Pursuing artistic excellence

Cultural exchange: Music and dance classes in progress at SIFAS and (right) principal Shankar Rajan.

Cultural exchange: Music and dance classes in progress at SIFAS and (right) principal Shankar Rajan.   | Photo Credit: PHOTOS: RUPA GOPAL


The Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society turns 60 this year. A look at the academy’s work to promote Indian classical arts…

The Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society, or simply SIFAS, has reached a milestone… of 60 years of existence. A small band of 12 people started it in a small place, in 1949. Half a dozen moves later, SIFAS became a proper academy in 1959. July 1993 saw the Singapore Government allot the present spacious location to SIFAS under the Arts Housing Scheme, on a long and nominal lease.

The old school building today reverberates with vocal and instrumental music, and dance jatis. Both Carnatic and Hindustani styles are taught here, and the 22 tutors who live on the campus, are mostly from India.

Shankar Rajan, principal, SIFAS, says, “Our tutors come mainly from Kalakshetra and our syllabus too is closely linked with it. Annual exams are held in mid-May, and we’ve external examiners. This year, Nagamani Srinath and Jyotsna Menon will be coming. A feather in our cap is the accreditation granted by the University of Madras. Our students can complete their Masters there. The present student strength is 1750.” SIFAS today has achieved national recognition — originally it was only IFAS. It is a registered charity, a non-profit organisation. Run by a committee, the chairman is P. Selvadorai, and the vice president of publicity is Prof. Seshan Ramaswamy.

Five-year certificate courses followed by three-year diploma courses produce full fledged musicians or dancers. Visual arts is a new course that has been introduced, and Thanjavur painting is very popular here. Students learn to sing, dance and play various instruments including the keyboard, mridangam, violin and flute, often with anxious mothers looking on. After all, an art well learnt can be a road to fame. During my visit, a Kathak class is in progress and a young teacher shows some steps and whirls to tiny tots, with the firm injunction, ‘Don’t fall down’ to the little ones trying to whirl. Catch them young… that seems to be SIFAS’ motto.

As I visit each classroom, I can spot familiar faces as tutors — Mangalam Shankar is giving vocal lessons, while K. Sivaraman is giving a one-to-one violin lesson. I bump into Mohan Vaidya coming down the stairs. SIFAS has not hesitated in taking the best of Chennai, as tutors and performers.

Annual festival

The SIFAS annual festival of music and dance began in 2003. This March saw Aruna Sairam, Amjad Ali Khan and T.V. Sankaranarayanan regale audiences in Singapore. The Balamuralikrishna-Ajoy Chakraborty jugalbandhi is to be held in November. Also, SIFAS students will perform at the fest.

A strong management board of lawyers, bankers and such enables SIFAS to raise funds. Manik Shahani, a local tycoon, coordinated with sarod maestro Amjad Ali Khan, to get him to perform at the fest this March. Over 10,200 people attended the events, held over 17 days, which saw a group dance performance by Roja Kannan.

News sheet

Festive Beats is a daily news-sheet brought out by the students during the festival, and it has musical inputs, artist profiles, schedules, riddles and comic sketches related to music.

The 60th year celebrations are to begin with A.K.C. Natarajan performing ‘mangala isai’ on April 25. Mridangam and violin accompaniments for this special concert will be from the SIFAS stable.

Over the years, almost all the big names in the field of classical music and dance have been to SIFAS.

Shankar recalls his father having a recording of GNB’s ‘Ananda Natesa’, which sadly, he is unable to find today. He describes Maharajapuram Santhanam’s last overseas concert — it was at SIFAS, in mid 1990s.

Recalls Shankar, “Santhanam began the concert at 7.30 p.m. and sang till midnight… it was truly memorable. Orissa exponent Sanjukta Panigrahi, who was here in the 1970s, was simply superb.”

The SIFAS souvenir, for the 60th year, is a class product, well designed and perfectly printed.SIFAS has helped promote the Indian arts in Singapore, and has seen its tutors flourish. Some have gone on to set up their own schools. For the crowded Madras music and dance scene, SIFAS offers a perfect haven to those keen to share their knowledge with thirsting souls, a little far away from home. These are the people who have made Singapore a firm offshoot of cultural South India.

Recommended for you