Mama White Snake - Yuan Fen, Abhinaya and Tears of Joy

“Yuan Fen” (fateful coincidence) is a word that lingers from last night. Is that what brings actors and their audience into a performance space to experience together that special moment in time? 

Walking into the Drama Centre Theatre, I paused for a moment to take stock of the audience present. I’d say 95% Chinese? Perhaps an exaggeration but it seemed like that to me. I suddenly wondered if Wild Rice’s Mama White Snake was going to be in Chinese. But when the character Meng (played by Andrew Marko) walked onto stage and started speaking and asking some individual audience members where they had come from, I realised not. Phew!

“Singapore, Bishan, Eunos” … they responded. And in those first five minutes you knew that this was going to be a recalibration of the classic Chinese folk tale to resonate with the present time and setting. And just in case we ever forgot, Mama White would make sure to keep reminding us with her frequent misintonations of Chinese words :) This came across as an excellent device for inclusivity! 

It was a full house and mind you, Mama White Snake is not a one night affair. The musical, scripted by Alfian Sa'at, directed by Pam Oei and with music by Elaine Chan, opened on November 24th and runs until December 16th. It was evident to me that the audience was waiting in excited anticipation for the curtains to open – to receive and to participate with zest. I was filled with curiosity about how it would all unfold. How would I, a virgin Wild Rice audience member, respond to the work? Don’t forget ~ we do live in parallel universes here in Singapore. The ethnic composition of the audience emphasised that in a way. It is not too different at an Indian show. Also, I have had a terrible fear of snakes since childhood. It’s been so extreme that I cannot even see photos of them. Only in the last few years, have I been able to say the word SNAKE as opposed Sna … Cob… Py … and so on. And in the Chinese sense, I am an Sna :(

From the word GO and for the full two and a half hours thereafter, Mama White Snake was nothing short of absorbing. There was ONE section, a group movement sequence, that seemed to drag just a little in relation to the rest of the show. But just as I thought ‘Hmmm’ … they moved on :)

Such an enchanting intergenerational cast and absolutely wonderful to watch Glen Goei as Madam White and Ivan Heng as Auntie Green. It was also heartening to see that the cross-dressing went both ways with Siti Khalijah’s superb portrayal of Fahai, the martial arts sifu. The personalities of Fahai and his wife and poison expert Madam Ngiao (played by Zelda Tatiana Ng) seemed to decentre stereotypical perceptions of heteronormativity. And then you have the young Meng and Mimi (Cheryl Tan – what a voice!) trying to make sense of it all as they chart out their own lives. Because there is the ‘right’ thing to do and we need to aspire for that higher road to reach Emei Mountain right?

Oh the  congruity and solidarity between Madam White and Auntie Green ~ Ssssisters do get along, you know, and how! And how they humorously yet gracefully coax and cajole us into letting go to celebrate difference, embrace inclusivity and to focus on LOVE above everything else.  So many lessons to draw from the tale … I could watch it again and again because I suspect that each time I would see and receive something new.

The script, song lyrics, music, costumes, sets, lighting and multimedia came together beautifully. The artists had obviously practised for months, even receiving training in the Chinese martial art form  ~ wushu. Ivan and Glen performed the wushu segments like total pros to a very appreciative audience. And such a touch of humour plus brilliance to have Ivan suddenly appear in that green and gold tracksuit!!

Playwright Alfian Sa’at sees the work as “a collision between two things … which then splinter off into multiplicities, revealing shimmering, unexamined facets of each culture.” I want to say that for me, Mama White and Auntie Green were captivating in their long and flowing white and green outfits and I was mesmerised by their acting, no … their abhinaya!  As a bharatanatyam dancer who has always felt partial to the expressive aspect of my form , to me this evening was also a celebration of ABHINAYA at its quintessential best. All the aspects of abhinaya came together with such perfection – angika (body, eyes, etc), vachika (speech and song), aharya (costumes, sets, props, lights), sattvika (emotional expression evoking empathy in the audience). A range of rasas (emotions) were portrayed by the actors.

I laughed, I clapped, I shouted out in response to actors’ questions. I was right there in the moment. And when it ended, I sobbed uncontrollably in Mama White’s arms. They were not tears of sadness but intense joy or “ananda bhashpam” as they call it in Sanskrit. And in a strange but reassuring way, I felt very healed by what I had witnessed.

 Madam White & Auntie Green (image from the Mama White Snake Programme Book)   

Madam White & Auntie Green (image from the Mama White Snake Programme Book)

 

NO SIR, NO SIR

When this meme came up this morning on my newsfeed (posted by a renowned classical Indian dancer), I decided to add it to the short piece I had written a couple of days ago ... 

The first time I heard the use of the prefix “Sir” was when I was taught Singapore history as a child in primary school. Sir Stamford Raffles – the founder of Singapore. Oh, the imposing statue.

Before that I had sung “yes Sir, yes Sir, three bags full.” In kindergarten.

“Sir” apparently found his way into the Asian context through our colonial masters. Our men subsequently assumed the title.

I was spared having to use the honorific term through my years of schooling as my teachers were all female. Mrs. Goh, Miss Ng, Madam Lim .... and I’m just being a bit random here.

In the Indian arts circle of Singapore, I would hear it used as a suffix to address male teachers and musicians. There would be a Manivannan Sir, for example, or a Muthukrishnan Sir (random names again that I’m pulling out of my hat). I have a feeling this culture seeped in from Chennai or Madras as it was fondly known then, because I seem to remember it being more commonly used by people who had strong links with that city. Later, when I based myself there, I found that the male secretaries of the performing arts organisations (or Sabhas, as they are known) were addressed that way too.

Dancers constantly fell at the feet of the various Sirs. 

I found it odd then but would somehow manage to address them that way, just to conform. Sir Manivannan or Sir Muthukrishnan would sound even odder, I suppose. Now I simply cannot bring it to my lips. It would be impossible to even consider bestowing such titles on men while reducing women of similar or higher stature to the suffix - “Aunty” or “Akka” (elder sister). Why not Jayashree Dame or Revathy Dame ?!

I am aware that this sexism is not confined to Indian culture alone. Jennifer Coates, emeritus professor of English language and linguistics in the UK (and obviously a woman after my own heart) has been critical of the use of the title in the education sphere: "Sir is a knight. There weren't women knights, but 'Miss' is ridiculous: it doesn't match 'Sir' at all. It's just one of the names you can call an unmarried woman" … "It's a depressing example of how women are given low status and men, no matter how young or new in the job they are, are given high status." [The Telegraph, 4th Feb 2014]

In India, I would receive invitation cards and pamphlets that would address respected male dance teachers as Guru followed by the person’s name, but would prefix the female teacher’s name with “Guru Smt”,  “Smt” being short for “Srimathi” (or Mrs.).

A few years ago, a reporter from a Tamil newspaper called me up to ask me if I was married or not. When I asked him why he was posing this irrelevant question for an article about my involvement in organising a work-related event, he explained the norm of planting a prefix of either “Kumari” (Miss) or “Srimathi”. The prefix for males - “Sri” (Mr.), on the other hand, allows them to roam scot free. “Mrs.” is also a problematic title so thank goodness for “Ms.” It’s time to find the equivalent for “Ms.” … or how about progressing into gender neutrality?

Coming back to “Sir”, I am relieved to have moved away from having to use that term, unless a man has actually been knighted! But I was struck by the perpetuated use of this suffix when I came across a host of birthday messages on my facebook news feed recently, from dance students to a male teacher. “HAPPY BIRTHDAY, SIR!”

Young female dancers tell me they are comfortable with "Sir" as it is "very ingrained".  

Some things just will not change. Not anytime soon. 

 

 

"Practising Antarika is a gift that keeps giving!"

I am delighted to share this heartwarming reflection on ANTARIKA by a conscientious and devoted practitioner - Meng Hwi. ANTARIKA is a healing movement system that I have enjoyed developing over the years.  (In case you'd like a bit of background, do read this piece - And Now, ANTARIKA...)

Meng Hwi writes: 

"I first got to know Antarika at the end of 2016 when my teenage son was recommended to attend a class with Nirmala to learn about breathing and movement for stress management.  At that time, I was actively looking for an alternative to gym workouts which had begun to fail me. I didn’t know what I needed then but just felt that the usual gym or aerobics classes weren’t for me anymore.

I have always been an active person, I love walking and enjoy workouts in the gym.  All was well until I enter my 40s.  Suddenly, I no longer enjoy them as much, my exercise tolerance dropped drastically, I had slight depression, persistent anxiety and stress issues from work and family. My body condition had seemed to deteriorate at a fast rate with mysterious aches and pains appearing at my joints and muscles.  I was miserable. I put on weight, felt unfit, unmotivated and anxious most of the time.  It was horrible.  I felt out of control and utterly lost.  My mind is often unfocused and my thoughts are often scattered.  My work has suffered too as I tended to feel worn out and tired mentally by mid-day and I couldn’t accomplish as much as before.

After that first Antarika session along with my son, I knew I had found a way to change my life for the better from that point onwards.  It was a revelation for me.  I started attending Antarika sessions regularly and Nirmala taught me useful moves and techniques which blend both purposeful breathing, gentle body movements and stretches for optimal mind and body health.  It is a very healing experience for a body and mind battered by years of stress of our everyday life!

The techniques and movements taught by Nirmala have helped me immensely in training my mind to be calmer, more focused and have more self-control.  The mindful breathing soothes my stressed out mind and calms my bouts of anxiety while I have also learnt breathing exercises which give me instant energy or mood boost during a blah-day.   

The dance-inspired movements have opened my eyes and mind to how my body could possibly have a will and existence which I have taken for granted for so long.  Nirmala has taught me gentle but effective exercises to strengthen my core, legs and shoulders without causing any discomfort or stress to the body.  This is in such contrast to the usual gym workouts with trainers! For once, I could complete an hour’s strengthening exercises without feeling any strain to my joints and yet could work up a sweat! With new confidence in my body, I have returned to the gym 3 months after starting Antarika and started working out again without issues.  It is also a surprise to me that I now have better focus and control, greater awareness of my body, I would actually work out better at the gym than before with less aches and pains.

