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Indian fest with Singapore flair

Esplanade's Kalaa Utsavam goes big on home-grown acts, with five new locally produced works

Kalaa Utsavam, the Esplanade's Indian festival of the arts, is going big on Singapore content. For the first time in its 14 years, the annual event will be headlined by commissioned works by Singapore artists, as opposed to shows imported from India.

There are five new locally produced works at the festival, which runs from Nov 20 to 29 - up from three last year and the highest number in its history. This year's edition features 18 ticketed shows and more than 50 free performances.

Esplanade says that, given the SG50 celebrations, it wanted to celebrate the diversity of the Indian arts scene here.

"The idea is to look at the talent in our Indian music and classical dance community," says Esplanade producer Rajeswari Ramachandran. "And also to explore, through theatre, the stories of how Singapore society has evolved since the 1960s."

Among the new productions, popular 1960s Tamil radio play Adukku Veetu Annasamy gets a theatrical staging by Ravindran Drama Group from Nov 20 to 22.

Written by Cultural Medallion recipient P. Krishnan, the comedy, which takes on various social issues, was first broadcast in 1969. At that time, listeners took leave from work to catch its latest instalment.

On the dance front, Singapore- based dancer and choreographer Gayatri Sriram will present a new piece Eka Aneka, a dance work that explores the concept of oneness. Meanwhile, dance show Viswa Prana features 20 dancers from Singapore and India. And Singapore's Temple of Fine Arts presents new work Anthar-Agni, a music and dance tribute to Agni or sacred fire.

The young ones are not forgotten. Children's production Hanuman: The Tale Behind The Name, a festival commissison scripted by professional Singapore-based story-teller Kamini Ramachandran, recounts the adventures of the monkey god Hanuman.

Other home-grown highlights include Checkpoint Theatre's restaging of The Good, The Bad And The Sholay. The humorous coming-of-age story received three nominations at The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards in 2011, when it premiered at the National University of Singapore Arts Festival.

For the restaging from Nov 26 to 29, playwright Shiv Tandan

co-directs with Huzir Sulaiman. The play captures the joys and sorrows of growing up against the backdrop of the iconic 1975 Bollywood classic Sholay, starring icon Amitabh Bachchan.

Dancer, choreographer and teacher Sriram, 42, who performed at the first edition of Kalaa Utsavam and presents Eka Aneka this year, says: "I have seen the festival grow from strength to strength. We are seeing newer ideas and strong productions.

"A platform such as Kalaa is significant not just in showcasing our work, but also for celebrating the many artists contributing to the cultural fabric here."

The only big Indian act this year is composer-producer-singer Papon, who will perform with his band The East India Company, presenting a slice of the vibrant Indian indie music scene.

Last year, popular Indian band Raghu Dixit Project performed to a packed house, while the band Indian Ocean performed with Strings from Pakistan in 2012 in a doublebill concert.

And in 2010, Bollywood playback singer Sunidhi Chauhan performed a sold-out show at the festival.

On the increased local content at the festival, playwright Tandansays: "It is a vote of confidence in our artists and the work they are creating. It is also recognition that Singaporean artists are producing works that more than hold their own.

"Maturity is really a journey that involves a whole canon of great work created over time, so continual exposure through platforms such as Kalaa Utsavam is essential."

Ms Sarita Alurkar-Sriram, 48, a marketing professional who also co-curates the annual Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society Festival, says the increased local content is "a logical next step".

Indian arts groups in Singapore have not just grown in number, she says, but also "evolved significantly" since the early 2000s.

Apart from bigger institutions, such as the Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society, Bhaskar's Arts Academy and Apsaras Arts, there are now more collectives and smaller arts groups that teach various Indian art forms ranging from dance and music to art and theatre.

"There is a large pool of trained local talent," says Ms AlurkarSriram. "Several performances I have seen prove beyond a doubt that Singapore artists are capable of the highest artistic standards and festivals such as Kalaa are showcasing this talent beautifully.

"This is definitely a direction I would like to see continue."


Viswa Prana: The Cosmic Breath

Breath and the pauses in between each breath have long captivated dancers and choreographers.

Rama Vaidyanathan, India's high priestess of bharatanatyam, hailed for her blend of tradition and innovation within the classical Indian dance form, draws on this basic trope for her new piece.

Viswa Prana: The Cosmic Breath, a cross-cultural festival commission, brings together more than 20 dancers from India, Singapore and Malaysia.

Co-choreographer Ajith Bhaskaran Dass is Malaysian and based in Johor Baru, while the dancers are from Singapore dance institutes such as Apsaras Arts and the Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society.

In an e-mail, New Delhi-based Vaidyanathan tells Life that physical distance did not matter in the collaboration.

"I enjoyed the process as it let me share my movement, dynamics and thought process with dancers from different age groups," she writes.

  • BOOK IT /VISWAPRANA: THE COSMIC BREATH

    WHERE: Esplanade Theatre

    WHEN: Nov 28,8pm

    ADMISSION: $28,$40from Sistic (go to www.sistic.com.sg or call 6348-5555)

"The dancers in Singapore adapted themselves so beautifully to my style of dancing and choreography. They made it so much easier for me."

Crediting her co-choreographer, she adds: "I would not have been able to pull it off without him." Dass handled the logistics of getting the dancers together for rehearsals.

On the inspiration for the 90- minute piece, Vaidyanathan writes: "It was just the fact that breath is such a unifier in this universe. In our busy lives, we take it for granted."

According to the yogic tradition of Pranayama, a person's breath has "prana" or life force that energises one's mind, body and soul. For a dancer, the ability to control it means everything, she says.

