Cross Talk with T. Sasitharan and Raka Maitra

Trusting the critic

Raka Maitra (above).
Raka Maitra (above).ST PHOTO: YEO KAI WEN
T. Sasitharan (above).
T. Sasitharan (above).ST PHOTO: YEO KAI WEN

In the fourth instalment of Cross Talk, a fortnightly series where two major figures in the arts have a chat with Life, theatre practitioner T. Sasitharan and dancer- choreographer Raka Maitra talk about their partnership and what defines intercultural art

Their partnership is not always an easy one, but for veteran theatre practitioner T. Sasitharan, 57, and dancer-choreographer Raka Maitra, 44, it has been rewarding.

Brought together by their different performing arts backgrounds and common interest in intercultural work, the pair have collaborated on productions since the 2006 Graey Festival of performing arts at The Substation.

Maitra, who is married with two sons aged 23 and 16, is usually the dancer-choreographer, while Sasitharan - or Sasi, as he is often known, who is married with two daughters aged 16 and 14 - is the dramaturg.

Productions they have worked on together include the acclaimed dance-theatre piece The Blind Age last year, which looked at violence in the world.

Their camaraderie is obvious when Life meets them at Emily Hill. The creative enclave in Upper Wilke Road is home to the Intercultural Theatre Institute, which Sasi directs and co-founded with the late playwright-director Kuo Pao Kun. It is also where Maitra's dance company, Chowk, is based.

Their banter is honest and thoughtful, but never too serious; laughter sprinkles the hour-long chat, which ranges from their views about intercultural art-making here to the nature of their creative partnership. Their conversation has been edited and condensed.

For a dancer, it is important when you’re moving away from the classical and trying to do something more
experimental to have the third eye – somebody who can tell you that you are going wrong. ’’

RAKA MAITRA, on collaborating with T. Sasitharan

So if you’re critical about a work, invariably, you’re going to touch on the personal. But you have tohave a professional attitude because ultimately, the work is not just about me and her, the work is about somebody else who is going to be paying money to watch it. ’’

T.SASITHARAN

Life: How did you meet and become collaborators?

Sasi: We have a mutual friend, a leading dance critic in India. When Raka moved to Singapore (she is now a Singapore citizen), he advised her to come and talk to me because she was shifting away from being just focused on classical Indian dance to more contemporary work. That's how we met in 2004. And after that, she was with The Substation.

Maitra: Yes, I was with The Substation doing the Graey Festival. That's when we first started working together, in 2006.

Life: And you have collaborated often.

Maitra: Yes, all my personal projects have been directed by Sasi, in a sense. We talk a lot about the project and how it is going to be.

For a dancer, it is important when you're moving away from the classical and trying to do something more experimental to have the third eye - somebody who can tell you that you are going wrong. And I need that because I'm a very confident person and most of the time, I feel like I can't do anything wrong. (Both laugh)

Sasi: It's almost a misnomer to talk about a director in dance. But there is this space between dance and theatre where there is a possibility for new work to emerge. For me, this intersection is very interesting because in traditional Asian theatre, there is no distinction between dance and theatre, it flows.

There is a seamless connection between dance, theatre, music, acting, singing, different elements of the way in which the body is used to express a moment or a scene. I don't know if you'll agree with that.

Maitra: I agree with that. And I found the Intercultural Theatre Institute structure very interesting.

When you teach, you go deep into traditional forms, but you are doing contemporary theatre. I started working with Sasi because I really believed in that training and felt I needed to learn other forms.

Life: Speaking of intercultural art, what is your definition of it?

Maitra: It’s very difficult not to be intercultural. We’re all intercultural, no matter where we live. I’ve never consciously tried to do anything intercultural, it’s just happened because we live in a city where people come from different cultures, different backgrounds.

Sasi: I agree that life is intercultural, but I disagree that you don’t have to do something conscious because the intercultural does not consist of the product.

What makes something intercultural is the process. The multicultural is very different from the intercultural, it’s a phenomenon where people co-exist in groups, but there is no attempt to interact and there is a need to do that.

The multicultural is maintained by an authority, usually it’s a government or a law that says this is how you interact, this is what you can say and cannot say.

The intercultural doesn’t work that way. The intercultural works on a personal level, you have to interact with one another, trust one another, compromise with one another. Our relationship is intercultural.

Life: It sounds like you have an easy collaboration.

Sasi: Oh, it’s never easy.

Maitra: (Laughs) I thought it’s quite easy.

Sasi: (Laughs) No, it’s not easy. I don’t think it’s easy at all.

Maitra: Sometimes, we don’t agree on things.

Sasi: Sometimes we don’t even agree if a piece should be done as a dance or as a piece of theatre and we’re arguing about it until the very end, so it is very confusing for the actors and for the dancers.

When it came to Blind Age, we were contesting it until the end, whether it is a theatre piece or a dance piece. What happened eventually was the deadline happened andwe had to do the show and I still haven’t figured out whether it’s a...

