Dancing on the City Hall steps


In 1956, Mrs Santha Bhaskar climbed the steps at City Hall with vigour as she prepared to perform for the City Day celebrations.

Today, the 80-year-old acclaimed classical Indian dance proponent requires some time and the help of the handrails to climb the same flight of stairs.

She has aged, but what remains constant is her enthusiasm in recounting her performance 63 years ago and how it contributed to her becoming a "Singapore artiste".

An immigrant from Kerala, Mrs Bhaskar, who learnt music and dance from the age of three, moved to Singapore in 1956 after her marriage to fellow dance instructor Mr K.P. Bhaskar, who had set up Bhaskar's Arts Academy in 1952.

At the 1956 City Day Celebrations, the Bhaskars performed together, along with their troupe.

It is one such pivotal occasion that is featured in the ongoing exhibition City Hall: If Walls Could Talk at the National Gallery Singapore.

In conjunction with the Singapore Bicentennial commemoration this year, the exhibition tells the lesser-known stories of important moments at City Hall.

For Mrs Bhaskar, who was then 17, the performances that day at the City Hall steps were grand and memorable.

She and her late husband, together with nine dancers from Bhaskar's Arts Academy, performed in a production titled Kailasam (Dwelling Place of Lord Shiva) before then Mayor Ong Eng Guan and his wife as well as a packed crowd at the Padang facing the City Hall steps.

"The particular production on Lord Shiva was choreographed for the sake of the City Day celebrations," recalled the Indian dance pioneer.

"The Padang was filled with people. I had never seen so many people in my life at one place. It was a 'wow' moment for me."

Mrs Bhaskar played the role of Parvati while Mr Bhaskar was Shiva. The other dancers, all female, performed as Parvati's friends.

They were possibly the first Indian dance troupe to introduce classical dance in a group setting to Singapore in the 1950s. The concept of a solo Indian dance wasn't very well-received back then, said Mrs Bhaskar, artistic director and chief choreographer at Bhaskar's Art Academy.

"When I came to Singapore, there was not much understanding of a solo Indian dance, although bharatanatyam is typically performed solo. People here wanted to watch group dances and we were not used to performing group dances," said Mrs Bhaskar.

"At that time, only Chinese and Malay dancers performed in a group. But it was expected that Indian dancers perform in a group too."

This encouraged Mrs Bhaskar to adapt to the circumstances and Bhaskar's Arts Academy introduced the first Indian group dance in Singapore.

"It was sort of a cultural exchange looking at how the Chinese and Malay dancers performed in a group and adapting it for an Indian group dance. We couldn't choreograph a solo Shiva dance at the City Hall steps," said Mrs Bhaskar.

"It may not have been appealing and wouldn't accommodate the large stage of the City Hall steps. More colours and vibrancy was needed in the performance, so that's how group Indian dances started in Singapore. Even in India at that time, there were no group dances. We started that here."

She learnt how to use the space of the big stage and thought about what formations the dancers should be in by observing how other cultural groups performed. "I learnt it through the process," she said.

There were three rehearsals over three months leading up to the performance that day.

Though Mrs Bhaskar was too young to fully understand the challenges, she recalled wondering: "The space was huge, there were so many people watching us, and we were performing on an erected stage on the City Hall steps. Would everybody be able to see us?"

But the 10-minute performance went on smoothly, receiving applause and cheers from the audience at the end.

After the celebrations that day, the Bhaskars walked with Mr Ong to the Victoria Theatre for a post-event dinner function. "The mayor complimented us for the performance," recalled Mrs Bhaskar.

Since then, she has performed on the City Hall steps several times, including for Aneka Ragam Ra'ayat (People's Cultural Concerts) and Merdeka Day.

An exhibition like City Hall: If Walls Could Talk will enable the public, especially the younger generation, to learn more about what happened at this very spot in colonial times, said Mrs Bhaskar.

Performing in multi-racial Singapore in her teens has made Mrs Bhaskar a "Singapore artiste'', as she describes herself.

She has infused her choreography with the rhythms and movements of Chinese and Malay dance in many performances.

Besides helming Bhaskar's Arts Academy, Mrs Bhaskar is also a teacher and resident choreographer at the National University of Singapore's Centre for the Arts.



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