An Indian Renaissance

Published on 26 April 2017

CONTEMPORARY CULTURE: ‘Samsui Women’ (right), a mixed-media limited-edition print on canvas, captures Chaudhury’s exploration of Singapore culture through art. (Photos: Joyotee Ray Chaudhury)

From storytelling to stage plays, feature films to fusion music, the works of Singapore’s Indian artists are taking a multi-faceted diaspora story to global audiences.

BY PAMELA HO

Sixty years after she left India, Mrs Santha Bhaskar travelled back to her Motherland in 2015 to choreograph a dance commissioned by the Singapore International Festival of Arts. As part of the Indian diaspora, this Cultural Medallion recipient and artistic director of Bhaskar’s Arts Academy in Singapore directed classical dancers at a top performing arts university in Kerala.

“At first, the masters were suspicious of me, and sat in to see if I was doing the right thing,” Mrs Bhaskar reveals with a chuckle. They ended up being impressed and enlightened by her ingenuity.

The art of the diaspora is fascinating because it is a curious mix of one’s cultural roots and the inevitable influences of one’s new home. Even for the second- or third-generation diaspora who consider themselves true-blue Singaporeans, cultural identity is a hard thing to shake off. This becomes interesting when they are artists who present their works to global audiences.

We speak to some Singaporean and Singapore-based Indian artists about how they blend the cultural and the contemporary in the works they present on the international stage.

TIME WILL TELL

Kamini Ramachandran
Master storyteller
Co-founder, MoonShadow Stories 

My great-grandmother came over from Kerala. My grandmother was born in Malacca, my mother in Johor, and I was born in Selangor. I came to Singapore 16 years ago. While I do travel to Kerala and to other cities such as Delhi, Bangalore or Shillong for work, I feel more like a tourist in India.

Growing up, I lived many years with my grandparents. My grandfather worked on rubber plantations and back then, our only entertainment was the stories he told us — about Rama, Arjuna, Ganesha — it was never-ending! His life was rich with legends and mythology, and he transmitted that to me.

While I’m a graduate of English Literature, I find that I share my culture and stories most instinctively through oral storytelling. My grandfather’s energy — his gestures, facial expressions, the Sanskrit words he would use for emphasis — is all in me; I don’t have to research or learn it.

I’ve been a professional storyteller for 15 years and done shows around the world, from Belgium and Edinburgh to Dubai and even India. While my stories are largely Indian, they go beyond myths and fables from India. The Hindu kingdom in Southeast Asia actually encompasses countries like Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Myanmar and Cambodia. As a Southeast Asian Indian storyteller, I have a choice to tell my epics and locate them in this region.

While my grandfather told me these stories in Malayalam, what I’ve done is to internalise them and translated them in my head into English. I’m now retelling them in another format, another language, to a contemporary audience. For international audiences, it’s rare to see someone telling these Indian epics in fluent English! That’s how the art has evolved. In many ways, I see myself as a gatekeeper of the stories I inherited, a tradition bearer.

Photo: MoonShadow Stories

COMBINED SCORE

Shabir Tabare Alam
Music producer
Chief Executive Officer,
Shabir Music Academy

My maternal grand-father came to Singapore for business before the Japanese Occupation. He was a wealthy Tamil merchant from Chidambaram, a district in Tamil Nadu. When the Japanese invaded Singapore, he stayed on and married my Malay grandmother, who was born and bred in Singapore. My mother, a Tamil/Malay Singaporean, married my father who is from Tiruvannamalai; so India and Singapore have always been constants in my life.

I grew up listening to Tamil classics and Malay rock songs. I was later exposed to other genres of music. Living in Singapore, you get access to an eclectic mix of concerts, theatre, films, exhibitions and conferences. These are immensely valuable, and played a crucial role in my development as a music artist and a film-score composer.

In my recent scoring work for two Indian feature films, I’ve incorporated Islamic, Malay, Chinese and East Asian instruments, along with synthesis and orchestral elements. In the film Sangu Chakkaram, for example, I composed two of the main themes using the erhu [Chinese two-stringed bowed instrument] as the lead instrument.

