The inaugural international Conference on Bharatanatyam in Singapore, “The Emergence, Development and Future Directions of Bharatanatyam in Singapore and Malaysia,” was held on December 6 and 7 at Stephen Riady Centre, University Town, National University of Singapore.
I participated in a roundtable discussion (via Skype, since I am currently overseas), “Bharatanatyam and the Negotiation of Geographies and Visibility,” moderated by Dr. Stephanie Burridge, writer and lecturer at LASALLE College of the Arts. The panel featured: dancer Kiran Kumar; Professor of Ethnochoreology and Ethnomusicology, University of Malaya, Mohd Anis Md Nor; media professional Sabanitha Shanmugasundram; and doctoral candidate in Communication and New Media, National University of Singapore, Shobha Vadrevu. Skype wasn’t ideal, but there’s a first time for everything, right?
My friend Aditi Shivaramakrishnan, dancer, writer, and editor, attended IN PERSON. She wrote this reflection, and I’m thrilled to share it here.
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Last weekend, the first International Conference on Bharatanatyam in Singapore (ICBS 2014) took place at the National University of Singapore’s Stephen Riady Centre. Eager for an opportunity to once again engage with the classical South Indian dance form I’d studied when younger, I’d been looking forward to this event since its announcement some months ago.
Despite its titular focus on “the emergence, development and future directions of bharatanatyam in Singapore and Malaysia”, collectively, the academics, artists, students and other stakeholders gathered hailed from not just these two countries, but also India, Japan, Canada, the US, and the UK. Also present were pioneers of classical Indian dance in Singapore, such as Cultural Medallion recipients Neila Sathyalingam and Santha Bhaskar, and accomplished dancer Rathi Karthigesu.
The briskly-paced series of presentations examined bharatanatyam from historical, teaching and scholarly perspectives. With the impressive roster of presenters assembled, some overlap in subject matter covered was inevitable. On several occasions, “bharatanatyam”-centered discussions were more broadly applicable to Indian dance forms, or even to South Asian art forms in the multiple contexts of local communities and global diasporas. Personally, I found the panels comprising both scholars and practitioners (teachers/students) of bharatanatyam the most interesting; it was where theory and practice came into synthesis—or, more excitingly, tension.
Bhaskar’s keynote address—replete with old photographs and event posters—set the context for the presentations to come, with a recount of more than six decades of engagement with the local performing arts scene, and invocation of iconic personalities and momentous choreographic works. She noted that despite the colonial government’s prioritisation of Western forms of art, Singapore was hardly a cultural desert; in fact, “innovation without fear” was possible here, with different ethnic groups drawing inspiration from each others’ art forms, and further working together to creatively circumvent their common challenges (insufficient funding, and a lack of suitable performance spaces; both were reiterated as persisting problems in subsequent talks).
The educators present—many of whom teach more than one arts form—engaged in lively discussion that had audience members nodding or shaking their heads emphatically, perhaps bringing to mind their similar or contrary experiences. Issues covered included challenges teaching young students today (teachers observe they are less physically coordinated likely due to less time engaged in active play; new approaches are required to explain the stories behind pieces to a new generation that may not have grown up with the myths and traditional stories that their predecessors did); the changing relationship between teacher and student with the erosion of the strict traditional guru-shishya parampara; how to teach dance with knowledge that the vast majority of students will not pursue it beyond a certain age (with education, career and/or family life taking priority) and, briefly, working with male dancers in the female-dominated form of bharatanatyam.
Scholars’ papers on bharatanatyam in relation to forces such as history, class, diaspora, and globalisation were fascinating insofar as they were not too difficult to follow given the use of impenetrable academic language. While several presentations focused on bharatanatyam in relation to Singapore, others took a more transnational or theoretical approach, often making explicit reference to the sociopolitical implications of studying the dance form: Dr. Urmimala Sarkar Munsi in her incisive keynote lecture on the material, social and ritualistic expectations placed on female dancers’ bodies; Prof. Davesh Soneji‘s research, incorporating written accounts and archival visual material, on regional representations of Tamil Devadasi dance; and the startlingly intelligent and eloquent multihyphenate Sadanand Menon’s lecture on his close associate, the late Chandralekha who challenged established conventions of content and form in bharatanatyam.
The conference ended on a productive and optimistic note, with the veterans in particular calling on the younger generation of bharatanatyam students to sustain the energy and entrepreneurial spirit of their predecessors and for different local institutions to support, rather than compete against, each other in hopes of developing a stronger collective voice with which to advocate for greater support (government and private sector funding; audience development). Another priority raised was increasing access to bharatanatyam lessons for those who fall outside of the demographics (largely middle- and upper-middle class, and, interestingly, there is an observed disconnect here between recent South Asian immigrants and Singaporean Indians as well) that comprise the majority of students in Singapore.
Bhaskar further listed ways in which students can remain engaged with bharatanatyam after they stop dancing: teaching, scholarly work, writing dance criticism or attending performances, for example. As one such individual, the above in addition to the exhortation that the critically conscious bharatanatyam student must continually engage with the sociopolitical is admittedly quite daunting, there already being the ever-present weight of cultural expectations. I felt a sort of kinship with others present who spoke of their initial dislike of bharatanatyam, more often than not having been sent to lessons by their parents without much say in the matter.
For years, bharatanatyam has been, variously, for me: a nerve-wracking Sunday morning ritual; a space in which my changing body was awkward and uncooperative; the wrong kind of dance, which didn’t make you cool at school; and, when everyone else’s expectations for my progress had finally moderated themselves, my own kicked in, and failure to meet physical, if not emotional, standards of performance would be yet another inadequacy in successfully negotiating a diasporic, multicultural identity.
All the same, the very opportunity to engage with such dilemmas has been a privilege afforded by a combination of socioeconomic factors and the ready presence of an active bharatanatyam scene in Singapore, and it has imparted lifelong lessons in art, discipline and an appreciation, simply, for what the body can do. The sense of community I felt, and all the new information I took in, at the two-day conference has rekindled such reflection and for this I must thank and congratulate all involved, particularly the dedicated organisers and hardworking volunteers.
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Dear readers, did you attend? What did you think?