Clothed in a bright, bejewelled-blue sari sporting purple flowers when we met her, Mrs Santha Bhaskar was a portrait of poise and elegance. Speaking with a vigour that belies her years, it’s hard to believe that the grand doyen of Indian classical dance is 79.
Perhaps, it’s music and dance that has kept her this youthful, physically and mentally.
“I want to hear music all the time,” she says.
A pioneer of Indian classical dance in Singapore, she cannot imagine a life without music or dancing. Since young, she has always relished a variety of sounds – from humming along to traditional folk music to grooving to the pop songs of Michael Jackson.
The dance form I specialise in, Bharatanatyam, is set to Carnatic music. The mathematical precision of the dance means that the accompanying music has very complicated rhythmic patterns.
The two main musical instruments, she explains, are cymbals and the mridangam, a percussion instrument made of wood and shaped like a barrel. While the cymbals provide the timing, the mridangam provides the fractional measures of the broad beats.
We scratched our heads, listening with a mix of wonderment and confusion.
“It all sounds very theoretical, but it is actually very earthy and grounded in nature,” she elucidates.
Hugely inspired by the multi-culturalism here, Mrs Bhaskar often infuses her choreographic works with the rhythms and movements of Chinese and Malay dance. She even staged her very own version of the classic Chinese legend, The Butterfly Lovers, in 1955. Retaining just the story line and traditional Chinese costumes, she set the performance to Indian music and dance moves, a bold and novel act for its time.
All senses are important when it comes to classical Indian dance. Ears to listen to the rhythm and music, eyes to see your environment, and touch for feeling your feet on the ground.
She shares that Indian dance is more than just an art, but also a science. With a total of 52 hand gestures, or mudras, she calls the dance a “gestural language”. Stories can be expressed purely through these gestures, which could refer to everything from objects to verbs. These mudras, she adds, are said to boost health, as they are used in meditation to increase oxygen intake into the body.
Although she has retired from the stage, Mrs Bhaskar remains firmly devoted to the art, as a teacher and choreographer. Her latest show, a restaging of a performance she conceptualised and choreographed in 1996, sees her collaborating with a Thai dance troupe to fuse Thai and Indian dance moves.
Dance is a way of connecting different people and cultures, and my students range from 4-year-olds to 60-year-olds.
In her free time, Mdm Bhaskar recharges by meditating, and is careful with what she eats. She believes that everyone is responsible for their own health. As such, she strongly encourages seniors to go for regular health screenings.
I am thankful that at this age, my senses are still sharp. But for some of my peers, whose senses have weakened, their lifestyles are affected.
Asked if she intends to retire anytime soon, Mdm Bhaskar laughs and says she has not thought about it, as she still has lots of plans and dreams she wants to accomplish.
For me, sharing is giving and I will continue to spread the joy of dance to more.
Our seniors lead more colourful lives than you think.
But some may need a little more help.
Let their silver years continue to shine by helping to reduce the out-of-pocket expenses of their seeing, hearing and eating aids.