A Tribute to Santha Bhaskar From a Student

Aparna Nambiar pays tribute to her late teacher, Singapore dance pioneer Mrs Santha Bhaskar, who passed away on 26 February 2022 at the age of 82. She sheds light on Mrs Bhaskar’s multicultural practice, that both celebrated her roots in Indian classical dance, while innovating the form in more contemporary ways, in this intimate piece that details the iconic choreographer’s life.

Teacher, as I always think of her, was better known to her students as Aunty, Aunty Bhaskar, and less frequently as Santha Teacher, though, being a public figure, she was addressed mostly as Mrs. Bhaskar. To her students, this publicness is simultaneously common knowledge and unfathomable, as we each consider her as our own. In the wake of her auspicious passing, innumerable official statements, and condolence messages, ranging from those offered by her youngest students to that offered by Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, concur in their tender recollection of personal memories with her. As a recipient of three national level awards for exemplary service to nation, community and art, this near-total lack of formality should be astounding, but it is not. In fact, it is a testament to the ways in which she was great in ordinary ways, remaining ever approachable and attuned to those around her. It is possible that while we grieve the loss of her regal, compassionate, astute and utterly irreplaceable personality, we might overlook the fact that she was also great in extraordinary ways. So, I will start there.

Born Pankyamma Santhamma, she received the appellation of “Mrs Bhaskar” at the age of fifteen, arriving in colonial Singapore in 1955 after her marriage to Krishna Pillai Bhaskar. In private conversations and in numerous published interviews, she has repeated that this role of wife came upon her suddenly and that she took on the profession that came attached to it– that of a choreographer and dancer–reluctantly. In her characteristic fashion, she exceeded the norms and expectations of both the profession and the role. Not only was Santha Bhaskar an exceptional performer and choreographer, as well as a devoted wife and mother, she also midwifed a model for Singaporean Indian identity, becoming mother-figure to thousands of her students, mentees and protégés.

In the past decade, Teacher has often been associated with terms like “living history” and “intangible heritage” despite remaining an active cultural producer up until the moment of her death on February 26, 2022. Perhaps public discourse had to cast her as a person of the past because in Singapore, everything—even time or perhaps especially time—moves forward, each moment appearing predictably after the next. Her timelessness and ageless reserve of creative energy remains confounding to this linearity. In fact, Santha and K.P. Bhaskar could jolt one out of this anxious, tidy organization of time with a casual remark. One afternoon in 2009, at the old Bhaskar’s Arts Academy premises on Kerbau Road, I wandered into the costume and prop area, carelessly toying around with silken cloth and sparkly objects. Mr. Bhaskar happened to walk past, asked what I was up to, pointed to a set of headdresses and said that they had been last used in the 1960s while on the road for PAP rallies with Lee Kuan Yew. Another time, at Teacher’s beloved Gokul Restaurant in Fortune Center, she told me what she knew of the old Jewish proprietorships in Orchard and Middle Road, over thosai and teh-c. Such tales of old Singapore felt less like mere recollections, and more like revelations of something already present, like cellophane torn off an unexpected gift.

In 2015, she gifted the Straits Times and the Singapore Philatelic Museum one such tale. She agreed to model as a live-action replica of a 1968 stamp-issue, which featured an illustrated Bharatanatyam dancer. In an instance of remarkable temporal circularity, Mrs Bhaskar recounted posing for the photograph upon which stamp was based. It was thus not the stamp that lent the dancing Indian woman its iconic power. Rather it had been the dancing Indian woman, specifically Santha Bhaskar, who lent her iconicity to the stamp, and by extension, to the nation. Around the time that the stamp was issued, Santha Bhaskar was already imprinted as an icon of Singaporean “Indianness”, featured as part of multicultural dance troupes in hundreds of PAP-led rallies in the 1960s. In contemporary academic discourse, these performances –Aneka Ragam Ra’ayat—have been written off as rehearsing the political fantasies of multiracialism. Yet in another recursive temporal loop, it turns out that the dancer may have germinated this fantasy in advance of, or at least in tandem with her political peers. In 1958, long before the multiracial Singaporean nation-state was imminent, an 18-year-old Santha Bhaskar had imagined and staged a trans-racial, cross-cultural performance as her very first choreography, Butterfly Lovers, inspired by the Chinese film Lian Shan Bo Zhu Ying Tai. Teacher’s retelling of this episode brims with the effervescence of an adolescent, steeped in the fun of inhabiting a familiar story from another culture. As a work of hybridised Bharatanatyam, she delighted in the awesome novelty of learning Chinese sword, fan and water-sleeve dances. Butterfly Lovers played to sell-out crowds at the Victoria Theatre for two weeks, mainly throngs of Chinese audiences, who came again and again to watch the show. In an interview recorded for the Singapore National Archives in 2009, the interviewer queries Teacher on the reasons for the show’s success. “Me!”, she exclaims, laughing, “I do not know anything, what life is all about, what is fame, what is success, all these things, I never bothered about all these things. Everybody say [sic], ‘Good!’ Okay, good. That’s all.” And it was good, for her performance perhaps doubled the longings and experiences of a circulating, multicultural milieu –living close together, telling each other’s stories, dancing each other’s dances, speaking each other’s languages, and eating each other’s food. She understood the fascination that Indian dancers held in the ethnically heterogenous Malayan world; in 1962, a twenty-two year old Santha Bhaskar would feature in a scene in the Malay film Badang, directed as an Indian dancer performing in a fictitious, 14th century Malay court to a stunned audience. This scene echoes another one from real life, in which a much younger Santha Bhaskar performed at royal functions associated with the birthday of the Sultan of Johor, circa 1955. Her cross-generic, inter-cultural dance experiments were  the fantasies of a true cosmopolitan who was at home amidst difference.

