More Singapore content and experimental works at Indian arts festival

The Raghu Dixit Project are known for their unique blend of Indian folk music and Western pop sounds. -- PHOTO: THE ESPLANADE
The Raghu Dixit Project are known for their unique blend of Indian folk music and Western pop sounds. -- PHOTO: THE ESPLANADE

Indian music and dance are given an experimental twist in the annual Kalaa Utsavam festival

Kalaa Utsavam, The Esplanade's popular annual Indian festival of the arts, stands out for two reasons this year. There is more Singapore content in the main programme with three new locally produced works - two of which are festival commissions.

And in contrast to the usual showcase of traditional music and dance styles from India, the festival is introducing more experimental music and dance productions.

Home-grown director and actress Daisy Irani's HuM Theatre presents Nagamandala, based on contemporary Indian playwright and actor Girish Karnad's famous play of the same name as well as Peacock's Tail, a new English-language production for children based on a Rajasthani folk tale. Both are festival commissions.

Singapore-based dancer Raka Maitra's Chowk Productions brings to stage a choreographic rendition of Andha Yug (The Blind Age), an Indian theatre classic by renowned Hindi poet and playwright Dharamvir Bharati. Drawing on the classical dance forms of Odissi and Chhau, it will be presented as a parable on some of the catastrophic conflicts of the times as well as man's propensity to create as well as destroy. The production features live music by Singapore artist-musician Bani Haykal, Rajasthani folk musicians as well as installations by Singaporean artist and curator Khairuddin Hori.

These productions appear alongside other headliners including leading Indian vocalist Shubha Mudgal, Indian dancer Leela Samson's critically acclaimed Spanda dance ensemble and the popular The Raghu Dixit Project from India, a ground-breaking band that creates Indian music with a Western twist.

Ms Rajeswari Ramachandran, 40, programmer at The Esplanade, tells Life!: "The Indian arts scene is dynamic and constantly evolving. This year, we feature many ground-breaking artists who have re-imagined and re-invented art forms, both from India and Singapore."

The annual festival, which runs from Nov 21 to 30, will feature 19 ticketed and more than 50 free music, dance and theatre shows.

On its inclusion in the main programming line-up, HuM Theatre's Irani, who is in her 50s, says: "For Esplanade to commission HuM is a complete validation that the Indian theatre culture is just as rooted in Singapore as it is in India.

"The impact of our theatre productions will be significantly enhanced by the presence of an audience from all races. The production is in English so the audience will not miss a beat. I am confident it will make going to watch Indian theatre habit-forming."

The production tells the tale of a young bride, her neglectful husband and a shape-shifting cobra and it will star established and new actors from Singapore. Ms Irani says she picked this play as it has several comic touches, a contemporary feel and is an unusual love story derived from two Indian folk classics.

Dancer Maitra, 43, says she picked Bharati's The Blind Age or Andha Yug as it is among the greatest classics set on the last day of the epic 18-day dynastic battle of Kurukshetra and draws parallels with the Indian epic Mahabharata to bring out contemporary issues.

"Each time I read the play or listen to the lines, I am amazed at how brilliant the play is and how relevant it is in our war- and terror-stricken world."

She points out that the image of India or what is Indian is very complex, there are many images and many notions. Several narratives such as that of The Blind Age, she adds, have universal meaning.

"The Blind Age raises many questions and makes statements about moral and political issues that get you thinking."

The mixed-media production draws on the 1954 anti-war play, blending dance, music and art to reflect on man's capacity for destruction and creation.

Acclaimed dancer-choreographer Samson, who is bringing her dance ensemble to Singapore for the first time, is known for giving a contemporary edge to the traditional dance form bharatanatyam.

She says: "I have never been bogged down by tradition. Yet I love its validity and symbolism. I use the symbolism to speak a universal truth. But most of all, to express the joy and beauty of dance, music, expression and story-telling in our lives."

Driving Disha - A Vision is a breathtaking synergy of bodies, choreographed in such a way that no dancer is whole without the others, much like the elements of life itself.

Mudgal, 55, is known for melding Indian classical music with folk, jazz and popular music. She will present Koshish - A Musical Crossover and says the fusion concert will bring together highly accomplished and popular musicians from India who have trained in diverse musical forms and systems.

Some members of the team specialise in Indian classical music, while others have been trained in jazz and Western music and are members of several popular bands in India. "We hope that our repertoire will be a worthy illustration of India's rich and magnificent cultural diversity."

The Raghu Dixit Project, known for their unique blend of Indian folk music and Western pop sounds, showcase the next generation of accomplished artists.

Led by Raghu Dixit, a scientist-turned-singer who is also a trained bharatanatyam dancer, the band have been charming audiences from India to Britain.

They were invited to perform at international arts festival Womad (World of Music, Arts and Dance), Glastonbury and at the Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 2012.

Here, he and his band will present much-loved hits including songs from their latest album Jag Changa (The World Is Beautiful).

Dixit, who declines to give his age, says: "Our music is the truest representation of modern India, it is traditional at heart but contemporary and global in its outlook. We take poetry and stories from different saint poets and cultural forms in India, and arrange the music in a very contemporary style that audiences today find easy to understand and consume."

The diverse programming has been drawing arts lovers to the festival year after year.

Dr Seshan Ramaswami, 49, associate professor of marketing education at Singapore Management University and a regular Kalaa patron, says the programming team has done "a great job yet again of providing a great mix of high quality local acts and interesting productions from India".

Singapore dancer Anuja Varaprasad, 28, calls this year's line-up "spectacular".

"If I could, I would watch all the shows. As a dancer, I am looking forward most to watching Disha and Within by Aditi Mangaldas.

"Both artists have successfully experimented within classical boundaries to produce thought-provoking, aesthetically pleasing group choreographies."

deepikas@sph.com.sg