SINGAPORE - Pioneering dance doyenne Santha Bhaskar has died at the age of 82.
The Cultural Medallion recipient was at Stamford Arts Centre on Feb 26 for the second evening of Sangeetha Sapthathi, the show celebrating Bhaskar's Arts Academy's 70th anniversary, when she felt unwell. She was rushed to Tan Tock Seng Hospital and breathed her last at 8.15pm when the show was playing its first song.
Mrs Bhaskar came to Singapore aged 16 after marrying K. P. Bhaskar, a dancer-choreographer who was 14 years her senior. They ran Bhaskar's Academy of Dance, renamed Bhaskar's Arts Academy in 1993, together.
While she was trained in classical Indian dance techniques, Mrs Bhaskar was keenly interested in other dance forms. In her recollections for the Singapore Memory Project, she said it was "divinely decided" that she would come to Singapore to teach and serve.
"I really liked the multiculturalism that I found here in the 1950s. It was all about respecting each other's cultures, living and performing together. I've been influenced by Chinese and Malay dance, as well as other dance styles like ballet. If I were in India, that wouldn't have happened, because I wouldn't even have seen Chinese dance. I came to Singapore and saw the beauty of other cultures," she said.
One of the first landmark works she produced with her husband was The Butterfly Lovers, inspired by the 1958 Chinese movie of that title. It combined Chinese costumes with Indian music and dance.
She formed friendships with ballet-trained Goh Lay Kuan and Malay dancer Som Said. The trio would visit one another's homes in the 1950s and 1960s to learn one another's dance techniques.
Composer Zubir Said, who composed the National Anthem, was the Bhaskars' neighbour in Joo Chiat and a frequent collaborator in their work.
The pandemic did not stop Mrs Bhaskar from creating new works. She also experimented with creating works for digital media. She was present for the launch for the Singapore International Festival of Arts (Sifa) last week, spry and alert, and happy to be commissioned for Ceremonial Enactments, one of the festival's headline productions.
Members of the arts community expressed shock and grief at her passing. A spokesman for Bhaskar's Arts Academy said: "We are all shocked with this sudden and unexpected loss. Her dedication to the arts till her final breath is reflective of her life journey."
Dancer, choreographer and teacher Shantha Ratii, who is in her 60s, took her first dance steps as a five-year-old under Mrs Bhaskar’s tutelage. She said of Mrs Bhaskar: “She’s like a mother who holds the hands of a child who takes her first steps. Her work was her oxygen. I don’t think she even looked at it as work. She went about it with a smile and so much grace.”
Ms Kuo Jian Hong, whose parents Kuo Pao Kun and Madam Goh were friends with Mrs Bhaskar for decades, said: “I cannot remember Mrs Bhaskar not being a part of my life, a part of Singapore’s arts community. She was a master who never stopped exploring with a child’s curiosity; a pioneer who walked side by side with the newbie; an artist who carried the often unbearable weight of sustaining with grace and dignity; the gentle auntie who always brought a smile to my face. Today, we lost a towering figure who has quietly led the charge for decades.”
Wild Rice founder and artistic director Ivan Heng, 57, said Mrs Bhaskar was in discussions with him to stage a festival tribute to Mr Bhaskar, who died in 2013 from a heart-related illness.
He paid tribute to her adventurous spirit: "She was constantly innovating and always so curious about what makes Singapore multicultural. She was Singaporean in her soul. And her inspiration and ideas, her life's work, as a dancer, choreographer, teacher, was dedicated to exploring and expressing that soul."
Ms Sharon Tan, 56, director of the National University of Singapore's Centre for the Arts, said Mrs Bhaskar had been an inspiration as the centre's longest-serving tutor since 1977.
She "grounded the students in the fundamentals of the traditional art form and yet was always up to the challenge of examining current issues and working with new disciplines and new areas of knowledge", added Ms Tan.
"She set an example as one who was always curious, always learning and always growing. She will be dearly missed."
Mr Tan Boon Hui, 50, executive director of Arts House Limited, which organises Sifa, expressed his condolences to the family: “Today Singapore mourns the loss of one of our cultural icons.”
Festival director Natalie Hennedige, 47, noted that everyone addressed Mrs Bhaskar lovingly as Auntie: “The legacy of Mrs Santha Bhaskar will continue to kindle our arts scene, reminding us to uphold what she stood for - grace, kindness, dedication and belief in the beauty of the dance.”
Ms Menaka Gopalan, executive director of the Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society, said Mrs Bhaskar’s enthusiasm was infectious and her quiet humility was inspiring: “We shall always miss the bright smile, the gentle encouragement, the creative genius, and the gifted artist.”
Mrs Bhaskar leaves three children, four grandchildren and one great-grandchild.