Mr Aravinth Kumarasamy fondly remembers how the traditional Indian dance known as Bharatanatyam was flourishing during its golden years in the 1980s and early ’90s. Although its mainstream glory may have faded today, the spirit of the dance lives on. Bharatanatyam has evolved with the times, finding success with a new generation of practitioners.
When Mr Aravinth Kumarasamy’s mother went to pay for his music lessons, she was surprised when the teacher told her that he had not been attending class. The week after that, she followed her young son and found that he had opted to play football with his friends – an activity he felt was, simply, more fun.
She pulled him out of music class, believing that he lacked an interest in the arts. But Aravinth, the current artistic director at Apsaras Arts, recalls that he could not stay away for long. Coming from a family of arts connoisseurs, music and dance were art forms he grew up with. In no time, he found a veena, an instrument used in Carnatic music, at home and began learning to play. He also developed an interest in Bharatanatyam, a traditional dance form.
Looking back, Aravinth credits the development of his passion for music and dance to his school environment.
“Dance and music were part of the syllabus – you could take it as a subject at ‘O’ Levels and ‘A’ Levels and start performing. So the school gave me a platform and the encouragement to learn more and practice,” he said.
He maintained his interest in both music and dance throughout his days in Sri Lanka, where he was born, and continued even when his family moved to India during the Sri Lankan civil war.
In 1986, Aravind moved to Singapore to study. While pursuing his studies – and subsequently career – Bharatanatyam still held a special place in his heart and he gradually became a part of Singapore’s dance fraternity.
Mr Aravinth Kumarasamy (third from left) with a group of dancers in traditional costume. Image Source: Aravinth Kumarasamy
“It was a good time. The 1980s and early 1990s were a vibrant and golden period for the traditional arts in Singapore,” Aravinth reminisced.
Then, there were big events such as the Singapore Dance Festival or the Singapore Arts Festival, and traditional arts like Bharatanatyam were considered “mainstream”. Performances were held across the island and the traditional arts were often featured on television or on the Indian radio channel.
“Almost every week, I would be in and out of the TV station for performances. There were 12- or 14-part TV series, sometimes on-off standalone episodes… it was almost like being a celebrity,” Aravinth said.
He remembers how at one point, people on the street would recognise and approach him – even the servers at a restaurant he frequented would talk to him about how they followed the TV show they had seen him in.
Aravinth has many memorable moments from those years, particularly of the Singapore Arts Festival in 1992. Over two days, over 30 musicians and 60 dancers from big-name groups performed at Victoria Theatre. Performers from the Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society, Bhaskars Arts, Apsaras Arts, the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, just to name a few, all made an appearance in a huge, elaborate collaboration.
But despite the grandeur and prestige of some of his performances, what Aravinth treasures most has been his time working with the late Mrs Neila Sathyalingam, a pioneer in the Singapore Indian dance scene.
He brightly recalls how in 1994, he and Mrs Sathyalingam performed together at the newly-built Singapore Indoor stadium during the Chingay parade.
“The experience of dancing inside, to music you not just played, but also composed and recorded… it’s just…fantastic,” he muses.
He laments that back then, despite the popularity of traditional arts, the performers were mostly hobbyists.
“They were serious, and they were good, but they were not full-time dancers. Even many of those that could dance, chose to teach and not to perform,” he explains, adding that parents would often persuade their children to choose a more “proper” or “professional” career path.
“Yet, Neila’s vision was for Singapore to have a full-time dance ensemble. Not just part-timers. And that was a dream that couldn’t come true overnight,” Aravinth said.
Mr Aravinth Kumarasamy Image Source: Aravinth Kumarasamy
For 10 years, he worked with Mrs Sathyalingam at Apsaras Arts to bring that dream to fruition.
Over time, he has seen how the traditional dance landscape has changed: Bharatanatyam has faded from mainstream entertainment channels, but while there have been fewer opportunities for it to be showcased at festivals, it has gained a following at venues such as the Esplanade — Theatres on the Bay. As a result of this, productions now meet international standards and their quality has improved.
He has observed that there has been an increase in the interest of becoming an Indian arts professional. While there have been more of the younger generation upgrading themselves overseas and returning to Singapore to practice as dance professionals, there have also been a few artists from India who have relocated to make Singapore their home.
In particular, Apsaras Arts has a team of full-time dancers and a repertoire of performances that they perform both locally and overseas on tour, Aravinth said.
The changes have been good and he believes the future for traditional dance looks bright, especially within Singapore’s multicultural landscape.
This is because there is an abundance of opportunities to not only watch performances from different cultures, but also to interact with people from different countries – all while staying in Singapore.
“Dance and music practitioners both have the opportunity to see multiple cultures. There’s Taiwanese, Russian… we can see the world and get inspiration and input,” he said.
It has been years since Aravinth last performed on stage, and today, his role is largely in choreographing and producing productions. When asked if he would return to the stage as a dancer, Aravinth laughed and said, “I’m very content with what I’m doing, enabling young dancers to live their passion in a way that I could not have.”
Written by: Fiona Liaw
This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign