[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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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

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 .

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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

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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

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.