GICC: Connecting Indian diaspora through culture

Culture is a binding factor that keeps the Indian Diaspora connected with its roots. Indian culture is known for its rich and varied characteristics. To provide an ideal environment for diverse communities, including Indian expatriates in South East Asia, to learn and enjoy the rich cultural heritage of the Indian sub-continent, Global Indian International School (GIIS) set up the Global Indian Cultural Centre (GICC) in Singapore in 2002.  

GICC is all set to attain greater play as GIIS moves into a bigger campus with plans of extending arts and culture beyond its burgeoning student community. In an exclusive tete-a-tete with Connected to India (CtoI), Vidhya Nair, the newly appointed head of GICC explained the broader connotation of culture, which, she believes "goes a long way in shaping the personality of an individual".

GICC is spreading Indian culture in Singapore
GICC is spreading Indian culture in Singapore. Photo courtesy: GICC

As the head of GICC, Nair’s role is to develop cultural content for GIIS students and members and initiate the promotion of Indian heritage and culture among the community at large in Singapore through performing arts and cultural activities. She comes equipped with experience in arts and culture space as an erstwhile principal of Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society (SIFAS), the oldest and largest Indian performing arts school in Singapore, docent coordinator at the Indian Heritage Centre, a sitar player, a Bharat Natayam dancer among other things.

CtoI: What is GICC? How do you describe its form? Is it a concept or a physical infrastructure which has been put up across GIIS.

Vidhya Nair: GICC emanates from the concept of spreading arts and culture engagement. Philosophies have to be backed by an on-ground implementation. That is where the physical elements of GICC come in. The GICC structure will be set up in the new GIIS campus. It will house state-of-the-art facilities like music rooms to dance studios, to theatres, to auditoriums with first class sound systems and even recording studios where kids can cut albums.

Vidhya Nair, Head of GICC.
Vidhya Nair, Head of GICC. Photo: Connected to India

Our focus is children within our school in the age group from 3 right up to 18 but at the same time we want their parents and other adults to join those classes. There are a lot of activities where we can combine; it is a family activity and some of the skills that lots of people are interested in are not necessarily Indian, but based on their living environment. For example in Japan, we expect it will have Japanese lessons culture in our curriculum and here (Singapore) there is a lot of interest in Mandarin.

CtoI: Why did GIIS think of starting GICC?

Vidhya Nair: When GIIS started in 2002, they wanted to bring education to Indians who lived outside the country and they branded themselves as a school for global citizens. For people of the Indian community who can live in any part of the world and have a variety of skills and can survive in any climate and situation and handle many skills and have many jobs for their careers, yet retain an identity which is about their culture, their heritage, and who they are as a people and the community they come from. That is one of the reasons why they started GICC under the Foundation. So, it is basically a non-profitable charity and does activities that promote  culture in any form.

We have a wide definition of culture in our school. Even sports is culture for us because within sports, there are traditional sports, the sports that people grew up playing when they were kids in India in the 1800s that today nobody knows about, along with the genesis of new sports that we know today. In some way, we even use sports to educate kids about culture. There are many ways in which we are using our heritage to create all kinds of activities so that the children we raise in our system become global citizens.

CtoI: Is  GICC not limited to students of GIIS but it goes further?

Vidhya Nair: Yes, I mean ideally over time, we hope to expand the offerings to people outside the GIIS system but we are also realistic about who will join us because most of the time you see in Singapore that most of the people who join us live very close to our school. They come to us because it is very convenient, and it is something interesting. We are moving to our own campus in a couple of months. We are hoping to create programmes to encourage non-Indians to also join us to do various things.

For example, we want to start a culinary course where kids can cook. It can be Indian, it is about expressing themselves, it is about being individuals. It is also about bringing the culture of Indian food into their lives. The scope is very wide.

CtoI:   How is the GICC concept being explained to students at GIIS at this stage and how did you launch it within the school community?

Vidhya Nair: Well, the school is 15 years old. We have basically created Saturday classes - pitched as classes that can be conducted on Saturday mornings so that parents can come in and leave their children for a couple of hours and they can learn a variety of things during that time. Within a four-hour zone, you can have a kid go from cricket to flute to art. At one time, they can keep their child occupied doing a number of things on Saturday morning. So far, it has been operating on that scale.

CtoI: But these kinds of things have existed in the school prior to the formation of GICC. Why does GIIS feel that there has to a separate body like GICC?

Vidhya Nair: One of the things that happen when you have a class on a Saturday morning is that the class size is smaller. It means that there is more individual attention to the student and there is more in-depth learning. So in a music class, it is pure classical music that we taught whereas in a regular class, there is group singing. It’s more casual and informal.

