[Dance Review] Bharatanatyam and Thai Classical Dance Take Flight

Bharatanatyam and Thai classical dance truly intertwine in this production laden with significance. 

Photo: Vilvam Ramu

Manohra
Bhaskar’s Arts Academy and independent Thai artistes
9 September 2018
Esplanade Theatre Studio
8–9 September 2018

Manohra, a mythical Kinnari (bird-human creature), who was chanced upon by a hunter; captured and sold to a prince; became a princess; was asked by the king to sacrifice herself while the prince was at war, but escaped; and wooed back to the palace by the prince is certainly an epic tale.

But not many would know that the transmission of the tale matches the grandeur of the plot.

The tale is one of many Jakata tales, which form part of the Buddhist literature that is native to India. It travelled to Thailand and soon became an iconic dance-drama. A chance encounter of the tale in 1990 inspired Mrs Santha Bhaskar, artistic director of BAA, to interpret it through bharatanatyam and make it a mainstay of BAA’s repertoire, thus returning it to Indian culture through dance.

It is in this context that Manohra has truly come full circle in this third iteration, as we see bharatanatyam and Thai classical dance coming together to tell the story.

It is a partnership in all senses of the word as Mrs Bhaskar’s choreography intertwines both art forms, rather than allowing it to merely co-exist.

This is clearly seen in the first half of Kinnari dance with certain hand gestures, the signature cocked leg, and shuffling of feet before transiting into the second half, which sees more rigorous movements and footwork. While the dancers (Chayanee Sunthonmalai, Davinya Ramathas, Malini Bhaskar, Montakarn Roikaew, Priyadarshini Nagarajah, and Sarenniya Ramathas) are clearly more comfortable in their respective art forms, all of them dance beautifully and regally among plumes of smoke. 

The Mythical Kinnaris. (Photo: Tan Ngiap Heng / Courtesy of Bhaskar’s Arts Academy)

Another thing that stands out about this interpretation is the space given to Manohra’s thoughts and feelings. This augurs well with the expressiveness of Bharatanatyam in terms of movements and facial expressions. Shruthilaya Ramachandran, as Manohra, steps up to the plate admirably as she is able to convey the depth of emotion needed without making it a sob story. Set against Prince Sudhana’s (Puwapon Pinyolapkasam) subtler movements, it is clear that Manohra drives the plot.

Pinyolapkasam is defined by stillness with an active presence. And in it lies an excruciating exactitude in the execution of his movements. His fingers are constantly arched backwards, and every step is slowly placed on the ground, activating every bit of muscle in his feet.

Despite the movements being gentler in nature, his virtuosity shines through in quicker sequences such as when the prince is being put to the test of identifying Manohra among her Kinnari sisters in order to bring her back to the palace. He has to pulse his body and execute small steps to a rather quick tempo, while maintaining the stillness in the carriage of his upper body, and exuding an overall sense of grace and style. Like a thrilling illusion, one cannot stop wondering about the technique behind what one sees.   

Shruthilaya Ramachandran (left) as Manohra and Puwapon Pinyolapkasam (right) as Prince Sudhana (Photo: Tan Ngiap Heng / Courtesy of Bhaskar’s Arts Academy)

The other principal characters do not pale in comparison. Sarinprapa Bhutrachinda, is serpentine and flexible as Spirit of Doom; Nishalini Lakchimanathas indulges in moustache-twirling villainy as the cunning minister who advises the king to get rid of Manohra; and the energetic Bala Saravanan Loganathan who plays the hunter and King Adityavamasa to equal aplomb.

As if there aren’t enough to take in, contemporary choreography, possibly by Malini Bhaskar and Pallavi Sharma (as they are cited as having provided additional choreography), is performed by an ensemble of younger dancers who represent the obstacles that the prince has to overcome. On the surface, bodies on the floor shooting up at different times into a sort of a crunch may seem like an aberration when it is set against classical Asian music. But for some reason, it works and it is a testament to the innovative streak of BAA.