After each Antarika session, I would go home and practise what I have learnt.  I am keen to know if I can fit all that I learnt into my daily life so I would practise certain mind exercises while on the train to work, I would practise the breathing exercises in my office whenever I need a break and would try to work in a few sets of the body stretches or strengthening exercises during lunch breaks.  I can’t always practise in 1 day ALL of what Nirmala has taught me because life gets in the way, but Nirmala encourages me to take what I can use and just do that for that day.  In this way, Antarika becomes extremely useful and relevant to me as it becomes a habit in my daily life and does not become another source of stress. 

I also apply the mindful breathing techniques whenever I encounter unexpected stressful or anxious situations.  If I have the presence of mind to start my mindful breathing at the onset of the stress or anxiety, I can always manage to calm it down before awful feelings consume me. Even if I only remember to breathe mindfully in the midst of a full-blown episode, it is still very helpful in shortening the bad feeling and giving me back control.

In order to have THAT presence of mind to breathe mindfully, I realised I need to practise Antarika regularly and faithfully to build up the discipline and resilience of the mind.  With regular practice, mindful breathing becomes second nature, a lifeline I hold on to and rely upon whenever the need arises.  Breaths are nourishing to the body and soul, as Nirmala would say and I couldn’t agree more.  Practising is never a chore.  In the course of practising, I would already have benefitted from the moments of calm and clear-mindedness that Antarika has given me.

Practising Antarika is a gift that keeps giving!

I have still so much to learn on my quest for mental and physical wellbeing as I continue on life’s journey, and I am thankful that I found Antarika and got to know Nirmala.  She is a very creative and inspiring teacher, I have benefitted immensely from all that I have learnt from her and hope to continue to strengthen my mind and improve my health under her kind and nurturing guidance." 

--------------------------------

 Journeying through ANTARIKA ~ An Image courtesy Meng Hwi 

Journeying through ANTARIKA ~ An Image courtesy Meng Hwi 

Let's Talk About Ageism and Dance

At an event last week, about 30 adults came together to present a community dance. Some of them were women and men in their 70s and had never danced in public before. The excitement on their faces, the joy in the gait as they took their positions and the sheer bliss they exuded while moving to music, lyrics and rhythm .... as a viewer and a dance professional, I was inspired. 

After the presentation, an elderly participant's eyes filled with tears as she said, "I will never forget this day. I did something that I never imagined I would be able to do." Such is the magic of Dance.

And yet, some members of the crowd that evening questioned the need for these adults to have danced. The previous evening, a group of mature women had presented a joyous folk dance.  "Why couldn't children have performed instead?" was the question asked. As I ask, "Why NOT the adults?", I realise that ageism* continues to exist unabashedly especially in Dance. Noone asked this question when a group of adults sat down to sing! 

(*Ageism - prejudice or discrimination on the grounds of a person's age)

While thinking about ageism and the defying of stereotypical norms, Eileen Kramer just has to come to mind. In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, she has said, "Dancing; it psychologically strengthens me. I like looking at myself in the mirror. I like people to tell me that what I did was beautiful." Interestingly, Eileen has lived in various countries, including India,... "I lived in India for quite a long time, I danced there...and it gave me a purpose. I wasn't just wandering about looking at things. I absorbed a lot in India."

It is not just the fact that Eileen Kramer is 100 years old. I look at her dance photographs and I watch her videos, and I am convinced that there is a special depth and magic to her portrayals ... it is something that a younger body would find difficult to convey. 

 

 100-year old dancer Eileen Kramer   Image: www.womenrockproject.com

100-year old dancer Eileen Kramer 

Image: www.womenrockproject.com

 Eileen Kramer in the studio .... yes, she still performs and she is loved for it!  Image:abc.net.au   

Eileen Kramer in the studio .... yes, she still performs and she is loved for it!

Image:abc.net.au

 

 

The Australian Ageing Agenda states: "In 2015 we treasure our children and venerate beauty but have scant regard for elders. Research into negative stereotypes has shown that society’s poor opinions about ageing has negative impacts, not just on elders but on society itself."

In this regard, a story such as Eileen’s is truly inspiring as she herself has discovered tremendous freedom in ageing and has said, “I no longer have to pretend I am 35." Eileen's advice for positive ageing is this: “Try to do creative work, because if you’re dealing with creative work you’re doing something new all the time.”

Thank God for incredible women like Eileen! 

A decade ago, I watched an intimate and touching performing by an Australian dancer in her late 50s. THE 18-minute piece, part of the Singapore Arts Festival, was the shortest performance I had ever attended but it left me thinking. Ultimately age is not a barrier to being on stage. In a work such as that one she had presented, it is concept, experience in life and subtle portrayal that overrides all else; I came away convinced that a younger dancer would not have been able to depict with such sensitivity what I had just witnessed. 

Carlo Saura's documentary films show that bulky elderly women often perform Flamenco dance very gracefully. On my visits to Bali I have watched 75-year old women dancing in temples. Even in Kabuki and Noh older women perform for it is believed that with age they mature and their technique improves. In the west, Pina Bausch, Susanne Linke and Martha Graham are examples of solo women dancers who danced beyond the externally imposed boundaries of age. In India we had Balasaraswati, the mature legendary dancer who exuded sensuality on stage (through a dance form that was later stripped of its sensuality in the name of acceptability).

Does my sexiness upset you?

Does it come as a surprise

That I dance like I've got diamonds

At the meeting of my thighs?

"Maya Angelou knew that dancing is a political act when it is done by a body that is expected to be joyless and passive," says my dancer-sister Shobha who simply loves to dance - "so much that even if my feet swell and my calves cramp I don't care. The way I dance has changed from age to age. From pretend-ballet as a child, through Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi for much of my younger adult life, to bopping to the radio as I cleaned house and twirling around the room with my children in my arms...there has never been a time when I didn't want to dance." 

 Having recently taken up flamenco dance which she finds exhilarating, she asks, "You think it's easy to keep dancing when so many parts ache and so many tasks clamour for an older woman's time and energy? But it would be much harder not to dance. Because if I didn't dance, my heart would ache. And that would be far worse.  So never tell me that a woman my age shouldn't be dancing. Instead, spit out your internalised misogyny like used up chewing gum and come dance with me." 

Why must adults dance? 

Because they just MUST.

Oh, the joy, self-expression and self-discovery that are associated with the act of Dancing - they are ageless and timeless. Also, research reveals that Dance has tremendous benefits for the elderly not just in terms of physical health  but also in strengthening neural connections and thus improving memory. 

Dementia, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's .... 

Better get up NOW. Just Dance! 

 

Neila Mami and the art of letting go

  

 Mrs. Neila Sathyalingam (1938 - 2017)  Image: www.nac.gov.sg

Mrs. Neila Sathyalingam (1938 - 2017)

Image: www.nac.gov.sg

 

The dance community in Singapore had only one Mami and that was Neila Mami, Mrs. Neila Sathyalingam. Yesterday, all of us here felt shock and sadness on hearing of the passing of this grand doyenne of dance in Singapore. Indeed her fame and reputation extended beyond the frontiers of Singapore. 

It was in the 70s, when I was a young student of Bharatanatyam in Singapore, that I began to hear of Neila Mami. Some of our family friends sent their daughters to learn dance from her. I gradually became aware of the fact that she had arrived in Singapore with her husband who was a talented and respected vocalist. She taught the Kalakshetra style of Bharatanatyam, and she was also actively involved with the People's Association here, working closely with Malay and Chinese choreographers. I didn't have a chance to get to know her beyond that at the time - I was barely 12 or 13 at the time that Apsaras Arts was started. Also within the Indian silo in Singapore, there were institutional silos. We didn't have social media then to transcend those boundaries very easily. But what is vivid in my mind is how struck I was when she called me "darling" when I first met her. That really touched me as I'm sure it must have many others. 

At home, Mami was awarded the prestigious Cultural Medallion in 1989, which is the highest honour awarded in the field of arts. In Chennai she received the Viswa Kala Bharathi from Bharat Kalachar, a Chennai-based organisation that is focussed on nurturing the performing arts. She was the founder director of Apsaras Arts, a leading Indian performing arts company here.

Ambassador K. Kesavapany put it perfectly - "Mrs Sathyalingam brought up a whole generation of young artists who are now touring the world to showcase Singapore's Indian classical dance, especially Bharatanatyam." [Straits Times]

A few years ago, Mami handed over the reins of her company to Aravinth Kumarasamy who is now moving Apsaras Arts forward. At the time of her passing, the troupe was on a performance tour in Sri Lanka. 

I may not have learnt Bharatanatyam from Mami, but this I learnt from her - that when the time is right, it is important to choose what is most meaningful and closest to one's heart, and to be able to let go of everything else. She showed me that in an instant, she was willing to abandon material rewards for spiritual satisfaction.

On April 29th last year (International Dance Day), she received her first embrace from my spiritual Guru Sri Mata Amritanandamayi (AMMA). When I called to invite her to be blessed by AMMA and recognised for her contribution to the field of Dance, she accepted joyfully. At the 11th hour and due to unforeseen circumstances, the event was shifted to the next day.  Mami was scheduled to travel to KL that day to receive an arts award but told me she would call me back as her heart was longing to be with AMMA. The next day she called and confirmed "yes". She had cancelled her KL trip. After the special ceremony, I went to where she was sitting. She was wiping her tears. Tears of joy they were, rolling down her cheeks. She told me she had had a beautiful Darshan, was happy and very very satisfied. 

Rest in peace, Neila Mami ... thank you for your immense contribution to the field of Dance on our sunny island. Your presence has enriched us and your memory will continue to inspire generations of dancers. 

As for me, I will always remember the intense bliss, gratitude and satisfaction that you radiated that evening. Aum Namah Shivaya. 

 

SKIN TIGHT – Of Docile Bodies, Dancing Bodies and the Quest for Freedom

 "SKIN TIGHT" by Ah Hock & Peng Yu, Photo: AARON KHEK

"SKIN TIGHT" by Ah Hock & Peng Yu, Photo: AARON KHEK

Who am I? Who are you? Who are we?

Is there a difference, or is there not?

I want that. I want it. What? 

Success.

The race. The chase. The impossibility. I want it. All.

