India Must Focus on Southeast Asia;They Can Clearly Appreciate Our Culture: Aravinth Kumarasamy

Apsaras Arts was founded in Singapore in 1977 by Shri S Sathyalingam and Smt Neila Sathyalingam, alumni and former faculty members of Kalakshetra, India. With over four decades of prolific international productions, Apsaras Arts has grown into a premier Indian dance company in the region.

Since 2005, under the leadership of Aravinth Kumarasamy, an award winning Artistic Director, Apsaras Arts has transformed into a premier professional performing company, focusing on creating new works which are presented at international festivals.  

He had learnt vocal, Veena and Bharatanatyam in Sri Lanka. In Chennai, he came under the guidance of the legendary Vazhuvoor Bagyathammal Ramaiah Pillai, who was appreciated for introducing innovative trials in Bharatanatyam. Pillai belonged to the ancient Vazhuvoor bani dating to the days of the Chola dynasty.  Aravinth was perhaps his last student, before Pillai handed over the mantle to his son. 

At 20 years, Aravinth moved to Singapore and first started teaching and working with the Temple of Fine Arts, which he describes as one of the pioneering organisations promoting Indian dance and music in Singapore. 

Soon he joined the Sathyalingams conceptualising their productions and composing music for them. At one time, the elderly couple was distraught that Rukmini Arundale had not planned a succession for Kalakshetra in Chennai. To avoid this, they appointed Aravinth as their successor in Singapore. In this interview, Aravinth Kumaraswamy talks about his journey with Indian dance in Asia.

What were your dreams for Apsaras Arts when the Sathyalingams left it in your charge?

I wanted Apsaras Arts to be a repertory company. There are institutions all over the world teaching dance, even in Singapore, which has academies older than us. The question is after 10 to 15 years of learning, what happens to all these students of dance. Not everyone can sustain as a soloist, because there are only so many opportunities out there. I wanted to create ensembles beyond the dance drama tradition as I think ensembles are the way forward.

Today 20 percent of Apsaras Arts is the Academy, which continues to teach and inspire young people, but our focus is on the repertory company. We now have professional dancers, not students. This is very rare outside Singapore, it is rare even in India. The Kalakshetra repertory  comprises their teachers and students, who are dancers but not full time artists yet. Aditi Mangaldas’ Kathak Company has professional dancers but it is still rare. We also want to collaborate with artists from India as I believe that we should bring together the dance fraternity in our productions. 

What are the themes that you select for your dance productions which look at India’s influence in South East Asia?

 Angkor The Untold Story premiered  in 2013. It took us five years of research and 14 trips.  We don’t use recorded music, so we had 25 musicians, including the Cambodian Gamelan orchestra on stage. Priyadarshini Govind played the protagonist's role, but she was dancing to our choreography, not something she did in India.  

Conceptualised by Apsaras Arts, Anjaneyam - Hanuman’s Ramayana is a  cross-cultural production which puts together a creative team from around Asia including Era Dance Theatre (Singapore), Kalakshetra Repertory Theatre (India) and Bimo Dance Theater (Indonesia). It features an arresting juxtaposition of Indian and Southeast Asian depictions of the epic, told through Bharatanatyam and Javanese dance and set to a stirring, original score. We had Javanese musicians and artists working together with us. 

Indonesia has its Ramayana called the Kakawin Ramayana, which predates Kambar’s and Tulsidasas’ Ramayan. It came immediately after Valmiki and is written in the old Javanese language. The meter of the Kakawin Ramayana is the same as Valmiki’s and its text follows him closely. So we were able to marry this ancient connection between India and Southeast Asia. 

The idea is not to pluck and put some Javanese dancer in the production to make it beautiful, but to see the deeper connections.  I flew the Javanese orchestra to Chennai.  We camped there for two weeks and soon they were playing Carnatic ragas. We don’t do things in a hurry, such collaborations should have a purpose, a reason.  

You have a dance production on Angkor Wat, and now the book Temple Dance of Apsaras by Thavarajah Mohanapriyani. What piques you about Angkor Wat?

The quest for me coming back to Angkor is because it is not only the largest Hindu temple, it's also the largest place of worship man has built. It is bigger than Srirangam, the Vatican or Mecca. It is dedicated to Vishnu, when the entire Khmer empire were Shaivites. So why did they build the biggest temple on earth to a different God? The  next generation went back to being Shaivaites again and there is a link to India for that. 