I am trying to blend Malay and Chinese instruments into Indian film music. That’s the brand of music I’m known for and it would not have been possible without my unique influences. As a Singaporean artist, I’m very familiar with ethnic tones and I can manipulate their behaviour to work perfectly in an Indian film.

Through my music, I hope to change the way audiences view and enjoy films. I honestly believe that borders are fading away and global markets are more open to talent that can come from anywhere!

WRITE THE WRONG

Balli Kaur Jaswal
Author

My grandparents left Punjab in the 1950s, and my grandfather joined the British Military Police in Singapore. I was born and brought up as a Singaporean. To be honest, I have a hard time embracing many aspects of Indian culture because I feel there’s so much entrenched prejudice. My way of engaging with the culture is by wanting to address its flaws.

In many ways, my work is about marginalised people — usually Indian women — being given a voice and some agency to overcome the societal and cultural norms that have silenced them. I’ve always taken issue with how Indian communities are very fixated on keeping up appearances and my work is about what happens behind closed doors.

Photo: Mindy Tan Photography/Epigram Books

For me, the issue of female empowerment in Indian culture is very personal and it comes from my own experiences, but I know that they are prevalent in a lot of women’s lives.

My first two novels, Sugarbread and Inheritance, were about families in Singapore’s Punjabi-Sikh diaspora. Since I’m really interested in the tension between tradition and modernity, the existence of a largely conservative community in a rapidly modernising country is the perfect subject to explore that tension. Audiences overseas have been drawn to the universality of the characters. I’d be interested to see how they take to Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, which is based in London.

I’m not naïve enough to think that the people responsible for oppressive behaviours will stop and reconsider the way they treat others, but I’d like to think that those marginalised people might read my fiction and feel empowered enough to speak up.

THE WORLD’S A STAGE

Haresh Sharma
Playwright
Resident Playwright,
The Necessary Stage

My parents were displaced by the 1947 partition. They were forced out of their homes in Hyderabad (in Sindh, Pakistan) and eventually resettled in Mumbai. My father came to Singapore in the early 1950s to work. My mother followed soon after.

When my parents relocated to Singapore and started a family here, they wanted their children to be true-blue Singaporeans, meaning they wanted us to learn the local languages and be immersed in the cultures of other ethnicities here. As such, my influence has very much been local. The plays I write are multicultural, intercultural, and often multilingual. I’m interested in the richness of the Singapore identity.

When I started writing plays, I never sought to write about ‘Indian-ness’. I just wanted to write plays about my reality. Some of my early plays — Those Who Can’t, Teach, This Chord & Others and Off Centre — dealt with specific issues like education, race relations and mental illness. We created theatre that raised pertinent issues and gave a voice to the voiceless.

It was only later that I started looking inwards at my race, my family and background. Ironically, it was 7:84, a Scottish theatre company, which prompted this journey. In 2007, they commissioned me to write a play about separation. I created a semi-fictional narrative about a Singaporean man who makes a journey to the land where his parents fled in 1947 during the partition. Eclipse premiered at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh and toured different venues in Scotland. I’d say the plays we have staged internationally have been largely appreciated by overseas audiences.

Photo: DLSB with bgt studio

CHANGE OF ART

Joyotee Ray Chaudhury
Visual Artist

I was born and raised in Mumbai, and came to Singapore in 1996 as an imported bride. My partner is Kolkata-born but raised as a Singaporean. As an artist, it’s been a process for me to understand that before I can make honest observations through my work, I need to embrace who I am: a Singaporean who is Indian, not just by race but by birth.

I’m still working on feeling assimilated and my works spring from the same space. Often, I find myself digging into the culture and understanding it through my art. ‘Samsui Women’, a mixed media print on canvas, is exactly that. Embracing my identity has also informed my techniques. The use of strong contrasting colours, for example, is often associated with Indians who love wearing bright colours! I am no exception and I use it in my work. As an avid tea drinker, I’ve also used tea water as a medium in my acrylic and ink works. Tea links us strongly to this region.

