To many, the Stamford Arts Centre is a quaint building where art happens. But for Mrs Santha Bhaskar, artistic director of Bhaskar’s Arts Academy (BAA), it is more than a sum of the things that happen within it; it is home.
It is home not simply because she spent half her artistic career there, or that she feels a surge of sentimentality with the centre’s impending closure. Rather, it is home because the space is sustained by a community and, in turn, the space allows for art to grow and evolve. She explains:
“It was in 1988 that we moved here, and we were the first tenant. The National Arts Council (NAC) did not give us a grant to renovate the place, but we needed to convert some of the bigger rooms into smaller rooms on the third level for music classes. What my late husband, Mr K.P. Bhaskar, did was to borrow money from our students’ parents, wrote IOUs, and we returned the money when we made some profit.”
Another significance of the space is that it marked a new phase of development and growth for BAA and its training arm, Nrityalaya Aesthetics Society (NAS).
“Our group is in this place. When we were at the National Theatre and Telok Ayer Performing Arts Centre, it was Mr Bhaskar and I who taught dance. We didn’t have any teachers. I taught most of the classes, and Mr Bhaskar handled all the administrative tasks. We only taught and performed Bharatanatyam, that is all. Coming here, we really grew and we brought teachers from India to help with the music classes. So all that happened here. The school has become big now.”
According to an earlier interview, NAS has around 2000 students learning a plethora of Indian art forms. Courses in dance (Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Kuchipudi, Odissi), music (various instruments and Carnatic singing techniques), and visual art are offered. More importantly, NAS has its own syllabus for Bharatanatyam and students who completed it are awarded a diploma, and offered teaching and performing opportunities at BAA. “We are self-sustaining in the sense that we have our own pool of dancers and are not dependent on India. We have Singaporean dancers, that’s our specialty,” says Mrs Bhaskar as she beams with pride.
But space and community are not limited to the boundaries within Stamford Arts Centre. “We are opposite two temples and there’s a lot of good energy for the space. So whatever we do, we offer it to the deities, the people, and the space around us.” She adds, “We have very good neighbours. Although we are near to a food court and HDB blocks, no one has complained that we make a lot of noise. We stay here with a lot of harmony.”
It is with this sense of gratitude that led Mrs Bhaskar to conceive of Na Mah as the first production of the year for BAA. “We will be saying goodbye to this building. It is my way of thanking the space, and the dancers who have learnt from me. While some of them have stopped, their presence and support have sustained the company.”
In fact, gratitude lies at the heart of her practice. “For me, it’s very important. I’m grateful to a lot of things which surrounds me. Even the dancers, they pass energy to me when they perform. I consider this to be my philosophy of performing and teaching.”
The show mostly consists of Mrs Bhaskar’s favourite pieces that were performed by the company. “I can sit and watch those items for any number of times. Some people might get bored and say, ‘I’ve seen this already. Why are you watching it again?’ For me, it’s not like that.”
However, there are other pieces in the show that hold a deeper significance. Two pieces in the line up are from a previous production, Xpressions, which was performed three years ago. This was the last production that Mr Bhaskar watched before he passed away. “We had two nights, and he couldn’t watch the performance on the second night as he was unable to walk up to Esplanade. Three days later, he passed away,” recalls Mrs Bhaskar. “As these two pieces have not been performed since, I am putting them in this show to pay homage to him.”
Yet, long-time fans of BAA have something new to look forward to. Apart from the opening number, there is an item that is based on a contemporary Tamil poem. Mrs Bhaskar elaborates: “It is about love and anger between two people. Who is getting angry with whom? I am in love with this space, the clouds love the sky, and the flowers are also spreading their scent. But who is angry with whom?”
She also points out that the pieces are not connected together and audience need not be intimidated, if they are unfamiliar with the Indian epics, as they can be appreciated on their own. Thus, Na Mah is a tribute to those who have come before, and a celebration of the artistic trajectory that BAA has taken.
Despite the understandable sadness of bidding the centre farewell, Mrs Bhaskar is accepting of NAC’s decision. “Singapore is changing, and we have to change accordingly. The building is very old and its stability is a big concern for all of us. If it has to be changed, it has to be changed.” To the best of her knowledge, the centre will be converted into a space for traditional arts.
While NAC has yet to announce any concrete plans, she hopes that the NAC and other government agencies are mindful of the centre’s surroundings. “I told them that we are opposite two temples, and a lot of devotees go there. I believe that there are a lot of energies around, both positive and negative. It is important that they consult both temples before going ahead with any plans. Personally, I believe that there shouldn’t be any tall buildings in front of the temples.”
Looking forward, BAA and NAS will be relocated to the fourth floor of Bras Basah Complex. The new space will host rehearsals for their next production which will be choreographed by Mrs Bhaskar’s daughter, Meenakshy Bhaskar, in collaboration with Balinese dancers.
Apart from new productions, Mrs Bhaskar is also looking at starting a research programme in the near future. It will introduce a systematic way of archiving, researching, and analysing the artistic practices of BAA. For a start, Dr Wong Chee Meng, post-doctoral fellow at Nanyang Technological University, will research on BAA’s upcoming performance of Ramayana in Thailand.
When asked for her hopes for the future, she has this to say:
“I hope the younger generation will take it seriously. Apart from dance, they should learn music, literature, and visual arts because these elements are interconnected with any traditional Indian dance form.
But the present situation is that they do not have time to learn other things because they are busy with their studies or work. They can only do that if they are a full-timer, but somebody has to pay them a decent salary. I don’t think Singapore is ready for that. So they have to resort to teaching, but the body will become lazy. You’ll think that it is enough and say, ‘I’m making a living already, so why should I do other things?’
If you really want to be an artist, you need a lot of willpower. I don’t know how the next generation is going to be as they are quite pampered. But maybe, someone will come forward.”
While the future may be uncertain, there is still a lot to be thankful for. “Mr Bhaskar used to say, ‘Although we didn’t make much money from practising art, we have a lot of good karma.’ We are able to give our students a little bit of knowledge about dance and music, and that itself is a big thing.”
Catch Na Mah at Esplanade Theatre Studio on 16 April, 2pm and 8pm. Please contact Bhaskar’s Arts Academy at 6336 6537 to book your tickets.