Samarpana, the Asian Festival of Classical Dance, produced by Gayatri Sriram and handled by the Jade Group of Companies, was held between recently in Singapore. On display were some fine performances, a presentation and a lively discussion on the state of the classical arts.

The festival, held at the acoustically perfect Drama Centre Theatre, National Library Building, witnessed a good turnout of Singapore’s art-loving population. The first evening featured a collaborative event – the Gundecha Brothers singing in the dhrupad format with disciples of Kumuduni Lakhia’s dance school – Kadamb, performing to it. The principal ragas presented were Malkauns and Hamir. The end piece on Lord Siva as Mahakaleswar, the presiding deity at the Gundecha Brother’s hometown of Ujjain, saw repeated rounds of applause. The evening concluded with the presentation of Samarpana Citation 2013 to Madam Som Said, well known choreographer, instructor and director who has been tirelessly working on popularising Malay dance in Singapore for over forty years.

The second evening began with Sankhya, a dance performance by Diya Gopalan, which had numbers as its theme, choreographed by gurus Minal Prabhu and Gayatri Sriram. The young performer, whose agile presence on stage promises a bright future in dance, held the audience enthralled. This was followed by my presentation on the Devadasis of George Town. This traced the lives of the courtesans of Madras in the endgame of their profession, even as the Government enacted legislations to outlaw them. The last performance of the evening was more Spanish than Asian, but it perhaps reflects the cosmopolitan nature of Singapore. This was a Flamenco performance titled The Cruel Gardens, an allegorical representation of the psyche of a bullfight. Directed by internationally renowned choreographer Antonio Vargas, it had Miguel Angel Espino of Spain as the matador with the Singapore-based Soren Magnus Niewelt as the bull, along with other performers.

The third and final evening witnessed three events. The first, titled Feathered Fables, had three performances each of half hour duration, all themed on birds. The first, by the L’Academie de Danse was a ballet, based on Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, which compares a bird’s learning to fly with a search for perfection. The second, a contemporary dance choreographed by Zainin Mohammad Tahir and performed by the NUS Dance Ensemble, looked at life through the journey of birds. It was performed to a multitude of musical styles, including the Carnatic. The third in the Feathered Fables trilogy was a rendition of The Golden Mallard, an episode from the Buddha Jataka, by the Shruti Laya School of Dance, run by Gayatri Sriram.

The second programme of the evening was a panel discussion. Based on the oft-repeated fear of the dilution of the classical arts, it featured Dr Sunil Kothari, the eminent dance historian, Zaini Tahir, Artistic Director of the NUS Dance Ensemble, JP Nathan, Director of Programming, the Esplanade Theatre, Singapore, veteran dancer and guru Minal Prabhu and yours truly.

The discussion was moderated by Dr Prasenjit Duara, Raffles Professor of Humanities and Director of Research, Humanities and Social Sciences, National University of Singapore.

The last and final performance was intriguing to begin with. How could Tagore’s immortal Chitrangadha be performed in the Kuchipudi style? And yet it was done, and how! The event, supported by the Tagore Society, Singapore, saw a wonderful performance by well known dancer Amrita Lahiri. Interspersed with monologues and shortened to suit the time frame, its music remained true to Tagore throughout. The style of dance alone was Kuchipudi and yet it all gelled perfectly. It was as much a tribute to the skill of the dancer/choreographer as it was to Tagore.

This was the second edition of Samarpana. And going by the response, it looks like it is here to stay. It was interesting to see the Sabha culture had somehow manifested itself – veterans such as Jayalakshmi teacher of Kalakshetra, Dr Sunil Kothari and Deepak Majumdar rubbing shoulders with aspiring youngsters, the culture-loving art aficionados animatedly conversing in the lobby, and a coffee bar that had all the trappings of a future canteen.

This article appeared in The Hindu dated 25th October 2013