Special Interview with Anita Shanmuganathan

Dr. Anita Shanmuganathan, Bharatnatyam dancer, choreographer, and teacher from Chennai, India, came to UH Manoa campus the week of September 27, 2010.  On Tuesday of that week, she gave a bharatnatyam lecture and demonstration entitled "Nayika Bhavana: an Aesthetic Expression of Love," which CSAS was proud to present.  On Friday, October 1st, Dr. Shanmuganathan gave a master class in bharatnatyam in the Dance Building Studio.  This even was co-sponsored by the University of Hawai'i at Manoa Department of Theater and Dance and CSAS.  We had a chance to meet up with Dr. Shanmuganathan during her stay here and ask her a few questions about her background, her interests in dance and the arts, as well as the work she does in other parts of the world, including South East Asia.

CSAS: You began training in dance at the age of 4.  How has your dancing evolved since then?

Dr. Shanmuganathan: It has developed quite a bit since then.  My first twenty years or so of training was very techinical and in the classroom.  It was not until I went to Bangkok that this orientation changed.  My training was technical but not very practical.  Once I got to Bangkok I changed the way I looked at dance.  I had to translate bharatnatyam into Thai traditional dancing, without losing the essence of the former.  But it immediately struck me that there were many similarities and differences between the two.  In Bangkok and Myanmar I learned to blend traiditonal dancing with different approaches.  So my dancing has evolved into a softer, less technical orientation.  Now it is more fluid and interactive.

CSAS: You also choreography your own performances.  What do you try to highlight or emphasize in your choreography?

Dr. Shanmuganathan: When I decide on a piece, a lot of the choreography depends on how strong the characters are emotively. I try to express these characters and their emotions in the choreography.  I am constantly looking for new challenges in my choreography, and explore contemporary dance and theater in Chennai.  One interest of mine is to blend folk and classical forms of dance.  Over the years I have taken a lot from folk traditions and have learned a lot from folk artists.

CSAS: I understand you have opened up an arts academy. Can you tell us a little about it?  What is its central philosophy?

Dr. Shanmuganathan: The academy began with the belief that all the arts can be experienced together, as one.  This is why the academy is called Aeka, or one.  We work with students from 2.5 to 5 years old, and teach them clay, drawing, swimming, and more.  We have sixty students at present and the philosophy of the academy is to just do art, without having to understand it in an abstract or theoretical way.  

CSAS: How do you use dance to work with autistic children?

Dr. Shanmuganathan: In Bangkok, I spent one year working with autistic children in a project.  Through movement, I felt we could help improve the motor skills of these children.  The dance choreography and sequences helped children with autism to learn social behavior and to take their emotions and express them through art.  The program was a tremendous success and helped me understand that dance has an important role to play in society, in contrast to its otherwise individualistic pursuit.