The multiple identities of Singaporean Indian performing arts: Maya Dance Theatre and Bhaskar’s Arts Academy

Grisana Punpeng, PhD

 

 

‘For us, the message is more important than the form’, Kavitha Krishnan, dance artist, co-founder of Maya Dance Theatre and director of PANCHA-Flowers Don’t Bloom All the Time told us after the rehearsal.[1] The stories of survivors of violence against women and children are explored and presented through the well-trained bodies of the performers in a unique style that combines Indian classical dance forms with other Asian traditions and contemporary dance. In this latest original theatrical creation opening in August 2018, Kavitha spent several months creating and rehearsing with two choreographers and six dancers to deliver the unspoken realities and complexities in emotion of sexual assault survivors and to let their voices be heard with a hope to break the cycle of pain.[2]

Positioned as a trans-cultural contemporary dance company, Maya Dance Theatre company has been building its distinctive identity within both local and international performing arts scenes since its opening in 2006. Kavitha, the artistic director of the company, said that they had been steering away from putting themselves in categories of art forms but it is hard to avoid when it comes to applying for the government funding.[3] As a recipient of the National Arts Council’s Seed Grant in 2012-1015[4] and an Arts Housing Scheme tenant[5], the company and its productions are strongly associated with the Indian culture, one of the four official ethic identities of Singaporean population; ie Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Eurasian or Others (CMIO).

While the Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong stated that ‘Singapore’s diversity is a fundamental aspect of each group’s identity, and that ‘no race or culture is coerced into conforming with other identities, let alone that of the majority’[6], the simplified racial categorization (CMIO model) has been employed in several national policies since 1824, including those released by the Arts Council. It is also reflected in the Identity Cards (ICs) of all Singaporeans and Permanent Residents, despite the vast variety of subgroups and differences among those within each of the four major racial groups.[7]

While being recognised and identified by the Arts Council as Indian has helped Maya Dance Theatre secure the government’s funding and art housing support that are systematically divided into racial quotas, there are some limitations in terms of creativity and public perception of art forms. Upon observing the rehearsal of PANCHA, there may be certain movements that could be associated with Indian dance forms, but it is a stretch to associate the performance as a whole with Indian culture.[8] As an artist, Kavitha focuses on delivering a message that could potentially lead to social change and development, mixing and fusing dance and theatre styles that she has learnt and explored throughout her life. However, if Maya Dance Theatre dissociated itself from Indian traditions, it could risk losing support from the government. It, therefore, has to conform to the image of ‘Indian tradition’, which in many ways hinders the artist’s full creativity and the ability to reach a wider audience.

Also belonging in the Indian category, despite its vast differences from Maya Dance Theatre, Bhaskar’s Arts Academy is a performing arts group aimed at creating, producing, presenting and promoting Indian dance, music and theatre performances. Established 66 years ago, Bhaskar’s now offers not only performances, but a school (Nrityalaya Aesthetics Society), a recording house (Bhaskar’s Recording House) and a quarterly magazine named Aesthetics.[9] Unlike Maya Dance Theatre, Bhaskar’s places an emphasis on preserving Indian traditional dance forms, such as Bharatanatyam, Kathak and Kathakali, while also creating its own style of Singaporean-Indian dance theatre.

Bhaskar’s Arts Academy

 

Similar to Maya Dance Theatre, Bhaskar’s Arts Academy receives National Arts Council’s Major Company Grant and also Art Housing support. Bhaskar’s seems to feel less pressure however, as they clearly conform to the Indian identity recognised by the government. The argument here is not about preference or whether one is better than another; the point is to reconsider what diversity means to us in a fast-growing world. It is not limited to only race, religion or nationalities. While Singapore aims to foster a multiracial, multi-religious society with its national policies nurturing arts and culture, the government must be careful not to put people into boxes in which they do not feel comfortable. It can be quite limiting to be regarded as a single race, or a certain art form, when creative potential is enhanced when boundaries are challenged.

To broaden inclusion and allow creativity to thrive freely in the world today, the concept of multiple identities must be taken into consideration. Organizations, companies and the government can no longer divide people in society based on only a single category, such as gender, religion, class or sexual orientation. They must recognise the differences in perspectives, needs, opportunities and limitations that these multiple identities have and ensure that efforts to drive inclusion do not create more exclusion within specific groups.


[1] Interview on 20 July 2018, Singapore

[2] http://www.mayadancetheatre.org/productions/new-productions/pancha-flowers-dont-bloom-all-the-time

[3] Interview on 20 July 2018, Singapore

[4] Singapore’s National Arts Council grant aimed at helping kick-start new or emerging not-for-profit arts organisations’ programmes and projects, and formalising their operations (https://www.nac.gov.sg/whatwedo/support/funding/seedgrant/overview.html)

[5] ‘The Arts Housing Scheme was implemented in 1985 to provide affordable spaces to arts groups and artists. Its main purpose is to give arts groups and artists a home within which they can develop their activities and thereby contribute to an active Singapore arts scene.’ (https://www.nac.gov.sg/whatwedo/support/arts-spaces/art-housing-scheme.html#Little-India-Arts-Belt)

[6] https://www.straitstimes.com/politics/singapolitics/pm-whether-chinese-malay-or-indian-a-singaporean-can-spot-a-fellow-citizen

[7] https://observer.news/singapore/singapores-race-based-cmio-model-still-relevant/

[8] Observation on 20 July 2018, Singapore.

[9] http://www.bhaskarsartsacademy.com/about-us/history/

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