Kalaa Utsavam turns 20, fusing the modern with the traditional in a rich, diverse display of performing arts

Come wind, rain or even a pandemic of global proportions, Kalaa Utsavam, festival of Indian performing arts in Singapore has not missed a beat. Launched in 2002, Kalaa Utsavam was one of the first events to be held at the brand new Esplanade

With a continuous run of 20 years, Kalaa Utsavam is one of the longest running festivals of Indian arts in the world. 

Photo: Connected to India
Rajeswari Ramachandran, programming lead for 15 out of 20 Kalaa Utsavam festivals. Photo: Connected to India

Starting as a three-day festival, it is now a 10-day celebration of Indian performing arts. 10 days when Singapore looks even more connected to India. 

Well known pianist Anil Srinivasan who has performed many times at Kalaa Utsavam compares an opportunity to perform at the coveted festival to winning an international award.

Well known pianist Anil Srinivasan
Well known pianist Anil Srinivasan. Photo: Connected to India

Mounting the festival comes with its share of pressures. Rajeswari Ramachandran, programming lead for 15 out of 20 Kalaa Utsavam festivals, calls it an emotional roller coaster. “Planning for the festival has its own suspense and thrilling moments and we face many layers of challenges and joyful moments. We journey with the artists and the audience and it is difficult to wind down from the high after the festival is over,” she told Connected to India.   

For 10 days after the festival of Deepavali venues at Esplanade come alive with the sitar, the tabla, mridangam to the sound of ghunghroos pounding to Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Odissi or Mohini Attam and other art forms, which are not so well known but curated and presented at the festival. 

Photo: Connected to India
Dr Chitra Krishnakumar, founder of the Singapore chapter of art and culture nonprofit Soorya. Photo: Connected to India

Southeast Asia’s first Indian arts festival with a multi-genre focus, Kalaa Utsavam facilitates and encourages developing and supporting Singaporean artists’ performances as well as showcases artistic teams from all over the world, especially India.

Dr Chitra Krishnakumar, founder of the Singapore chapter of art and culture nonprofit Soorya, has organised multiple events at Kalaa Utsavam over the years and said the festival has a unique capacity to include different art forms across different expressive media. 

“I feel Kalaa Utsavam encompasses all artists and styles. It’s a beautiful combination of multiple events spread over 10 days. It is providing a beautiful arena for artists to showcase unique performances,” she said. 

“A connection has been built over 20 years,” said Aditi Mangaldas, celebrated Kathak dancer and choreographer, who was a performer at the first festival in 2002 and has returned many times since. “Our connection to Kalaa Utsavam, their faith in us and our faith in their artistry has grown. It’s been a wonderful journey of knowing Kalaa Utsavam, of being a part of their festivals and of sharing our work with the diverse audiences in Singapore.”

Each festival has seen a mix of carefully curated local Singapore-based and overseas artists come together to enthrall audiences and give them a wide variety of shows to choose from. 

In years past, Kalaa Utsavam has welcomed famed performers such as Indian Ocean, Shankar Mahadevan, Amit Trivedi, Carnatic rock fusion band AGAM, Atul Kumar, The Raghu Dixit Project, Aditi Mangaldas and others. 

Photo: Connected to India
Aditi Mangaldas, celebrated Kathak dancer and choreographer. Photo: Connected to India

Leading Singaporean performers such as Mohanapriyan Thavarajah (Anjaneyam) Nawaz Mirajkar (Swarythm), Mohammed Raffee (The Vasantham Boyz), Mohamed Noor and many more from institutions such as Bhaskar Arts Academy, Apsaras Arts and SIFAS, to name a few, have found in Kalaa Utsavam the perfect stage and audiences over the years. 

The festival has become a symbol of the diverse arts and culture of India, helping expand the nation’s soft power and cultural outreach. Esplanade’s stated objective of showcasing the diversity of India has made the festival a grand journey that takes the audience around India without them ever leaving the shores of Singapore. 

Photo: Connected to India
HE Periasamy Kumaran, High Commissioner of India, Singapore. Photo: Connected to India

Interestingly, the 20th Kalaa Utsavam coincides with India's 75 years of Independence celebrations, making the Indian High Commission in Singapore the chief sponsor of the festival, as part of the ‘Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav’ campaign.

HE Periasamy Kumaran, High Commissioner of India, Singapore, stated that they look forward to continued collaboration with Esplanade to build bridges between the people of India and Singapore and to enhance awareness of each other among the younger generation. 

“Our partnership with Kalaa Utsavam for this year’s edition is in the context of India’s celebration of 75 years as an independent nation, under the campaign ‘Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav,” he added. “It is enriched by the fact that Kalaa Utsavam, with its focus on multiple genres, has developed into a unique event featuring both Singaporean creations while also bringing in prominent artistes from all over the world.”

Kalaa Utsavam’s intent to bring varied experiences specifically curated for the community has become a defining feature making them stand out from other events. The performances and calendar is carefully constructed to attract fresh audiences who have not previously been exposed to, or familiar with the art forms. 

2021 edition features a highly entertaining selection of newly produced Singapore works by Bharatanatyam dance company Bharathaa Arts, fusion band Brahmastra, Indian contemporary dance company Chowk Productions, veteran singer composer Mohd Raffee, vedic metal band RUDRA, classical music ensemble SIFAS Alumni and thematic music showcases by Singapore Indian Orchestra and Choir and Temple of Fine Arts. 

The festival is also bringing together renowned lyricist Javed Akhtar and acclaimed singer Shankar Mahadevan for the first time in a digital commission. 

For the first time, specially curated short films by international and Singapore filmmakers have in-venue and online screenings. The stated objective of the festival is to keep audiences connected to the rich diversity of Indian culture and the diaspora’s stories.

“The works of local artists are curated as well such that they stand up to the level of performance of the other programmes,” explained Rajes.

“We will continue to build on the festival’s pioneering spirit, its vision to inspire artistic dynamism across borders and be a torchbearer for the Indian performing arts,” she said.