“Stree – The Divine Feminine came about quite by accident”: Bhaskar’s Arts Academy dancer Bala Saravanan Loganathan goes unfiltered

Started in 1952 by the late Mr. KP Bhaskar, Bhaskar’s Arts Academy has been championing and upholding Indian classical art forms in Singapore for over seven decades now. Spearheaded by Mrs. Santha Bhaskar till 2023, until her demise, the company has contributed significantly to the Indian diaspora in the city-state.

BA Bhaskar founded the company in 1952. It was spearheaded by his wife Santha Bhaskar. Photo credit: BAA
BAA founder KP Bhaskar (left) and his wife, Santha Bhaskar. Photo credit: BAA
Meenakshy Bhaskar is the current head of BAA. Photo credit: BAA
Meenakshy Bhaskar. Photo credit: BAA

Now led by Meenakshy Bhaskar, BAA will stage its second production from the CreationLab scheme. Titled Stree – The Divine Feminine, the production is helmed by Bala Saravanan Loganathan. An integral member of the company, Bala directed five of his peers in his debut choreographic work. Ahead of the production’s premiere on 10 February 2024 (Saturday) at 7.30pm at the Esplanade Theatre Studio, Connected to India Senior Correspondent Sudipto Maity caught up with Bala Saravanan Loganathan for a chat. From his decade-long journey as a dancer to his debut as a director and aspirations to working with actor extraordinaire Kamal Haasan, read on to find out more from the young talent. Excerpts:

From Yaatra (2014) to Stree – The Divine Feminine, it has been a decade for you performing live. Take us through this journey.

A decade sounds like a really long time, but it has gone by really quickly for me. I first performed in Yaatra (2014), and I was very new to performing in comparison to most of my peers whom I had performed alongside. In addition, the theme was a rather abstract and a contemporary one. So, on the whole, it was somewhat a nerve-wrecking experience. The following year, together with my peers and seniors, I had performed in Natya Darpana, a show put up to celebrate the inauguration of the Indian Heritage Centre. Thereafter came a two-year break due to National Service. However, I was still given an opportunity to perform in Vellai Vattam (2017), a Therukkoothu production where I had to take on the challenge of playing the role of a female. 2018 was a year full of dance, including my first overseas performance in Ninh Binh Province, Vietnam. I was also involved in Singai Sathir and Manohra, two shows which opened my eyes to the idea of cross-cultural work. In 2019, I was given the golden opportunity of performing one of my favourite characters till date, Kattiyakaran, in my Guru, Mrs. Ambujah’s second iteration of Kutrala Kuravanji.

The talented dancer will make his debut as a choreographer with Stree- The Devine Feminine. Photo: BAA
Bala started his journey in 2014 with Yaatra. Photo credit: BAA

The production not only pushed my abilities as a dancer but also increased my love for the Tamil language, as I was tasked with acting out some dialogues and also helping with translation of the poetry for the audience. Whilst the whole world was stuck to their houses during the pandemic which came the year after, BAA Company dancers were given the opportunity to work on Dasha Tanmatra (10 Subtle Elements), a work that comprised 10 smaller scale online projects released throughout 2020. Since then, I have been part of Yantra Mantra (2022) and Radin Mas (2023).

Tell us about Stree – The Divine Feminine. How did you decide upon the theme? Talk to us about the creative process and how long it took you to get ready with the final production.

Ambujah Thiru has trained Stree director Bala at BAA. Photo credit: BAA
BAA choreographer and Bala’s guru Ambujah Thiru. Photo credit: BAA

Stree – The Divine Feminine came about quite by accident, actually. I had first approached my teacher and mentor, Mrs. Ambujah Thiru (Ambujah Akka as we call her) with a selection of songs, poetry and potential themes I would like to explore. One poetry, which will be featured in Stree, stood out. It was a poetry by the famed Bharathiyar, which compared the beauty of his muse, Kannamma, to the essence of the many things around us. Ambujah akka nudged me to ponder about that, which got me thinking about the various ways in which we see the feminine, and thus the concept was born. It’s also an ode to all the women who have encouraged and pushed me in my pursuit of Bharatanatyam – my mother, my guru and my peers. It has taken several months of work to get Stree together. First came the selection of songs and their versions. Then came the understanding of the songs and their layers and then the choreography. Sometimes I would choreograph first and show Ambujah akka later, and sometimes I will talk to her about my ideas and she would throw in some questions and suggestions which would help me find my direction in choreography.

The production casts five of your peers from Bhaskar’s Arts Academy. As a first-time choreographer, how was it to direct your friends? Did you receive notes from them as well?

Firstly, I’d like to thank the five dancers for agreeing to be a part of Stree. They have been an amazing bunch, accommodating to all the craziness I bring along with me. The bigger task was to ensure that they understood what I was trying to convey to them and making sure that we didn’t get carried away. I don’t think I got notes from my peers, but I would always check in to see if they’re comfortable with the movements or which positions are more comfortable on them.

Five BAA company dancers will perform in Stree. Photo credit: BAA
The cast of Stree. Photo credit: BAA

Staying on the first-time choreographer subject, what’s the feeling like? Are you excited, or are you scared, or is it a mix of everything all at once?

I think it’s really been a mix of everything, really, from excitement to fear to a feeling of hope. Some days I am really excited about what I want to choreograph and other days the sheer task of putting up something of this scale scares me. But I think the process has been with one of many lessons about the craft and about myself. And it being a mentorship helps to put many things into perspective.

What do you plan to achieve through this production? What is the goal and purpose of it? What’s the takeaway for the audience?

For the audience, I think it’ll be a reminder that Singapore does have a thriving arts scene, with the younger generations carrying the baton forward. The late Mrs. Bhaskar strongly believed in grooming the next generation; even as early as the 80s and 90s, where dancers like Mrs. Ambujah Thiru and Ms. Meenakshy Bhaskar were given the platforms to grow as choreographers. This current version of the CreationLab scheme is also her brainchild. And as far as the show’s content goes, it aims to remind the audience that the feminine is found around and within us. It’s an energy to be embraced and celebrated.

Music plays an integral part of Stree. Photo credit: BAA
Stree Musicians. Photo credit: BAA

Now that you’re setting out on your own, are you open to working in movies? If yes, are Indian movies a viable option for you in the future?

Only if Kamal Hassan is making Salangai Oli 2! Haha kidding. I love watching movies. But they require a totally different skill set. Having performed for small scale online presentations, I’m familiar with the challenges that come with working with cameras. Cinema is a different ball game – not too sure if I’d take it up. But I can’t guarantee that my answer will be the same in another decade.