Song of Surrender

Monday, 3 August 2015

Systematic efforts to propagate Indian arts

THE ARTS SCENE IN SINGAPORE

By Anjana Anand

Singapore’s success story of its transformation from humble beginnings as a fishing village to a global, cosmopolitan hub in just a few decades is legendary. What is as inspiring is the importance the government has given to the growth of the arts. Today Singapore boasts of a vibrant arts scene where the best of artists crave to perform. The biggest and earliest established schools for Indian classical art forms in the island are the Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society (1949), Nrityalaya Aesthetics Society (1953), Apsara Arts (1977) and Temple of Fine Arts (1982). Today many artists have been given the opportunity to pursue their passion as a career. How did this tiny island manage this? I met some of the country’s cultural medallion winners and young awardees to take a peek at the Indian arts scene in Singapore and to marvel at how these artists have carved a niche for themselves.

Singapore awards the ‘cultural medallion’ to artists who are pioneers in their fields. They have been recognised for the excellence they have achieved in the arts. Madhavi Krishnan, Neila Sathyalingam and Santha Bhaskar are the first few Indian women to have been granted this prestigious award for Dance in 1979, 1989 and 1990 respectively. Santha Bhaskar and Neila Sathyalingam are the founders/co-founders of dance schools established in Singapore in the last few decades. Santha Bhaskar’s husband, the late Dr. K.P. Bhaskar, started Bhaskar’s Academy for Dance in the 1940s in India and later in Singapore in 1952. It was later renamed as Nrityalaya Aesthetics Society. Today, true to its name, Nrityalaya has branched out to teach not only Bharatanatyam but Odissi, Kathak, Kathakali, both Carnatic and Western music, as well as Indian art to name a few diciplines. 

The Bhaskars have their roots in Kerala. Santha Bhaskar’s first flight out of India was to Singapore and she recalls with humour how she finally saw the different races which she had read about only in history books while studying in Kerala. K.P. Bhaskar, her husband, already had a hundred students in Singapore by then. She acknowledges that her artistic vision grew with her exposure to other art forms in the country – Chinese and Malay dance – as well as watching performances of artists from different countries. Her daughter Meena Bhaskar, a young artist awardee, continues in her mother’s footsteps, teaching, performing and choreographing.

Neila Sathyalingam, who also established her arts school called Apsara Arts, along with her husband Sathyalingam in the 1970s, too agrees that the multi-cultural ambience in Singapore contributed to her work in the arts. She remembers Singapore being a cultural desert back then – so much so that she wanted to return to Chennai. Trained in Bharatanatyam at Kalakshetra, Chennai and having taught there for a few years, Singapore was a challenge for her.

After being immersed in the active Chennai arts scene, how did these women begin from scratch in a completely new environment? Both are pioneers. They took the traditional form they were trained in and found a new methodology and avenues to practise and propagate their art form. It is not an exaggeration to say that many of the Indian artists now established in Singapore were introduced to Bharatanatyam through their association. 

Neila Sathyalingam remembers how her husband advised her to start teaching at community centres which were offering arts lessons at subsidised rates to interested students. They provided free space at different locations. He felt that students who came to learn at the centres would always value what they received from their teachers. True to his word, today many of the students she first taught at these community centres are pursuing dance full time in Singapore as teachers. They also help Apsaras Arts with productions as they have been trained in make-up, hair styling and other allied skills too. Neila started working with other ethnic artists and together they formed the ‘Little Angels’ group which began performing all over Singapore. Later, the People’s Association (PA) also formed their own dance troupes. The annual Chingay Parade became an event that she looked forward to, where Chinese, Malay and Indian dancers came together to showcase their talent at a national level.

Of course, it took years to create that interest in the next generation. Neila Sathyalingam remembers taking her group to dance in all the areas in Singapore. They took the arts out of the auditorium and into the streets where people could be exposed to Bharatanatyam. She recalls her students’ horrified expression when they were asked to dance in an open market place where poultry was being sold. They danced on boats, at shopping festivals – wherever there was a crowd. She proudly says that it was the efforts of these brave dancers which took the arts to the masses and helped bring recognition to Indian dance. It was only through these experiments that curious and interested students of other ethnic groups came to learn the art form. Similar efforts by the Bhaskars also explains how the student base at Nrityalaya grew from 100 to 2000 in the different disciplines.

How far did they have to compromise on the classicism of the forms? To an extent, there was a compromise. Although one section of the students was ready to go through the slow and systematic training required for a classical form, there were many who had no exposure to Bharatanatyam. The talent was abundant but their time for classes was limited. Both Neila Sathyalingam and Santha Bhaskar feel their first priority was to reach out to Singaporeans and introduce them to the beauty of the art form. The lessons had to be given in digestible doses. Many Chinese students joined along the way. Only a few remained as the rigour and cultural specificity of Bharatanatyam kept many from continuing beyond a point.

Singapore is a shining example of the rewards reaped because of the involvement and commitment of the government. The Ministry of Culture, now known as the National Arts Council (NAC), has played a major role in shaping the policies for artistic development in the country. The financial support given in the form of various grants helps artists pursue their passion. This has created a new generation of artists willing to pursue the arts full time. It also gives each ethnic community a strong cultural identity, which in turn has given a boost to tourism in the country. Today, Singapore is a meeting point for artistic endeavours. The Singapore Arts Festival boasts of the finest artists from around the globe. 