Speaking of music, the composition by Ghanavenothan Retnam, in close collaboration with Dr Anant Narkkong, mirrors the dance. Both classical Indian and Thai music have their solo moments, but it is when they come together that something exciting happens.

The percussion of the tabla (played by Hem Kumar) and mridangam (played by S Harikrishnan) provide the heartbeat while the ranat (Thai wooden xylophone played by Tossaporn Tassana) provides a snappy and cheery lilt, which harmonises with the veena (played by TK Arun), violin (played by TV Sajith), flute (played by Ghanavenothan Retnam), and vocals (Ampili Pillai and Arasakumari Nagaradjane). Other featured instruments include the Saw Duang and Klong Tuk (played by Dr Anant Narkkong).

This culminates in a ritualistic but jovial music as Prince Sudhana dances with the Kinnaris in order to identify who amongst them is Manohra.

Another highlight sees the inclusion of lyrics and vocalisation that almost sounds like a rap in Tamil and Thai to introduce the cunning minister.     

While there is a wonderful balance in the movement and musical vocabularies, the same cannot be said of the story-telling. Certain key dramatic moments are not given enough emphasis. It is tough to tell when Manohra actually falls in love with the prince as she goes from being hesitant and unwilling to suddenly smiling and striking a pose with him.

Additionally, the scene of the court dance and the subsequent escape is so bare—only the king, his minister, and Manohra are present—that it feels as if Manohra is playing a prank, rather than escaping from her impending doom. It is also unclear that she is asked to sacrifice herself in order to avert disaster befalling on the kingdom.

In contrast, the scene with hunter hunting for food before falling asleep, while wonderfully performed, goes on a little too long.

That said, one cannot underestimate how this iteration of Manohra is laden with so much significance due to the origins and transmission of the tale. One hopes that it can travel to Thailand to see how the locals take to it.

While Manohra chooses to return to the palace, Bharatanatyam and Thai classical dance have certainly taken flight in this production.

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Dr Anant Narkkong on the Significance of Manohra

In the final interview of this series, Isaac Tan speaks to Dr Anant Narkkong, an ethnomusicologist from Thailand, on the significance of Manohra, and the collaborative process with Bhaskar’s Arts Academy. 

Dr Anant Narkkong (standing row: second from right) and composer Ghanavenothan Retnam (standing row: second from left), with musicians involved in Manohra. (Photo: Tan Ngiap Heng / Courtesy of Bhaskar’s Arts Academy)

What is the significance of the tale of Manohra as well as the dance drama to Thai culture?

The Jataka tale, Manohra, holds a very important place in Thai culture for both royal and folk arts. In the royal court, there was a position of royal playwright for a genre of theatre called Lakhon Nok  between the 16th-18th century (known as the Ayutthaya period). There were many forms of visual arts created around the story of Kinnaree/Manohra too, as seen by the sculptures and paintings of Kinnaree that decorate many famous temples and royal palaces.

The story of Manohra is a firm favourite within the Lakhon Nok canon. The theatrical elements of music and dance always win the hearts of audiences. The role of the female heroine, Manohra, in Thai Lakhon Nok is very important, and comparable to other male lead roles in other Lakhon stories.

In folk arts, especially in the Southern part of Thailand, Manohra, or in short “Nora”, has ritualistic significance such as a shaman in trance, dressed in human-bird (kinnaree) costume, singing and dancing to music and a particular rhythm. Southern Thai people also believe in the magical powers of Manohra. Somehow the male Nora/Kinnaree has a higher status than the female one, and has gained much respect from their society. I should also mention that there are  versions of Manohra in the Northeast Isaan and North Lanna regions. The performance elements differ from one place to another.

In modern Thai  or urban culture, we can still find Manohra depicted in many PR materials, advertisements, tourist spots, hotels, shopping plazas, fashion, and so on.

As an ethnomusicologist, do you see any similarities between music for Bharatanatyam and Thai classical dance? Did you work closely with composer Ghanavenothan Retnam on the music?