Viswa Prana, then, is an exercise in harnessing the prana within and exploring one's relationship with nature. Audiences can look forward to a largely bharatanatyam-based production with a contemporary twist.

While the idea driving Viswa Prana seems simple, Vaidyanathan hopes it will get people thinking about deeper issues: "Every living being shares this earth by virtue of breathing in its space. Why do we then fight for territory, religion, power and wealth when our breath makes us all equal and makes us all walk together towards the same supreme consciousness?"


Adukku Veetu Annasamy

A well-loved 1960s Tamil radio play about life in Housing Board flats will come to life on stage as a trilogy. The first of these is being staged at Kalaa Utsavam from Nov 20 to 22.

Adukku Veetu Annasamy, by Cultural Medallion recipient P. Krishnan, gets a theatrical staging by Singapore's Ravindran Drama Group.

Written in 1962 and named after its lead character, it poked gentle fun at anxieties such as villagers' fear of lifts and gave humorous lessons on how to get along with one's neighbours. The 52-episode comedy was first aired in the mid- 1960s on the Tamil radio channel now known as Oli 96.8FM and was a big hit.

It was so popular that families huddled around their radio sets whenever it came on. The punchy Tamil script coupled with relatable stories drew listeners to the episodes, each 20 to 30 minutes long.

Ravindran Drama Group felt it was fitting to revisit the play for Singapore's 50th anniversary.

In a nod to the original series, the play captures the lives of Singaporeans in the late 1960s, following their relocation from kampungs to HDB estates, as part of the Government's efforts to provide public housing.

  • BOOK IT /ADUKKU VEETU ANNASAMY BY RAVINDRAN DRAMA GROUP

    WHERE: Esplanade Theatre Studio

    WHEN: Nov 20 to 22, 8pm (Nov 20 and 21), 3pm (Nov 22)

    ADMISSION: $28 from Sistic

Group director T. Nakulan tells Life that the play's themes still resonate today. The stage rendition broadly examines social issues including civic-mindedness, relationships with neighbours, road-crossing etiquette and national service.

"The HDB culture is something many people can relate to. This culture is unique to Singaporeans," says Mr Nakulan, 36. "Almost everyone who grew up with this play has had stories to share. I have heard many stories of people taking leave or leaving office early just to catch this on air."

Performed in Tamil with English surtitles, the 120-minute production hopes to entertain as much as it did in the 1960s.

The big challenge, says Mr Nakulan, was finding a way to crunch the radio series down and getting it to work for stage.

"The script had to be tightened. But we haven't taken anything away from the sense of nostalgia that Mr Krishnan's writing evokes," he adds. The second part of the trilogy is slated for next year, but details have yet to be confirmed.

Krishnan wrote under the pseudonym Puthumaithasan and was a founding member of the Association of Singapore Tamil Writers, formed in 1953.

He has also contributed to newspaper Tamil Murasu and has been involved in the local Tamil radio scene for almost 31 years. Now 83, he has won several literary awards, including the Southeast Asian Writers Award in 2005.


Papon in concert

His music is hailed globally for its rare freshness. Freshness is indeed what Papon, whose real name is Angaraag Mahanta, brings to the stage wherever he goes.

Rooted in the folk traditions of India, his soothing and sometimes edgy music charms audiences from India to the United States.

Replying to Life by e-mail from Houston where he is on tour, he says he and his band, The East India Company, are looking forward to their one-night show here on Nov 27. "I have heard good things about the Esplanade and we have designed a different act for this venue and are very excited about performing there."

He says he is already "getting feedback from Singapore" on the songs people would like to hear and promises "a good mix of different styles - from indie to folk to Bollywood".

"It will be lots of fun," he adds.


Papon, widely credited with popularising Indian folk music, will perform a one-night show in Singapore. PHOTO: ESPLANADE – THEATRES ON THE BAY

The singer, composer and record producer, 39, shot to fame in the early 2000s and formed his electronic folk-fusion band in 2007.

Widely credited with popularising Indian folk music, he has won fans with diverse music beyond Bollywood ditties.

Hailing from north-east India - the son of popular Assamese folk singers Khagen and Archana Mahanta - he grew up steeped in the musical genre.

  • BOOK IT /PAPON & THE EAST INDIA COMPANY

    WHERE: Esplanade Concert Hall

    WHEN: Nov 27, 7.30pm

    ADMISSION: $30 and $45 from Sistic

"Folk has always been used as a base for many melodies in Indian music and elsewhere," he says. "But in India, folk music and artists do not often get the recognition they deserve. What we are trying to do is bring folk music back to the mainstream."

To that end, he has worked the Bollywood connection. He sings in several Indian languages and, most recently, his voice was heard in the film Bajrangi Bhaijaan, starring Salman Khan. He agrees that Bollywood has given him a broader platform that is getting him increasing global attention.

"My Bollywood connection definitely helps. During a recent show in Serbia, there were only about four Indians in the whole auditorium, including the Indian ambassador.

"The rest of the audience did not even speak English, but they loved and responded to our music - from Bollywood to Assamese folk songs."

His unique position straddling film and folk music gives him an advantage, allowing him "to transcend borders", he says.

"All musicians have a story to tell. We want to absorb and gain from different cultures. This exchange of ideas, cultures brings layers to every musician's craft and I am grateful for all the exposure I have got. I do not know life without music. Even when I am born again, I hope this music that I grew up with is a part of my life," he says.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 20, 2015, with the headline 'Indian fest with Singapore flair'. Print Edition | Subscribe