Natya Darpana was a showcase of solo and group performances by bharatanatyam practitioners in Singapore, part of the Indian Heritage Centre's ongoing CultureFest. The production at the Victoria Theatre on Saturday was a melange of veteran pioneers, professional dancers, serious hobbyists and students of dance. Indian (primarily Hindu) festivals celebrated in Singapore formed the central theme.
Gayatri Sriram's celebration of Thai Pongal demonstrated clear lines, graceful arm movements and a remarkable lightness of execution. Her Kalakshetra style heralded the revivalist framework within which the show was cast.
Bharatanatyam, previously known as Sadir, was practiced in South India by a hereditary community of women - the Devadasis. Marginalised in the mid-19th century and eventually banned from practising their dance form, Sadir subsequently underwent a transfiguration into bharatanatyam by upper crust dancers of the time. Although there is evidence of Devadasi presence in this region prior to 1950, bharatanatyam tends to serve as the historical reference point here in Singapore.
V. Balakrishnan and his students effectively captured the spirit of Thaipusam. Considering the theme, the dancers could have broken away from the conventional silk and gold-bordered costume. A hurried Bhavayami Raghuramam did not allow Chitra Shankar the space for abhinaya (the expressive aspect of the dance) which was clearly her forte. Every dancer in the show seemed bound to fast rhythmic sequences. Physical movement was prioritised, while abhinaya was sidelined. The highly talented musicians, especially the percussionists, created an aural experience that was frenzied and often overbearing.
Maha Parashakthi by Apsaras Arts was energetic, well-coordinated and choreographed by the talented young Mohanapriyan Thavarajah. Providing glimpses of her core form Kuchipudi, Shantha Ratii offered the viewer touching portrayals in Madhuradhipate with her expertise in abhinaya. Kudos to Ajith Dass for the imaginative choreography and creative rhythmic sequences.
One wondered why mature and experienced artists such as Shantha Ratii, Priyalatha Arun and the Kesavan sisters felt compelled to rely on fast rhythms. After all, the dance form offers ample scope for dramatic expression. In a conventional solo bharatanatyam recital, this is the point at which the dancer slows down and focuses on emotional expression.
The evening closed with the graceful and spirited Peacock's Cue by Bhaskar's Arts Academy where the music soulfully captured the essence of the Panguni Uttaram festival. Alberta Wileo, who is otherwise known for his subtle and creative lighting design, baffled the viewer with some garish lighting moments.
Natya Darpana was a selective representation of bharatanatyam within a largely Kalakshetra framework that is known to privilege religiosity over sensuality. With the overarching theme of Hindu festivals, the form was tightly cast in a devotional frame. Excluded were various key native and naturalised Singaporean artists in the scene, some of whom have been working for many decades at grassroots level to bring the dance form out to the wider society.
To marry a live performance tradition with heritage in a transnational multicultural context such as Singapore needs thoughtful programming. Otherwise there is a risk of perpetuating the hegemony and exclusivity that is embedded in the practice of this invented tradition in the Indian scenario. The event missed representing the broader canvas of the historical and cultural context of Singapore within which bharatanatyam is embedded.
Nirmala Seshadri is a performer, choreographer and dance researcher, and holds an MA in dance anthropology. She is the curator of the International Conference on Bharatanatyam in Singapore.