One Small Voice: Santha Bhaskar
Published on 2 March 2015
What is tradition to you? I think that’s the underlying question. Wearing my sari and putting that red dot (bindi) on my forehead — that is my tradition because I’ve been taught to do that since I was very young. Without it, I would feel incomplete. For Indians, especially, music and dance are a way of life. You may go to another planet — to Jupiter — but you will still carry it with you and practise it there!
I never had to force my children to learn Indian classical dance. My daughter Meena picked it up because she used to sit under the dining table and watch me teach at our Moulmein Road home. My granddaughter, Malini, is also following in our footsteps. She enrolled at School of the Arts and dances both traditional Indian dance and hip-hop.
Young people say they want to do contemporary dance, but what is contemporary? Doing a ballet turn followed by a hand gesture from Indian classical dance? You don’t need to westernise a dance to say this is contemporary. You bring contemporary themes into your classical dance.
For me, the word ‘contemporary’ doesn’t exist. There is no similar word in Sanskrit or any other Indian language. It’s a Western construct to explain what is relevant today. But what is relevant doesn’t need to be westernised.
When I first came to Singapore from Kerala in 1955, I was fascinated by the ethnic diversity. I learnt Chinese and Malay dance from good friends in these communities and in 1956, I choreographed my first full dance-drama based on the Chinese tale, Butterfly Lovers.
It’s like when you can’t find a word to express what you want to say in your own language, you borrow from another language. Similarly, dance is a language. We have taken Chinese epics like Journey to the West and Shakespearean plays and choreographed them into Indian dance forms like Kathakali and Bharatanatyam.
Last year, I choreographed dances from five Singaporean poems written in English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil. Themes can constantly change with the times, but we can still preserve our traditional techniques and costumes. Having said that, I’m realistic about audiences. It’s very difficult to get the whole of Singapore to appreciate traditional arts, or any kind of arts. There are lots of distractions, and not just for Singaporeans alone; it’s a global problem.
What we can do is to bring traditional arts to the community to expose people to them, which we have. Today, we have non-Indians learning from us. There’s a Chinese university lecturer who has been training and performing with us for many years; and a Japanese lady who learnt the whole repertoire and performed her solo dance debut with a live orchestra.
I am not worried that traditional arts will die. If there is a need, they will survive. As artists, we learn to not expect everybody to appreciate what we do. We continue doing it because it’s our tradition — it’s a part of us, and we naturally want to pass it on.
Santha Bhaskar is the Artistic Director of Bhaskar’s Arts Academy and Chief Choreographer at the National University of Singapore’s Centre for the Arts, where she has taught Indian classical dance since 1977. Over the years, Mrs Bhaskar has studied Chinese and Malay dance in Singapore, as well as Thai dance and music at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. For her contribution to the development of Indian classical dance in Singapore, she was conferred the Cultural Medallion in 1990.