Saturday classes are much focussed and have concentrated way of learning.
Saturday classes are much focussed and have concentrated way of learning. Photo courtesy: GICC

However, this is a more formalised class, there is a syllabus, there is theory, practical and there is examination at the end of the term as well. So, it’s a much focused and concentrated way of learning. So, at the end, there is measurement of what they have achieved.

CtoI: So, GICC as a concept has also brought structure to the learning of arts and culture in the GIIS.

Vidhya Nair: Precisely.

CtoI: What do you think is the importance of learning art forms for the overall growth of children?

Vidhya Nair: I can speak of the positives from personal experience, because my dad got me to do so when I was a child. There are so many skills you pick up learning an art form and your brain gets rewired in a specific way that makes you listen a lot better. To start with, you can feel nuances a bit more, you are more emotionally stable and in terms of practice, you have so many things like discipline; you learn to do things at a particular time at a particular period of the day, rehearse, repeat something over and over again for it to be a part of you.

hildren also learn the art of playing instruments at GICC.
Children also learn the art of playing instruments at GICC. Photo courtesy: GICC

And when you learn music, after a while, once you become more competent in it, you start to create, you start to compose, you start to put feeling into your expression and that makes you a certain kind of person as well. The same is the case with dance. When you start to perform, after you have learnt the basic techniques, you start to perform on stage. Performing on stage is very different from performing in a class, because there is an audience in front of you, you have to keep the time, there is music. All these things give you confidence, improve your self-esteem, make you try new things and much more aware about your strengths and weaknesses. If you really get immersed, you can go on forever.he other thing about learning a classical art is that it teaches a tremendous amount of patience, it makes you a peaceful person, and I think it helps you to integrate with people. Sometimes, I found myself learning things in languages that I didn’t speak at all. When I learnt Bharatnatyam, I did not know a word of Tamil. I did not understand what they were saying to me. But, it forced me to pay attention, care about the language. You are no longer part of the little world of your own community or your own people, but you are also part of something bigger.

CtoI:  How did you land with GICC? How did they find you?

Vidhya Nair: I was actually the principal of one of the oldest performing arts schools in Singapore  - Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society (SIFAS). I was the principal there for about a year when they found me.

The school has a lot of rigour in the way that they teach and the way they run examinations. It got me into the space and prior to that I was in the Indian Heritage Centre training docents. My role there was to help docents understand or sort of condense what is the history of Singapore, Indians moving into Singapore and find out how everybody came in from different cultures and settled in this new place. So in some way GIIS and now GICC is putting me in a position that I have to be creative, because it is a clean slate. It helps you to put together programmes that work for the community.

CtoI: What is the vision for GICC?

Vidhya Nair: The vision for GICC is largely to integrate people of different nationalities in one space over a cultural activity and in different ways. One of the big things that we are doing now is having our own facilities. We want our facilities to matter to our community and to make the culture accessible to people. That’s why we want to create things that are easy to access and at the same time, do things that are intellectually stimulating.

CtoI: Will that mean that GIIS annual day or the cultural festivals will be more intense than in the past?

Vidhya Nair: It is not going to be about one big thing on a day approach. But we will do different things for different kinds of audiences. There are certain key events that we probably have in a year that focus on certain things. We want to develop literature and literary activities as well they are also an integral part of cultural activities.

Through promotion of Indian culture, GICC wants to create holistically good global citizens.
Through promotion of Indian culture, GICC wants to create holistically good global citizens. Photo courtesy: GICC

There is also another aspect that we don’t only want to do our own things with our own students but also with other organisations and other people who are experts and put that together and create something of a higher standard. The idea is to scale people’s knowledge and remove their ignorance of culture by engaging in more activities so that they can understand and are not limited to generic music, generic dancing and generic knowledge. People should get into the specifics. So, lets we ran a literary festival, they must be in a position to have listened to the discussion and several books and they should become better readers. The idea is to create holistically good global citizens. We want children to have access to this information and that they should look forward to the event so that they have some personal growth.

CtoI: How are the parents and students taking to the GICC announcement?

Vidhya Nair: Actually, they are pretty enthusiastic and told me all kinds of things they want to learn. I did a little survey and one thing that is on everybody’s list is learning how to swim.

Then there is also dramatics and public speaking. Hopefully, we will be in a position to train children and run our own productions . I think parents want to be organised with proper certification.  Before, we look into collaborating, we should have accreditation so that we can run proper courses for this.

Ashraf Jamal
Ashraf Jamal – Senior Writer

Ashraf Jamal brings a rare depth to writing equipped with a degree in journalism, a postgraduate degree in political science, and a degree in law from the Allahabad University. His experience includes editing and publishing the Northern India Patrika and writing for Times of India for almost a decade covering just about any topic under the sun including NRIs and Indian diaspora.


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