On a recent visit to Singapore, where I was invited by the National Book Development Council to attend the Asian Festival of Children’s Content (AFCC), it was wonderful to spend a few days in the company of writers, illustrators, puppeteers, editors and publishers whose work relates to children. Subsequently, I went on a roller coaster ride of the varied cultural and entertainment experiences that Singapore has to offer. Not to forget the culinary.
My first such experience was ‘Tanjore – The Golden Age of Bharatanatyam’. I found this concert to be mesmerising. Stepping back in time and embarking on a visual journey through the great ancient kingdom of Tanjore in South India and into the rich history of Bharatanatyam, the concert showcased Singapore’s Dance India Asia Pacific alumni. Their riveting performances explored the influences of royal rulers on dance and music between the 10th and 16th centuries.
Being South Asians, we in Pakistan, have yet to realise and accept that classical dance is a part of our combined histories. Hence, only a very small segment of our society today is acquainted with the classical performance arts of the land extending beyond the political boundaries of our country.
The recital was scripted and led by Lakshmi Viswanathan. She held the audience captivated with her tongue-in-cheek narration, her humour and her vivacious style of story-telling. With the haunting Marathi song, Jaya Jaya Durge being her signature entry each time, she led the audience on a beautiful path of discovery; tracing the evolution of the dance through this golden age.
Seventy-two year old Viswanathan is herself a leading exponent of Bharatanatyam, as well as a choreographer, researcher and author of four highly acclaimed books. The most recent is Women of Pride, which studies the Devadasi tradition and its transformation into a living cultural phenomenon in the context of Hindu tradition.
As luck would have it, Cameron Mackintosh’s acclaimed new production of the musical Les Misérables — a timeless classic — opened at the Esplanade Theatre, about 20 years after it was last staged in Singapore. This was my second experience. The Esplanade is a world-class performing arts centre that also has exhibition spaces for the visual arts. A slew of cafes, restaurants and shops sustain its hordes of theatre and concert goers. It was great to watch Les Misérables in the 2,000-seater theatre with elaborate sets, clever use of technology that not only surprised me but greatly enhanced the theatrical experience — complete with pyrotechnics and gunshots that you hear on stage but that seem to hit the wall at the back of the theatre, and a digital backdrop that added memorable effects throughout the performance.
Set in 19th century France and based on Victor Hugo’s classic novel by the same name, Les Misérables follows the struggles of former prisoner, Jean Valjean against the backdrop of a political revolution. Valjean is a convict on the run for stealing bread for his hungry family, but a chance meeting leaves him determined to become a better man. The performances and songs by the actors were powerful. Actor and musical theatre star, Simon Gleeson played the iconic role of Jean Valjean, whereas his erstwhile antagonist Javert was played by Earl Carpenter who finally bows out with a splash, drowning in the River Seine in one of the most spectacular effects of the production.
The blockbuster Les Misérables is a story of heartbreak, passion and the resilience of human spirit. This musical was an unforgettable experience.
My third experience was a visit to the National Gallery (NG). This too was quite an eye-opener. Ten years in the making, the NG opened its doors to visitors in November 2015. It has been created by restoring and combining two historical landmarks – the former Supreme Court and City Hall. The NG is said to be larger than the renowned Tate Modern in London, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. This is the place to visit if one wants to see Singaporean and South-East Asian art under one roof. The exhibits span from the 19th century to the present.
War shaped early art education and artistic practice in Singapore. The 1920s and 1930s saw artists arriving in Singapore from Shanghai, London and Paris, injecting diversity into the local cultural scene. Art practice continued to flourish until the Japanese occupation began in 1942. Even though many artists and intellectuals were among the first to be rounded up, and some were even killed, artistic production did not cease altogether.
As modern art developed from the 1970s, the physical form and materials used for artwork became the focus. Singaporean artists also started to emphasise the primacy of mediums and materials, experimenting with steel, cement, fabric and other mixed media to draw attention to the surface and texture of their work. Some artists grounded their art in local traditions such as ink and batik, and experimented to use these in modern ways.
A visit to Singapore cannot be considered complete without visiting its two ethnic enclaves: China Town and Little India. On the main road of China Town is the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore. There are also churches, a Jama mosque and a Buddha Tooth Relic temple in the vicinity. Narrow streets fronted by attractive old ‘shophouses’ are cramped with hundreds of stalls selling knick-knacks from China and the food streets are abuzz with customers.
Similarly, a stroll in Little India on Serangoon Road is an exciting experience. There are several jewellery shops as well as shops selling incense, bangles, saris, handicrafts, trinkets, etc. A variety of Indian and Pakistani cuisine including popular savouries and sweets can also be had in restaurants, cafes and colourful shops dotting the area. One large department store called Mustafa is particularly famous as it houses everything — from vegetables to electronics under its roof, and is open 24/7 all year round.
The city-state of Singapore, with its high living standards, modern urban planning and landscape, and lush tropical setting, provides a range of rich cultural experiences to its highly disciplined, multicultural population, and to visitors alike. Its give-and-take motto seems to be to live and let live, follow the rules, and enjoy life to the fullest. A motto many others can learn to their benefit!