Saying goodbye is never easy. But how does one even begin to comprehend the loss of a parent?
For Meenakshy Bhaskar, she appears to be a pillar of strength when we arrive at Bhaskar’s Arts Academy at Bras Basah Complex, where she currently serves as Artistic Director. She is all smiles, cordial, and professional as we greet each other, shake hands, and sit down for our interview. But inside, she is still grieving the loss of her mother, the late Bharatanatyam doyenne Santha Bhaskar, who passed on earlier this year in February.
“It’s been incredibly busy from the day I returned,” says Meena, who divides her time between Singapore and the USA, where she runs Bhaskar’s Arts Academy (California). “We’ve been holding space, putting out fires. Things have been busy with the 70th anniversary events, and even though it’s been organised and flowing in a way I know it’s supposed to, I’m in a daze, and I feel like I’ve just been going through the motions during this period of grief.”
Santha’s passing came as a shock. A health checkup in October showed that the 82 year old’s health was in good condition. On the day she passed, she had even taught a class. “She never wanted to be a burden to anyone, and one of her mottos was to work until she can’t,” says Meena.
A little bit about Santha Bhaskar’s history and just how well-regarded she is: ask any Bharatanatyam practitioner in Singapore, and most would likely speak of Santha Bhaskar with respect and reverence for the immense amount of work she’s done for the art form here. Arriving in Singapore at the age of 16, she co-founded Bhaskar’s Arts Academy (formerly Bhaskar’s Academy of Dance) in Singapore with her husband, dancer-choreographer K. P. Bhaskar, running it together for 70 years.
Considered a pioneer of Indian dance in Singapore, over those decades, Santha’s claim to fame stemmed from her fascination with Singapore’s multicultural society, often incorporating elements of Chinese and Malay dance into her choreography, such as Rasa & Dhwani (2003) at the Esplanade, where she had set verses by Singaporean poets in all four official languages to dance. Amidst her many accomplishments and awards, the highest of these accolades is no doubt her receipt of the 1990 Cultural Medallion for her contribution to dance.
“My mother has so many certificates and awards, and they’re hung up here at Bhaskar’s Arts Academy because she didn’t want them at home,” says Meena. “She’s not the kind of person who does what she does for awards or recognition. In the arts, it’s not about the numbers, but about whether a work has managed to touch someone’s life and inspire them. It was about spreading positivity and hope through the arts, because you can never resolve anything while in despair.”
One of Santha’s landmark works, co-produced with her husband, was The Butterfly Lovers, taking inspiration from the 1958 Chinese movie of the same title. Combining Chinese costumes with Indian music and dance, the work will receive a new staging this June, re-imagined by Meena, as a tribute to Santha for her lifelong dedication to multiculturalism in the arts.
“It’s funny – when I decided to be a dancer, my parents thought I was crazy, and they actually couldn’t accept it in the beginning,” says Meena, on working in the same line as her parents did. “They said I would be the lawyer of the family, because I was so argumentative and would be very disagreeable, constantly questioning the logic behind actions and wondering why they were doing things like scolding my brother.”
And yet, here she is today, in-charge of Bhaskar’s Arts Academy across both California and Singapore. Inheriting her parents’ gift for choreography, Meena continues her mother’s work through her interest in multicultural elements in her dance, from Yatra III (2010) with Spanish guitarist Roberto Corrias, and Vinayaka (2016), a Javanese music and dance collaboration. Meena is also an accomplished performer herself, having taken on the lead roles in several Bhaskar’s Arts Academy productions, as well as having performed for dignitaries from all over the world, including Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth. In 1996, Meena was presented with the Singapore Young Artiste Award for her contributions and dedication to the Arts in Singapore.
“Even though I divide my time between California and Singapore, I try to make sure I always keep in touch with her, and I’m familiar enough with her schedule such that I know whether she’s actually busy, or I just need to call a few more times before she picks up,” says Meena, on her relationship with Santha. “We were each other’s best friends, and she would always be the first person I would talk to when something exciting happens. She’d enjoy coming to visit me in the USA, and when I came back to Singapore, I would shadow her everyday.”
With over 9,000 miles between California and Singapore, physical distance proved to be a problem during the COVID-19 pandemic, with restricted flights and enforced social distancing. “There were so many places I wanted to go with her, but couldn’t, and she would be sad and go ‘I hate COVID, it’s such a bad thing’,” says Meena. “I even wanted to surprise her with a visit in 2020 June, but she knew that if I did, I would have just ended up quarantining the whole time in a hotel room, so she told me not to. But in hindsight, I wish I had done it anyway, just to be in the same country as her.”
“It’s lucky that they all live together in a big house, and during the pandemic, my niece gave birth to a baby, and mom got to spend a lot of time with her great grandson, which I believe helped her get through these years,” muses Meena. “She had company, she could take a walk outside, and she had a small degree of freedom.”
Taking on the mantle and reimagining Butterfly Lovers for the 21st century, Meena felt no fear, because she had her mother by her side. “This is an evolution from my mother’s original vision to this,” she says. “I started the process by looking for new music, as the original book had been eaten away, and all we could recover, all she could save was one song. So we started from scratch, and the two of us had each other to rely on. We watched the movie, did research by reading books on past stagings of it, and each time I was choreographing, I wanted her in the same room as me. And I’m grateful we worked on this together because it meant I got all this extra time with her, processing it in the car on the way home, processing it before we went to bed, bantering with each other as we asked what we each thought of it. It’s time I’ll cherish having had her with me every step of the devising process.”
