What makes an artist tick? How did their journey begin? And what drives them to go further into the art form that they know and love? Donald Hutera gets to the heart of the matter by speaking to UK-based bharatanatyam artist, Anusha Subramanyam.
The dancer, choreographer, teacher and movement therapist Anusha Subramanyam is a small figure with a bright, intense yet pacific presence and a big, lifelong mission: to make dance for, and with, as many people as possible and in as many ways as she can.
“I love people,” she says, sitting in the light-filled parlour of her home on a long, quiet street off bustling Green Lanes in the north London borough of Hackney. “I just adore them. There isn’t a single person I can’t work with, or don’t want to work with.” Subramanyam’s face beams so as she speaks that you can’t help but believe her. She likens herself to a honey-bee, explaining, “People tell me I always want a bit of this and a bit of that, but it’s because I’m interested in creating work that is eclectic and not always genre-specific.”
Subramanyam’s sense of cross-pollinating culture diversity began early. Born in Khirki, next to Pune in the state of Maharashtra, she enjoyed a peripatetic childhood. “We moved almost every year or year and a half at the max,” she recalls, citing her father’s career as a telecommunications officer in the army as the reason. Despite the continual displacement, Subramanyam and two younger siblings (a brother, a business analyst now living in Australia, and a sister who is a doctor) seem to have grown up bathed in security and affection. She dubs their father “a lovely man” with an abiding interest in the arts and literature. “Everything that is good and glad in me has come from him,” she says, adding by way of example his advice that she should “do the things you love or love the things you do. It’s given me a very happy countenance.”
Subramanyam’s mother, a trained dancer and singer, was as deep an influence. As she puts it, “Everything I do is because of her.” In each new locale to which the family moved, her mum soon became involved in folk dance, street theatre and whatever other arts-based activities were happening. Thus Subramanyam learned the value of art for its own sake early on.
A self-confessed ‘workafrolic’, Subramanyam’s career path to date has several landmarks of personal growth, many pinned to some extraordinary gurus and divas. She’s an alumnus of Kalakshetra in Besant Nagar, Chennai. “I went at a period when things were changing,” she says, “but I got the pioneers.” Subramanyam emerged from the renowned bharatanatyam-based arts academy in 1986, equipped with the inner knowledge that “beauty is who and what you are, and art gives you that”. Subsequently she trained and danced with Leela Samson, whom she pegs as “thoughtful, articulate and sensitive. She’s often seen as a classicist, but the way she creates works evokes an emotional and visceral response. It’s very much a Zen practice, coming purely from the body as much as from any layering of narrative.”
Another profound impact was the MA in art history pursued at the National Museum of Delhi, especially under the ‘life-changing’ tutelage of the Gandhara art scholar Lolita Nehru. “Through art I was relooking at the world. Nothing in it is straight. It’s all this,” Subramanyam says, hands darting round in front of her torso like restless birds on interlocking flight paths. “It was like seeing 3D in a film.”
Workshops at a festival in Delhi exposed Subramanyam both to the legacy of the American modern dance pioneer Doris Humphrey and contact improvisation. “It was so exhilarating but also deeply disturbing,” she says, remembering questioning herself at the time: “If you like this so much, then what happens to the aesthetics you’re involved with?” The answer was to continue to expand her horizons and knowledge base. “I consider myself a friend of Mr. Pooh, the bear with little brain: you don’t think too much, you do. Movement had got me, but it was not just about me. I felt everybody should get a bit of this, and the body seemed a place where we all can share. I also wanted to do something to make a change for India. Maybe there were other forms of dance that might facilitate my work with people of other abilities. I now see myself as a person with many tools. These other viewpoints give me authenticity and greater freedom.”
From the get-go Subramanyam’s work and teaching embraced many cross-disciplinary styles, locations (from big-city slums to rural settings, museums to railway stations) and people including the elderly, children, students or those with disabilities. In 1993 she undertook a year-long course in movement therapy. The following year the British Council invited her to the UK as a drama therapist. Although her scope is international, she’s been based in Britain ever since. Retrospectively she suspects what slightly set her apart from many of her peers was an interest in performance more than therapy. “My experimentations in school or community settings might not be considered professional work, but my practices within these contexts were what contemporary choreographers were doing.”
Subramanyam formed her company Beeja (Hindi for ‘seed’) approximately a decade ago with an aim to ‘generate new ideas, new understanding and fresh creative forms’ via solo, group and interactively collaborative performances, workshops, residencies and classes. She has since amassed a body of ‘trans-cultural and inter-generational’ work fashioned while operating both within the traditions of classical Indian dance and outside it. A personal and professional bedrock is her husband Vipul Sangoi, designer, photographer and core member of the Beeja team. “Such a gorgeous guy,” she remarks. “He’s constantly reminding me that my truth lies in being with people or with moving.”
Although she’s earned a reputation within the South Asian dance community as a determined and genuine bridge-builder, Subramanyam uncomplainingly observes that she’s yet to have access to all the resources that an artist with her range of experience might well know how to best use. Still she can say, “I feel truly blessed. I came here with ‘nothing’ but a small scholarship and knowing no one, but I was given support by various organisations and opportunities. It’s extraordinary to think I’m in a place doing what I love most. Of course I want more for me, for dancers and for the South Asian sector, but there seems to be many possibilities. There’s no us or them, it’s only ‘we’. I just wish we could see more evidence of this sense of abundance being truly given to the younger generation.”
For the past four years Subramanyam has been subject leader in bharatanatyam at the South Asian CAT (Centre for Advanced Training) programme managed jointly by Birmingham’s DanceXchange and sampad. Meanwhile she continues to work on a multitude of projects, including several that are in the offing this autumn: a performance with the elderly made in collaboration with a film-maker, poet and musician all based in Suffolk, and another in Hampshire combining young deaf people, bharatanatyam dancers and ‘the commonality of gestures and personal narratives’.
Further afield in terms of time and/or location is Aseema (a working title meaning ‘limitless’), a piece to be devised by disabled and non-disabled artists from Sri Lanka, India and the UK. One of the motivations for making it, Subramanyam says, is the lack of recognition disability arts tends to receive from the gatekeepers of South Asian dance. Among other projects in development is an immersive, cross-arts piece inspired by the poetry of three female mystics (Sufi-Islamic, Hindu and Christian), and a collaboration with disability arts powerhouse Caroline Bowditch and composer Chris Benstead exploring biomechanics, metaphorical meanings and interpersonal relations associated with the heart. This last work, Subramanyam says, will be “about the things we see and encounter when we meet from the heart”. It’s a subject that undoubtedly speaks directly to who she is and how she interacts with the world.