Bhaskar's Arts Academy marks 70 years of dancing across boundaries

The restaging of Butterfly Lovers in December last year with choreography by Meenakshy Bhaskar. PHOTOS: BHASKAR'S ARTS ACADEMY, LIJESH KARUNAKARAN

SINGAPORE - Stepping onto the stage at an event in Tanjong Pagar in 1983, Santha Bhaskar was thrown off when a Chinese dance track began blaring from the speaker instead of the Indian classical music she had selected.

On the spur of the moment, she began dancing along to the song, surprising herself and those around her.

Mrs Bhaskar, now aged 82, recalls how the crowd was taken aback by her impromptu performance. "The audience began clapping and cheering. Eventually, the organisers changed the recording to the right music. But I look back and I am still not sure how I pulled that off."

The audio mix-up was one of many pivotal moments that gave rise to the dance doyenne's lifelong love of intercultural arts exchange under the banner of Bhaskar's Arts Academy.

In celebration of its 70th anniversary this year, the academy has lined up a programme of various events.

It will kick off with a musical performance, Sangeetha Sapthathi, on Feb 25 and 26 featuring original compositions by musicians from the academy.

A highlight of the show will be singer Ampili Pillai's lilting vocals, accompanied by delicate renditions on the string instruments, violin and veena.

Many of the upcoming performances pay homage to the journey of the academy since its founding in 1952 by Mrs Bhaskar's husband K.P. Bhaskar.

Arriving in Singapore from Kerala, India, in 1955, Mrs Bhaskar joined her husband at his arts school as a dance instructor. She would later become its chief choreographer and artistic director.

The new country brought with it a host of cultural influences that intrigued her. "I was exposed to a lot of other genres of art forms that helped me to think differently and have an open mind, which is important when putting together a production. I think that adaptability has been passed down to my students as well," she says.

She began dabbling with Chinese and Malay dance in her choreography, culminating in the first staging of her work Butterfly Lovers, an interpretation of a Chinese legend, in 1958.

After her husband's death in 2013, she pushed on with their shared vision for the arts school and its students.

After her husband's death in 2013, Mrs Santha Bhaskar pushed on with their shared vision for the arts school and its students. PHOTO: ST FILE

The academy faced and overcame many challenges over the years. It has moved six times since 1958, most recently from Stamford Arts Centre to Bras Basah Complex in 2016.

"There were some sleepless nights spent worrying about the move out of Stamford Arts Centre, but the dancers and musicians of the academy came together and even pitched in to help renovate the new space," says Mrs Bhaskar.

For her contributions, Mrs Bhaskar was awarded the Cultural Medallion in 1990 and inducted into the Singapore Women's Hall of Fame last year.

In the academy, dance is a tradition that spans generations. Many of Mrs Bhaskar's students now have children of their own, who also attend classes at the academy. Her own daughter Meenakshy Bhaskar and granddaughter Malini Bhaskar have joined the arts fraternity and will feature in the 70th anniversary programme.

Butterfly Lovers, which was first restaged in December last year with choreography by Meenakshy Bhaskar, will take the stage again in June, while Malini Bhaskar will present a solo performance in April as part of the Prasaantham series, which highlights the work of young artistes.

Other events to look forward to include dance production Marabu 3, the final act of a trilogy that captures pertinent moments of the Singapore Indian community's history, and the academy's annual performing arts festival Bhaskareeyam.

Looking ahead, Mrs Bhaskar says the academy's future lies in journeying alongside its close-knit family of artistes and cultivating new talent.

She adds: "We will continue developing new generations of talented dancers, musicians and choreographers, bringing in elements like technology and adapting to new things in the artistic community.

"Our vision is to make sure students have a good foundation and strong roots in their art form, so they can branch out later on."

A special preview of Sangeetha Sapthathi. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

Highlights from Bhaskar's Arts Academy 70th Anniversary Programme

Sangeetha Sapthathi

Where: Stamford Arts Centre Black Box, 155 Waterloo Street
When: Feb 25 and 26, 8pm
Admission: $25 from this website

Prasaantham Series

Where: Drama Centre, National Library Building, 100 Victoria Street; and Stamford Arts Centre Black Box
When: April 23 (Malini Bhaskar), Aug 6 (Sarenniya Ramathas), Sept 10 (Usha Anbalagan)

Butterfly Lovers

Where: Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre, 1 Straits Boulevard
When: June 3 to 5


Where: Alliance Francaise, 1 Sarkies Road, and Drama Centre
When: June 30 to July 3, July 21 to 24

Marabu 3

Where: Esplanade Theatre Studio, 1 Esplanade Drive
When: November
For more information, go to this website

The academy's journey so far

1952: K.P. Bhaskar establishes Bhaskar's Academy of Dance at Ceylon Tamil Association (present-day location of the School of the Arts)

1955: Santha Bhaskar marries K.P. Bhaskar and moves to Singapore

1958: First staging of Butterfly Lovers by Santha Bhaskar at Victoria Theatre

1987: Bhaskar's Academy of Dance registers as a non-profit teaching institution, Nrityalaya Aesthetics Society

1990: Santha Bhaskar is awarded the Cultural Medallion

1993: Bhaskar's Arts Academy registers as a non-profit company with Nrityalaya Aesthetics Society as its teaching wing

2016: The academy moves from Stamford Arts Centre, its home since 1988, to Bras Basah Complex

2021: Second staging of Butterfly Lovers at Victoria Theatre, with choreography by Meenakshy Bhaskar

2022: The academy marks its 70th anniversary

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