Wait.

Again, Again, the same old routine.

Yes, hello? Yes. Keyboard. Type. Type. Type.

Aaaahhhh

 Slow down. Breathe. Relax. Stand on my head for a change.

After hours.

I sing, I dance, I touch, I move. I feel. I emote. I perform.

Song. Sex. Gender.

Me. Woman. You. Man.

He? Man? Woman?                    

 Now man. Longing for touch. For love. For sex. 

 Become it. What? Woman?

 Now woman. Skirt, Blouse, Hair.

I walk here, I walk there, hair to flip. Skirt to adjust.

Now two. Not one. But who?

 Of course the fake, not the real.

Real? What is that?

Who knows. It’s fluid. Anything. And everything.

 Nothing perhaps?

 ...(random jottings after coming home from the show)

 

The morning after and I am still thinking of “Skin Tight”, a performance piece by Ah Hock & Peng Yu staged as part of the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival. This marked the emphatic return of the AHPY dance company after a hiatus of 8 years or so. The piece was created in collaboration with performance maker Andrew Ng, with excellent sound design by Zai Tang. 

The work continues to speak to me in so many ways, which to me is the hallmark of a meaningful work. 

The three dancers – Aaron Khek and Ix Wong (who ARE Ah Hock & Peng Yu), and Joey Chua explore the concept of anonymity using costume as a powerful metaphor. In Ix's brilliant costume design, the word “suit” takes on various meanings. In the beginning, all three performers are dressed in typical black corporate suits, white shirt, tie – basically, the works. And yet even as Aaron faces the audience managing to look as stereotypical as they get, Ix has his back to us, the circular movements of his arms revealing a sense of what lies beneath that stoic exterior. He comes across as the alter ego, conveying a thin line between the private and public. Aaron and Ix are partners both in art and life.

Two men and one woman standing, perhaps on a train? They are in close proximity, their bodies rocking forwards and back.  There is a synchrony brought about by the rhythm of the moving train, and a potential intimacy that becomes palpable to the viewer. But they seem to live in their heads, unable and unwilling to connect. When they start to walk in circles, the competition between them and yet the futility of it all is evident. It is a convincing spoof on how seriously we take the rat race and ourselves, rushing to offices each day to tap, tap on keyboards, ring ring talk on phones. Automatons that flock to yoga classes to breathe and to karaoke lounges for social interaction, sexual release and to just sing. Aaron stands, microphone in hand and singing a famous Cantonese ballad that I later find goes along the lines of - The long road ahead of us will be scenic…Let's take time to enjoy each moment.

An endearing moment that has us tapping our feet to the rhythm and laughing at the same time. We see a childlike quality in a grown man, excited to have a chance to hold the mic and perform!

 Ah ha ... I want to fly towards the heavens

Ah ha ... so free like the birds

Ah ha ... where there is hope

Ah ha... towards the warmth of the sun

Costume is used ingeniously as a device for pushing the boundaries of identity. A sensual portrayal by Aaron connecting with his inner feminine is followed by a change of costume, both Aaron and Joey walking onto stage wearing female business attire, their faces covered with flesh coloured zentai suits. It is a class act of gender transformation by Aaron in his tight black skirt and wig– the flicking of that hair, the tilt of the head, the shifting of weight onto one hip, hand on hip and fingers moving delicately.

In another scene, Joey steps into a white bridal dress, walking slowly across the stage. Head tilted downwards, reluctance is subtly and touchingly conveyed in her posture and gait as she fades away into the darkness. She seems to symbolise a liminality, a young woman on the verge of entering an abyss - the loss of identity for a woman when it comes to marriage. In another scene, she depicts a diametrically opposite stance, of a woman (in flesh coloured zentai suit) wearing red high heel shoes holding both men on two red leashes. They, like dogs on the ground. She in full control.

My mind is left with thoughts and images. An exquisite image is one that has Ix and Aaron perform intimacy at the centre of the stage. Two bodies completely comfortable with each other. They intertwine sensuously, each appearing ready to somehow dissolve into the other, slipping in and out of the other’s sleeve. When one shirt is buttoned to the other forming a veil of sorts, it creates a boundary to offer the two male bodies a moment of relief from our gaze. I must say that the male dancers transition superbly from the automatous to emotive. Intimacy is an underlying strand in the work - the lack of it, a surfeit of it, you know it's there.  

The work speaks to me about gender, identity, isolation, notions of beauty and perfection. One scene however seemed to lack clarity and had my mind wandering.  Here the dancers crawl around the stage in what looks like muddied body suits. At this point, they sort of lose the plot.

Corporate suits shift to zentai suits that afford anonymity, while at the same time introducing a vulnerability. For yes, the faces are covered, but the shape and “imperfections” of the body become more accentuated. Perhaps we become freer to expose our inadequacies when our identities are masked? I have never worn a zentai suit and so I don’t know. But certainly, the short film by Russell Morton that shows the dancers walking around various parts of Singapore,  in colourful zentai suits, hugging each other on a train, dancing together in the heart of Raffles Place, lying on the grass – it all seems to suggest a wonderful sense of abandon. Camouflaging the face and body did appear to free them from the “constructs of gender, age, race and beauty”. Interesting to find three Chinese people in Singapore ready to explore the masking of their racial identity!

In the final scene, we hear the chanting of the Buddhist Heart Sutra that conveys the concepts of interconnectedness, oneness, the emptying out and freeing of the mind. Live in your heart, not in your head is the message I hear. By now the dancers have peeled off the superficial layers of skin, figuratively. The men wear nothing but skin-coloured loincloths. As a woman, Joey's shedding of garments is more symbolic. The peripheral layers gradually cease to matter, they seem to say. However to my eye and in my own experience, the female body is much more shackled by those societal constructs. Can we ever really be as free?

Today I am thinking of the three bodies on stage last night and about the importance of imperfection and vulnerability in a work such as this. Joey is lithe and beautiful to watch and has the conventionally perfect body. Ix too, is quite flawless in technique and physical form. But somehow, Aaron's radical body and its expressions reveal to me that so-called imperfect bodies are where real possibilities of resistance lie against capitalist consumption. Still, it is the presence of all three bodies on stage that contributes to this and other revelations. 

"Skin Tight" is an artistic conversation that underscores the notion of the 'docile body' that is absorbed by the dancing body to become a site for challenging restrictive social constructs and triggering the possibility for change. I know that this probably means releasing Dance/Movement from that quest for technical prowess and sublime beauty, to focus on its potential as a powerful tool for non-verbal communication. "Skin Tight" shows that it is through the body that moves silently in space that some issues can be addressed most effectively.

Nirmala

P.S: I watched this production with my sister Shobha Avadhani ... the conversation between us continues ... 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And Now, ANTARIKA...

After decades of bharatanatyam, yoga, meditation, research, writing, teaching and more recently my practice of the Japanese dance theatre form butoh, 2016 saw it all coming together as Antarika - a healing movement system.

Blending breath work, mindfulness and restorative movement practices, Antarika is a mind-body experience for stress relief, wellness and creativity. It recognises and nurtures the human being's natural presence and relationship between breathing and moving. 

 

 "The Vanishing Point?" (2015), Choreography: Nirmala Seshadri for Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts,  Image: Jeff Low

"The Vanishing Point?" (2015), Choreography: Nirmala Seshadri for Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts,  Image: Jeff Low

I have to say the Antarika seed was planted at least 12 years ago years ago when I began to learn the Krishnamacharya style of yoga in Chennai. It was fascinating for me, as a dancer, to begin moving with a total focus on breathing.

Dance and yoga began to converge and my practice, choreography, teaching and performance shifted dramatically.

 Nirmala Seshadri in "I Carry Your Heart" (2015), Image: Jeff Low 

Nirmala Seshadri in "I Carry Your Heart" (2015), Image: Jeff Low 

 

A few years later I was invited to teach the Asian Mind-Body Practices module at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts here in Singapore, and I realised that a new movement system was emerging. My postgraduate studies in 2012 included fieldwork in butoh, a form that I drew into my movement practice, research and teaching. 

In March this year, I was invited to conduct a workshop for groups of women in Phuket. It was time to encapsulate the movement system and lifestyle experience in a name. Antarika in Sanskrit means "inward" or "in between". Tari is "dance" in Malay, a language that is also very close to my heart. By August, Antarika received her trademark certification. 

Over the months, people from diverse ages and backgrounds have been experiencing Antarika. "Confidence", "Respect", "Acceptance", 'Calm", "Present", "Awakening", 'Alignment", "Harmony"... are some of the words they use to describe their experience. As for myself, I feel "blessed". It's one thing to have danced for many years, but something else to help nudge others into conscious breathing and moving in a spirit of self-acceptance and ahimsa (non-violence) to the body. 

 

 Image: Phuketindex.com

Image: Phuketindex.com

It has been a long journey. Dance forms such as bharatanatyam are not particularly kind to the physical body, especially in the way they are sometimes imparted. But... I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to learn, perform and teach it. It will always be a base and part of my bodily memory.

Today, some of my clients are mature women who have been trained in forms such as bharatanatyam since childhood. It moves me to tears to work with them and watch them rediscover their dance, on their own terms. And there are others who begin by telling me they have “two left feet”. Gradually they begin to discover and embrace their unique movement. Totally absorbed in the moment, they dance ... as if softly, each foot is “kissing the earth" (Thich Nhat Hanh). So powerful. 

When I count my blessings, I think of my spiritual Masters and of the People who have stood by me and cheered me on. It took years and what a non-linear trajectory. But hey, we did it! After years of boredom and suffering in the Science stream (partly self-inflicted), I embarked on my undergraduate studies in Sociology which I enjoyed immensely. Artistic projects got me collaborating with some amazing people, and on issues very close to my heart. (My recent 2016 collaboration – “Supermoon”, was with Lalu Lalang Lab, a new multidisciplinary performing arts collective to which I belong). A stimulating postgraduate programme in dance anthropology opened the doors to new perspectives and experiences. A daughter, Priyanka, who is pursuing her own exciting dreams. 

And Now, Antarika...

 

 A dedicated Antarika practitioner 

A dedicated Antarika practitioner 

I firmly believe that each individual is a very unique creation and has a special contribution to make to society. Each of us needs support to realise and recognise this.

