One of the most curious points about the whole project was the way in which it happened to be conceptualised: over a mere phone call. But the approach was never casual. In any case, Aniruddh Vasudevan loved discussing
poetry. What’s more, he was a student of literature. “I was telling Lakshmi about a piece I had just read,” recalls the 28-year-old dancer from Chennai. “We kept talking — and before we knew it, we were visualising poems in choreographic terms. It was fun, so we decided to take it up.”
The result was the dance-theatre performance And She Said... based on the works of women poets on love and conflict. From post-Sangam Andal to medieval-era Avvaiyar and modern-day Salma and Sugirtharani, most of the material used is those of Tamil poets. “Primarily,” as Aniruddh’s friend, US-based dancer Lakshmi Sriraman, says, “we have a good deal of English translations of the lines of Tamil poetry we are using. However, we also have lines from Adrienne Rich and Wislawa Szymborska. The choice of poets was unconscious and kept changing as the concept of the performance evolved.”
Poets are known to interpret love and conflict in different ways. For Andal, separation from the divine forms the core of human suffering, while Pari Magalir attaches more importance to the loss of the land one belongs to and the people one lives with. Bereft of the romantic element, the love Karaikkal
Ammeiyar had for the divine is different from that of Andal’s. For her, the vision and knowledge of god are of utmost importance — and the darkness of not knowing is the source of human misery.
But these tones change in scenes of the performance where the work of contemporary poets is explored. Here, there are more silences, mind games and pacts, in an attempt to communicate the core of young Salma’s and Sugirtharani’s works.
Coming up with a title that was relevant and encompassed these myriad emotions was quite a task, though. “We wanted a title that creates a certain amount of anticipation,” says Lakshmi. “Sangam period’s Agam poetry (which deals with the minds of lovers in their relationships) often has such an introduction to its poems,starting with ‘so-and-so said…’. We thought, ‘Why not call it And She Said...?’” A student of Bharatanatyam exponent Priyadarshini Govind, Lakshmi runs the Shree School of Dance in Lexington, Kentucky, where she trains students in the south Indian classical idiom.
While the Internet and the telephone helped in coordinating the initial ground work, managing the rehearsals seemed nearly impossible considering the continental divide. Thankfully, Lakshmi had the “Art Meets Activism” grant from the Kentucky Foundation for Women that helped in production apart from facilitating rehearsals in India. “But once we could spend time working together, we had other challenges,” says Aniruddh after six back-breaking months of
rehearsals. “The intensive training with Srijith Sundaram in Tamil theatre was not easy, especially when we were conscious of the fact that within the presentation we had to effect the shift from a more or less traditional dance style to a different way of moving and speaking. It was while working on this project that I truly learnt the importance of intense patience.”
Based out of Chennai, Aniruddh has been a student of senior danseuse Chitra Visweswaran. He has also worked with English and Tamil theatre. Aniruddh is fond of all the poets, but he has his favourites. “Based on the lines I have been reciting even involuntarily these days, I must say Andal is my pick of the lot. I have grown up listening to and about her — and there is a certain tint of romance to her divinity that I really enjoy,” he says.
Adapting poetry to a dance-theatre performance is always a challenge. While some poems have a basic rhythm that can be set to a dance beat, others are free verse that do not cooperate with the more rigid forms of dance. “Thankfully, we were doing an experimental performance — so the constraints were fewer. We were free to perform Andal in Bharatanatyam and in the very next breath, use contemporary theatre techniques for Sugirtharani,” says Aniruddh. “After a certain point, the poems guided us and we just went along with the flow.”
Working on a production of this nature is always tricky considering that one is blending traditional art forms with contemporary styles. “The element of theatre was always present in many of the Indian dances,” notes Aniruddh. He adds, “Even in Bharatanatyam, the root of the word Natya has theatre in it. But, as we are making certain departures from traditional dance, we have consciously used elements of theatre as we know it today.”
Though there has been a lot of excellent work done on Sangam poetry and several translations too, Aniruddh and Lakshmi have been quite ambitious and are looking at a vast expanse of time. The work will premiere and tour in the US between this month and November.