The Beauty of Indian Classical Dance



Epoch Times, Singapore Edition (Issue 492, August 8 – August 21, 2014)

By Li Yen
Epoch Times Staff

The Beginning
A distinguished figure in Singapore’s Indian classical dance scene, Neila Sathyalingam is a well-known name in the local Indian community.

A practitioner, instructor and choreographer of Indian classical dance, Neila has nurtured many dancers and dance teachers in her decades-long career. For her contributions to Indian arts both locally and internationally, she received Singapore’s Cultural Medallion in 1989 and was bestowed the prestigious Viswa Kala Bharathi in 1995.

Born in Sri Lanka, Neila enrolled in Kalakshetra in Chennai, India after finishing her A-levels at the age of 18. Kalakshetra, which translates to ‘a holy place of arts’, is the harbour of Indian dance in the world. Under the guidance of its founder Srimathi Rukmini Devi Arundale, Neila graduated with a first-class honours diploma.

Neila knew that she wanted a career in dance after receiving the gold medal at the All-Ceylon Dance Festival in 1954 and performing for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in April 1954. However, her father was upset with her decision because in that era, pursuing a dance career was senseless; it was a lonely craft that was not lucrative. Thankfully, Neila came from an affluent family, which made pursuing her passion somewhat easier.

At Kalakshetra, Neila met her husband, Shri Suntharalingam Sathyalingam, who was then teaching Indian classical music at the institute. They settled down in Singapore when he got a job here as an area manager in an American firm.

Her husband told her, “Neila, look here. Go and teach the poorer children arts form, because this is what our mission is. Our mission is to spread Indian dance. Whether it is literature, poetry, music, please do that.”

And that was how Apsaras Arts came into being.

Established in 1977 by Neila and her husband, the name ‘Apsaras Arts’ was given by the latter. “The word A is very lucky for me,” said Neila.

For over three decades, Apsaras Arts has been promoting Indian classical dance in multiracial Singapore, bringing Indian culture to the local community and forging bonds between the different races.

Apsaras Arts also collaborates with local and international talents in its productions. It has grown into an established Indian dance company in the region, providing a platform to showcase Singaporean talent overseas in its prolific local international productions.

Indian Classical Dance
Dance is an integral part of Indian culture. Indian parents want their children to learn Indian dance and it is a tradition every Indian should know.

According to Aravinth Kumarasamy, the Creative and Managing Director of Apsara Arts, there are two types of Indian dance. One is the classical dance, and the other is the folk dance that is performed in rituals and various festivals.

Indian classical dance involves communicative elements of body movements. There are eight Indian classical dance forms, as each state of India has its own classical dance form.

Apsaras Arts propagates Indian classical dance in the Bharatanatyam style, and it performs dance in the Bharatanatyam style in the Kalakshetra tradition. The Bharatanatyam style originates from the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Out of the eight classical dance forms, Bharatanatyam is one of the most popular and widely performed dance styles practised by dancers all over India and the world.

Classical dance in India has developed a type of dance-drama theatre performance, in which the dancer acts out a story through gestures and expressions.

Indian classical dance is able to evoke rasa (emotion) among the audience by acting a particular bhava (gesture or facial expression).

Westerners are bowled over by the soul exhibited in Indian classical dance which they cannot find in Western dance, according to Neila.

ANGKOR – An Untold Story
Apsaras Arts has been staging outstanding sold-out theatre dance works at the Esplanade for more than a decade. Two thirds of their audience are Caucasians, Chinese, Japanese and Koreans.

Some of Apsaras Arts’ productions include the Aalam, Dvayam, Nirmanika, Glimpses of Angkor, Sita’s Magical Forest, The Heroines of Raja Ravi Varma, Dasa Maha Vidhya, Secret Garden and Angkor – An Untold Story.

The captivating performance by Apsaras Arts at Victoria Theatre’s open house on July 20 is only one part of the segment extracted from their production, Angkor – An Untold Story.

Angkor – An Untold Story is a well-received and fascinating theatre dance work that premiered last November at the Esplanade.

A unique production that embraces two cultures in one show, audiences were bewitched by the female carvings of Angkor Wat coming to life through beautiful choreography created by Aravinth Kumarasamy. Aravinth is a multi-talented performer who has received a Young Artiste Award from the National Arts Council of Singapore and was honoured by the Mayor of Croydon, UK in 2011.

For Aravinth, his inspiration comes from life itself. However, in Angkor – An Untold Story, he is inspired by the ethereal architecture of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, which is the largest place of worship in the world.

This magnificent monument built under the influence of Indian ideology and Indian artisans has sacred Khmer woman carvings surrounding the entire temple. These charming yet mystifying woman carvings are distinctly different; each of them has a different expression, pose, hand position, jewellery, costume, and hairstyle.

It was an Indian woman that inspired the construction of Angkor Wat. How did the Indians and the Khmers collaborate and build this divine place of worship in the 12th century?

This sparked Aravinth’s interest to unveil this mysterious yet enthralling story – and it took him five years of research and 14 trips to Cambodia to craft this production.

Internationally-acclaimed Bharatanatyam soloist Priyadarsini Govind joined this production, alongside a strong cast of 70 dancers and numerous regionally-renowned dancers and musicians from Singapore, India, Sri lanka, Cambodia. The list includes non-Indian local choreographer Osman Abdul Hamid.

The Future
Indian classical dance has a very positive future; at present, it is well-liked in the United Kingdom, America, France and Germany, according to Aravinth.

Unlike Neila’s time, today’s youth are more willing to embrace dance as a serious career.

There is also support given by the National Arts Council.

Indian dance creates scenes in suspension, and audiences who watch the show are drawn into a make-believe world. Audiences need that relaxation, and today’s Singaporeans are willing to pay for a ticket to watch Indian dance, which is a good sign, according to Aravinth.

Apsaras Arts hopes to create more productions and intends to bring its Angkor production abroad. But it is difficult to survive without funding, hence they need support to sustain the company.

“The future is very good, but we need to act together,” conveyed Aravinth. “I have a dream project to do a production like Angkor, but run it for a long season like the Broadway theatre,” he added.

For Neila, the founder of Apsaras Arts has a vision of forming a professional performing company that employs full-time dancers.

“My mission is to pass this to the next generations of people,” she revealed.

For more information about Apsaras Arts, visit

An article titled ‘Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall Returns’ published in the previous issue of Epoch Times incorrectly stated ‘Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society performs at Victoria Theatre’ in a photo caption. It should be ‘Apsaras Arts performs at Victoria Theatre’. Epoch Times apologises for the error.

From – (Pg 1), (Pg 2)

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