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Strains from S'pore

K. PRADEEP meets Santha Bhaskar, who has popularised South Indian dances in Singapore.

THE LAST time Santha Bhaskar came to Kochi for a dance performance was sometime in the late 1940's. She was then hardly 10 years old when she, along with her sister Radha, walked away with the gold medal from the great poet Vallathol. "This time when my students from the Centre for the Arts, National University of Singapore, performed at the Kerala Fine Arts Hall, my mind was wandering. I was trying hard to recollect where we had danced then. Though I remember vividly how my sister and me were brought here by my father and the even the dance based on Changampuzha's `Kavya Narthaki,' I simply could not picture the hall where we performed," said Santha, who now teaches dance at the Centre for the Arts and at her own institute, the Nrityalaya Aesthetics Society, Singapore.

"Those were days when girls who ventured into dance and music were looked down upon by a rather rigid society. It was only because of my father that we were able to pursue our interest in dance and music. Of course, I must confess, that I was pushed into this, quite unwillingly, by my father. I don't think I really understood or enjoyed what I used to do then. But now life has taken a full turn. Dance and music is not just my career, it is my deep-rooted passion."

Santha's mother Pankiamma, the sister of eminent artistes Aranmulla Ponnamma and Thankam Vasudevan Nair, never dabbled in the arts. "She was entrusted with the responsibility of looking after all the children in the family," Santha recalls. Another vague childhood memory was being taken to the Udaya Studios in Alappuzha, with her sister, to perform a dance sequence in a film. "I think the film was `Jeevitha Nauka.' ."

The best part of Santha's dance education was in Singapore. It is from here that she matured into a leading dancer and sensitive choreographer. "As a child the only dance I knew was Kathakali Nadanam, the one popularised by Guru Gopinath. My marriage to K.P.Bhaskar, an eminent dancer, changed everything. I was just 16 when the marriage took place. For two months we were at Chennai where I went through a crash course in bharatanatyam. Then immediately after I set foot in Singapore I was asked by my husband to teach at the Bhaskar's Academy of Dance, which he had set up there in 1952 itself. I was a bit nervous but still managed to teach the students a pooja dance. It was the beginning of a long, eventful journey."

The Academy, now known as the Nrityalaya Aesthetics Society, has grown from a training institute to a full-time dance company, the only one in Singapore. It has evolved into a hub for the promotion and propagation of Indian art and culture. The Chinese also show an interest in learning Indian dances, she said. "There were so many memorable shows that I performed with my husband. One of them titled `Butterfly Lovers,' was staged at the Victoria Theatre in Singapore for two weeks. There were people who saw this at least ten times. Also gratifying was the dance drama `Aum Muruga,' and the `Ramayana,' which was staged at the Nishagandhi auditorium in Thiruvananthapuram." For her contribution to dance Santha was conferred the prestigious national Cultural Medallion in 1990 and her husband with the PSG (Pengat Jasa Gemilang) title by the President of Singapore, the only theatre artiste to be awarded with this honour.

Santha's daughter Meenakshy is a dancer who, after her marriage, has set up her own dance school in the U.S, while her two sons have also settled down to plum jobs in Singapore. "Very often we think of coming back home to Kerala and settling down here. Those strong roots keep pulling us back here, but a few days here and I feela strange sense of loneliness. For after all Singapore has given us everything," Santha signs off.

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