Pioneer dancer Neila Sathyalingam dies

In 1989, Mrs Neila Sathyalingam received the Cultural Medallion, Singapore's highest arts honour, for her contribution to the arts scene.
In 1989, Mrs Neila Sathyalingam received the Cultural Medallion, Singapore's highest arts honour, for her contribution to the arts scene. PHOTO: ST FILE
Mrs Neila Sathyalingam, aged about 20, performing at Kalakshetra dance school in Chennai, South India.
Mrs Neila Sathyalingam, aged about 20, performing at Kalakshetra dance school in Chennai, South India. PHOTO: ST FILE

Award-winning dancer and Cultural Medallion recipient Neila Sathyalingam died in Singapore in her sleep this week. She would have been 79 this year.

The news broke on Facebook on March 10 through a post by artist Aravinth Kumarasamy, her successor at Apsaras Arts, the dance troupe she co-founded.

The dancers are currently on tour in Sri Lanka. On March 12, the troupe will perform Mrs Sathyalingam's final co-creation in Jaffna, the same city where she gave her first public dance performance.

Mr Kumarasamy, 51, said on the phone from Sri Lanka: "We have lost an iconic choreographer who was very innovative. She took Indian classical dance to a high level in Singapore. She also worked very hard to bring it to the community and the grassroots."

In 1989, Mrs Sathyalingam received the Cultural Medallion, Singapore's highest arts honour, for her contribution to the arts scene. In 1995, she received the Vishwa Kala Bharathi award from Chennai-based arts body Bharat Kalachar, in recognition of her influence.

Under her lead, Apsaras Arts developed a unique style: classical Indian bharatanatyam, with influences from South-east Asia. The troupe has performed in London, Liverpool, Dubai, Paris, Berlin as well as in the region.

Mrs Sathyalingam also worked as a dance instructor and choreographer with the People's Association for decades, choreographing dance segments for 13 consecutive Chingay parades from 1994 to 2007, and also teaching at community centres.

Ambassador K. Kesavapany, who chairs the Apsaras Arts Advisory Board, says: "Mrs Sathyalingam brought up a whole generation of young artists who are now touring the world to showcase Singapore's Indian classical dance, especially bharatanatyam."

According to her official biography on the Apsaras Arts website, Mrs Sathyalingam was born in 1938 in Colombo, Sri Lanka, the second of four daughters of a dental surgeon. She began her dance training at age five, learning various classical Indian styles such as bharatanatyam, kathak, kathakali and Manipuri in Colombo.

At age 18, she enrolled in the famous dance school Kalakshetra in Chennai, India. There she met her future husband, the late musician S. Sathyalingam. They moved to Singapore in the 1970s and founded Apsaras Arts in 1977. They have three daughters - one of whom runs Apsaras Arts' branch in Canberra - and a son who has special needs.

All Apsaras Arts' artists called her "Mami", or "aunty". Indian choreographer Mohanapriyan Thavarajah, principal dancer and resident choreographer at Apsaras Arts says: "From the day I joined Apsaras Arts, I was not an employee, but family."

Works such as Alapadma - The Lotus Unfolds, which the troupe is performing in Sri Lanka, were developed under Mrs Sathyalingam's mentorship. She respected Thavarajah's ideas while challenging his thinking. "She would say: 'Don't think that after a certain age, you know best. You should learn from youngsters,'" says the 28-year-old.

Singaporean dancer Banupriya Ponnarasu, currently in Sri Lanka on tour with Apsaras Arts, says on the phone that she started learning from Mrs Sathyalingam at age 12 and continued to be soothed by the doyenne's presence at every performance. "There was so much love in the way she talked, so much fire in the way she taught," says the 26-year-old. "When you saw her at the side of the stage, your nerves would disappear."

Mrs Sathyalingam was not well enough to go to Sri Lanka so she spoke to the dancers before each performance on conference call.

Two days ago, her last words to the performers were: "Whatever happens, finish the tour and come home."

When they perform on March 12 in the same city where she debuted as a teenage dancer, it will bring the journey full circle - and forward, Mr Kumarasamy says. "It is the end of an era but not the end. We are continuing her work and legacy."

akshitan@sph.com.sg