The world would be a very different place if we could focus on one another's inclinations and strengths, and help to kindle that unique spark that exists in every individual. This would go a long way in helping each of us value our presence in this (potentially) beautiful world.

 Antarika practitioner inhaling Nature

Antarika practitioner inhaling Nature

Talking about the world, how can one enter 2017 without being armed with hope? The words of Desmond Tutu come to mind, “Hope is being able to see that there is light, despite all of the darkness”.

I realise Antarika has her little part to play. She is gradually revealing to her practitioners that she has the potential to unlock the inner door to delve deep within, to heal, calm & free the body and mind. And to help discover ways to communicate one’s rich inner world with the external world. Embedded in Antarika, is a sense of life purpose, coupled with gratitude and this life-affirming thing called hope.

Wishing for us all a 2017 that's filled with abundant hope, strength, peace and goodwill. 

Nirmala

www.antarikahealing.com

 

Farewell my Sakhis

Oh Vardah, thousands of trees! Some have been standing tall and proud for over two generations, now destroyed by you in one fell swoop. I know it is not entirely your fault and I am reading about the various factors that might have contributed to so much destruction. But still... couldn't you have blown just a little gentler? 

Listen, my mind and heart go back to the early 90s when I would drive from Nungambakkam to Besant Nagar in the evenings just to enjoy the magnificent trees lining the wide streets, Pandit Jasraj's Desh raga playing in my car....Chitvan Roke Ho Na Rahi (Don't stop/shy away from glancing)Traffic was not horrendous in those days; in fact, it was a pleasure driving from this end of the city to that. 

And then in 1999, entered Coconut Tree, my confidante. Virtually every evening, sitting on the terrace of my home in Kotturpuram, I would communicate with her. She knew all my secrets and agonies. And when I listened carefully enough, she would churn out answers and possibilities. Oh those moonlit nights, gentle breeze, silent tears on my face that only Nature could and would care to wipe away. By the end of the evening,  I would bid Her good night and shut the white door, hint of a smile in my heart. Oh wait, one glance at Gulmohar in the background. Adorned with her bright orange flowers, she was a constant eavesdropper. But how to reject the Beauty? 

The landscape of Madras-Chennnai was dotted with these Gulmohars that had it in them to bring cheer to any gloomy day. They would take me back to my childhood days in Singapore... me as a young girl of 10 sitting at my desk struggling to finish my homework. Flame of the Forest as I knew her then, always providing some respite and joy each time I looked up and out of the window... which was often. And then being driven to school along Bukit TImah Road, I would sit back in the car and watch each distinct tree go by. To my eyes they all looked like dancers in various poses. They seemed to know they were breathtakingly beautiful and seductive. 

Back to Madras-Chennai... I would always marvel at how the residents of the city seemed to cherish these magical beings. How often have I driven on a road to find a huge old tree bang smack in the centre. That's just the way it was. Chop down a tree to build a road? No way! What about the houses whose compound walls were built with large holes to accommodate the trunk of an existing tree, that extends out onto the pavement, it's branches providing shade to the inhabitants as well as to passers by on the street outside? Yes, they made it inconvenient to walk on the pavement but so what? There seemed to be not just tolerance but respect for these trees. 

Can I ever forget Ms. Ashoka, my sakhi (woman friend) in Alwarpet? She watched me, quietly comforting me through some of my worst days. It is through communion with her, that Radha Now was conceived - a production that addressed the plight of the mythological Radha through the lens of a contemporary woman, with the Tree as confidante and silent witness. It took close to two years from conception to performing the work. In presenting it, I chose a space with a Tree that would stand there watching the story unfold. In the final scene, I left everything and everyone to dance against her, hold her tight and lie under her shade. 

The peace, solace and blissful oblivion. 

Here I am now, back in Singapore and lying on my bed with my laptop. Outside my bedroom window stands a huge  old tree, her branches and leaves seem to be reaching out to me. I know she knows each and every detail of my present life. I have a feeling she also knows that my heart is broken today and crying softly for the city I so love and for her trees that now lie horizontal across the streets, waiting to be chopped and cleared.  

Chitvan Roke Ho Na Rahi? But I have to stop. For what is there left to glance at? 

Nirmala

 

 When great trees fall, rocks on distant hills shudder, lions hunker down in tall grasses, and even elephants lumber after safety.

When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants
lumber after safety.

 When great trees fall in forests, small things recoil into silence, their senses eroded beyond fear.   

When great trees fall
in forests,
small things recoil into silence,
their senses
eroded beyond fear.

 

 When great souls die, the air around us becomes light, rare, sterile. We breathe, briefly, Our eyes, briefly, see with a hurtful clarity. Our memory, suddenly sharpened, examines, gnaws on kind words unsaid, promised walks never taken.   

When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly,
Our eyes, briefly,
see with
a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
examines,
gnaws on kind words
unsaid,
promised walks never taken.

 

 Great souls die and our reality, bound to them, takes leave of us. Our souls, dependent upon their nurture, now shrink, wizened. Our minds, formed and informed by their radiance, fall away. We are not so much maddened as reduced to the unutterable ignorance of dark, cold caves.   

Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.
Our souls,
dependent upon their
nurture,
now shrink, wizened.
Our minds, formed
and informed by their
radiance,
fall away.
We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance
of dark, cold
caves.

 

And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.

(from Maya Angelou’s Celebrations: Rituals of Peace And Prayer.)

Photographs courtesy V.V. Ramani

Revisting Radha NOW

Because sometimes you have to look back, to go forward

I first started conceiving Radha Now in 2004. It was a difficult work for me on many levels because it demanded an open and honest acknowledgement and expression of the fact that the patriarchal systems both in my life and dance were no longer working for me. In fact, they were starting to debilitate me. I must say that previous works - Outcaste Eternal, She, Then & Now... laid the ground. But in Radha Now there was no female character to hide behind. There was only Radha (Then) and Radha (Now) - Me. However I believed then and still believe that Bharatanatyam is an ideal site for feminist intervention allowing for challenging patriarchy not just through the dance but through change from within the dance form as well. And it is this belief that helps me keep my head above the raging waters! 

Radha Now, involving a cast of ten male dancers and one woman, was first performed at Dublin, a discotheque at the ITC Park Sheraton, Chennai. I am always appreciative of the male Kalakshetra-trained dancers who committed themselves so wholeheartedly to this feminist critique of status quo. What drew them to the work? What kept them so deeply engaged with it? Someday I want to sit them down and ask them. Also, despite the many performances platforms (sabhas) in the cultural capital, it was a hotel chain that stepped forward to support the work. The space was ideally suited to the concept with three levels to represent the personal, the public and their convergence. There was also an outdoor space in which the woman finally communed with Nature - a Tree, the Sky, Water. Top brass of the status quo army quite predictably gave us flak for performing in a disco - never mind that the space suited the concept perfectly, that the work received excellent support from its host organisation, that the disco was filled with invited guests that night and that the bar was closed for the entire duration of the performance. Or that Dance carries the potential to energise any space, and to transform minds and hearts. I suppose that is the fear. Change. 

Did I mention that Radha Now was conceived through my communion with a Tree? My confidante,  my sakhi (female friend), the silent witness to my frustrations and agonies. And then conversation after conversation with my collaborator Dr. Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan to gradually translate the thoughts, experiences and emotions into structure and form. 

 Vasanthi and me, Photo: Yann Pitchal 

Vasanthi and me, Photo: Yann Pitchal 

In 2011, I was invited by Bhaskar's Arts Academy to stage Radha Now once again in Singapore. However much I tried, I kept hitting a wall when it came to rounding up 10 local male Bharatanatyam dancers. This despite the fact that there are so many dance institutions on this island. Moreover, two from the original cast were now based in Singapore and teaching Bharatanatyam here. Institutional politics unfortunately came in the way of artistic endeavour. I ended up working with a mixed cast of male Bharatanatyam and Kathakali artists which I must say gave the work a new texture.

I did miss the discotheque though, especially the multiple levels, glass window, tree and water. There is something about caressing a real tree, carrying bits of its bark along with you on your skin and clothes as you then move gently under its canopy, its large roots serving as a cushion on which to rest your tired spirit. The moist night soil beneath you is like a mattress that rejuvenates. You rise, body smeared with brown soil to remind you of a deeper connection and reality, and  immerse yourself gradually into actual water, healing and freeing yourself from the rigid and oppressive structures that have colluded to hold you back. A glass window separates and protects you from the gaze of your audience. 

 Radha Now at DUBLIN (Chenna), 2005

Radha Now at DUBLIN (Chenna), 2005

It was daunting to adapt the work to the indoor proscenium stage in Singapore, that too with a modest budget. But we tried. 

Apart from a few stray voices, there was a curious silence after the Singapore staging. Did you like it? Did you not like it? Why? Why not? I have gradually understood that the silence and the silencing is very much a part of this sort of work. It's par for the course lah! A few days later, I was pleasantly surprised to receive a call from Dr. Maha Sripathy asking if she could come over with her friend Ms. Jenny Lim, to discuss the work. I will write more on Radha Now in future posts, but first let me share Maha's (and Jenny's) reflections on the 2011 staging of the work                                                        

An Exploration of the Persona and Perspective in Nirmala Seshadri’s RADHA NOW

Dr. Maha Sripathy

A performance with a difference - That was RADHA NOW. This was no performance to relax, enjoy and leave, feeling that all that mattered was that it was a good evening. RADHA NOW demanded an engagement, a reflective involvement that had to be personal, although the issues it raised are universal. For this was a performance that did not draw on the audience with its bright and well-corseted costumes or its vibrant, fast-paced music or seductive movements. And yet it kept the audience riveted to their seats! Such was its conceptual allure, that a friend whom I had invited for the evening’s sojourn, with just the statement ‘it is a contemporary Indian Dance’ was bursting with questions late into the evening. Jenny, my friend, holds a licentiate in Speech and Drama from Trinity College, London. Our discussions and soul searching led us to Nirmala, to find out not just about RADHA NOW, but also about her engagement through dance and the connectivity between persona, performance and perspective and this is what we learnt…

 Radha Now 2011 Photos: Cees Von Toledo 

Radha Now 2011 Photos: Cees Von Toledo 

J: What struck me was your intense sadness and the pain. I was drawn into that sadness. What was the pain?

