Meeting of minds on Indian dance form

Bharatanatyam is taught at about 10 institutions here.
Bharatanatyam is taught at about 10 institutions here.PHOTO: HUNEID TYEB

Dance in Singapore has taken a more reflective, scholarly turn of late.

This week, a two-day conference on the traditional Indian dance form Bharatanatyam will be held, with a group of international academics and practitioners attending and giving presentations.

Earlier this year, the Singapore edition of the Celebrating Dance In Asia And The Pacific book series, Evolving Synergies: Celebrating Dance In Singapore, was published. Edited by academics Stephanie Burridge and Caren Carino, the collection of essays documents some milestones of the local dance scene and appraises its ecology and connections with the region.

The International Conference on Bharatanatyam in Singapore is founded and curated by Singaporean dancer, choreographer and researcher Nirmala Seshadri.

She says that two years ago, while studying for a master's in dance anthropology at the University of Roehampton in London, she "became acutely aware of the lack of critical writing on Bharatanatyam, and on dance in general in Singapore".

The dance form was introduced to Singapore in the 1950s and is taught at about 10 institutions here.

Seshadri adds that as much as dancers need to strive for excellence in their practice, "we also need to acknowledge and begin to understand the complexities that surround the practice of the form in this region".

The conference is organised by two groups which teach the dance - the Nrityalaya Aesthetics Society, which is headed by Cultural Medallion recipient and Bharatanatyam doyenne Santha Bhaskar, and N Dance & Yoga, where Seshadri is artistic director. It will take place this weekend at the National University of Singapore University Town.

Academics from countries such as Indian, Japan, Canada and Malaysia will giving lectures and presentations as well as taking part in roundtable discussions on issues such as cultural heritage, the impact of politics and cultural policies, globalisation and the challenges of intra- and intercultural dialogue.

Keynote lectures will be delivered by Bhaskar, on the journey of Bharatanatyam in Singapore, as well as by Professor Urmimala Sarkar Munsi, a social anthropologist and dance studies scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University in India.

She will be speaking about the idea of space in relation to the history and geographical spread of Bharatanatyam across global communities. She adds that writing about dance "creates a complete picture for the audience and scholars", and explains: "While video is a more recent and partial register, writing dance can create a very important understanding by mentioning the emotional engagement, the agency, the specific impulse points of different movements."

A local practitioner presenting at the conference is Maya Dance Theatre artistic director Kavitha Krishnan. She will talk about how her choreography derives contemporary movement from Bharatanatyam. She says she is looking forward to a meeting of minds with other practitioners and academics.

As the dance scene grows, Kavitha thinks developments such as academic conferences are necessary. "Every practice needs research and a basis of theory to fall back on and draw on. When you hear what other people have to say, you can draw parallels, you can draw inspiration and you're also drawing on their research."

Evolving Synergies features contributors such as Kavitha, who writes about dancing within the community, and co-founder of the Singapore Dance Theatre Goh Soo Khim and curator Bridget Tracy Tan, who together co-author an essay on Goh's history and the founding of the company. The book is available from Books Kinokuniya for $173.58.

For now, Seshadri says Bharatanatyam faces challenges here, such as a lack of a tertiary education opportunities, and it being pigeonholed as a Tamil or Hindu dance form in the multicultural context of Singapore. She hopes the conference can run once every year or two years.

She says: "I hope the conference will not only situate the dance form here but also help to draw the practice of Bharatanatyam into mainstream society."