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All in the family: Sharda Harrison’s animal tales

SINGAPORE — What was it like growing up with a famous animal lover whose name is synonymous with the Singapore Zoo? Well, according to Bernard Harrison’s theatre actress daughter Sharda, it was a “very bizarre” experience.

Pink Gajah Theatre's BI(CARA). Photo: Ryan Peters Photography.

Pink Gajah Theatre's BI(CARA). Photo: Ryan Peters Photography.

SINGAPORE — What was it like growing up with a famous animal lover whose name is synonymous with the Singapore Zoo? Well, according to Bernard Harrison’s theatre actress daughter Sharda, it was a “very bizarre” experience.

“I used to spend almost every weekend in the zoo, which was almost like a second home to me,” she said.

Even at home, she recalled how her father would regularly bring critters back. “He’d come home with a little bag and there would be a snake or little iguanas. My brother and I would walk around on the streets with pythons on our heads — and we thought it was absolutely normal.”

Sharda would eventually take a different career path from her father’s, even though there were certain expectations from being “Bernard Harrison’s daughter”, she said.

“Everyone saw me as his daughter. My biology teacher would ask, ‘Why are your marks so low? You’re Bernard Harrison’s daughter?’

She said with a laugh: “I don’t know. I only like literature and English!”

That said, it seems it’s really all in the genes: Her latest production BI(CARA), co-written with Sabrina Dzulkifli, is based on her father’s talk titled Why Do We Do What We Do?

It’s part of the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival and produced by Sharda’s own company, Pink Gajah Theatre, which she runs with her mother and film-maker and musician brother Sean, who will be doing multimedia work for BI(CARA).

The text-and-movement piece was developed from an earlier work that was also named after her father’s talk.

“I’ve always wanted to do a show based on some of my father’s work — he’s a conservationist and zoologist and I went off and became an actress, and I felt a bit bad about that,” she said. “I wanted to pursue his work in some form.”

Taking off from the issues brought up in her father’s talk, BI(CARA) — which plays on the Malay words for “discuss” and “how” — touches on issues such as the relationship between humans and animals and the role of religion in how we treat animals, among others.

It weaves together narratives and characters that tackle or were inspired by a host of things: From the late beloved orangutan Ah Meng’s caretaker Sam to cat caregivers to shamanism. In the course of making the piece, she and her brother would interview various people including a zoologist from South Africa and singer-songwriter Antares Miatreya, who has lived with the orang asli in Fraser’s Hill, Pahang, since the early 1990s.

But aside from looking at stories of other people, Sharda also looked at her own relationship with animals, specifically, snakes. While she did walk around with these reptiles when she was young, she said she is also quite scared of them. “There was one time, one of the snakes escaped in the house and it was temperamental and bit a lot,” she recalled.

“It’s the one animal that made a big impact on my life.” Mayo Martin

Catch BI(CARA) from Jan 21 to 24 at the Centre 42 Black Box. Tickets at S$22 from SISTIC. For more details about the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, visit http://www.singaporefringe.com

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