NUS Indian Dance is a performing arts group under the NUS Centre for the Arts. Established in 1977, the group has attained great heights under the guidance of its tutor cum resident choreographer, Mrs. Santha Bhaskar, pioneer in Singapore’s Indian dance scene and Cultural Medallion winner in 1990. The members of the group comprise NUS undergraduates and alumni, both experienced and trained dancers from India and Singapore. Kiran Kumar, Nav:Ras Art Director and one of the alumni choreographers, introduces us to Indian contemporary dance and talks about the new production.


I read on your site that NUS Indian dance performs mainly Bharatanatyam and Kathak, the most ancient classical dance forms. When and why did the group venture into contemporary dance?

The group’s primary focus is and has always been classical Indian dance. We train and perform both Bharatanatyam and Kathak which have roots in Southern and Northern India respectively. Mrs. Bhaskar wished to bring out young talents and give us a chance for self-expression. The best opportunity was during our annual concert in September. Thus, our foray into contemporary dance began last year with ‘Maargam – An Artist’s Path’ as part of Dance Reflection 2006 and presented by NUS Centre For the Arts. The concert was themed along the path of a Bharatanatyam dancer’s progression in a classical ballet repertoire. It was the first time we infused a tinge of contemporary style towards the end of the program. We were actually treading the line carefully, so it came as a pleasant surprise when the audience loved it! With such welcoming response, we decided to showcase more student choreography at the NUS Arts Festival this time round. We are lucky to have teacher’s support and encouragement in this new direction. As young creators, we draw from the classical language but present it in a personal, new dialect. Bharatanatyam is still our roots, of which contemporary stems as a part of a natural progression.

What are the different dimensions of Indian Contemporary Dance?

There are as many dimensions to Indian Contemporary dance as there are facets of contemporary India. The idea of the ‘contemporary’ escapes any singular definition; it thrives on plurality. In form, it inescapably relates to classical dance; loving it, hating it but never ignoring it! It also unavoidably makes reference to a plethora of other forms that the particular artist may be exposed to in his own environment. In content, the dance form draws inspiration from any source that willingly or unwillingly lends itself as inspiration! Take the upcoming Nav:Ras concert on 24 March for example. Through Mrs Bhaskar’s inspiration, Nav:Ras explores the classical aesthetic theory (that of the nine human emotions) in contemporary kinaesthetic. It is also an influence turned collaboration between NUS Indian Dance with the NUS Dance Ensemble. Choreographer Zaini Mohammad Tahir, of the NUS Dance Ensemble, trains us and makes dance with our bodies. The ultimate result is tremendous; we’ll get the final verdict on 24 March! So what puts the ‘contemporary’ in Indian dance could vary widely. From the form of dance, its content, its dancers, its dance-makers, its stage to its audience, over and above the aesthete of the musical, technical, literary or visual collaborators.

There is a lot of spirituality and story-telling in classical Indian dance. Is this also an intrinsic part of Contemporary dance?

Anything that is classical is also contemporary for the simple reason that the latter is only deconstructing and ‘making sense’ of the former, so to speak. Contemporary Indian dance contains about 3 to 5 kilograms of spirituality as opposed to the generous 157 kilograms present in classical dance. Classical dance is more spiritual in intent than content. The religious overtone and mythological characterization are merely means for the dancer to ‘transcend’, if you will, in the process of dance. Now these may be rather lofty ideas for us to grasp, what with being told to expect a certain degree of spirituality in anything Indian, let alone dance. The point I’m trying to make is that spirituality, if any, is a bottom-up precipitation rather than a top-down infusion. But thanks to the commercial success of brand Karma-Cola, spirituality (as perceived) presents itself to critical presentation in Contemporary Indian art. As for story-telling, I feel contemporary dance theatre tells stories that are more personal than the mythological content of classical dance narratives. Personal either in experience or in narrative style, or both. This is not at all to dismiss mythology as inaccessible and archaic. In fact, as a contemporary dancer, I may well tell the mythological stories that my pantheon of Indian grandmothers and aunts showered on my childhood. The difference is between re-production and re-creation. The latter demands more involvement.

Nav:Ras is an exposition of the 9 major classical categories of emotions or Rasa? How do you explore these emotions?

Demanding an answer to this in words is asking us dancers to turn writers. An elaborate 90 minute essay is going to be written on 24 March. Read that instead!


In classical Indian dance, there is a strong connection between dance and theatre. Nav:Ras melts digital technology with physical expression. Can you tell us about that?

The Indian aesthetic doesn’t separate dance and theatre. The ancient Sanskrit treatise on dance and theatre is called NAtyaSAstra, and ‘NAtya’ when translated could mean dance and or drama. This treatise is where most classical Indian dances as well as theatre have their roots. It emphasizes Nritta (pure movement), Natana (rhythm) and Abhinaya (expression). In this context, what you call contemporary Indian dance, need actually be called contemporary Indian dance theatre henceforth. Any degree of expressiveness or restraint (but not the lack thereof) makes dance, dance theatre. In Nav:Ras, the classical stronghold of expression, the face, is restructured to create a more inclusive ‘playground’ of expression. The entire body, as a whole and in parts, is permitted entry into this playground. Digital technology is a mere extension of body in the contemporary landscape. When technology has affected mundane life and on-stage performance alike, why hide the lights behind wings and consoles in dark rooms? A technology-under-construction meets a dance-under-deconstruction.

Does each dance speak for itself or do you use significant props?

In Nav:Ras, the body is the only significant prop, so that dance evokes emotions, evoke dance.

You are working with several choreographers for this production. Can we expect a fusion of different styles?

No. Each choreographer is working on independent pieces. The commonality is that each piece is their individual take on contemporary Indian dance theatre, which is also the variety.

What about the music. Do you use music by modern Indian composers?

Very much so. Just as the dance, the music is what may ostensibly be called contemporary classical music, or what is dubbed as ‘world’ music. Nav:Ras’s music is a chapter of its own, with an array of composers of both Indian origin and influence. The cinematic impact of A.R.Rehman, the contemporary stylings of the classical prodigy, Anoushka Shankar, the restless energy of Shankar Mahadevan and Farhan Querishi, the legend that is Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the technological brilliance of Karsh Kale and the raw pleasure of Celine Wadier’s French-accented Dhrupad vocals, all make for an amazing playlist, if nothing else!

Do you think the audience will find it easy to comprehend?

I can’t say. It depends on how open a mind they come with. We’re coming forth to express something to the audience; the audience needs to move by way of trying to understand. Now, whether we meet is a question of how far each or both have been successful in moving. If we don’t, it will suffice if both have genuinely been displaced from our respective starting points.

Off-stage you will also run a digital and visual art display of the 9 emotions.

Yes, the Aharya exhibition has already started. A colourful array of four series of photographs and a series of sketches is already on display at NUS Central Library. The exhibition carries the concept of nine emotions off stage, allowing the visual artist to express it using his own medium. It not only helps the audience to understand the concept but view very different perspectives of the same. The display includes forty exhibits in four series of nine pieces each, based on the nine human emotions.

The Aharya exhibition will be on display at the NUS Central Library till 18 March. From 19 till 24 March it will relocate to the Cultural Centre of the National University of Singapore and from 25 March onwards you can view the exhibit at the The Arts House.

(Originally published 14th March 2007)



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