N: I was exploring the concept of love, where the man takes the centre-stage in the journey. By doing that, the woman is subjected to pain and humiliation. I was exploring the possibility of moving out of that and finding a space where I don’t negate the emotion but put something in that space. The tree in the background symbolizes the inner core. All the experiences can come and go but my inner self is intact. It stops me from being absorbed into the zone of self-destruction. Love is a journey and the process, given the male-centric focus, is a painful one. The sadness, which originates from the pain, has many layers. It is more than just emoting. The journey itself, as presented in the dance, is a purposeful endeavour. 

J: Does Radha feel the pain? Who is Radha?

N: Radha is a mythical character. She is Lord Krishna’s lover. She is an older, married woman. The love between Radha and Krishna is immortalized in temple statues, in literature. The love is so powerful and Radha and Krishna are deified. Radha’s pain is intense. Krishna does not seem to feel or share the pain. He is always happy. He is the one who is sought.

J: Why is the love so mesmerizing?

N: Radha’s love is beautifully captured in the 12th century poet Jayadeva’s lyrics. Radha is always pining for Krishna. Krishna, on the other hand, is always away enjoying the company of the many gopis. He is supposed to have had 16,000 women. But for Radha, Krishna is the one love. RADHA NOW opens with the plea for Krishna to fill the void. As a young dance student, I was drawn to this notion of love. As I grew older however, I began to question the nature of this love. What kind of a love is it - that is wasted away in its pining? So in the dance, I was depicting the poignancy of the love in the separation, the intense pain and sadness in separation. RADHA NOW questions the deification of the man in your life and the pain that the love inflicts.

J: What helped you to overcome the intense pain?

N: The strength came from the self, from within and from the Tree that inspired this work. In this version of the work, the Tree is represented by the elder woman, played by my teacher Mrs. Santha Bhaskar. She represents the woman, the all-knowing woman who understands the pain of separation and lends her unquestioning support through her compassion and wisdom - the unconditional love she so generously gives. She embodies the nurturing force, more important than the man.

J: At one point in the dance there were 10 men? Who are they?

N: The ten men depict the story of evolution in Hinduism. They are the 10 incarnations of Vishnu. In the entire story, the woman is missing. With her erasure, everything is male. Through the themes depicted, I was addressing patriarchy.

M: Why did you feel the need to re-interpret Krishna and Radha? After all they are god and goddess, revered by many and upheld as immortals to be emulated by mortal men and women. Why disturb that representation, that universe?

N: That is the very point of the dance. Do we, should we, go on presenting and representing that one perspective? How many more centuries do we go on casting women in this desperate light? I am not even reinterpreting. I am merely capturing the pain of separation in love suffered by Radha as it is presented in the compositions of great saints. And in doing so, I am then questioning why the suffering has to be partial? And is that suffering just? Is the love of a woman only about giving and waiting? And a man’s due is that of receiving? The question is why is Radha (women) always presented in this destitute state? And that presentation is composed and choreographed by men! How would a man know how Radha (women) feels? Why should women and their love be framed such? And is it right, that after all the progress we have made, after fighting for women’s right to education, employment and liberation, we tie them down with the shackles of dated perspectives and expectations? Is that what art is about- reproduce? Do we pursue the arts, merely to reproduce the known? Why then do great artistes recast Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake or reinterpret Mozart and Beethoven? Surely Art must capture the times that we live in! Otherwise the pursuit of art will be in vain. Art is life and life is art. Should today’s women go on living and suffering in love like Radha? What similarity, if any do they share with Radha? Was there a Radha in the first place? Or was it a figment of a man’s imagination- the ideal woman as he saw it! Yes, Krishna and Radha are worshipped. We are told that they are the ideal to be aspired to. What sort of an ideal is that? Should art endorse such a partial representation- that perspective of the pining, agonizing, love of the woman and the exuberant male recipient, who is clueless about his partner’s suffering? As an artiste I am questioning that. My role as a dancer is to think about what we are asked to consider and are presented with as an inviolable dictat, sanctified truths that must be perpetuated. To do so would be to go against one’s conscience and to retard society’s progress. 

M: The same representation we see in Silapathikaram- the epic Tamil literary work by Ilango Adigal- which depicts the self-sacrificing woman (Kannagi) who waits patiently for her long gone husband (who was actually living with another woman), receives him adoringly and unquestioningly when he finally returns penniless and then rises to uphold his innocence when he is accused and unjustly killed for the theft of the queen’s anklet. When she was suffering in his absence and pining for him, neither society nor community came to her rescue. In its silence, society in fact condoned Kovalan’s extramarital liaison. Despite the separation and suffering, Kannagi stands up to defend her wrongfully punished husband and in her rage sets Madurai on fire! Is this the fate of women? That they have to always be the long suffering, the ever patient and giving being, while privileged treatment and attention is the birthright of the male? That representation, because it is not in synch with the times and the society we live in, with our sense of fundamental human dignity, which should be accorded to all, must be reflected upon. I think that if we are unable to critically evaluate the texts we encounter and challenge the injustice, then we fail as human beings. The performing arts, in my opinion, has an important role to play in creating civilized societies where all individuals, regardless of gender, class or ethnicity are treated with respect and dignity.

J: In RADHA NOW you created a new form?

N: I revisited the classical dance form. The presentation of women in Bharathanatyam is through the male gaze. Dancers sing to lyrics composed by men and the focus of the pieces is men. In love compositions, the man becomes the focal point. The Bharatanatyam costume too reflects this patriarchy. It is designed to capture the female figure seen through the male eye. My costume too changes from the saree in Part 1 to a simple top and a skirt in Part 2. The focus is the concept and the feelings and not the distraction and seduction of the female figure enrobed in the Bharatanatyam costume. RADHA NOW, by recasting this male-centric focus in form does not seek to redefine the powerful emotion of love or of women. It merely presents women as they are- intelligent, empowered individuals with feelings. 
It is not just the conceptualization that I revisited, but also the repertoire. The performance begins with the jatis- fast, rigid, typical movements. But the form shifts and it slows down in the segment that presents the pining- the ashtapadis. The fast-paced ‘thillana’, which traditionally ends a dance rendition, occurred in the middle when the Ras Leela is reversed with Radha dancing with the men.
So does the music. Part 1 begins with Carnatic music, but this shifts delicately and it transits to other genres. Carnatic music is highly structured and is suited to the initiating piece. As the pining becomes intense, there is the shift towards Hindustani music, which given its loose rhythmic structure, allows the stretching and thereby creates the flow. It allows for a greater passionate and emotional feel. The change helps to emote differently and it slows down the pace.
So, in conceptualizing, choreographing and presenting RADHA NOW, I was unpacking and unlayering the encumbrances that defined women (rooted in the male psyche) and facilitating their connectivity to life nurturing experiences. This way while they enjoy love when it presents itself and are nourished by it, they are not engulfed by it to the point of self- destruction. 
Every woman is Radha. She is the Radha of today- educated, informed, capable and passionate- with an identity of her own, an individual in her own right. She is not to be defined by a man’s love. Neither is her existence to be framed by a man’s perception of her or of her love.
RADHA NOW shifted and challenged the patriarchy within the form. We need to do this before we can challenge the patriarchy within ourselves.

J: When you were going through the process, was there hesitation?
N: I worked on it years ago. It is difficult to distill life into art. Life is art, art is life. I don’t doubt the process. Dance reflects who I am. Life experience adds value to the art. It personalizes whatever I am doing. Art is the carrier of the culture and the form. And of life. 

J: Your work ends on a note of dignity. You reached a greater height out of all that.
N: RADHA NOW challenges the established boundaries. What lifts Radha is the empowerment. That it is possible for a woman to pass her time while waiting for her love. The love need not be all consuming. The dance questions if as a woman NOW, it is possible to explore role reversals. The narrative of RADHA NOW explores what is generally forbidden - the gendering that has always been presented through the male gaze.

N: Do you think that your lack of familiarity with the mythology on which RADHA NOW was based and with Indian Classical Dance in any way hampered your understanding of the performance? Of the message?

J: This is the second Indian Classical Dance performance that I have attended in many years. This was different. No, I have no knowledge of the mythology either. But the dance, for me it was drama- it told a story. I could follow that story. As a woman, I felt your pain in the waiting and your sadness. I understood it. As the narrative unfolded, I could see the shifts, the emotional aloneness and the yearning. The elder woman, who beckoned you unto her to provide you solace- she was responding to your pain as a woman. That was very reassuring. She personified the tree and gave it a human quality. I did not see the dance as telling me a story that was based on a myth, which I had to know. I had no idea and I don’t think it mattered. I did not feel deprived. Now that I have learned about this myth from you, it does not add to my understanding of RADHA NOW, although it shows me another perspective. Was that perspective important for me to understand the yearning or the agony? I don’t think so. What you presented there was a woman’s story and I identified with it as a woman. It is the story of many women who waste away their lives, waiting and pining for love as defined by the male.
I was also fascinated by the power of your concentration. The focus and the intensity of the emotions were so deep. You lived each of those moments. You were lost in those emotions. It was not a performance. It was not just a role you were performing. I felt you were Radha herself. And Radha is every woman. That was all that mattered for me. My heart cried and my mind understood your suffering and your struggle. 

N: Did you feel uncomfortable about it, the sadness?

J: You exuded the sadness. No, I wasn’t uncomfortable. You came out of it in the last segment when you had communion with nature. It showed the nurturing quality of art.

Listening to Jenny and Nirmala’s animated and intense discussion of RADHA NOW brought to mind Maya Angelou’s celebration of women in her poem Still I Rise:

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise. 

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room. 

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise. 

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries. 

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
'Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin' in my own back yard. 

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs? 

Out of the huts of history's shame
I rise
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I rise

I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise

Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

I rise
I rise
I rise.