So much of the dance and musical relationship between India and Thailand can be seen through this process of collaboration. We share many similarities between our dance vocabularies: gestures, movements, rhythm, melody, emotions, and aesthetics. This also proves the long history of Indian culture that has existed in Southeast Asia, and how Thai artists in the past have adapted Indian  elements, as well as from other cultures, into our unique set of art forms.

I worked closely with Ghanavenothan Retnam in the process of music making, and with our dear Mrs Bhaskar in the choreography. I have learnt a lot from them and from their wonderful artists. It is a new experience to be able to  understand the beauty of Bharatanatyam and Raga-Tala, It was a real pleasure to share my knowledge and the ideas from my Thai artists with the Singapore team.

Has this collaboration made you look at the tale in a new way? 

It is a wonderful experience from an artistic and humanistic points of view. The arts always have a special impact on our hearts. In my earlier works I have reinterpreted the story and the destiny of Manohra by incorporating socio-political views such as human rights, feminism, and sex abuse. I have even made my own version of Manohra which did not follow the original storyline and it did not have a happy ending!

However, when we relearn the significance of Manohra through this particular production, it is a big inspiration and it motivates us to continue developing.

We—be it Singaporean, Thai, Kinnaree, or human—are born with differences in terms of ethnicity, politics, economics, language, religion, beliefs, environment, etc. But we can share and can live together. I wish the audiences of Singapore can find their inspiration from the love between Prince Sudhana and Princess Manohra in this regard.

Manohra runs from 8–9 September 2018 at Esplanade Theatre Studio. Tickets from Bhaskar’s Arts Academy.

Other Interviews from this Series: 

Mrs Santha Bhaskar on Manohra — A Singapore-Thailand Collaboration

Shruthilaya Ramachandran on Playing Manohra

Shruthilaya Ramachandran on Playing Manohra

Having interviewed Mrs Santha Bhaskar to find out more about Bhaskar’s Arts Academy’s (BAA) production of Manohra, I approached Shruthilaya Ramachandran to find out about her thoughts on playing the titular role.

Shruthilaya Ramachandran (left) as Manohra  and Puwapon Pinyolapkasam (right) as Prince Sudhana (Photo: Tan Ngiap Heng / Courtesy of Bhaskar’s Arts Academy)

How do you feel playing such an iconic role in Thai classical dance as well as BAA’s repertoire?

It is indeed an iconic role. I have to admit that I was a little daunted at first because I have watched BAA’s previous generation of dancers portray it so sincerely. Also, the level of sanctity and spirituality that the role holds in Thai culture does not make it any easier. I am honoured and happy to be selected for this role, and am grateful to my gurus who entrusted the role to me!

What are the similarities and differences in movement vocabulary between bharatanatyam and Thai classical dance?

It’s impossible to master the nuances of any art form  within such a short span of time. But based on what I managed to glean from the techniques taught by our fellow Thai dancers, I can safely say that both bharatanatyam and Thai dance seem to converge on laasya (grace), even though they are actualised in different ways.

In bharatanatyam, we tend to use movements that are more rounded, and they flow from one to the next by bending our body, hands, and legs. However, Thai dancers seem to keep their body, back, and shoulders upright, while still achieving the grace in their movements.

Both art forms also rely on mudras (hand gestures) to convey meaning. Some common ones between the two art forms include ‘suchi’, ‘pataaka’, ‘ardhachandra’, and ‘hamsaasya’. However, those are done with minimal or no facial expressions in Thai dance.

Another characteristic difference is the aramandi (bent knee) position. This is fully opened up in bharatanatyam, but executed in different degrees of openness in Thai dance. There is also an accompanying bounce or pulsating jerky accent that adds to the beauty of their movements.

Has this collaboration given you a renewed appreciation of your own art form?

This collaboration has certainly heightened my appreciation for bharatanatyam. I was already aware that both art forms could have drawn on common influences, and hence, share some similar movements. However, getting to directly interact with the art form by learning it from a Thai professional helps us see the nuances and unique differences that give it its identity.

