Moonlighting as a stage performer is like being Clark Kent, says burlesque artist Sukki Menon, better known by her stage name Sukki Singapora. By day, she was a geek working in the IT industry, and by night, she would secretly transform into a burlesque showgirl. With time, the biracial, "tricultural" Indian-Singaporean made a career transition that would earn her a place at the global level, as a star, performer and activist. Her life would never be the same after she discovered this vibrant art form; it gave her a medium to express herself " a compelling desire that she harboured for years.
She lived in the UK when her fascination with the art form began; the amateur felt compelled to approach an up-and-coming comedy theatre space that'd just opened up in her neighbourhood. During her auditions, she convinced the owners that she was indeed a professional burlesque artiste and even managed to book her first live show. With only a week to prepare, she geared up to choreograph and rehearse a routine to be performed for an audience of 300. "My entry point to burlesque was frantically teaching myself the moves from YouTube in seven days!" she recounts.
The origins of burlesque can be traced back to 17th century Italian theatre that used it as a medium to mock the high society of the time. The word burlesque literally means "to poke fun at," Singapora explains, making the dance both a performance as well as a parody. Embraced mainly by female performers, the art has evolved through the centuries, from being theatrical to showgirl " all the while retaining its inherent spirit of being a light-hearted tease.
In keeping with this dynamic performance style, Singapora too has been imbuing her movement vocabulary with flourishes that not only send across a message of confidence and love, but also, in a fun and playful manner, become a vehicle through which womanhood can be celebrated. One of the common misconceptions about burlesque, Singapora remarks, is that it is performed for men by women. The opposite is actually true, she notes: "Most fans of burlesque are women."
Burlesque is also often wrongly perceived as being akin to stripping. Singapora clarifies that it is only a tease, and doesn't constitute nudity. "Being a tease allows burlesque to challenge society's perception of what it means to be a woman, in a way that no other art form can," she says, "It challenges us to have uncomfortable conversations. It highlights the discourse we have around women's right to be sexy for no one but themselves, as well as to be sexually empowered..."
Moreover, "Burlesque is a no-rules performance art that teaches women self-love, and celebrates bodies of all types," she adds. The performer has complete control over what she may choose to reveal through her choreography.
Singapora's passion for burlesque is evident in her study of the aesthetics of costume, hair and make-up that she creatively devises for every performance. "Much of the artistry of burlesque is in the costume and make-up," she explains, "For me, make-up and costumes are an extension of my art. It's how I express myself beyond just movement. It allows me to further say what I want to, as an artist."
Bringing together her Asian roots, both Indian and Singaporean, has for long been the focal point of this artist's performance style. One of the components of this blending of cultures is using emotive hairstyling to express herself, as well as exploring the significance of hair in the lives of Indian women. "It's been a way for me to reclaim and rewrite the narrative on hair and what it means."
"I'm extremely proud to be a desi artist," says the performer, "and since Asian burlesque performers are so rare, I wanted to incorporate that into my performances." Most of her costumes are such that they include a piece of sari fabric as well as embellishments from traditional Indian attire, influenced also by the glitz and dazzle of the Indian film industry.
When she was a novice, Singapora was aware that performing burlesque would prove to be controversial, but after her stint in the UK, when she returned to Singapore, the artist was surprised to find that performing burlesque was a 'grey area' legally-speaking, too.
She embarked on a mission that would transcend stage recitals: she worked towards a movement for legitimising the art form. For her, it was a fight against society policing women and their right to "take ownership of their bodies." She travelled from country to country, setting up concerts to spread the powerful message of burlesque as a performance by women, for women, and in 2015, she earned her victory: a first, full, public burlesque routine that she performed in Singapore. In the same year, she was also inducted into the Burlesque Hall of Fame, for being a 'Mover, Shaker and Innovator' whose quirky performances lend a contemporary twist to the erstwhile theatrical art.
More recently, Singapora appeared in Netflix's 2019 series, Singapore Social, a feature that explored the lives of young women in the country navigating unconventional choices and careers that defied preconceived expectations.
The path towards success has been full of challenges, the performer concedes, but taking the road less travelled enabled her to discover the role she can play as a woman to dismantle the taboos of her traditional childhood. "Because of this, I passionately believe in the difference burlesque has made to my life, and therefore the difference it can make to others... It's just the starting point," she concludes, "it's what you do after you discover burlesque and what it stands for, which is where the real change begins."