 

RADHA NOW, thus was clearly not meant to be a light-hearted entertainment for an evening out. It was a performance/ presentation that turned over accepted ideas about men, women, love and pain and forced the audience to confront their own unthinking acceptance of these ideas. Should art perpetuate ‘time-honoured’ beliefs and injustices in the name of continuing tradition and preserving culture? Do we continue to present unquestioningly, in and through art, age old precepts and perspectives? How do these perspectives integrate into our very different lives today? Should they not be recast to reflect the progress we have achieved, the emancipation of women, the recognition by men of the strengths possessed by women and the leaps made in societal development as a whole? What is the role of art? Is it not the role of art to reflect progress and effect change? The narrative that any form of art presents must transform society. Was it not this belief that led Austen and Bronte to pen their classic pieces and the likes of Maya Angelou, Erin Gruwell, Azar Nafisi and Ngozi Adichie to capture the debilitating struggles of their own kind/ womankind!
The energy, effort and execution that went into the conceptualization and final presentation of RADHA NOW should have disturbed our universe that 8th October night. It should have set our adrenalin flowing! If it did that, we will never see the world and dance in the same way again. We would have become a thinking audience, who can not only enjoy a performance, but also come out of it enlightened and empowered. The message and the medium came together in this exploration. I, together with Jenny and the many like her, demand that engagement from a performer. Set us thinking! Challenge our perspectives and the narrow, cloistered, comfortable perceptions! RADHA NOW did just that. It is a phenomenal piece of work.

Jenny Lim teaches language and literature and is a connoisseur of the performing arts.
Maha Sripathy is an education consultant and works with young people in the promotion of the arts to create greater awareness and sensitivity for empowerment of the individual.


A version of this article was published in "Aesthetics", Singapore, October 2011

Never again to avoid the Flowers

I get off the bus at 9am.

Should I have breakfast at my favourite roti prata joint, or should I head home? Decisions, decisions. The jar of almond butter in my fridge takes charge and beckons. Phew! 

Walk a little ahead and take good old overhead bridge # 1 or take the link bridge elevator? Elevator, of course. Walking on the covered bridge #2, I turn to my left to glance at the overhead bridge #1 - uncovered, bright and adorned with an abundance of pink bougainvillea. A tinge of regret. For I always find myself pausing on that other bridge, standing close to the flowers and watching the traffic flow below. In the next part of my little ritual, I usually turn my head to the left and inhale to soak in the energy of the vast open green field and the imposing trees. Energised, I then continue my walk to the other side. 

Ah well, today I get to appreciate the beauty from afar. Surely there must be something to that? 

I reach the other end of this nondescript new bridge that leads to the first floor entrance of an old (by Singapore standards) mall. At the other end of the building is a road that I need to cross to get home. Yet another bridge to get to and cross. How shall I get to this bridge? Turn left and walk down a flight of stairs and take the outdoor pavement that leads to the bridge at the back, or... walk straight into the building and look for the exit that could possibly lead me straight to the level of the bridge without having to climb it? Since the answer is obvious, the decision is taken in an instant. 

I step into the building. Where do I go now?

There must be about 5 and a half people in the entire building. Except for one little cafe, no shop is open. The escalators have not been turned on. As I walk up to the second floor I tell myself - "it's all very well to take this route but you don't even know where the exit to the bridge is!" I ask a lady on the second floor. She asks me if I can 'chiang hua yi'. I smile at her thinking, "I can. I can repeat those very words." I soon discover that of the 5 and a half people, only 1 speaks English. By then, I have climbed up from floor 1 to 2 to 3 to 4, down to 3, back to 4, down to 2 and then to 1. This angel in disguise guides me to the elevator and tells me to take it to the 3rd floor where she says there is a door that leads to the bridge. 

I see a door and walk out. Oh no. Dingy staircase. Up or down? I climb up, open the door and it's the mall again. I walk down, open the door and it's the mall again. I am beginning to feel  claustrophobic and anxious. I head back to the elevator and just as I am contemplating taking the elevator all the way down and head out to that pavement, a woman appears and points me in the direction of the washroom. There, at the side, is an inconspicuous door. I open it.

Sunshine! And then I realise, to my utter disappointment, that the building does not connect directly to the bridge after all. I have to walk one flight down to the road and then take the steps up to the bridge. "Never mind. At least you are out of that depressing building," I console myself. The air in Singapore has never felt fresher and I am soaking in the sun. 

On the other side of the road, I pause to absorb the breathtaking greenery that seems to be telling me something. I lower my head and nod gently. "Yes, never again!"  To the people in the cars that are going by slowly, I must seem either extraterrestrial or insane. 

 

On the home stretch, I find myself slowing down my gait to acknowledge and embrace the different manifestations of Nature along my way.  Words said to me by a participant of one of my workshops suddenly come to mind. Likening my movement system Antarika to a flower, she told me - "My life is fine, but my life is better with the flowers." I couldn't agree more. 

 

 Photo Credit: Aaron Khek 

Photo Credit: Aaron Khek 

Deepavali, Diwali, Me

9 days to Deepavali, or should I say Diwali? I still remember the time that I first went to live in India, in Bombay (which is what it was called in 1988). I had just gotten married and it was my first major geographical shift. Listen, I was born on the west coast (of Singapore) and had not even moved as far as the north-west or south-west of the island! Deepavali used to be a special event for our family. I can never forget the hundreds of lamps we would light by the evening with the help of our friends from the various communities that constituted Singapore. "Happy Deepevaaaali" and I would say "No, it's Deepaaaavali"... and so on..... 

By October 1988, I was well on my way to becoming a Bombayite. When my man Friday asked me one day, "Diwali saaf karne ka hai?", I said "Chalo, kar do!" (Do excuse my Hindi - it's a combination of my terrible memory, bad language skills and the fact that I was imbibing this in Bombay!) And so it began. Two weeks of hard core spring cleaning during which time he even pulled lizards and toads out of my kitchen cupboards! And yes, you guessed right. I stood there with my palms half covering my face, and screaming. 

In those two weeks I also worked hard making various sweets and savoury snacks with my Maharashtrian neighbours. One afternoon we sat on the ground, and grated at least 25 coconuts using the traditional coconut scraper which I just discovered is also known as the 'coconut rabbit'. That day we made the coconut barfis. The next day it was the chivda. And it went on. It was in Bombay that I experienced Diwali firecrackers for the very first time. There was no warming up to those. 

A few years later by which time we had moved to Madras (as it was still known in 1992). I remember staying up an entire night to make a large kolam at home which was well appreciated by family and friends the next day. Though I was back to Deepavali culture, I would gradually find over my years in the South, that Diwali was making its presence felt, as Madras transitioned to Chennai and then into this multinational hub. By this time I was learning that Deepavali and Diwali are quite different festivals in the way they are celebrated. While both involve a lot of food, firecrackers, lamps and other festivities, the rituals appear to vary and also the partying seems to be upped for Diwali, with card playing and gambling forming an important part of the occasion.

Also, there is this aspect of the New Year. As one Chinese taxi driver asked me when we were passing Little India the other day and admiring the gorgeous Deepavali light-up there, "Is it New Year for you or is it not New Year?" He went on to say, "Some people tell me yes, some say no. I'm very confused lah!" Yes, I'm back in the land where Deepavali and Diwali valiantly attempt to co-exist, entwined with questions of race, identity and sub-ethnic binaries in the context of multicultural Singapore. 

So it's not just me who sees the two as different festivals. I'm sure that each community and family has its own unique way of celebrating it too. Even the myths and deities differ from place to place. Krishna slays Narakasura, Rama vanquishes Ravana, the Pandavas return, the Mahabali story - all so male centric. So many times over, I have enacted those stories (through dance) for school children at Deepavali time - the triumph of good over evil, and the lighting of lamps in celebration. I recall always being dressed to portray one male character or the other. 

Wait, the festival is also a celebration of Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth, who we probably ought to be focussing on now given the gloomy financial forecast. In Bengal and some other parts of India, the empowering Kali is worshipped at this time. 

Now here I am, back on the west coast of the little red dot. I do miss the energy and excitement in India at this time but I am grateful to be spared the loud firecrackers. My heart always goes out to the animals and babies. It can be terrifying. I am no longer the married woman who reveled in making barfis, chivda and laddoos nor the dancer who animatedly told children stories of demon slaying.  

You know what, I am going to light some lamps and incense, make a floral kolam around which I will move, meditate and celebrate the magnificent transformations that are continuously taking place within me.  Deepavali  à la Antarika! 

Lokah Samastha Sukhino Bhavantu

 

 Kolam & Photo Credit: Arjun Vadrevu

Kolam & Photo Credit: Arjun Vadrevu

Of Conversations, Artistic Exchange, Tea & Much Laughter

Lalu Lalang Lab presents its study of Supermoon

I can't help feeling that each of us must have been longing, even subconsciously, for that space in which to converse, exchange, learn and evolve. Early this year, we began meeting on Saturday evenings (whenever possible). Our conversations take place over our little tea ritual; sometimes we progress to wine. Discussions lead to spontaneous sharings and experiencing of one another's artistic practices. Above it all, we focus on camaraderie and lots of laughter. 

There is also this collective embracing of the fact that we are mature artists exploring an intriguing space of vulnerability, life experience and an inner wisdom that we have become more and more aware of over the years. 

Tomorrow we will share our study of the concept of SuperMoon at the Padang Tari Festival. It's happening at 9pm at the outdoor main stage opposite Victoria Concert Hall.  

 Who we are: 

L3 - LALU LALANG LABORATORY

 

 Clockwise: Aaron Khek (standing), Leslie Tan, Ix Wong Thien Pau & Nirmala Seshadri  Photo Credit: Jereh Leong

Clockwise: Aaron Khek (standing), Leslie Tan, Ix Wong Thien Pau & Nirmala Seshadri

Photo Credit: Jereh Leong

L3 started meeting in the Spring of 2016 to exchange, encounter, seek, investigate,and also question the journey of creative existence. This laboratory marks the rigour, commitment and curiosities of 4 established artists - Aaron Khek (Choreographer/dancer), Leslie Tan (Cellist), Nirmala Seshadri (Multidisciplinary Artist/Choreographer) and Ix Wong Thien Pau (Choreographer/dancer). L3’s attitude/approach towards art making is borderless and sans, hierarchies and labels. L3 also believes in opening its doors to other like-minded artists who would like to sit down to drink tea, chat and jam with us.

