Subathra Subramanium Blog

Subathra Subramanium


Week two was when I decided my soul was getting peckish and needed feeding. So off I went to see the country, meet more people and experience Sri Lanka outside my wonderful Hikkaduwa. A wonderful uncle I met in Colombo a couple of weeks ago had kindly offered to take us around Colombo. We then went to Kandy, followed by a seven hour train trip to Ella. It is reputed to be one of the most beautiful rail journeys in the world, and the reputation is deserved. Utterly spectacular!

I went to a weird and wonderful Buddhist temple in Colombo that had everything from this to incredible statues, to cupboards full of antique watches, cameras, and even real classic cars.


Another representation of Buddha. Not one I have seen before.

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Wonderful to go to a stone, Tamil temple and get swept up in the mantras and mystery, experiencing again all the rituals, sounds and smells that I grew up with in Malaysia, in temples in India and the UK.

Sri Lanka is the world’s largest producer of black tea. You can see why as we traveled by train from Colombo to Kandy. I never grew tired of the views.

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A crow at Kandy Lake.

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Our train to Ella. A journey and a destination as beautiful as every guidebook describes. The ride was exhilarating, hot and sometimes chaotic, whereas Ella itself is languid, cool and serene.

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One of the highlights of the Colombo trip was my Bharata Natyam class with Vasugi Jegadeeswaran at the Indian Cultural Institute. She is a much admired and respected teacher here. As I have been revisiting the dance form as part of my practice here in Sri Lanka, the opportunity to do an actual class was a privilege and a real treat. It is so rare that I get to do a class these days.

Yala Safari

Among the many highlights were: a sloth bear walking away from us then climbing a tree to get its yellow berries; a small family of elephants bathing; a leopard running across the track in front of us with what we think was a rabbit in its mouth; watching the rough seas at Yala and visiting a local fishing village. A memorable day spent with a wonderful bunch of people.

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As part of my residency I asked to work in a local school and hospital. The workshops in the hospital have been fascinating and eye opening. The first of the three ended up being for a group of 55 adults largely made up of psychiatrists, medical students, nurses, occupational therapists and psychiatric social workers. I had no idea there were going to be that many people. However it was one of the most fulfilling workshops I have ever done. I had to negotiate cultural nuances, gender issues, the fact that I was not a therapist or medical professional but a choreographer, the number of people, the space, the hierarchy, the initial lack of willingness to do movement…However when they did start moving and playing the games I invited them to, there was a room full of laughter, incredible creativity and most of all they genuinely seemed to be having fun. The second workshops involved the doctors going into the psychiatric wards and asking 15 or so patients to do the workshop if they wished to. Another incredible experience, and watching the patients move, be free to allow themselves to be immersed in something was humbling to watch and be a part of. The opportunity to be in the hospital and see life as it is was equally enriching.

I continue to miss my boys terribly especially my son Hal. The continuing frustration with an erratic internet signal means I can’t always talk to my family and especially see them. Those are my sad days, the days where I really miss being able to have my family in my arms.


I have never made work that is about my identity, my culture, where I am, who I am, where I fit into this world being Malaysian born, of Tamil decent and living in the UK. I have never felt inspired to make work that explores this. However, being here has opened up a whole new feeling I didn’t expect. I do a Bharata Natyam class with Brian most days. I have been to more temples since being here than I have done in the last few years. I have become fascinated and intrigued by the temple rituals that I have grown up with but seldom questioned as it became habitual. I am certain at this stage that I would like the work I make here to have an element of ritual about it.

What does “taking risks” means for me? Does that mean looking at my process and doing things I wouldn’t normally do? Or does it mean putting my work in different situations or in a different space, in a different context? For me right now, the risk is a cultural one. How does me feeling more Tamil inform what I make? How does that sit here in Hikkaduwa a predominantly Sinhalese place? How do I open up what I do to the audience and allow them in even more? Could I get the audience to help me put on the sari that I want to work with? That for me, is an intimate experience between the performer and the audience and one that really takes me out of my comfort zone.

I want to explore what it would feel like to ask Sinhala speakers to tear up a Tamil newspaper, which I then use as part of a ritual.

Time does not allow for the rigour to explore in detail all that I want to, but I hope the resonances are strong enough to instill a curiosity in the people watching and the imagery and movement strong enough to feel something that goes beyond the aesthetics of the form.

I have chosen to make a dance film on Brian Hartley. It will be filmed in three different locations – on a railway track, on the beach and on the main road in Hikkaduwa. I have learned so much about making a dance film from Brian through our collaboration. Choosing the locations came quite naturally but really looking at how the Bharata Natyam movement sits in each space has been a wonderful experience. We found ourselves filming on the beach at 6.30 in the morning just to make sure the light was right and that the tourists weren’t out in full force. We filmed on the Galle Road and loved hearing some passers by shouting “they are filming a Yoga dance video!”

My favourite so far was filming on the railway track. I was both operating the camera and on train guard! Not a great combination of jobs but exhilarating nonetheless.

I have thoroughly enjoyed my many trips to Galle to source costume fabrics, bells, Tamil newspapers, saris and especially visiting even more Tamil temples.