Personally, a big takeaway from this collaboration is that, as dancers, we not only have to be physically agile and flexible, but mentally so as well. For example, it is very interesting to know that Thai dancers follow the rhythm being played, and they just seem to know when to strike a step or a movement without the use of a rigid eight-count system. It did take us a while to get accustomed to their musical style.

What was truly heartwarming was that the Thai dancers modified their teaching technique, and started counting in beats of eight to helps us learn the steps during training sessions. I am thankful for such amicable exchanges, which not only exposes me to new art forms, but it also enhances my understanding of my own art form, bharatanatyam!

Manohra runs from 8–9 September 2018 at Esplanade Theatre Studio. Tickets from Bhaskar’s Arts Academy.

Other Interviews from this Series:

Mrs Santha Bhaskar on Manohra — A Singapore-Thailand Collaboration

Dr Anant Narkkong on the Significance of Manohra

Mrs Santha Bhaskar on Manohra — A Singapore-Thailand Collaboration

Photo: Tan Ngiap Heng / Courtesy of Bhaskar’s Arts Academy

Over the past few years, Bhaskar’s Arts Academy (BAA) has been collaborating with various classical dance troupes in Southeast Asia, to create intercultural works based on stories from Asian myths and legends. 

For the third and final project, BAA is working with Thai classical dancers and musicians to stage Manohra, an iconic work in Thai dance drama. Artistic director of BAA, Mrs Santha Bhaskar first encountered it in 1990 and was inspired to reinterpret it using bharatanatyam. With this being the third iteration of the work, Manohra has become a key work in BAA’s repertoire. 

I interviewed Mrs Bhaskar to find out more about this iteration of the work. 

Mrs Santha Bhaskar

Manohra is part of a trilogy of works that sees BAA collaborating with other classical dance troupes from Southeast Asia. How did you go about choosing the works to be performed?

I enjoy reading the epics, myths and folktales and learning about the characters which are popular in Southeast Asia. It serves me well for experimenting and choreographing in the language I am comfortable with. Collaborating with our neighbouring artistes, understanding their culture, and sharing the knowledge with the audience has always been important to me and for BAA. 

The birth of “Vinayaka” was chosen when we collaborated with our Indonesian counterparts as the elephant-faced one is popular in that region. We actually collaborated twice—once with artistes from Bali with performance in Bali (2010) and the second time with artistes from Java with performance in Singapore (2016). It was very interesting for me and for my dancers and musicians to work with these two very different collaborators, and understand the similarities and differences in each style.

For the second work of the trilogy, we collaborated with Cambodian artistes. I chose to tell the story of Brihannala because it is not known to many people. It is about an interesting transgender character from the epic, Mahabharatha, who Arjuna transforms into. That helps him pose as a dance instructor in Virata’s kingdom for the final year of the Pandavas’ exile where they were to remain incognito.

You were first introduced to the tale of Manohra in 1990. What is it about the tale or the performance you saw that made you want to stage it over and over again?

The tale of Manohra touched my heart when I was in Bangkok. My mother used to tell me stories about the Ghandarvas (heavenly musicians) who enchant musicians and beautiful ladies on earth especially on a full moon night. She also told me stories about Kinnaris (heavenly birds) coming to earth to take a bath in a pond named Manasassaras.

In Bangkok I discovered the story of Manohra and was surprised that this story is not known to India. This is the reason I want to repeat this work—it is in the hope of passing the story on to the next generation of dancers and audience.

What makes this iteration of Manohra unique from the previous stagings by BAA?

The story itself is unique. With each staging of the work, more life courses through its veins, and more ideas sprout in how we can communicate the work to the audience. Some of the first and second generations of dancers are here to witness the tale’s transformations. For the third generation of dancers, their aspirations to learn the dance of the Kinnaris and to be a part of Manohra is coming true through this collaboration.

Manohra is one of BAA’s landmark works with original music composition and choreography. And now with our Thai partners, with the blending in of Thai music and Thai dance movements, the life and energy of the work transcends to a different level.

 

Manohra runs from 8–9 September 2018 at Esplanade Theatre Studio. Tickets from Bhaskar’s Arts Academy.