As a Bharatanatyam choreographer, Santha Bhaskar navigated the tense cultural arena of tradition, notorious for its concerns with purity and preeminence, with flair. Yet she was confident and audacious enough to be curious about the many cultural practices in her midst. She was devoted to the Indian classical tradition, but utterly irreverent to its conventions. Since she gave herself the freedom to experiment, she did not rely solely on repertoires imported from India. She was a master of both Bharatanatyam dance and the South Indian style of Carnatic music. She composed hundreds of thousands of elaborate jathis and mapped intricate choreographies for large and small stages. She was also well versed in other Indian genres of performance including Kathakali, Keralanatanam and Therukoothu.  She carefully spliced these Indian forms with Malay Joget, Thai Khon, Sri Lankan Kandyan  and various Chinese dances. She wrote original lyrics in Sanskrit, Malayalam and Tamil, or adapted English, Sanskrit, Malay and Chinese poems, plays and novels. She wove Vedantic and Buddhist philosophy, mathematics and quantum physics and technological themes into her work. More recently, she choreographed Marabu three-installation series of works reimagining pre-colonial and colonial Malayan-Indian histories. She was an expert at drawing disparate things together and setting them into coherent, exhilarating rhythms – thisram, chathusram, ghantam, so on—and seemed to revel in the project of doing so.

Like all Bharatanatyam dance teachers, she used the traditional vocabulary while teaching a choreography– “do attami”, “theermanam”, “kuditta mettadavu”, etc. But today, in her absence, we have no available shorthand to summon her signature, hybridised, Singapore-made Bharatanatyam technique. She conveyed these unnamed inventions wordlessly, sitting cross-legged in sukhasana on the studio floor. She would bring her palms to the ground, wrists together, fingers facing in opposite directions, simulating the dancer’s feet in the aramandi position and would urge us to transpose her hand movements onto our feet. Occasionally—these instances were rare and somewhat breathtaking—she would stand, lift the hem of her sari to reveal her feet and ankles, and demonstrate the intricate mathematical formulations that she had coded into footwork.

Over 10 years in her ensemble at the NUS Centre for the Arts, I have never seen her without carefully pedicured feet, often in a sweet, salmon-pink shade that I imagine she liked best. It bothers me that I hesitated from asking her about this because it risked revealing myself as an ardent fan. But many of her students were ardent fans. We fancied the ornate notebooks she planned her choreographies in; these had gold filigree cover designs that resembled the borders of the resplendent silk saris she wore. In tragic contrast, we would stand there sweating in our worn-out dance-saris, dhotis and churidars, acquired in a vain attempt to match the quiet, bright, and dignified Indian aesthetic she brought to the studio. In the frantic moments preceding each class, we would shuffle into narrow bathroom stalls outside the classroom and hastily discard our low-rise denims and our office appropriate attire for these dance clothes. Having changed, we stepped out of our mundane lives, which demanded so much from us but gave us no sense of self, and stepped into the life of dance. This was the life that she granted us. She noticed what we wore, how we stood, how we walked and how our knees cracked. Her attention fortified us. She was attuned to each of our individual temperaments and technical abilities, and always pushed us to dance in excess of our current capacities. In doing so, she restored our confidence. We went to dance class to be seen by our Teacher, our Aunty Bhaskar, and to be set into the cosmic, cosmopolitan vision she imagined for us. May that vision remain vivid as we anticipate our individual and collective futures in her resounding absence.

About the author(s)

Aparna Nambiar is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Performance Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She was part of Santha Bhaskar’s ensemble at the NUS Centre for the Arts between 2004 and 2015.

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