I continue to learn, enjoy and feel enriched by all the other artists and all that they bring to this residency. I have been working with Tim and Tanuja on the music for my work and the collaborative process has been effortless. They recorded me singing a few Carnatic songs and have incorporated them into the soundscape they are creating for me. I forgot just how much I love singing Carnatic music…albeit not necessarily very well. However they have managed to make me sound vaguely like I can sing!

The routine of going to Mangalika’s space in the village surrounded by greenery and sounds of all the animals, to do class and dance and make work, is a real treat. I am going to miss that so very much. It has become the safe haven of creativity, peace and a space where Hikkaduwa and the wonderful relationship we have built over the weeks with Mangalika’s family, especially Samadi her 3 year old granddaughter, informs the work. The tea and coconuts that they continue to bring us is always perfectly timed to nourish and refresh.

With the show on the 24th not that far away, we are all beginning to get things in place and have been doing workshops for each other to create a collaborative work. What a great way to collaborate! What we create as a group will be informed by what happens and what we learn and what we choose to put into the collaborative pot as a result of the workshops.

There are still many things I have not eaten yet so I am on a mission between now and the end of the residency to eat as many types of typical Sri Lankan dishes as possible. I am currently on the look out for egg hoppers.

This residency has been about looking at my own practice as an artist. I have never had the time and space and support to do that before. I feel incredibly privileged to have this space and time in an incredible place. It has also been about finding out – what do I mean by “my own practice”. Is that the work I make, the process of making work, how I as a dancer can still find the space and time to explore my own body as a moving body, how I engage my audiences and how much I want to interact with them in the work I do…..

This residency has thrown up a whole load of questions at a very pertinent time in my career and practice. Questions that I hope I can continue to explore as an artist. It has also given me an insight into how other artists approach this and also how for some, the things that are most integral in their work, I have never even considered at any depth. It has opened my eyes to a myriad of possibilities, questions and risks that are worth taking and investigating.

I am getting quite excited about the show on the 24th. For the audience, I think they will be in for a treat of high quality art from an incredible bunch of artists who are all perfectionists in their own way. A whole afternoon of sculpture, dance, visual art, music, sound, drawings, poetry and to finish off, a rice and curry banquet and finally a disco! Can’t wait….

I am going to miss this place, the others, the heat, the freedom to think and be and be creative as and when I like, so much, but I am also very much looking forward to seeing my family, my little Hal and my big Q.

Neil, Mari and their son Jack have already made me feel so welcome.

I savoured the tranquility of being by myself. I went to Galle by train, watched some stilt fishing in Unawatuna, had an Ayurvedic massage, walked around Hikkaduwa and discovered the town. I also discovered Lyndon’s yoga classes which are super, mega hard but it gives me a focus for my own practice at least three times a week. I spoke to lots of the other guests at the hotel. I went for long walks on the beach. I met, or at least saw, the giant turtles that swim up to the shore just a short walk long the beach. Wherever I went I was asked if I was Sri Lankan purely because of the colour of my skin. Every time, I patiently explained that I was born in Malaysia but lived in the UK. I became increasingly aware that I was not saying I was Tamil. Was that subconscious or was it that I preferred being a tourist rather than a Tamil person? I’m not sure.

Week 1…The createful 8….

Meeting all the other artists (Brian Hartley, Rob Mullholland, Emma Brierly, Tanuja Amarasuriya and Timothy X Atack aka Sleepdogs and Claire Raftery and Damian Wright aka Periplum) has been really wonderful. Each of them seem to bring with them an openness to explore and exchange. Listening to each of them talk about their practices gave me so much to think about. I feel very humbled to be amongst such a diverse, highly skilled and talented bunch of artists. So much to learn, to experience and so much fun to be had!

Brian and I have already decided that we are going to do some form of sharing of our own dance practices as a daily routine…or at least as often as we can. He is interested in learning Bharata Natyam – the ancient South Indian classical dance form – and I am keen to understand contact improvisation but without going to a big class with a whole bunch of dancers! We have been working in a wonderful space with a roof but no walls in the jungle where all the villages are. The space belongs to Mangalika, a wonderful, warm woman who makes us welcome every time. Her three year old grand daughter Samadi always comes to play with us for the first few minutes of our sessions. It has become our little ritual. That space is our haven. It makes my Hikkaduwa bubble that little bit bigger and busier. I love working there. We are often interrupted by the sounds of weird and wonderful birds and Mangalika bringing us tea or coconuts.

Ideas are slowly creeping in about what I’d like to do, create and explore whilst here. The daily dance practice, yoga and conversations are feeding this process very nicely. As are the tea and coconuts.

I am missing my little boy terribly. I have to work really hard at compartmentalising my brain. Every time I speak to him on the phone albeit through the most frustrating internet signal, those compartments fall apart and I yearn to hug and hold him. I allow myself that time to be sad and then carry on. I have been given a wonderful opportunity to be here, explore my own practice in an unpressured, hotel on a beach environment with a bunch of amazing artists. I have laughed a lot, cried a lot, thought a lot, talked a lot, eaten a lot, danced a lot, done yoga a lot, been in the sea a lot and long may it continue into coming weeks.