Other Interviews from this Series: 

Shruthilaya Ramachandran on Playing Manohra

Dr Anant Narkkong on the Significance of Manohra

A First Serious Encounter with Carnatic Music

Swathi Orchestra musicians with their mentors.

Due to my earlier acquaintances with Bhaskar’s Arts Academy (BAA), I was recently invited to attend Sangeetha Sagaram, a Carnatic concert by BAA’s Swathi Orchestra. While it was not my first time listening to Carnatic music, my previous encounters have always been in the context of a dance performance. As such, it is my first time simply listening to the music and letting it speak for itself.

Established in 2015 with the aim of promoting the growth of Carnatic music in Singapore, the orchestra consists of some music students from BAA’s education arm, Nrityalaya Aesthetics Society. It comprises 13 performers: five vocalists (Greeshmah Paramesuaran, Keerthana Babu Gopakumar Nair, Lalitha Rajandran, Sathiyan Sahana, Sreelakshimi Subramaniam), two vainikas (Preetashini Nagarajah and Raja Sankar Vasudha Sankar), two violinists (C Abhilash Mohan and Vismitha Rajeev), two flautists (Kalaiselvam Panesilvam and Logindran Govindarasu), and two percussionists (Arul Kumaran Gun Shekeran and Prashanth TR).

The concert has eight items, and as with tradition, it opens with a Varnam. Composed by Tachur Singarachari, it starts with the violin before the mridangam and kanjira enter with a strong rhythm. Such a counterpoint encapsulates the beauty of Carnatic music—the instruments have a distinct function, and while the different timbres and rhythms played appear to be in conflict, they somehow come together quite beautifully.

In “Sri Sakala Ganadhipa” by Balamuralikhrishna, which is a devotional song that invokes Ganesha, Hanuman, and Sri Krishna, we have a meditative invocation by the flute. That is mirrored by the vocalists in the starting portion, before picking up the pace of what turned out to be a vibrant and delightful song.

Speaking of vocalists, “Paripalayamam” by Swathi Thirunal, a famous Maharajah in the 19th century, best illustrates the difficulties that the vocalists have to deal with. This devotional may appear simple with its repetitions, but the singers have to be absolutely stable in maintaining the tempo, and not be carried away by the intoxicating drumming. Furthermore, the vocal ornamentations, such as the bending and oscillations of the notes, seemed to be subtler in this piece. However, I am happy to report that vocalists managed to meet the demands quite admirably.

My favourite piece of the whole repertoire has to be “Kapali” by Papanasam Sivan as various sections of the ensemble are given a little solo to show off their musicianship. The song starts off with a relatively simple but soulful melody. But the mettle of the musicians was soon tested as there are a few quick passages that required some coordination across the various sections, and they were handled with aplomb.

While it is generally known that musicians are required to improvise within certain constraints, it was impossible to tell which sections were actually improvised as they all seemed so intricate and well-coordinated. Perhaps, that is a testament to the skill of this young orchestra, as the concert leaves any outsider wishing they had more knowledge of what was going on, or the meaning of the words, so that they could appreciate it at a deeper level.

Swathi Orchestra is certainly off to a good start, and one hopes that it will grow and continue to nurture the next generation of local Carnatic musicians.

Sangeetha Sagaram was performed on 18 March 2018 at Goodman Arts Centre Black Box.

[Dance Review] Cross-Cultural Epic

vinayaka_16-10-16-19-46-53

Vinayaka

Bhaskar’s Art Academy

16 October 2016

SOTA Drama Theatre

Before the start of the show, an announcement informs the audience that we are about to watch the third iteration of Vinayaka by Bhaskar’s Arts Academy (BAA)—Vinayaka 3.0, so to speak.

The choice of the computing term raises an interesting question: With technology being able to create a very realistic Lord Ganesha on screen, why would anyone—especially someone who is not from the culture—want to watch a rendition of how Lord Ganesha got his elephant head told through Bharatanaytam and Javanese dance?

The physical presence of the body.