Bhaskar’s Arts Academy is not a company focused solely on performance – they also dedicate their time to the continued promotion and education of Indian dance for future generations. This is achieved via the teaching wing of the company, Nrityalaya Aesthetics Society, which has seen over 2,000 students pass through its doors to learn the art form. Over the years, Santha has devoted herself to nurturing youths and budding dancers through new forms – besides spending her time at Bhaskar’s Arts Academy and Nrityalaya Aesthetics Society, Santha has also acted as teacher and resident choreographer at the National University of Singapore’s Centre for the Arts, and as a contributor to seminars and performing arts magazines.
“It’s interesting that my mother was the one to initiate the 70th anniversary celebrations, and got so enthusiastic about it, calling me up, calling up her ex-students who had started schools abroad, even commissioning her grandchildren to do a work and asking if they’d like to come on board,” says Meena. “She wanted to keep the ball rolling, to celebrate and remember all these students and this platform that had been created. And it’s true – even though I’m the only blood daughter she had, through Bhaskar’s Arts Academy, I have been given a sister in every student she’s taught, a sorority that is there for each other.”
As the new Artistic Director of Bhaskar’s Arts Academy, we asked Meena how she felt about the current state of affairs in the local arts scene, and the differences between her parents’ time and now. “One of the biggest criticisms in Singapore is that we don’t have culture. But I think that it’s because people don’t realise that it can exist in so many forms, from family culture to the fact that our identities are growing and changing beyond racial lines, that there is so much cross cultural marriage going on beyond what they think,” says Meena.
“What was contemporary today becomes tradition tomorrow,” she continues. “I think about how in the late ’80s, there were people coming from India and judging my mother’s work, saying ‘oh that’s not Indian dance.’ My mother was ahead of her time, and was essentially doing what would become the norm in the ’70s back in the ’50s. She was always unappreciated, always criticised, the media was never friendly to the work, and there was no money here, because it was a real struggle during the 80s. That’s why it’s important to talk about our culture with each other, to share our work with each other, to continue to evolve it and experiment through collaboration.”
“On the financial front, I think that it’s lucky Singapore has more scholarships and grants available now, and whenever my father complained, I would tell him how it’s better than some other places, where the support is much more skewed and limited,” she adds. “My mother, she was someone who appreciated anything and everything that came our way, and even when we didn’t get the funding we were fighting for, she would remind her students that we would find a way to survive, as we always have, and to be grateful for any form of support we do get.”
This weekend, Bhaskar’s Arts Academy will perform a segment in Ceremonial Enactments, one of the headliner commissioned works for the 2022 Singapore International Festival of Arts. Co-choreographed by Santha and Meena, the segment draws from compositions by the Indian classical composer Sri Muthuswamy Dhikshitar and poetry by the 18th century Tanjore Quartet, where dancers pay obeisance to the nine celestial custodians that guard the eight directions and the centre of the earth. It becomes a cleansing ritual of a sort, as if paving the way for a new tomorrow and new beginning.
“My mother always reminded me to keep an open mind and listen to what critics and my mentors have to say when I invite them for a viewing. But while I must always take in their feedback objectively, I should be making the change only if I want to, and not just to placate them,” says Meena. “And till today, I continue to listen to people, to listen to conversations and see things from a different perspective, and perhaps, learn how to better co-exist – after all, isn’t that what Singapore is so good at doing? To live harmoniously with each other in spite of our differences.”
For now, Meena is focused on ensuring Bhaskar’s Arts Academy’s 70th anniversary celebrations go off with a bang, as she continues to search for the next trajectory for the company, while still honouring and maintaining what her parents set out to do. “There are days that it feels like my head is full of questions and problems to resolve, but I think that both my mother and father are up there looking out for me, because by the end of the night, something always comes to mind, and I can rest easy,” she says.
The grieving process still continues as of now. It hurts, but Meena is determined to carry on her mother’s legacy with the memories of their time together in her head, the spirit of perseverance, and the knowledge that she had worked to achieve all she wanted till her last moments. “According to the Hindu calendar, there is a belief that there are certain days where if you pass on, you’ll be blessed with a path straight to heaven,” says Meena. “My mother died on one such day, and for me, I know I need to learn to let go, because we believe that if those left on Earth continue to pine for those who have died, the dead will feel our loss and cannot rest in peace.”
“You can see how the nation responded to her death, and it seems like she’ll never be forgotten,” she concludes. “And beyond remembering her, it’s my job, and all the students of Bhaskar’s, all the thousands of sisters who have passed through this school’s doors, to work together, be there for each other, and pass on the passion and love, and make sure the art of Bharatanatyam lives on for generations to come.”
Bhaskar’s Arts Academy celebrates their 70th anniversary throughout the year. Their next show, Butterfly Lovers, plays at the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre on 3rd June 2022, with tickets available here More information and full programme lineup available on their website
Bhaskar’s Arts Academy will also be featured in Ceremonial Enactments, which plays from 21st to 22nd May 2022 at the Esplanade Theatre as part of the 2022 Singapore International Festival of Arts. Tickets available here