Recently, I started experimenting with technology, digitising my drawings/paintings and layering them with my photography. In 2015, I was shooting in an ancient temple in Andhra Pradesh and was inspired to research on some religious icons I photographed. These found place in my canvas, and I named the artwork ‘iKaun’ – a pun on ‘icon’ — as it translates to ‘Who am I?’ in Hindi.”

The art pieces I’ve sold have travelled to the United States, Germany, Spain, Dubai, Taiwan and India. As global citizens, our works tell our migratory stories as well. They tell a unified tale of humanity and our constantly changing conditions. Ultimately, I hope my art is able to cross the barriers of nationhood and other such identity labels, and appeal on a more universal level.

Photos: The Necessary Stage
Photos: The Necessary Stage

FILM GUARD

K Rajagopal
Film-maker
Director/Writer, Akanga Film Asia

My great-grandfather came from Kerala with the British to work in Singapore in the early 1900s. I am a third-generation Singaporean Indian; but in my teenage years, I used to be in total denial of my Indian roots. I refused to even consider myself an Indian. It happened because I was in conflict with religion and guilt, and hated being teased by classmates who called me ‘smelly’ for using coconut oil.

This sentiment changed in adulthood, after I backpacked in India in 1990. Visiting my ancestral home in Kerala and meeting my distant relatives made me realise how rich my heritage is. It helped me regain my identity. I responded by trying to create a voice for the minority Indian community through my films such as I Can’t Sleep Tonight and A Yellow Bird. My parents’ passing also compelled me to explore their stories through my short films, The Flame [in the 7 Letters anthology], and The New World.

Recently, I worked with the Indian Heritage Centre on three short films featuring Campbell Lane, Race Course Road and Syed Alwi Road in Little India. Through this project, I discovered so many interesting but unknown facets of the Indian diaspora in Singapore. In The Day I Lost My Shadow, I juxtaposed the past and present, and examined similarities and differences in relation to migration.

My first feature film, A Yellow Bird, premiered in Cannes and has travelled to 15 film festivals and counting. While the protagonists in my films are almost always Indian, I think racial issues, marginalisation and alienation are universal themes that audiences everywhere can relate to. For me, it’s important to learn to embrace ‘the other’ in society and to co-exist harmoniously without discriminating. I think I’m exploring these subjects to understand myself and my world better.

MINORITY REPORT: In K Rajagopal’s first feature film A Yellow Bird (above), which premiered in Cannes, ex-inmate Siva grapples with his minority status and the fractures within his family.
BENEATH THE SURFACE: In The Day I Lost My Shadow (above), K Rajagopal digs deeper into the myth, history and tales of Singapore’s Little India through three short films.

BREAK DANCE

Raka Maitra
Dancer/Choreographer
Artistic Director, CHOWK

I’m originally from West Bengal. I come from a family of artists. My grandfather founded an arts institute in Kolkata, and that’s where I started my classical dance training in Bharatanatyam. I later moved to Delhi to specialise in Odissi and was a professional classical dancer. In 2000, I embarked on my own contemporary work in Delhi, but it was very difficult.

In India, we hold on to tradition a lot. Because I won a national award for Odissi, there were great expectations on me. Doing something new wasn’t really accepted. So when I moved to Singapore with my husband in 2004, it freed me to do what I really wanted to do. In 2007, I founded CHOWK.

What I’ve kept of my classical training is the rigour and the form. I’m also trained in Chhau, a form of Indian martial arts. It’s from these two forms — Odissi and Chhau — that I develop my contemporary vocabulary. I have not borrowed from other art forms. There is no fusion.

The way I see it, my style is totally Singaporean because it’s created from scratch here. In Singapore, I’m constantly learning — from watching Beijing Opera and Japanese Noh to learning from Malay, Indonesian and Chinese dancers. All my contemporary work is possible because I’m in Singapore. I don’t know how much I would have moved away from the classical if I was in India.

Last year, we performed at the Kennedy Center in the United States. I’ve also performed in France, Spain, Australia, Korea and Brazil. The Indians in these audiences can recognise a bit of ‘Indian-ness’ in my choreography, but they don’t know where it comes from. It’s perceived more as Asian and coming from Singapore — I find it very interesting that it’s not seen as Indian anymore.

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