In fact, the more advanced technology becomes, the more treasured physical virtuosity is. And the physical control and expressiveness displayed by dancers from BAA and Sasana Budaya Art Troupe (SBAT) is absolutely exquisite.

Put together on stage, both dances play off each other really well. Bharatanatyam’s stamps of physical vigour or quiet strength are a counterpoint to the courtly elegance in the fluid tip-toeing or shuffling of the feet in Javanese dance. Choreographers Meenakshy Bhaskar (BAA) and Santi Dwisaputri (SBAT) bring this to the fore through the interweaving formations as each troupe seems to frame the other at one point or another, especially as the attendants to Parvati (played by Dwisaputri herself).

While dance often suggests movement, stillness is the most difficult to achieve especially when you have to get the depiction of the gods just right. In that respect, the stage presences of Senthun Bhima Nugraha (Shiva) and Santi Dwisputri (Parvati) are unmistakeable.  The former has to keep his body upright to accommodate his costume—which includes two artificial hands that form a mudra—while adopting two soft gestures with his own hands. Yet, when he moves across the stage, he exudes a masculine and regal presence.

While Dwisputri’s gentle and graceful gestures suggest the pure and feminine Parvati, all it takes is for her to turn to the back for the world to be destroyed in sheer anger due to the death of her son, Ganesha.  Her versatility in expressing gracefulness, sorrow, and rage is a sight to behold.

Sarenniya Ramathas and Shruthilaya Ramachandran as Ganesha do not pale in comparison.

Ramathas, as Ganesha before he was beheaded, treats us with a dance of youthful vigour. When Ganesha battles Shiva’s Pancha Ganas to prevent his father from intruding on his mother, Ramathas departs slightly from the traditional Bharatanatyam movements. Her facial expressions and strong movement vocabulary makes the battle exciting to watch. This is complemented by the strong and well-coördinated performances by the dancers portraying the Pancha Ganas (Miroshini Kannathasan, Nishalini Lakchimanathas, Priyadarshini Nagarajah, Tanuja Seran, and Usha Anbalagan).

Ramachandran, as the resurrected Ganesha with the elephant head, is the answer to the question posed at the start of the review. With a gentle swaying of her hand and a very slight movement of  her body, she intimates a lively image of Ganesha and his swaying trunk, as the mind vividly fills in the rest of the details.

The visual intricacies will be hollow without the music from BAA’s own musicians and Singa Nglras Gamelan Ensemble. The contrast between the musical forms mirrors the dances as well.

The carnatic music spans from the meditative to the rhythmic, while the various metals from the gamelan instruments enhance the rhythms and provide a wholesome resonance. A sense of grandeur envelops the whole theatre at the start and end of the show, when both musical forms come together, as we see the gods take the central dais, and are surrounded by the various dancers to form an impressive iconography.

Given the skilfulness of the dancers and musicians, I wish they were more ambitious in their art-making. The sections with Javanese dance with gamelan music, and Bharatanatyam with carnatic music, are a little too clearly delineated. The moments when both art forms intertwine are too few and far between.

The main impetus of BAA’s Traditional Arts in the Region series is to showcase the shared heritage among the traditional dances of Southeast Asia. While the differences between the dances strongly highlight the main characteristics of the respective dances, it would be a wasted opportunity not to see what happens if a dance embodies certain techniques or movements from the other.

All the more reason to look forward to BAA’s next collaboration and, perhaps, Vinayaka 4.0.

Bhaskar’s Arts Academy’s Cross-Cultural Leanings

Bhaskar’s Arts Academy’s (BAA) latest production, Vinayaka, sees the troupe collaborating with Sasana Budaya Art Troupe (Indonesia)  and Singa Nglaras Gamelan Ensemble (Singapore) as part of their Traditional Arts in the Region series. To better understand BAA’s new direction towards cross-cultural collaboration, I arranged an email interview with Mrs Santha Bhaskar, artistic director of BAA .

Mrs_Santha_Bhaskar

Mrs Santha Bhaskar

What made BAA decide to launch the Traditional Arts in the Region series?

