SIFAS looks to bolster promotion of Indian arts as Singapore gears up for premiere of Kalakshetra’s Rukmini Kalyanam

Celebrating its 75th year, the Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society (SIFAS), the pioneering Indian arts institute in the Lion City, is looking to nurture and preserve classical arts through research and promotion. To give shape to its dream, SIFAS is bolstering its ties with Kalakshetra Foundation, a school based in southern India’s Chennai, that is synonymous with Bharatnatyam, the Indian classical dance form.

60-year-old dance drama Rukmini Kalyanam was stage at the Rukmini Devi Festival 2024. Photo courtesy: Kalakshetra Foundation/Instagram
Rukmini Kalyanam was staged at the Rukmini Devi Festival 2024. Photo courtesy: Kalakshetra Foundation/Instagram

A team from Kalakshetra is currently visiting Singapore, to take part in the 20th SIFAS Festival of Arts. Keeping up with their over 40-year association with SIFAS, the Indian institute, founded by the late Bharatanatyam dancer and theosophist Rukmini Devi Arundale in 1936, will present ‘Rukmini Kalyanam’ to make the 75th year celebration even more grandiose. So, what makes the dance drama special is its age.

Choreographed by the legend herself, the first production of Rukmini Kalyanam dates back to 1964. Though Kalakshetra has performed in Singapore numerous times, it is the first time that the 60-year-old production will be staged in the city-state, on April 27 at the Esplanade. The dynamic dance-drama follows the love story of Lord Krishna and Rukmini. The production uses themes such as devotion, loyalty and familial ties.

SIFAS' ED Menaka Gopalan. Photo courtesy: SIFAS
SIFAS’ Executive Director Menaka Gopalan. Photo courtesy: SIFAS

Speaking to Connected to India, SIFAS’ Executive Director Menaka Gopalan says that she handpicked the production for the ongoing festival after watching it live in India in February. The dance drama was staged as part of the Rukmini Devi Festival 2024 earlier this year. “When I saw the production in person, I was so impressed by it, and I felt that it would be great for the Singapore audience to witness it in Singapore itself,” Gopalan says. “It’s a universal storyline. Kalakshetra is known for their Ramayana productions. They have staged it in Esplanade before. So, we wanted something that wasn’t staged in Singapore before, hence the reason for Rukmini Kalyanam also.”

Asked if there was a change in the presentation to suit the local audience for the upcoming performance, Dr. Jyolsana Menon, HOD, Dance Department at Kalakshetra responds with a resounding no. Explaining why such a thought cannot be entertained, she says, “We cannot think about it because it is our founder’s choreography. Not a single hand movement has been changed. We follow the same dance from 1964, including the costume and jewellery.” Dr Menon says that they have collaborated with teachers from SIFAS for the upcoming event.

Dr. Jyolsana Menon (middle), HOD, Dance Department at Kalakshetra Foundation. Photo courtesy: Kalakshetra Foundation/Instagram
Dr. Jyolsana Menon (middle), HOD, Dance Department at Kalakshetra Foundation. Photo courtesy: Kalakshetra Foundation/Instagram

A total of 25 dancers, 21 from Kalakshetra and four from SIFAS, will take part in the dance drama. Dr Menon says that those from SIFAS were part of the dance drama before, when they were students at the school in Chennai.

Appealing to people, especially the younger generation, to be a part of the show, K V Rao, President, SIFAS, says it is better than movies and provides holistic, natural entertainment. He also advocated the learning of any art form, stating the benefits it has on a person’s mental health, especially in a busy country like Singapore.

Rao also opened up about his vision pertaining to the ties between the two institutions. “We would like to do a lot more development of research around arts and promotion of arts in the whole of Asia Pacific. Our vision in SIFAS is we want to set up a centre of excellence for Indian classical music and dance in Singapore, with institutions in India. One of the pivotal institutions on dance will be Kalakshetra,” he says.

Rao, who previously worked as the Resident Director, ASEAN Region, Tata Sons, took over as the President of SIFAS in 2019. He says that he started his tenure by giving structure to the SIFAS-Kalakshetra partnership, which is over 40 years old. “We had entered into a MoU, which we plan to actually renew, to cover more areas,” he says.

Suresh Kumar Chikkala, Director, Kalakshetra. Photo courtesy:
Kalakshetra Director Suresh Kumar Chikkala. Photo courtesy:

The SIFAS President’s vision is in alignment with Kalakshetra Director Suresh Kumar Chikkala. “We will be working together for development and research in the field of art and culture, and to promote and propagate Indian culture and art,” he says.

Free tickets and passes for the underrepresented

To make its 75th year memorable, SIFAS has tied up with local partners with the intention of serving the underrepresented groups and enabling them to witness classical Indian arts in the country. “We have been working with several underrepresented groups like Sree Narayana Mission and Project SMILE to give them an opportunity to witness these sorts of performances that they would never be able to on their own,” Gopalan says.

The SIFAS ED adds that free tickets and complimentary passes have been distributed to facilitate this initiative. “They are coming to watch Rukmini Kalyanam. I have over a 100 people from these underrepresented groups coming in to watch this, and they have never seen anything like this in their life. It’s special for us that we’re able to widen our audience and bring the communities together,” she says.

Nothing like SIFAS

Talking about community outreach, Rao hailed the Indian diaspora in Singapore. He says that though there are many diasporas in other parts of the world, “the vibrancy and diversity it has in Singapore is phenomenal”. He also lauded SIFAS for its change in attitude and opting for an inclusive approach. “We have 18 ethnic bodies, including the Bengali Association, the Gujaratis, Parsis. Though we started as pure Carnatic in the beginning, in 1949, and I’ve lived here for 30 years. In 30 years, the transformation of SIFAS has seen Kathak coming close to Bharatnatyam. Hindustani vocals, Sitar, Tabla, ghazals are also coming in because of the change.”

SIFAS President K V Rao. Photo: Connected to India
K V Rao, President, SIFAS. Photo: Connected to India

For the unversed, Kathak is a dance form based in Northern India, as opposed to Bharatnatyam which is from the southern part of the country. Hindustani classical is also from the north, while Carnatic music is its southern counterpart.

Giving SIFAS its flowers, Rao says the institute is the only one in the world to dedicate itself to the promotion of Indian classical music and arts. “We’re very fortunate that the community supports us. We have an alumni of almost 60,000 people, whose lives we have touched in the last 75 years,” he adds.

If you happen to be in Singapore on April 27, and love Indian arts, do visit the Esplanade for the Singapore premiere of Rukmini Kalyanam. The performance will start at 7pm. Tickets prices start at SGD 40.