In a first for the Indian arts community in Singapore, one of Singapore’s leading art academies Apsara Arts was conferred the Stewards of Singapore’s Intangible Cultural Heritage Award by the National Heritage Board (NHB).
The award, which was announced earlier this month, was in recognition of Apsara Arts’ sustained dedication in the promotion and transmission of the Singapore’s intangible cultural heritage (ICH). It is one of the first six organisations here to receive this award, which is part of the NHB’s SG Heritage Plan, the masterplan for the heritage and museum sector for 2018 to 2022.
Accepting the award on behalf of the academy, its Artistic Director Aravinth Kumarasamy said the award was a testimony to the vision of its founders “to create a dance company to celebrate our local dance traditions and to nurture young, aspiring talents to be showcased internationally.” In an email interview by India Se Media with Kumarasamy, he said: “this recognition encourages our current generation of art-makers who are striving with our mission.”
“For Indian classical dance to be considered an intangible cultural heritage of Singapore is a sacred responsibility,” he added. “Apsara Arts has immense pride in being its custodian here in Singapore, to hand it down to the next generations of Singaporeans as their cultural heritage and as a living tradition.”
Kumarasamy, a maverick in the local arts scene, started his working life as an Information Technology professional after graduating from Imperial College, University of London in 1985. He has been involved in the propagation and development of Indian dance, music, theatre and arts productions in Singapore since 1987 and is a prominent figure in the international Indian arts community. The Sri Lanka-born artist is an accomplished Bharatanatyam dancer and plays the veena. He is married and has a teenage daughter.
Kumarasamy has been credited with pushing the boundaries of Indian dance in many ways, including by incorporating aspects of Javanese and Chinese dance as demonstrated in the imaginatively choreographed concerts that Apsara Arts is known for. Of note was a stunning piece – Anushasanam – which was performed during the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Singapore in 2018.
Here is the interview:
India Se Media: How will this national award help Apsara Arts in Singapore’s Performing Arts space?
Aravinth Kumarasamy: This award is a great endorsement of the farsighted vision of our founders and the mission undertaken by the current team working towards this vision. This award encourages us to strive further. We hope through this award Apsaras Arts will be recognised as a national award winning institution and its voice will be given a place in our local discourse on arts, heritage and culture.
India Se Media: If you had to pick just one big contribution by Apsara Arts to Singapore’s performing arts scene, what would it be?
Aravinth Kumarasamy:: Since the early 1980s, Apsaras Arts has been involved in propagating the Indian arts through the grass root organisations of Singapore. It has been able to train many aspiring youths from our heartlands and showcase them in both local and international platforms, breaking the misconception that Indian classical arts is only accessible to those in elite communities.
India Se Media: What are the specific goals you have for Apsara Arts over the next 5-6 years?
Aravinth Kumarasamy:: Over the past few years, our dance productions have been well received at international venues and festivals. We hope to build on this initial success to develop our international presence. This will help us to showcase Singaporean talents on the global stage.
India Se Media: You have produced some outstanding dance-dramas in the past 2 years. One of them was for PM Modi. How long does such a performance take to create and choreograph?
Aravinth Kumarasamy:: Our full length productions such as ANJANEYAM – Hanuman’s Ramanaya, ANGKOR – An untold story, AGATHI – The Plight of the Refugee etc, take an average of 3-5 years to make, which involves extensive research etc. ANUSHASANAM – The Cosmic Flow of Yoga, which is a 25min work performed during PM Modi’s visit to Singapore in 2018 took two months of work.
India Se Media: Singapore’s dance schools mainly focus on Bharata Natyam, to the detriment of other Indian classical dance forms. While there are some schools that teach Odissi and Kuchipudi, they are all heavily skewed towards South Indian dance forms Not a single school focuses on Eastern Indian and NE Indian dance forms such as the Sattriya Nithya or Manipuri dance forms. Why?
Aravinth Kumarasamy:: Singapore’s Indian community has been made up of largely Tamil speaking people from South India since the early 1900s. Naturally, Bharatanatyam which is the Indian classical dance form of Tamil Nadu has been the popular choice. At Apsaras Arts, our dance faculty are exponents of Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Odissi, Kuchipudi and Mohiniattam. However, Bharatanatyam and Kathak seem to be the popular choice of dance forms by both the local Singaporean and NRI communities. Perhaps, when the population of Northeast Indians grows in Singapore, Manipuri will gain popularity too. This was the case for Kuchippudi from Andhra. However, Apsaras Arts has been featuring Manupuri dance for its performances. In 2019 for the Utsav festival by LISHA to celebrate Deepavali, Apsaras Arts included Manipuri for this performance for which Singapore’s president was the Guest of Honour. This year for our online performance festival TWOGETHER in May 2020, we had presented Manipuri exponent and India’s SNA awardee Basu Sinam from Imphal for a duet performance with a Singapore Odissi dancer, Soumee De.
India Se Media: Do you plan to start teaching other Indian dance forms? India has a very rich and ancient tradition of folk dances. Do you plan to introduce some to Apsara Arts’ repertoire?
Aravinth Kumarasamy:: As shared earlier we offer five different styles of Indian classical dance in our academy. Since 2017, we have started to feature Kathak in our repertory. Early this year, we conducted an open audition to recruit Kathak dancers to build a Kathak repertory company following our success with Bharatanatyam repertory company.
India Se Media: Other than dance, what are your other interests?
Aravinth Kumarasamy:: Music, Cinema, Books, Travelling and Cooking
India Se Media: Who are your artistic icons and who inspires you most?
Aravinth Kumarasamy:: Locally it is Neila Sathyalingam, our founder and mentor, Dr Padma Subrahmaniyam, Kumudini Lakhia, Dr Sunil Kothari and from yester years Rukminidevi Arundale, Kumari Kamala, MS Subbalakshmi and Pt Ravishankar.
India Se Media: Are you religious? Does religion influence your art?
Aravinth Kumarasamy:: Art is my religion.
Apsaras Arts was founded in Singapore in 1977 by Shri S Sathyalingam and Smt Neila Sathyalingam, alumni and former faculty members of Kalakshetra, India. With over four decades of prolific international productions, Apsaras Arts has grown into a premier Indian dance company in the region that has gained recognition in Indian dance-theatre, enjoying successful performances and following worldwide.
Since 2005, under the leadership of Aravinth Kumarasamy, an award winning Artistic Director, Apsaras Arts has transformed into a premier professional performing company, focusing on creating new works which are presented at international festivals. Apsaras Arts dancers and musicians have toured to more than forty countries across the globe and collaborated with leading dance companies, legendary dancers, choreographers, composers and presenters from the international Indian dance fraternity.
Apsaras Arts is a non-profit registered charity in Singapore, and is the recipient of the Singapore National Arts Council’s annual Major Grant scheme.