In 1990 I was awarded a scholarship to study Thai culture at Chulalongkorn University. I think my most profound experience was the collaboration among the delegates of that ASEAN Exchange programme. The sharing of cultures from the representatives  made me realise how old and how much of a treasure our traditions are.

At the end of the course, we were expected to create an item to signify the unity of ASEAN in dance. Singapore is in a very unique situation because of its cosmopolitan nature and its multi-cultural tradition. My representation, being an Indian dancer, was a question that I had to answer to many and to myself. I knew I had to make my contribution “Singapore” in nature. It was difficult initially but in the end I created the evolution of man (through the avathars of Vishnu), finishing with the struggle to attain ultimate intelligence and symbolised this with Buddha (the enlightened one).

Again and again I have choreographed ASEAN epics such as Ramayana, Manohra and Vinayaka. With each production, BAA’s connection to the ASEAN region became stronger and that led to the launch of the series.

Earlier this year, BAA performed in Bangkok for the ASEAN plus Ramayana Festival. Has BAA been very involved in cultural events organised by ASEAN? If so, how has such encounters influenced the artistic practice of BAA?
In addition to my early encounter in 1990, many more ASEAN Ramayana performances have been staged in this region. BAA has been involved in several of them starting with the Ramayana Festival in Angkor Wat, Cambodia in 1994. Subsequently there were several others in Myanmar, India and Thailand. My daughter, Meenakshy Bhaskar, also spent more than a year touring the region with Realizing Rama — a production that brought together artistes from all around the region. These events did influence BAA to create an awareness of ASEAN traditional arts and culture, and foster collaborations with our neighbouring countries.

I noticed that the Southeast Asian Studies department at the National University of Singapore is listed as one of your collaborators. What is their role in this production?

Department of South east Asian Studies’ Gamelan ensemble is collaborating with BAA’S musicians to play joint compositions of Carnatic and Javanese music. It is a definitely a happy marriage of two happy partners.

Stay tuned for an upcoming interview conducted with the choreographers and musical directors of Vinayaka about the rehearsal process. 

Vinayaka

16 October 2016 (Sunday)

7:30pm

SOTA Drama Theatre

$25 & $30

Tickets: BAA website or enquires@bhaskarsarts.com

[Listing] Vinayaka by Bhaskar’s Arts Academy

vinayaka

A newly metamorphosed Vinayaka is set to make its one-night only world premier here. The simple and familiar tale of how the Hindu God Ganesha came to have an elephant’s head will be  presented in a cross-cultural collaboration by Bhaskar’s Arts Academy, Sasana Budaya Art Troupe (Indonesia),  and Singa Nglaras Gamelan Ensemble (Singapore).

Vinayaka was first staged as a Bharatanatyam piece in 2003 and then again in 2005 by Bhaskar’s Arts Academy (BAA). In 2010, BAA reworked the piece with  Balinese elements and it premiered in Bali. In this iteration, Vinayaka has taken a new form that is expressed through Bharatanatyam and Javanese movements under the artistic direction of Santha Bhaskar, as well as choreographers Meenakshy Bhaskar and Santi Dwisaputri. The piece will be performed to a new and exciting score under the music direction of Ghanavenothan Retnam and Sambowo Agus Herianto.

“I have choreographed this work several times now but each time it feels so new. I connect with it differently each time and it is as if I transform along with the work” says Meenakshy Bhaskar, who is based in the US.

Because of the distance, collaborating with her Jakarta-based counterpart Santi Dwisaputri was not without challenges acoording to Meenaskshy, but they “clicked from the moment the conversation started” and at some points they “were completing one another’s sentences.”

Vinayaka is the first of a three-part series by Bhaskar’s Arts Academy that will present works under the umbrella theme of “Traditional Arts in the Region.” Exciting collaboration with other performing arts troupes from different ASEAN countries can be expected in the coming years.