About SuperMoon: 

Photo Credit: Aaron Khek

 

SuperMoon is a multi-layered inquisition into the poetry, science and symbolism of the Moon, interweaving the L3 collaborators' personal histories and journeys, that are entwined with our artistic practices. The order of our prescription to this presentation will be our points of views in the treatment of music, dance, cultural memory, mythology and performance aesthetics.

 L3 attempts to present a study of these areas drawing reference and inspiration from the architectural concept of borrowed scenery with superimpositions of ancient poetry by Li Bai of the Tang Dynasty and poet Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda in Sanskrit, cello music from western composer Paul Hindemith as well as popular Chinese melodies.

L3’s practice-led research into SuperMoon also connects to the concept of Nayika (Sanskrit for ‘heroine in love’) and Sharad Poornima - the annual Hindu festival that marks the full moon in the lunar month of Ashvin. We are delighted to share our study of SuperMoon on October 15th, the night of Sharad Poornima. 

Joining us in presenting this study of SuperMoon, is talented contemporary dancer and choreographer Jereh Leong. It's been an absolute joy having Jereh join our ritual of chat, cha and thaka dhimi tha! 

 

 Here we are joined by Jereh Leong (right in front)

Here we are joined by Jereh Leong (right in front)

I Am Beautiful. Period.

Tanvi Geetha Ravishankar speaks about her participation in the first ever show for plus-sized women and men at Lakme Fashion Week 

I knew Tanvi Geetha Ravishankar as a little toddler during the years that I lived in Mumbai. Her mother Geetha, who would come to learn bharatanatyam from me, had a strong passion for dance. Little wonder then that Tanvi, now 28, has herself trained in a range of dance forms - odissi, bharatanatyam, kathak, jazz and freestyle.  An out and out Mumbai girl, this is where she was born and raised, went to school (the Bombay Scottish School at Mahim) and currently lives.  Tanvi studied I.T engineering from KK Wagh Institute of Technology at Nasik. 

Exuding an air of confidence and highly positive self image she tells me, "I am a freelance fashion stylist, voice over artist, choreographer and now a plus size model". 

 Tanvi walking the ramp with her inimitable style and confidence 

Tanvi walking the ramp with her inimitable style and confidence 

Tanvi recently participated in the first ever show for plus sized men and women during Lakme Fashion Week. From what I have been reading online, she seems to have really impressed the judges, emerging as one of the ten finalists who walked the ramp. Filled with admiration for this bold young woman who is daring to challenge conventional stereotypes of beauty, I shoot her a few questions which she promptly and cheerfully responds to. 

Nirmala (N): What got you interested in participating in this first ever show for plus size men and women, during Lakme Fashion Week?
Tanvi (T): I have always been an avid fashion lover , so would always wonder while looking at international plus sized models and ramp shows as to when something of this sort would happen in India. And on seeing this opportunity , I just had to give it a try and be a part of it.

 Lakme Fashion Week's first ever show for plus-sized women and men

Lakme Fashion Week's first ever show for plus-sized women and men

N: The world is so caught in regressive stereotypes. What challenges have you faced in your refusal to subscribe to the stereotypical notions of perfection vis-à-vis the female body? 
T: The most challenging part about being plus size is that every single person judges your capability based on your size rather than your talent. For some odd reason , a fat person is considered unfit , not smart enough , not strong enough and not presentable enough . How does this even make sense ? Plus-sized people face challenges in their jobs, in hobby classes and sadly even while finding suitable life partners in our Indian arranged marriage setting. I am more fit and flexible and dress way better than most of the skinny girls I know of. I know plus-sized girls who run the marathon ! But the world still will not stop judging us over our appearance.

Though I have never conformed to these judgements and have always broken through them and proved everyone wrong , even I was not able to fight one particular challenge. Post engineering studies, I came back to Mumbai to pursue my passion for dancing. But little did I know that more than talent , it is a person's shape and size that is valued in the dance Industry. I have always been told by my mentors that I have 99 out of 100 qualities that a dancer needs...that I am dedicated , soulful, strong , graceful , flexible , expressive and inspiring but would have to lose weight to get to 100 ! I did manage to lose a lot of weight but after a point , I just couldn't because that was just not who I was. I love eating , I am a passionate foodie, so no matter how much I tried , after a point I just could not lose weight. And the thing that I realised was that even if I did manage to lose all the fat in my body and achieve the shape that was required, I would not have been able to sustain it because giving up on food for the rest of my life was not something that I could do. So various body shaming incidents made me give up on Dancing as a profession. This is one thing that really breaks my heart. People with way less calibre than a plus-sized person , are given opportunities to showcase their talent and abilities but we get judged and rejected just based on our appearance! 

 

N: You come across as supremely confident and comfortable in your skin. How have you managed this given how judgemental society can be?
T: I have always been like this. Honestly I do not know how because I have constantly faced criticism and mockery from my closest of friends and family , all my life , but I still have never conformed to the stereotypical norms of the society. I guess I really love myself...haha ! Perhaps it is because I never let any type of remarks get to me , be it positive or negative. Neither do I believe people when they praise me nor when they criticise me. I always believe in my own judgement of good or bad. And I know that I am beautiful. So nobody can bring me down even if they wanted to . Confidence comes when you wholly accept yourself and love yourself the way you are without comparing yourself with another person. And that is something that I feel. I am smart , funny , beautiful , intelligent , talented and a good , loving human being , so why should I think of myself inferior to anybody else! 

N: What do you aim to achieve through your involvement with Lakme Fashion Week? What are your longer terms plans and aspirations? 
T: One very big challenge in terms of clothing that Indian plus-sized people face is the lack of trendy and chic options. Since a huge platform such as Lakme Fashion Week has been a pioneer in bringing about a change in the fashion industry, I hope that more and more brands and designers will start introducing plus-sized ranges in their collections.
Personally , I would really want to play a hand in putting a stop to the body shaming of plus-sized women and men. More importantly, I want to help promote body positivity amongst plus-sized individuals so that they learn to love their body and be happy with it. Internationally there has been a lot of change - they have plus size fashion , plus- sized models on the ramp , on the cover of magazines and in music videos ! Plus-sized actors such as Zach Galifianakis , Rebel Wilson and Melissa Mccarthy are all doing amazing work as mainstream heroes and heroines. Having role models like them makes a lot of difference in changing the mindsets of people.
I would love to be a part of such a change in the Indian fashion and film industry. As of now I do not know how I would go about doing this. But being a plus-sized runway model seems like a good start!

N: Is this the first time that plus sizes are being featured and celebrated in Indian fashion world? What has been the response thus far?
T: Yes it is. All the plus size brands have been revolutionary in being the first to introduce labels dedicated to plus size clothing in the Indian fashion market . And now with this next step of featuring plus-sized models on the runway they have completely demolished the stereotype of "fashion is for a particular size"! It is a huge leap for the plus size fashion industry in India. People have been loving it. The show was fabulous and the post-show responses have been so overwhelming and positive. 

N: What would be your message to plus-sized women, particularly Indian women? 
T: I would say, "Embrace who you are. Don't fall prey to society's stereotypes of beauty. Beauty comes from owning yourself and being confident no matter what shape , size or colour you are. Only when the world sees how confident you are of your body and yourself , will it change its approach towards seeing you. And when people mock you, don't take it to heart..either laugh along with them or ignore the remarks. Hopefully they will eventually get bored of mocking you...and even if they don't just continue doing your own thing because "Haters are gonna Hate but you've just gotta Shake it off !!!"

So proud of this girl for stepping forward to do her part in bringing about change. Kudos to Lakme Fashion Week for taking this leap. While we cannot expect sensitivity, inclusivity and societal transformation to happen overnight, this is definitely a step in the right direction. And now, if they would just do away with those fair and lovely creams. 

We are beautiful. Period. 

 

Two Tuesdays in August and some random acts

Normally on Tuesdays I stop to have breakfast at my favourite joint, Al Azhar on Cheong Chin Nam Road. I love the fact that it is laid back and most unassuming in its ambience. I sit there listening to the sound of the radio in Malay - the news, talk shows and music. Fans on the ceiling blowing this way and that. The eclectic crowd. Excellent service - prompt and alert. Al Azhar offers a diverse array of food although from what I have observed, the Indian food seems really popular. My personal favourites are the dosa, mee goreng and roti prata. "Cheap and best" is a phrase I often heard while living in Chennai. Al Azhar is just that. My usual breakfast of roti prata and teh halia comes to all of $3.50.  

 

 

Flashback to Tuesday August 9th...

I observe my usual ritual. Being National Day, it is a bit crowded with many people dressed in red. A lady walks towards me and asks if I am alone. Could she sit opposite me? Of course, I say. Inspired by her plate of mee siam that arrives almost immediately, I decide to order the same. We start chatting. And chatting. Before we know it, two hours have passed. By the end of it, we both feel we have known each other for years. She refuses to let me pay for my meal. Does this ever happen? In Singapore? 

I walk home telling myself that It was just one of those random acts. 

 

 

Flashback to Tuesday August 23rd... 

I am early for a meeting at Raffles City. I walk into Costa Coffee and wait patiently to place my order for a Cappuccino. Finally it is almost my turn. Most unexpectedly, a young man standing in front of me turns around and starts to speak to me, a warm smile on his face. People here generally don't interact with one another,  is my immediate thought. "Would you like to have a free coffee?" he asks. Why wouldn't I, I think to myself. "Why do you ask?" He goes on to explain that being a frequent Costa customer, he receives a coupon for every 6th cup of coffee that he buys. "Sometimes, when I see someone nice, I like giving it away". He hands it to me saying, "Have a wonderful day!" I am stumped. 

Is this for real? Not one, but two Tuesdays within the same month. Maybe I look like a monk or is it the needy expression on my face?  That evening, I enter the lift in my apartment block, dressed in a simple black and white kurta, a pair of jeans and a bright red shawl around my neck. A couple is in the lift and as I enter, the lady has a smile on her face and says to me, "You look absolutely beautiful." Yet another stranger and by now, I am floating. 