The story of this dance unveils why there are 795 women called devatas, (who are not the 3000 dancing apsaras), who are unique standing figures inscribed on the walls. They have unique hairdos and jewellery. I worked with researcher Ken Davis, who has spent 40 years doing biometric scans on these faces, and says they represent the entire world’s ethnicity. This is virtually the first Facebook of the world. 

At Apsaras Arts  we are fascinated by Southeast Asia. While my peers in India and seniors are fascinated with the West, they like to go and perform there, I want to collaborate with artists from Southeast Asia. They want to perform in Carnegie Hall and in Paris, and want to understand the Martha Graham technique,  while here I am thinking, we have all these cousins in Southeast Asia with whom we should connect.

We underestimate the power of Southeast Asians to appreciate Indian art. I brought a Gamelan composer from Indonesia, who had never come to India, and had not seen any Indian dance or music, except probably on YouTube.  I told him I was going to take him to Narda Gana Sabha for a hardcore Carnatic kutcheri, and he could leave if he wished in five minutes. It was a four-hour Ranjani Gayatri concert, and he sat through the whole thing. When he observed something happening he would go - O, they are improvising, O they are shifting the grahabedham, they are moving the tonic scale. So they can clearly appreciate our culture and I don't know why we are wasting time trying to convert Europeans and Americans. 

Southeast Asians can understand the Ramayana, they know when Hanuman appears, and when he gives something in Sita’s hand, they know it is a ring.  Ramayana is danced every night in every village there unlike even in India. 

How do your productions reflect the cultural landscape of India? 

In 2019, at the last music Margazhi season in Chennai, we presented a production that had already toured the world called  Alapadma that tells the significance of the Lotus flower from India to Southeast Asia. This dance production draws inspiration from the multi-faceted symbolism of the lotus and will explore its representation in mythology, iconography and philosophy, particularly in the ancient civilisations of India, Egypt, Iran and Southeast Asia. Alapadma is the name of the dance mudra (hand gesture) that represents the fully opened lotus, and can be found in the ancient texts on Indian dance and theatre namely the Natyasastra and the Abhinaya Dharpana, which serve as invaluable repositories of knowledge for most Indian classical dance forms. The many aspects of the lotus such as Srishti Sarasija (signifying creation), Pada Pankaja(mythology), Leela Kamala (romance), Alankaara Ambuja (iconography) and Sahasrara Padmam (human wisdom) was brought alive through music and dance.

The lotus is a flower sacred to nature and the divine, and representative of both the abstract and the physical universe. It is also emblematic of the productive powers within and borne out of the spiritual and physical realms. It was held sacred in antiquity by the Hindus, the Egyptians, and thereafter by the Buddhists. Revered in China and Japan, and adopted as a sacred emblem by the Greek and Latin Churches, the symbolism of the lotus is an enigma worthy of exploration.

In another production we trace the trail of Buddhism in Southeast Asia. Añjasa” (pronounced as “Anyasa”) means “the path” in Pali, the classical language of Buddhism. In this sequel to Nirmanika – The Beauty of Architecture by Apsaras Arts, Añjasa explores the beauty of Buddhist temple architecture. The audience will journey through monuments including Mahadevi Temple in Nepal, Buddha Gaya Maha Bodhi Temple and Sanchi Stupa in India, Vattadage in Sri Lanka, the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangoon, Bayon in Cambodia and the Borobudur in Indonesia.

We are talking about taking dance and music out of sabhas into more natural settings. How do you feel about that in the global context?

We present our productions in various venue sizes. We present at the 2000 seater at the Esplanade for about three or four nights. So that's looking at about 4000 to 6000 people watching our productions. 

In terms of demography, I would say 45 percent of our audiences are India based, but the other 55 % are non-Indians including Japanese, Southeast Asians, Chinese, Caucasians including French. Sometimes when we go on tours, like in our last tour to France, we went to the border town of Strasbourg where we performed in 200 or 300 seaters. Except for me and one lady helping us, the rest were French. When we finished the French audience gave us a standing ovation for over 17 minutes!

We also realise that while it is nice to do all this ensemble work, the heart and soul of Bharatanatyam and Odissi is the solo artist dancing in a temple precinct, in a very intimate space. So we have started telling people to bring somebody from their workplace who has never seen Indian dance, and it is a kind of infotainment.  For example, many people don't know the Marathi contribution to Bharatanatyam in Tanjore, so we try to give them a little bit of information. Our vision is to be “The Indian Dance Company” of Singapore and the Region.