Neila Sathyalingam applauds the work of the NAC which has given artists like her both recognition and financial aid to realise their dream. As she says, we can have many plans but without the support of the government, there is only a little that individuals can do. Realising the importance of art in people’s lives, schemes and grants for budding talent as well as established artists have been launched. Aravinth Kumarasamy, the dynamic Managing and Creative Director of Apsaras Arts, is a versatile musician who also learnt Bharatanatyam from Vazhuvoor Ramiah Pillai. As a computer software engineer now fully devoted to the arts and a ‘young artiste awardee’ (2000), he is grateful for NAC’s support. He says, “NAC provides many grants to artists, which include study, grants for experimental work, presentation grants for putting up shows, research grants, travel grants to showcase one’s talent overseas and even residency grants for artists to immerse themselves in their chosen field. These grants also include support for the costs of running an organisation. In addition to the grants, NAC recognises artists with the two coveted awards – Cultural Medallion and Young Artiste Award which also provides a grant for the artists to work on a dream project. However, it is still a financial struggle to run an arts organisation. Corporate sponsorship is getting more and more difficult.”

In an effort to introduce arts to children, Singapore’s visionary plan begins in schools. It is done as part of school education, outreach programmes, arts schools and festivals. Ghanavenothan Retnam, a flautist and composer who trained under his father R. Retnam, is a full time musician in Singapore. He is one of the musicians invited to be part of the STAR programme (Singapore Teachers Academy for the Arts). He trains teachers to teach music in schools, based on a syllabus formulated by artists. Art appreciation is a compulsory subject in schools where students learn Chinese, Malay and Indian music as modules. Ghanavenothan, who received the ‘young artiste award’ in 1995 is happy with the encouragement he has received. He feels that the audience base in Singapore has grown because of these efforts. He cites the example of his Chinese student who plays Carnatic music on the flute and has won many prizes in Indian music competitions. He says this has also created work opportunities for artists through job openings in schools. Ghanavenothan notes the changes that have taken place since his struggle as an artist in his younger days. He juggled college work, classes and performances to pursue his passion. Today, he says, youngsters have more exposure to great musicians and teachers as many artists come to Singapore to conduct workshops. Due to this exposure, intensive workshops have become popular amongst young artists. For example, in the past three years, more than 60 dance instructors have attended the five-day course at Dance India Asia Pacific to upgrade their knowledge from the eminent visiting faculty from India and abroad.

Nawaz Mirajkar, a percussionist and composer who came to Singapore in the 1990s echoes the same sentiment. He came to Singapore after training in tabla under his father and guru, Ustad Mohammad Hanif Khan Mirajkar. What was to be a two-year stint was extended and today, Nawaz has made Singapore his home. Awarded the ‘young artiste award’ in 2011, Nawaz is busy with his collaborative projects. Two projects which were well received are ‘Taal Express’ featuring percussion from all over India, and ‘Damaru’ showcasing rhythms from around the world, blending both classical and folk forms. 

Both Ghanavenothan and Nawaz admit that pure classical music has few takers. There is a constant demand for fusion as only new work and experiments seem to attract crowds. At the Temple of Fine Arts where Nawaz teaches, he continues to pass on the tradition he has inherited. Ghanavenothan teaches at Bhaskar’s Arts Academy and composes music for the orchestra. Both these young musicians manage to balance their passion and the need to adapt to changing audiences.

It is heartening to note that NAC has addressed the problem of the audience base for classical forms by launching a scheme in 2010 for the preservation of traditional arts in each community. The plan includes the setting up of a large centre (to be inaugurated in two years) where artists can present their work and house archives of traditional art forms. Singapore artists feel that more coverage of the arts in the media can go a long way in reaching the masses. Keeping the arts alive is a collective responsibility, they believe.

The cosmopolitan ambience in Singapore and the international Festival of Arts promoted by the government have not only brought to the local people a wide range of performances, but has set standards of professionalism. Aravinth says, “Audiences in Singapore have the opportunity to see world class performances from Asia and Europe. Hence, their expectations are high and they want to see well-researched and good quality productions. Indian dance choreographers have to push the boundaries in terms of themes, light design, stage set-up, costuming, and music. to meet the demands of the audiences in Singapore.”

What is the scene like for performers who have been trained in traditional arts but have moved out to try experimental work combining different disciplines? Nirmala Seshadri, the Founder and Artistic Director of N Dance and Yoga, a Singapore-based company that focusses on research and experimentation in dance and somatic practices, is optimistic about the opportunities in Singapore. Recipient of the ‘young artiste award’ and with a Masters in Dance Anthropology, Nirmala is an example of an artist who has been able to follow her own path and carve a niche for herself in Singapore. She says “I felt the strong need within me to engage with my present milieu and time and to embrace the multiple identities that I represent, including that of being native Singaporean, Indian and a global citizen. I firmly believe that dance has a powerful role to play as social commentary in the contemporary scenario.” Trained in butoh and yoga, Nirmala has presented many of her solo works like From Ishta Devata to Ishta Devata (2009), I Watched the Flowers (2012), I Carry Your Heart (2015), and The Vanishing Point (2015).

Nirmala is not too worried about the audience base. She feels that Singapore has created enough opportunities for exposure to the arts. Beyond a point, she believes that an artist should only trust her creative instincts and stay true to her work. “The audience will automatically come,” she says with conviction. Today, Nirmala is a part of the arts community as a performer, writer and adviser. She has devised a technique combining yoga, butoh and breath which she shares in education and healthcare.

Singapore is indeed an example to follow. Art needs support to flourish. True, the government cannot be burdened with the full responsibility of providing opportunities for artists. However, the government’s cultural policies can go a long way in providing the means to make arts a viable profession if society believes in the power of art as a binding and healing force, and the need for creative expression. In the words of Rukmini Devi: “When you partake of an art, perhaps like a hairline, there is a development of your own nature… it is a gradual but sure change of civilization.”

(The author is a Bharatanatyam dancer and teacher)

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