Photo by Supratim Bhattacharya.

Embodied Imagination: An Interview with Anitha Santhanam

by Winnu Das

It is easy, given the economics and culture of today which favours sedentary, brain-led activities, to forget the joys and wisdom of engaging with our physical bodies; to take for granted the incredible things that our bodies make possible—which is everything. From the smallest inhale to every emotion we experience, from eating to meditation. For Anitha Santhanam, this wisdom has always been at the forefront of her life and career as a dancer, actor-creator, director and teacher. Beginning her training with Bharatanatyam at a very young age, she went on to study contemporary dance, performing on domestic and international tours.

Afterwards, Anitha moved on to physical theatre where she has worked extensively, performing in plays such as Ms. Meena with PERCH, Chennai and An Arrangement of Shoes, and co-founding Guduguduppukkari, a theatre company. Anitha has also taught at the Studio for Movement Arts and Therapies. Her path has been guided by finances, friends, and dreams, and propelled by her constant openness to new avenues. She has constantly sought the creative core that resides in the body. In her own words, “There is the idea of the sutra or the thread. You can put different coloured beads on it, and the thread is invisible, so what the world sees is necklaces of completely different styles, but my interest has always been in the thread.”

Her curiosity hasn’t just been restricted to her own practice, but to the ways in which she can open doors for others. While she had been teaching classes and workshops for years, including a stint at Mallya Aditi International School, the call to go deeper into Lecoq pedagogy came to her in a visualisation. She was then invited to participate in a highly exclusive course on Lecoq pedagogy at the London International School of Performing Arts (LISPA). She currently teaches at Drama School Mumbai, and is delving into Tantra through Lata Mani’s work and mentorship, and conducts workshops for therapists, artists, and activists.

Anitha Santhanam has had a long and varied career exploring various body-focused practices. Photo by Vidya Gopal.

We had the pleasure of talking to Anitha about movement through her career, her many teachers—from Minal Prabhu to Thomas Prattki, the creative core that she tries to bring to every facet of her work, and what excites her now. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

1. What initially drew you to dance and performance?

I’ve been learning Bharatanatyam since I was six years old so I can’t recall what the initial draw was. The pleasure and the joy of dancing has always been there. But I really started investing consciously in it as a practice after ninth standard. The idea of excellence—that seriousness—came after watching a few extraordinary performers, including Usha Raghavan, one of my teachers.

2. You have moved through a few different movement and performance practices. What was the impetus to move from one discipline to another?

I can recall a few clear moments. Once I started performing Bharatanatyam professionally, I realised that you had to pay the sabhas to perform for the first hundred shows before one got recognized. You also have to pay the musicians. And you don’t get paid. I didn’t have the financial muscle to pursue that path.

In 1996, I moved to Bangalore to work in an advertising agency. That was the time when contemporary dance was becoming popular. There were just three groups in Bangalore who practised it. I joined classes conducted by Natya Stem Dance Kampni, and later performed with them. I also started kalaripayattu training with Ranjan Mullarat. That was a very rich time for me, performing with STEM and in Kathak guru Maya Rao’s dance dramas. So, the impetus to shift from Bharatanatyam was disillusionment with the system, exposure to new styles, and the pleasure of moving the body in different ways.

The next major shift was in 2006. I had never considered acting, but Parashuram Ramamoorthy, then the head of drama at the Madurai University and a playwright, asked me to act in his play, Vanaprastham, a solo piece based on the life of Kunti. He insisted that he had an intuition about these things. This was a really big shift for me. One, being able to get my voice into the game was very liberating. And secondly, while improvising with the script, I found that just being in certain postures and doing certain things would cause words and dialogues to emerge out of my body. And those dialogues rang true and authentic. During the Berlin tour of Vanaprastham, I mentioned this to Angela Boeti, a dancer and teacher with whom I was staying. She pointed me to a book on Jacques Lecoq, who is considered by many to be the father of physical theatre.

Anitha in her solo What’s the Matter? Photo by Supratim Bhattacharya.

Thomas Prattki, the director of LISPA, was quoted in the book. I googled him and came upon the LISPA website and applied and got into the Initiation Course in Actor Created Theatre. After that, I haven’t gone back to pure dance of any style. I dance for pleasure, but I’ve never done dance shows after 2009.

My true form is physical theatre. Physical theatre puts the body and the actor at the centre of making theatre. It centres body, breath, and voice, as opposed to text, as the source of theatre. If you go to a Kathakali performer and say ‘I do physical theatre’ they’ll probably laugh and ask what other kind of theatre exists. So, even the addition of the word physical is only because acting traditionally has tended to go neck upwards.

3. What does the preparation of the body in physical theatre look like?

In the Lecoq tradition, there is a very structured pedagogy. We go through acrobatics, voice work, the 20 movements, dramatic territories such as melodrama, commedia dell’arte, masks, etc. But the starting point is to cultivate a neutral body. For that, we first unlearn existing patterns and ways of moving, become aware of where one is holding tension, existing habits, etc., to loosen all those things so that the actor’s body can become intentional.

Lecoq, like Jung, articulated the idea of a universal poetic consciousness. The body is always communicating. Just in the way someone is standing, you can figure out if they are feeling low or angry. We make these snap judgments based on body language. When you train to be an actor, you learn to intentionally create these things.

