The Life Interview with Uma Rajan

Doyenne of dance

Dr Uma Rajan, lovingly called the dancing doctor by her medical colleagues, has managed to balance her passion for the arts with her day job in public healthcare

Most people in the world can be divided into one of two camps - the left-brained who excel in the fields of science and mathematics and the right-brained, flourishing in creative arts such as writing, dance and theatre.

But there are outliers such as Dr Uma Rajan. For 43 years, the physician who was classically trained in the South Indian dance form of Bharatanatyam, balanced her passion for the arts with her day job in public healthcare - cementing her role as a purveyor of South Asian culture even while helping to streamline Singapore's school health screening and immunisation processes.

And though her contributions as former director of School Health Services might have reaped tangible results - she is the woman behind the navy-blue health booklets used by all Singaporean students - it is her fervent work as a founding charter member of the National Arts Council and three-time chairman of the Festival of Asian Performing Arts that continues to intangibly impact the direction the local arts scene is taking today.

With a resume so robust, it is unsurprising then that in person, the 75-year-old has the air of a doyenne - her beautifully draped sari and gentle mannerisms exuding the sort of grace that is unique to industry veterans.

It is evident then that hers is a passion carefully honed over time, starting from when she was only a few years old. But as the recipient of this year's tabla! Community Champion award later lets on over coffee at the Goodman Arts Centre, her introduction to the world of arts and culture did not happen in the happiest of circumstances.

Born in 1940 at the Singapore General Hospital to a doctor father and singer and violinist mother, her first year in Singapore was idyllic - growing up in a terrace house at Siang Ling Park in Geylang amid kindly neighbours.

But all that changed in June 1941 when her mother decided to take her to Chennai to meet her grandparents for the first time. What was meant to be a short holiday turned into a five-year separation from her home and father after the World War II bombings in Singapore cut contact between them.

"We were stranded without any knowledge about whether my father was alive," the University of Malaya graduate recalls. "My mother, who was pregnant when we left Singapore, gave birth to my brother. We spent the next five years living with paternal relatives."

It was an uncertain time for her young mother, who had the difficult task of preparing for the worst in the event her husband did not look for them after the war. But for a young Dr Rajan, the diverse backgrounds of her extended family became an unexpected silver lining.

From aunts who were singers and award-winning writers to an economist grandfather, Dr Rajan was welcomed into a forward-thinking family that encouraged everything from the education of women to the appreciation of the arts.

"Because of my grandfather and uncles, I never felt the absence of a father figure," she says. "My extended family was an eclectic bunch of musicians, writers and academics whose love for literature and music moulded my early understanding of arts and culture."

That meant hers was a privileged childhood with culture built into it - spent exposed to music, dance and movies and experiencing once-in-a-lifetime events, such as attending a gathering with her family to hear Gandhi, the iconic leader of India's independence movement, speak.

And, thankfully for the family, her father was reunited with them in 1946 after he managed the arduous trek through Burma to reach India.

When they returned to Singapore that same year, Dr Rajan took her newfound love for the arts along with her - performing her first public dance as the Hindu deity Krishna at the Sri Thandayuthapani Temple in Tank Road, in a piece composed by her mother.

In 1949, when Dr Rajan was nine, her parents sent her to Chennai to keep her grandparents company. Enrolling in a convent school, she began her training in music and dance, taking classes with some of the top teachers there.

"I would have Bharatanatyam classes after school on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and music lessons on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturday mornings," she recalls. Still, the packed schedule was worth it. In 1954, she performed her arangetram, a 31/2-hour solo graduation performance and received the title of Natyakala Bushanam ("Jewel of the Dance") by the Indian Institute of Fine Arts in Chennai.

But it was only when she moved home that year to complete her O levels at St Margaret's School did she realise how lacking the Indian dance scene in Singapore was at the time. Not only did it have just a handful of people who received the same rigorous training as her, even fewer had trained under the auspices of the gurus in India where students were taught the intricacies of dancing with live musicians.