Vinayaka

16 October 2016 (Sunday)

7:30pm

SOTA Drama Theatre

$25 & $30

Tickets: BAA website or enquires@bhaskarsarts.com

[Dance Review] Expressive Gratitude

Nah MA

Na Mah

Bhaskar’s Arts Academy

16 April 2016

Esplanade Theatre Studio

16 April 2016, 3pm & 7:30pm

Before every rehearsal or performance, Bharatanatyam dancers are required to perform the namaskar. It is a ritual which expresses gratitude to Mother Earth, the deities, and their gurus who have brought them to where they are.

If Na Mah is anything to go by, these people, spirits, and elements have done an excellent job with Bhaskar’s Arts Academy (BAA).

In many ways, the repertoire on offer is an extensive namaskar. Deities such as Ganesha, Bhaskara, and Muruga are praised; the wonders of nature is an analogy of the nature of love; and the skill, precision, and presence on display testify to the wisdom and efficacy of the gurus.

In the course of this thanksgiving, the audience is reminded of how the body is a fantastic instrument for story-telling. The group numbers—especially Bhaskaraya and The Peacock’s Cue—are wonderful spectacles as the dancers come together to form distinct iconographies of the gods, or inject a certain energy in celebration of a deity’s divinity. This is achieved through the contrast between stillness and exuberant footwork. The slight variation in the way each dancer executes the gestures or facial expressions also present the multi-faceted nature of the deities.

That said, there are a couple of occasions when the dancers missed their marks by a hair’s breadth. But they are so minor that they hardly mar an otherwise beautiful performance.

The solo numbers prove that abhinaya (expressive elements) is a forte of BAA’s soloists. The exactness of the gestures, and the nuances of the facial expressions not only tell classic stories, such as Shakuntala searching for Dushyanta in Maaney, it also expounds on abstract concepts such as the nature of love in Vaanil Mukilodum.

The ability to portray an array of emotions, coupled with the different physicalities of the masculine, feminine, and animal within a split second indicates a high level of craftsmanship. From the feelings of joy and longing when one is in love, to seeing a series of flowers bloom with a mere flourish of the hands, it is impossible to take one’s eyes off the soloists.

It is important to note that the programme also includes two Kathak solos by Pallavi Sharma. While she brilliantly executes her steps in Shiv Stuti, the choreography does not bring out the enormity of Shiva’s cycle of nothingness to everythingness, and everythingness to nothingness. However, she is an absolute treat in And This is Love…. Sharma brings out the coy flirtation of lovers through motifs of looking and hiding, and slowly progresses into a series of spins which evokes the all-encompassing and thrilling feeling of love.

It would be remiss of me not to praise the musicians (Ampili Pillai, Arasakumari Nagaradjane, Ghanavenothan Retnam, TV Sajith, TK Arunkumar, S Harikrishnan, Imran Khan, Nasir Khan, Shakeel Ahmed Khan) for their artistry in enhancing the dances. From the meditative to the earthy rhythms of joy, the music is evocative, hypnotic, and potentially therapeutic.

It is unfortunate that we have no ritual of our own to thank the performers for the sacrifices that they have made. Perhaps, the best thing we can do is to show our continuous support and introduce more people to their work. And Bhaskar’s Arts Academy definitely deserves that.

Bidding a Home Farewell: On Space, Gratitude, and Spirit

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Stamford Arts Centre, April 2016

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.

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Mrs Santha Bhaskar

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.”

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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 complete 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.

Courses offered by NAS.

Courses offered by NAS

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.”

Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple which is opposite Stamford Arts Centre

Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple which is opposite Stamford Arts Centre

Nearby HDB Blocks

Nearby HDB Blocks

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.”

Mrs Bhaskar giving instructions to the dancers

Mrs Bhaskar instructing the dancers

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.”

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Mr TK Arun on the veena

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.

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Dancers in rehearsal

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.”

Sri Krishnan Temple as viewed from Stamford Arts Centre

Sri Krishnan Temple as viewed from Stamford Arts Centre

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.

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Mr Ghanavenothan Retnam (flute), Mr TV Sajith (violin), and Ms Ampili Pillai (vocalist)

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.”

Hallway looking into one of the studios where music classes are held

Hallway looking into one of the studios where music classes are held

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.”

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Directory of Stamford Arts Centre

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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.