguish, Karaikkal Ammayar's poetry speaks of her yearning for, at once, the vision and knowledge of god. The darkness of not knowing constitutes for her the source of human misery. In the contemporary poetry of Salma and Suhirtarani chosen for this work, we see love and conflict at the level of interpersonal relationships - the many silences, games, pacts, attempts to reach out and communicate, etc.

The production of 'And She Said...' has been supported by the 'Art Meets Activism' grant from the Kentucky Foundation for Women. Lakshmi Sriraman, a resident of Lexington, Kentucky, is the recipient of the grant, and Aniruddhan Vasudevan is the collaborator. A student of Priyadarsini Govind, Lakshmi runs the Shree School of Dance where she trains students in Bharatanatyam.

Aniruddhan Vasudevan is based out of Chennai. He has been a student of Chitra Visweswaran and has also worked with English and Tamil theatre. He is a human rights activist, working particularly with issues related to lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender people. Aniruddhan also writes and talks about gender, sexuality, and performance. Aniruddhan talks about his latest work.

I first saw you in a Bhagavatamela performance as a young lad. You later started training under Chitra Visweswaran. What difference did you find in the two disciplines?
Yes, I remember you met me several years ago when I used to be part of the Bhagavatamela in Melattur! It has been many years since I have been in Melattur. I learnt with Chitra Visweswaran. It is hard for me to do a comparison, because for me the frames of reference are totally different, you see. I was very young when I started dancing in Melattur. It took me many years to understand the importance of this dance theatre tradition, its history, form, etc. And that largely happened in summer of every year. But learning with Chitra Visweswaran was an everyday discipline. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It had been a dream to learn with her, for I grew up admiring her work and her approach to the body. I did not want a rigidly geometric and staccato approach to movement. I feared that being a male dancer, I would have to give in to certain expectations of masculinity, machismo, etc. I found Chitra Visweswaran's aesthetic and pedagogy very open-minded to those concerns.

How did you move from pure dance to dance theatre and theatre productions?
In a sense, we are almost already doing dance-theatre even in Bharatanatyam, aren't we? But I do get your question. Theatre has always been of interest to me. Dr. Rajani's theatre classes, rehearsals, plays and readings were the highpoints of my Masters in English Literature at the University of Madras. I also worked a little with Tamil theatre. I won't call it a move, really. I have some discontents with what traditional dance has been able to do vis-à-vis questions of politics, identity, etc. They may not even be the business of traditional dance. So I keep looking at other forms while seeing what I can do with the discipline of training in Bharatanatyam. I am yet to arrive at any such space that I can say works for me. I keep looking.

You are to premiere your latest dance-theatre work 'And She Said...' shortly. Can you tell us about it?
I am absolutely excited. For this work, I collaborate with Lakshmi Sriraman. She lives in Lexington, Kentucky. Lakshmi and I became friends when we did a very small piece of work in 2008 which was part of a larger performance work in Cincinnati, Ohio, in the US. We decided that we would like to work together and kept our minds open for ideas. During one of our several conversations where we shared our readings, we kind of arrived upon this idea for a performance work based on Tamil women poets' work on love and conflict. So we kept reading and sharing. That's how we zeroed in on a work with verses from Pari Magalir and Avvayar of Sangam period; Karaikkal Ammayar and Aandal; contemporary poets Salma and Suhirtarani. Then we had to sit down and see what form of expression would work for these varied kinds of poetry. It cannot all be in Bharatanatyam form.

Even the soundtrack - all of it cannot be set to music in ragam and talam, etc. Some of the lines had their power only when spoken, either recorded or live. The process was very exciting. Thankfully, the Kentucky Foundation for Women approved an application for a production grant that Lakshmi applied for. This "Art Meets Activism" grant has partly supported the production of 'And She Said.....' Our dear friend and long-time collaborator Kuldeep M Pai has done an amazing soundtrack for it. Some of the most memorable moments working on these projects have been at Senthilprasath's recording studio Vanajkesav Audiowaves. So, now this work is ready and we are touring with it Sept-Nov in the US. Some of our shows are in University campuses. Lakshmi and I are looking forward not just to the performances but to the post-performance discussions as well.

How did you go about choosing the contemporary poetry?
I did not have to go looking for them for this work. I keep reading anyway. I also keep making notes, marking away stuff if I think it could lend itself for performance, etc. A bunch of poetry-loving friends of mine and I keep meeting on an irregular basis(!) and reading out stuff. So there is always poetry around.

How differently have you treated the presentation?
For the section based on contemporary poetry, free verse, we worked with our friend Srijith Sundaram who conducted gruelling, but wonderful, workshop sessions for us. He has also composed/ choreographed this section. It involves movement, work with props, spoken word, etc. We would like to think that even the sections based on the poetry of Aandal and Karaikkal ammayar have come out differently. Let's see! Also, we have lines of English translation wherever we felt we wanted them, to make the work more accessible to audiences not familiar with the language and the texts. Moreover, we have two live acts, kind of like interludes, in between the sections, and these are only marginally structured. We'll just play around.

As an upcoming artiste, what do you feel is necessary to survive in this tough field of dance? Any tips for your contemporaries?
Ha ha! I don't have any tips. That is largely because how I do things may not work for others. I spend time doing other things as well. I am involved in human rights work, particularly with issues related to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people (LGBT). I am part of The Shakti Resource Center, a collective I have been with since we started it in 2007, where we work with issues related to gender and sexuality. We are interested in seeing how we can talk about sexuality, sexual health, rights, etc. Performance is clearly a tool. We have hosted two performance festivals that have showcased work by LGBT artists. The latest one was called Nirangal/ Colours, and it was a two-day event in June at 'Spaces,' Besant Nagar. I was part of a performance work too where, again, we worked with Tamil poetry to talk about issues related to identity and marginality.