By Hema Iyer Ramani
The first international conference on the Emergence, Development and Future Directions of Bharatanatyam in Singapore and Malaysia, is scheduled for 6 and 7 Dec 2014 at the Stephen Riady Centre, NUS, in Singapore. The two-day event, packed with keynote addresses, panel presentations, round table conferences, and lecdems, aims at balancing academic scholarship that the art requires with the creativity that the art involves. Jointly organised by Nrityalaya Aesthetics Society and N Dance & Yoga (A space for research and experimentation in dance and somatic practices), the conference promised to be a confluence of dance scholars, researchers, artists and cultural observers from across seven countries.
Bharatanatyam is believed to have entered Singapore in the 1950s, even before Singapore and Malaysia were carved out of Malaya. Says Nirmala Seshadri, Artistic Director of N Dance & Yoga, “The traversing of Bharatanatyam transnationally into the Singapore framework weaves notions of culture, memory, preservation, identity, reproduction and change. Over the years, it has become important to me to acknowledge and begin to understand the complexities that surround the practice of the form – issues of diaspora, cultural heritage, caste and class, the impact of politics and cultural policies, globalisation and the challenges of intra and intercultural dialogue with regard to Bharatanatyam practice in Singapore.” The idea of the conference therefore stemmed primarily from the need to understand what it meant to be a Bharatanatyam practitioner in the context of time and location, and “to create a platform for scholars, researchers, artists and observers to come together to dialogue and examine a dance form that has etched itself in the socio-cultural landscape of Singapore and Malaysia.”
Singapore-born Indian, Nirmala Seshadri was nudged into learning dance as a child by her parents. Like most children, she simply followed the discipline and routine of classes, without understanding the ‘whys’ and ‘wherefores’ of dance. But as she grew older she found she had many questions. Her search for answers prompted her to conduct a research on the dance scene in Singapore, even as she completed her Masters’ Degree in England. She felt that an international conference would provide a space for academic scholarship and artistic interaction, and help drive the research forward.
In 2012, a discussion with her first guru, Santha Bhaskar about a research proposal on the emergence and development of Bharatanatyam in Singapore led to greater planning, and together they drafted a proposal and presented it to the National Arts Council, which immediately came forward to fund it.
For the conference Santha Bhaskar, as joint organiser, provided invaluable information about the art form in terms of its local, regional and historical context. Prof. Urmimala Sarkar lent support as academic advisor and Nirmala took on the task of looking into every aspect in detail as curator and co-organiser. Regarding the process of inviting the panelists, they followed a simple method of first inviting scholars who had already worked in the areas relating to the conference. The next step was to call for abstracts from artists and academics in the dance field.
Says Nirmala, “It is an opportunity to establish an inter-generational dialogue within a tradition that has metamorphosed into a live ongoing practice, thereby revisiting the connection between tradition and transition. Apart from contributing to our own research on the topic, it is a means of generating research material that would be of value to artists and researchers in Singapore, and the international dance arena. Ultimately, I hope the conference will place Singapore and the region on the map of global dance scholarship.”
It is probably the first time that a conference on Bharatanatyam, of this magnitude, is being held in Singapore. Any project needs the unstinting support of sponsors, and in the Singapore chapter too, the National Arts Council and NUS (National University of Singapore’s Centre For the Arts) have come forward to translate this dream into a reality.