  • Career milestones

    RAKA MAITRA

    1971: Born in Kolkata, India

    1988: Graduated with a diploma in performing arts from the Children's Little Theatre, Kolkata

    1994: Joined the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya institute for Indian classical music and dance, specialising in Odissi dance under dance guru Kelucharan Mohapatra

    1999: Received the Shringar Mani national award of excellence for her performance of Odissi dance

    2000: Premiered her first contemporary work, Masks Of Gods, at the Kamani Auditorium in New Delhi

    2006: Co-curated The Substation's Graey Festival for performing arts

    2008: Became an associate artist at The Substation

    2011: Set up Chowk, a dance centre that offers classes in Odissi dance, researches the dance form and creates productions

    2014: Chowk received the National Arts Council seed grant for 2014 to 2017


    T. SASITHARAN

    1958: Born in Singapore

    1983: Graduated with a bachelor's degree in philosophy and English literature from the National University of Singapore

    1983 to 1988: Taught philosophy at the National University of Singapore

    1986: Awarded a master's in philosophy from the National University of Singapore

    1989 to 1996: Joined The Straits Times as theatre and visual art critic, later becoming its arts editor

    1996 to 2000: Artistic director of The Substation

    2000: Co-founded the Theatre Training and Research Programme, now known as the Intercultural Theatre Institute, with the late playwright-director Kuo Pao Kun

    2012: Awarded Singapore's Cultural Medallion for his contributions to theatre and the arts

Maitra: It was a dance piece. (Laughs) You saw, it was a dance piece.

Sasi: No, I didn’t think so.

Maitra: Yeah, it’s not easy collaborating with anyone. But one has to be able to take the criticism, the differences, and then you can work.

When I first came here, I found it very difficult, there was no criticism. Everybody kept praising your work, which is not very good for you. I was used to being criticised and torn apart so I really needed that. If you have that, only then can you grow.

Life: And Sasi tore you apart?

Maitra: Yeah. Sometimes, Sasi will come for rehearsal and say it’s just not working. If I’m convinced about it, I’ll keep it. Sometimes, I’ll discard it.

Sasi: The work is not easy. You know that at some point, the work is personal; every work is personal.

So if you’re critical about a work, invariably, you’re going to touch on the personal. But you have to have a professional attitude because ultimately, the work is not just about me and her, the work is about somebody else who is going to be payingmoneyto watch it.

There has to be consideration for the audience, there has to be consideration for the society which is supporting this work. And I think both of us insist on high standards. If I felt the standards of your work were not high enough, I wouldn’t collaborate with you, simple as that.

Maitra: It’s the same for me. If I have to collaborate with somebody, it has to be someone I respect for his work.

Sasi: Collaboration cannot happen unless you see yourselves as equals. Only then can you deal with the work objectively.

Life: So how do you resolve conflict when it arises?

Sasi: It usually gets resolved on the floor. We work through different situations. Eventually, it’s about how it looks and whether the people are able to perform it; these are strict limitations.

Maitra: Usually, I’ll be the one who gives in and listens.

Sasi: Not really.

Maitra: Mostly. Because I’m usually in the production and performing so I have to depend a lot on him. That trust needs to be there because he’s the one sitting and watching, so he can tell me if it’s working or not.

Life: In your years of intercultural art-making, has the scene changed?

Sasi: When the Intercultural Theatre Institute began as the Theatre Training and Research Programme, people wouldn’t speak about the intercultural because it was considered a kind of academic formation and people couldn’t understand or define what it was.

But 15 years later, this term is more readily used, not just by people who are working in teaching institutions such as the Intercultural Theatre Institute, but even by other practitioners. Alvin Tan and The Necessary Stage’s work is often described as intercultural. Ong Keng Sen’s work is often described as intercultural.

It is finally becoming recognised, but more than that, people are beginning to see that there are processes of training, dramaturgy, direction, choreography, which can benefit from having this intercultural perspective.

Maitra: When I first came to Singapore, I thought it was more multicultural than intercultural because the arts festivals were very defined. Even for funding, there is Indian traditional arts, contemporary arts, it’s all defined,which box you fit into.

But now, intercultural work has become fashionable, so people want to do it and it becomes a lot of cut-and-paste work. Everybody is just working in isolation and piecing it all together, there is no understanding.

Having a Noh performer with an Indian classical dancer and a Western dancer on stage is not intercultural to me.

Sasi: This goes back to my comment earlier that you cannot define the intercultural by the product, the process is what defines the intercultural. But I don’t think people are interested in process, people are interested in cut-and-paste pastiche work and that’s been going on for a long time.

Life: Where might intercultural art in Singapore be headed?

Sasi: I don’t know where it’s headed, but I can tell you there are two great challenges it faces. One is intelligent
discourse, I don’t think we have that. Intellectual discourse clarifies the picture. That’s why I feel I need to be critical and honest.

Sometimes, these intercultural experiments fail and you have to be prepared to say I’m not ready to show or I need more time or I need to change direction. How many times have we changed directions in our work? We’ve changed directions somanytimes.

Maitra: We have, but the process is such that it has to change. So the proposal you give might be very different from what you eventually do and the people who commission the work maybe annoyed.

Sasi: The second challenge is educating audiences about the intercultural. We need to expose them to the fact that the work can be difficult, that it’s not all going to be neatly packaged with a neat, happy ending for you to take home so you can then have your dinner happily.

It might be provocative, it might shake you in your roots and say what you’re doing is wrong, or to rethink what you are saying and feeling. The intercultural does that. The classical rarely does that because it’s preformed.

Maitra: If you watch bad classical, you could cry. Then you’ll get shaken and you can’t have dinner. (Both laugh)

Sasi: But the audience is clever. I don’t mean educate them because they are ignorant. I mean educate the audience by exposing them to differences and letting people decide and judge for themselves. We need to take our audiences with us as we are developing.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 17, 2015, with the headline 'Trusting the critic'. Print Edition | Subscribe