Monday, February 07, 2005

(D) Jan 29, 2005 - Bharatanatyam Ipoh

AN arts connoisseur living in the Klang Valley can usually indulge in a veritable feast of visual and performing arts events throughout the year. Arts practitioners, too, have it pretty good: the population is large enough that there is a real demand for the arts, there is exposure to works of international standard, even enough money around for some artistes to work full time at their craft.

If you're trying to pursue your passion outside the Klang Valley, though, it's a different story.
Ask Sri Santiago Samathanam and Sudha Sasikumar, principals of Natyakalamandhir and Nritya Kalanjali dance schools respectively in Ipoh.

Santiago juggles a full time job, time with his family, and teaching dance and running the school. Sudha, who joined her husband when he was posted to Kuala Lumpur three years ago, travels north twice a week to teach her students.

These two principals' schools are among the more active of the handful of classical Indian dance schools in Perak with both teachers sending their students to Kuala Lumpur to take part in public performances, such as Alarippu to Moksha 2005. In its fourth year, this annual event organised by Ramli Ibrahim's Sutra Dance Theatre showcases students from classical Indian dance schools around the country.

It was a welcome opportunity for these students to perform, and a rare one at that. While there are opportunities to perform in Ipoh, of course, they tend to be limited to corporate and state functions, say the teachers. In a dancer's long journey towards growth, maturity and perfection, much more needs to be done and experienced.

They need events like Alarippu to Moksha (which, by the way, means “from the beginning to the end”) to give them sorely needed exposure to what's happening in their field so they can grow. This is the third consecutive time students from Santiago's school are taking part, and the principal says he has, indeed, seen tremendous improvement in his students.

“When my students watch students from other schools perform and interact with other teachers, they learn more and mature with the exposure,” he said.

Indeed, it was Santiago's students who gave one of the more innovative performances in this year’s Alarippu to Moksha. Keen to expand new ideas within bharatanatyam, he infused a Christian theme into the classical Indian dance form in a piece called Christubhagavatam.

His piece is an extension of the pioneering efforts of Indian dancer Dr Francis Barboza, who began exploring Christian themes through bharatanatyam in 1980 and created Christian hasta (gestures) for the principle figures in Christianity. These hastas were carefully applied in Santiago’s production, which detailed the life of Jesus Christ from birth till resurrection.

While Santiago's piece explored new gestures, Sudha’s focused more on expression. Bhavna (meaning “expression”), which showcased the young talent emerging from her rank of senior students, challenged the dancers' ability to express subtle nuances with composure and dignity.

Both pieces showed just why these teachers have made names for themselves in the northern region.

For Sri Santiago Samathanam, teaching classical Indian dance in Ipoh is a labour of love.Santiago, who has been teaching for 20 years, is now a guru to 35 students and hopes to establish a natya (dance) ashram where all dance enthusiasts can learn this divine art and transcend relifious, racial and language barriers.

Sudha founded Nritya Kalanjali in 1996 and has, over the years, produced some of the most promising young talents in the region, dancers who have won awards and accolades for their polished performances.

“Some parents still feel that dance would get in the way of studies. However, this is not true,” said Sudha firmly. “Dance, in fact, gives the child mental relaxation and physical fitness. A child who dances is very focused and disciplined. One of my older students scored seven A’s for her PMR last year. In fact, in India, it is not uncommon to find that some of the more established dancers are PhD holders and doctors,” she pointed out.

But things are changing, she notes, saying that parents are becoming aware of the importance of cultivating an interest in art and culture in their children.

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