Last evening... Tuesday August 30th

I get into a cab and think to myself, "oh no, this looks like a grumpy driver". Five minutes into the drive, he decides to surprise me with a little joke that we both laugh at. He then goes on to share his reminiscences of the area we were headed to - Upper Bukit Timah. He points out to me the condos that now stand on past kampungs and temples. We both excitedly remember the Green Spot bottle that used to stand high. And the Yeo Hiap Seng building nearby. "Now Singapore is all about money", he laments as I alight. 

He is right. So much has changed. And yet, the simple acts of strangers on two Tuesdays in August have revealed to me that somewhere in this very busy capitalist city state, goodness and kindness are still embedded.

PS: My Tuesdays normally end with the kind of ice cream that takes me right back to my school days. At the end of the day, Uncle would be there on Emerald Hill Road ready to offer us three  free biscuits each, whether we bought an ice cream that day or not. It became a habit - running up to him each evening and saying, "Uncle, three biscuits please!" 

I have to confess that I felt kind of disappointed when this ice cream man wasn't there outside Sembawang station one Tuesday this August. 

 

 

 

 

A Stark, Dark and Powerful Work

The cold that creeps in with a thousand cuts

Singai Tamil Sangam Studio, Kampong Kapor

August 26th 

The array of candles in the back courtyard seem to serve as an invitation to sensuality. We walk into the hall through the rear door, heightening the sense of intimacy that the space naturally affords. The Singai Tamil Singam studio at Kampong Kapor has witnessed many a production by Maya Dance Theatre, the most recent being the site-centric Pancha: Murmurs in the WindThe cold that creeps in with a thousand cuts is the maiden production of choreographer and dance artist Jereh Leung with producer Imran Manaff. 

The moment we enter we become aware of two male dancers, one is standing upright while the other is lying on his side. Both have their backs facing us. Except for the dance belts (which I wasn't aware they had on until much later), they are nude and in total stillness. 

Leung who is standing, exudes a strong masculinity. In contrast, dance artist and collaborator, Phitthaya Phaefuang's (Sun) physique and languorous stance convey a feminine quality which becomes increasingly accentuated as time progresses. Out of the stillness, his body emerges, undulating erogenously with every breath. There is beauty in his movements and yet there is also intense vulnerability, My heart goes out to Sun when he peels off that final layer of clothing to present himself in total nakedness. It is as if he is daring to bare his soul for the attention and touch of his partner. I am told later that this additional layer of clothing is a requirement by the censorship authority. The artists have been allowed 20 out of 50 minutes of nudity. I begin to see the importance of nudity in this work and yet also feel that this additional layer of clothing and its removal provide interesting conceptual layers to the work. 

As Sun moves slowly and determinedly in an animalistic manner towards Leung, he conveys an intense sexual desire that often borders on the masochistic. Leung presents a powerful contrast sometimes coming across as passive aggressive in his inertness that shifts into an often brutal domination that demands submissive movement responses from Sun. The imbalance becomes distressing because it feels real and unchanging. Only for a brief moment in between, Sun breaks out of his submissive portrayal into a dance of total abandon. This is when his penis that has been tucked between his legs all this while, is made visible as if to suggest a departure from his hyper feminine stance. 

The work is a 50-minute dialogue that is bold and powerful at various levels - physical, emotional and mental. Sensitive lighting design by Alberta Wileo and sound design by Jing Ng heighten the experience. The sometimes protracted sequences and the focus on the ticking clock give the impression of one long night of repeated patterns of behaviour and of desire unsatiated. As the performance progresses to trigger various demons within my own mind, I find myself constantly on the verge of tears. The boundary between dancer and viewer blurs as time goes by.  This is by no means a comfortable work. And it is certainly not for the faint-hearted or impatient viewer. 

The cold that creeps in with a thousand cuts is thought-provoking, stark and dark. Yet in a strange way it is also a celebration of dance, bringing to the fore that nebulous thing called the bodymind. 

NIRMALA SESHADRI

 

The story of the magic slate

Talking of butterflies and freedom, I had just sat down to Sunday lunch today with the family when my seven year old nephew came and stood at my elbow with something in his hand. He softly said to me, "My mother asked me to ask you to tell me the story of the magic slate." So that's what he was holding!

Grins on the faces in the room, a deep breath from me. The story begins. 

More than 40 years ago, a little girl growing up in Singapore entered Primary 1. She suddenly felt very grown up - you see, kindergarten was different. This was the Big School, and strategically located at Orchard Road at that. It was not however the Big Stores that were in such close proximity that called out to her, but a small little Indian (or Mama) shop situated in the narrow and dingy passage way that led from school to Orchard Road. 

Her classmates would often show her little knick knacks that they had bought at the mama shop. She was never very interested in their acquisitions. But one day she was shown a small magic slate. Her eyes lit up. She so wanted that. It would cost 15 cents she was told. Not a problem, she thought, as she could quickly save up for it. 

At this point, the little nephew interjects: 15 cents? Save up? How much did other things cost at her school? Like food for instance? His mother chips in to say that in her time, a plate of nasi lemak had cost about 30 cents. The nephew struggles to fathom the value of 15 cents at that time. "I can't get anything for 15 cents", he tells me disappointedly. 

So the girl started saving up and the day she hit the 15-cent mark, she had to start thinking of how to procure the slate. There was no way she could shop after school for her parents would be at the gate right on the dot at the end of each day. Should she ask them to take her to the shop?  No. Surely she was old enough to experience the joy of shopping without grown ups lurking around. Should she assign one of her friends to the task? No, she wanted to choose her own slate and not leave it to a friend. Realising she had only one option, she discovered within her the courage to step out of the school gate during break time one fine day. 

Ah, what joy and freedom she felt skipping down that passage way. After choosing her magic slate, she quickly made her way back to school. No sooner had she crossed the gate, a Prefect  (who was supposed to be a friend, by the way), stood in her path glaring furiously at her. What sort of a friend was this? The girl felt quite betrayed. 

WHERE DID YOU GO? i went out. WHERE? to the shop. WHY? to buy something. WHAT? this. WHY DID YOU GO AT BREAK TIME? silence. WHYY? fear began to creep in. WHYYY??? more fear. She began to tremble. Because somebody asked me to buy it. WHO? i don't know. YOU DON'T KNOW? no. HOW COME YOU DON'T KNOW? because I was sitting facing the wall when this person tapped me on the shoulder and told me to stretch my arm out to the back. she put 15 cents in my palm and ordered me to go and buy her a slate. YOU DIDN'T SEE HER FACE? no. she didn't let me see her face!

Both the nephew and niece are in fits of laughter by now. 

The girl was taken to the Teacher who glared and yelled at her. Her Elder Sister was called down from her class and she glared too. Her Parents were called to the school and they glared very very hard, menacingly in fact. She went home that evening and the entire household glared at her. She obediently wrote the 100 lines that had been meted out as punishment, quietly had her dinner and disappeared to sit on the top step of the staircase. It was quite dark up there. Taking out her little magic slate, she began to look at it and caress it gently. 

Suddenly, she felt a presence behind her. Her grandfather quietly sat down next to her and asked, "Show me what you bought". He held it, looked at it and almost caressed it too. "You really wanted this, did you?" She nodded. 

The nephew and niece of course know they have just been given a lot to chew on. The nephew asks a final question: "Does she still have the magic slate?" I answer that she does not.

For a magic slate is as transient as the words that keep appearing and disappearing from it. 

The nephew holds his own slate tenderly, almost apologetic about the fact that he has got his for free as part of some offer. I am quite sure that he will always think of the little girl when he plays with his own magic slate. 

 

Nirmala Seshadri

 

 

ANOTHER METAMORPHOSIS...

And I am back to blogging!

 Photo credit: Priveen Raj Naidu

Photo credit: Priveen Raj Naidu

about lifestyle, agents of change in society... and perhaps the arts too ;)  

It was way back in 2000 that my journey in writing began. I was based in Chennai at the time and was taking a break from dance and re-examining my whole approach to dance practice and performance. 

I still remember how, when asked by an editor at the Economic Times to start writing on art and culture, I said a flat "NO, I am not a writer!" Latha would hear nothing of that. And so by the next day I was on my way to Cholamandal Artists' Village to cover a painting exhibition. And the rest, as they say, is history. 

A year later, when I was invited to dance in a production, I initially declined saying, "No, I am not a dancer!", offering to help with any writing that was required. I eventually did dance in the production. Talk about fluid identity! 

Those early writing years were exciting. I wrote about facets of Chennai life that piqued my interest. In recent years, I have focussed more on dance writing. The Herculean task of an MA Dance Anthropology dissertation in 2013 was soon followed by a phase of severe writers' block. I couldn't write anything much beyond Facebook posts, and I would find myself agonising over even those. Were there any inaccuracies? Had I misquoted anyone? Was it passé?

At some point I got over it and began reviewing dance once again, this time for the Straits Times in Singapore. I was invited on board by the Arts editor who felt there was a need for Indian dance to be covered in the English media by a writer who knew the traditions. My work involved attending dance performances, jotting down my impressions in dark auditoriums and heading home straight after to get down to writing to meet the 10.30 deadline the next morning. 

Six months ago, at the end of 2015, I put my writing on hold. I needed time to revisit myself, plan my next phase to allow my work to reflect the subtle shifts that had been taking place within me.

By now, my approach to dance had shifted drastically. I had begun my journey as a classical indian Bharatanatyam dancer at age 7 and this had been my core identity for the longest time. But in recent years I have begun exploring the intersecting space between breath work, yoga, mindfulness meditation, Bharatanatyam and Butoh, the Japanese dance theatre form. It has been a paradigm shift with respect to my dance practice and teaching, one that has been so profoundly liberating that I feel the urge to connect to the positive shifts that are happening externally in so many realms. 

From this 6-month writing hiatus, I now emerge, ready to open myself up once again to writing about aspects of life that resonate with me... lifestyle, agents of change in society... perhaps the arts too.  

Oh yes, the writer is back but with the spirit of the colourful butterfly that she sees on the leaves outside her window. Which suddenly takes me back to my very first dance performance way back in primary 1 - the Chinese Butterfly Dance! 

The dancer, the writer, the fluidity, the intertwining and the continuing journey...

Nirmala Seshadri