4. How has your approach to pedagogy changed over the years?

In 2013, I went to do my pedagogical training at LISPA. My aim there was to look at the Lecoq pedagogy in service of the self or the individual. 80% of my learning was learning to see. You see a body in space, you see multiple bodies in space. You sit class after class after class. And you see. You see someone move, all the patterns in the movement, how the energy flows, the psychic, the emotional field, the relational field; you see what’s being projected on the teacher. At least that’s what I saw. My teacher Thomas was very clear that my gift lay in looking at both performance and the self. So, he nudged me towards deepening my connection with Jung and the dream world. After my pedagogical training the human being became the centre of my work.

The human being was always at the centre when I was teaching. But after my pedagogical training, I became more conscious of it.

5. You have also engaged with therapeutic practices. What prompted that shift, or addition, in your work?

I was directing a piece called Disbelieve with Priyanka Pai, Brinda Jacob and Nidhi Jacob at that point. It was based on the performers’ real life and things that affected them. Brinda saw connections between how I was directing this play and therapy and invited me to teach on the Foundation course in Expressive & Creative Arts Therapies at the The Studio for Movement Arts and Therapies. So, from 2013 to 2020, I taught Integral Theatre.

Integral theatre is a name that I came up with to describe the work that I was doing where I combined Jung’s teachings with physical theatre. When I look back on it, I don’t feel a distinction between my approach to creating performance and healing. Because my work has always been about the creative, generative process, whether it’s the actor or the human being. The psyche creates energetic images that simultaneously contain and express, and they can take you towards art or healing.

I currently teach at Drama School Mumbai. Again, it is the creative core and its dramatic form that interests me. When it comes to performance, we need to find and refine the form. When you’re doing it in service of the self it can just be left there in its rawness. One doesn’t need to then refine it. This is also what I’ve learnt from my work with tantra, the idea of the ever-replenishing centre that’s inside each of us.

6. Tell us a little about your work with Tantra.

Since 2018 tantra has been the transformative creative matrix for my life and work. Tantra came into my life via Lata Mani and her book The Tantra Chronicles that was received in meditation by her and Ruth Frankenberg. Tantra is the principle that at the very essence of your being you’re connected to the self, other, and divinity all the time. There are boundaries, there is a differentiation, but the boundary is teeming with interaction.

In some ways, theatre best embodies this. You can't just say a dialogue in a vacuum. It's simply not the same without an audience.

7. Tell us more about the creative core at the centre of your work.

I’ve always pursued whatever feels alive to me, what’s calling me. I started reading Jung when I was in my 20s. The call of the Self has always been there from my 20s and maybe even earlier. Even the attraction to Bharatanatyam after a point became this sense of yearning and longing.

I feel like the creative core at the centre of everything, working with the body and the voice, has always been my pursuit. As Marion Woodman, poet and analytical psychologist said, “the essence of energy is movement. Movement in the psyche reveals itself in images. If they are contemplated upon, they continue to interact and transform,” and enrich our lives, taking us back again and again to the ‘ever replenishing center’ of our being.

This is the work with embodied imagination. In our neural networks, 80% of the information goes from down to up, to the brain. And 20% goes from up to down. We always start feet-upward. We start from finding our feet on the ground. The embodied imagination is images coming from within, from the body, from the psyche. All these things are connected.

8. Does the body as the source shows up in other ways in your life?

Everywhere. I’ve always been in touch with the body one way or another. There is no distinction of work and life in my practice. It is continuous.

9. How might one start to engage with this awareness?

Any kind of movement practice—yoga, tai chi, running, even walking—begins to connect you with the body. There is the tendency to live in your head and be completely disconnected with oneself. It is not as if the body is not being creative at any point. It is that its signals are forever being missed because one is not paying attention. Getting into some kind of continuous body practice with teachers who are teaching because they enjoy it is key.

Anitha conducting an Actor-Creator workshop at Studio Tamaasha, Mumbai. Photo by Sharodiya Choudary.

10. Is there any part of your practice with movement or body that we haven’t covered that you would like to talk about?

I know that when I do workshops certain things happen, people feel in certain ways when we do different exercises. It’s good because you don’t need to know why it’s happening to experience it. But in the last few years, I have been looking into the science or the biological basis of my practice. For instance, in the Lecoq pedagogy, there is a concept of a body at level four, which is the basic state for the actor. I know that at level four, something opens up. But now I know that works because it activates neurological circuits relating to seeking, which are very active in children. I know that soft focus opens the right brain which is more relational, and is very different from the left brain which is more analytical, conceptual, divisive, and repetitive. This research is coming from reading books not just about movement but from other disciplines as well. For instance, I’m reading Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm by Stephen Buhner and The Heart of Trauma by Bonnie Badenoch.

11. Is this research something you share with the people that you are working with?

I am careful about what I share because there is always the tendency that experience will then be shaped by what is expected. The desire is to keep everything alive and transforming. If someone is interested, I’ll give them a few books to refer to. This is not to withhold information, but to encourage them to go back to the body. Once something is experienced in the body, it’s very hard for someone else to take that experience away. The idea is to deepen the practice of listening to the body because we are very schooled in left brain conceptual processes. These also serve us; we could not survive just with the right brain. But just as the head has been privileged over the body for so many years, the left-brain approach has also been favoured.

I would like people to have the experience first, and therefore, slowly begin to trust it. And to see that there is something within that’s deeply intelligent, that’s deeply creative and generative. And then I encourage them to drop into that more and more. This is the work I am doing in my classroom, in my rehearsal space, everywhere.

The research is more for me to know there is a solid reason why. And it opens up other things for me. But in terms of my actual work, I want to invite more and more people to trust. Sometimes it can feel like nothing is happening. That’s fine as well. How does the ‘nothing’ feel? Because even nothing feels like something. Because the body is alive. Your heart is beating fast or you’re feeling lethargic. To take people back to paying attention to their bodies—that is the work.