"The lack of teachers who hailed from India meant dancers relied heavily on pre-recorded tracks and Bollywood scores for their choreography," she says. "As a result, I began sitting on committees of fledgling Indian cultural groups from as early as my 20s, advising them on everything from music to dance technique."

Soon enough, numerous visiting groups were inviting her to collaborate with them, giving her the opportunity to perform in Malaysia, Hong Kong and Sri Lanka and work with esteemed teachers such as Shankari Krishnan.

Unfortunately, her upward trajectory in the Indian arts circles took a nosedive in June 1966 when she was struck with a terrible bout of jaundice, a year after she graduated with her medical degree from the University of Malaya. The illness ended up lasting 18 months and left her fatigued and out-of-commission from the dance scene.

But throughout the healing process, Dr Rajan stayed positive. Knowing she no longer had the stamina to dance, she took on choreographing and hosting opportunities - creating dance numbers for Chingay and educating audiences about the nuances of the folklore and music behind whenever she hosted a show.

"It broadened my understanding of the craft," she says, admitting that her educational style of hosting made her quite sought after as a compere.

She suffered a second blow 11 years later when her husband - who was 48 at the time and a reservations manager for Air India - had a fatal heart attack.

She was 37 years old then with two young children to raise. She describes that time of her life as "dark and numb" - one she got through with her family's support.

"The void without my husband's presence in my life, I filled by giving back to the arts and volunteering with the community," she says, admitting she often struggled with being a mother and father to her son and daughter.

"With so many responsibilities, I had to learn to multitask and delegate. It's what fuelled my passion for the arts even more - it became my avenue to relax, vent and cope."

She never entertained the thought of remarrying - taking it upon herself to juggle the responsibilities at home and work, often sleeping a few hours a day to fit in her work schedule and passion projects. Ploughing her savings into educating her children, she sent both of them overseas. Her son is a lawyer and her daughter a family physician.

Meanwhile, as her star rose in the public healthcare scene where she went from registrar to director of the School Health Services at the Ministry of Health, so did her desire to give back.

In 1991, she was invited to be one of 12 founding charter members of the National Arts Council where she worked to fuse the racially diverse art forms in Singapore to promote wider audience participation in cultural programmes - a time she refers to as "both artist and audience development".

Two years later, she was chosen to chair the first Festival of Asian Performing Arts, which brought together arts groups from all over Asia for the first time.

The inaugural event presented 53 modern and traditional performances from nine countries and turned out to be a trailblazer for change - seeing local audiences slowly change their deep-seated opinions that Western acts were superior to local or Asian arts.

The festival also saw an increase in audience base. Dr Rajan chaired the biennial event two more times, in 1995 and 1997.

It seems then that she has a Midas touch, something her daughter, Rekha Rajan, 47, attributes to her nature to put everyone and everything before herself.

"She has always had a selfless dedication and a desire to give 150 per cent to everything she does - sometimes to the point that we have to remind her to slow down."

But for this "dancing doctor", as she was lovingly christened by her medical colleagues early on in her career, there seems to be no need or desire to put on the brakes.

Though she retired as the executive director of the Man Fut Tong Nursing home in 2008 (after being coaxed out of her first retirement from the Ministry of Health in 2000), she has kept herself busy.

She is the deputy chairman of the 2015 NAC Arts Fund Committee, vice-chairman of the Siglap South Community Centre and, just yesterday, hosted her latest charity fund- raiser, the SG50 Deepavali Sangam at the Ritz-Carlton hotel.

But for this distinguished dame who relishes her quiet moments staring at the sea from her Eastside apartment, the titles and awards are just words on paper; very much playing second fiddle to her most important priorities - her family, two grandchildren and her close network of friends and colleagues.

"I've been lucky to live my life surrounded by opportunities to exchange ideas and interact with people from many facets of society," she says, pausing when asked what she is most thankful for.

"I've learnt that nothing can replace bonds of friendship and camaraderie. At the end of the day, that's all that should matter. Music, dance, love, friends and family."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 02, 2015, with the headline 'Dancing doctor' Uma Rajan trained in dance from nine and sat on arts boards from her mid 20s. Subscribe