Indian Love Stories

Published on 11 November 2014

Why you should let Kalaa Utsavam romance you

ALL TOGETHER NOW Bharatanatyam bigwig Leela Samson’s dance ensemble Spanda uses the solo dance form to create gorgeous group numbers (Photos Esplanade-Theatres on the Bay)

Many people love yoga – the way that lots of non-Indians, especially in the Malay community, love Bollywood,” muses Rajeswari Ramachandran, producer of The Esplanade’s annual Indian Festival of Arts, Kalaa Utsavam. “If you’re in Singapore, you will somehow get in touch with Indian culture and art, and there’s growing excitement about it.”

Having been around for 12 years, the 10-day-long Kalaa Utsavam continues to attract audiences of all races, a testimony to the universal appeal of Indian art. “We’ve seen a good proportion of Caucasians, Chinese, Malays and so on coming to appreciate the performances. While we do try to provide programmes in English or with English surtitles, we find the art forms cut across languages and ethnicities,” says Ramachandran with a smile. “They are so vibrant and there’s so much to choose from.”

Many Singaporeans can trace their roots to countries where several different dialects, or even different languages, are spoken. One such country is India, where a bounty of tongues is spoken, including Tamil, Hindi, Bengali, Urdu and Malayalam – though that’s barely a fraction of it. With so many different regions having their own cultures and artforms, it also means that there’s a mind-boggling  buffet of multi-lingual programmes for producers like Ramachandran to choose from. Then there’s also the Indian diaspora living – and creating art – all across the world, from Britain to America to good old Singapore.

This year, Ramachandran has painstakingly picked a range of works by artists hailing from Bangalore, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, as well as Singapore and New Zealand. If there’s one thing they have in common besides an Indian identity, it’s that most of them showcase the evolution of their art forms beyond the traditional.

NUCLEAR FUSION Raghu Dixit  is a scientist-turned-singer who fuses Indian folk with Western pop

Chowk Productions marries theatre with Odissi and Chhau dance in The Blind Age

“This year, we’re focusing on the next generation of artists, the ones innovating new work in their artistic fields. For example, our opening act, Disha – A Vision, takes the classical dance form of Bharatanatyam – traditionally a solo dance – and turns it into group choreography, exploring the lines of the group,” enthuses Ramachandran about the work by Spanda, the world-renowned troupe founded by legendary dancer Leela Samson, who was also involved in Dance India Asia Pacific 2013.

“Then there’s the band The Raghu Dixit Project, also an international sensation, which creates its own brand of music by blending Western pop and Indian folk. We also have Singapore company Chowk Dance Productions, which will take age-old Odissi dance and make it dance theatre, by including actors from Intercultural Theatre Institute in the performance.

“We feel it’s time for the next level of content,” Ramachandran explains. “When the festival was still new, we got the more mainstream stuff, the more conventional or popular names. But we try pushing the boundaries a little every year to let audiences see how art forms are developing. After continually monitoring the audience, we think they’re ready for this.”

Purists needn’t worry, however: there’s still a fine selection of traditional Indian culture on the menu. For example, there’s a shadow-puppet troupe from Kerala, presenting its style of the art form that has rarely been brought outside the region and performing the Ramayana epic; it doesn’t get much more traditional than that. Best of all, it’s one of the festival’s several free offerings, which also include, for the less classically-minded, the ever-popular Bollywood Night, which has a live band playing booty-shaking hits for you to get your groove on.

“Our festival has many objectives, but other than giving all these different artists a platform, our main focus is the audience: to groom them to appreciate the developments in these arts, and also draw more audiences in to appreciate Indian culture,” explains Ramachandran.

“There are also free programmes that people can wander in to take part – a kids’ folktale performance, the traditional performances and the modern innovations, plus talks in the library about Ayurvedic philosophy that helps you to live healthily – we have something from India for everyone. Beyond yoga and Bollywood, we believe the culture is very exciting, and we’d love people from all walks of our multicultural society to get to love it.”

PLAY THAT FUNKY MUSIC Shubha Mudgal (above) sings through the spectrum from from Indian classics to modern pop and jazz fusions, while Swarhythm (left) depicts the five elements through Hindustani classical music.

Kalaa Utsavam is now on at The Esplanade.

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