Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

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‘Tis the season… to sign off of social media for a bit and take stock of the year gone by.

To my readers who celebrate Christmas: May this holiday season bring you and your loved ones much joy.

All: Have a wonderful time ringing in 2015.

See you in the new year!

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Singapore friends, do check out my Singapore-inspired holiday gift guide! I’ve tried to find things for every budget and personality and I very much hope you enjoy it.

International Conference on Bharatanatyam in Singapore 2014: A Guest Post by Aditi Shivaramakrishnan

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The inaugural international Conference on Bharatanatyam in Singapore, “The Emergence, Development and Future Directions of Bharatanatyam in Singapore and Malaysia,” was held on December 6 and 7 at Stephen Riady Centre, University Town, National University of Singapore.

I participated in a roundtable discussion (via Skype, since I am currently overseas), “Bharatanatyam and the Negotiation of Geographies and Visibility,” moderated by Dr. Stephanie Burridge, writer and lecturer at LASALLE College of the Arts. The panel featured: dancer Kiran Kumar; Professor of Ethnochoreology and Ethnomusicology, University of Malaya, Mohd Anis Md Nor; media professional Sabanitha Shanmugasundram; and doctoral candidate in Communication and New Media, National University of Singapore, Shobha Vadrevu. Skype wasn’t ideal, but there’s a first time for everything, right?

My friend Aditi Shivaramakrishnan, dancer, writer, and editor, attended IN PERSON. She wrote this reflection, and I’m thrilled to share it here.

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Last weekend, the first International Conference on Bharatanatyam in Singapore (ICBS 2014) took place at the National University of Singapore’s Stephen Riady Centre. Eager for an opportunity to once again engage with the classical South Indian dance form I’d studied when younger, I’d been looking forward to this event since its announcement some months ago.

Despite its titular focus on “the emergence, development and future directions of bharatanatyam in Singapore and Malaysia”, collectively, the academics, artists, students and other stakeholders gathered hailed from not just these two countries, but also India, Japan, Canada, the US, and the UK. Also present were pioneers of classical Indian dance in Singapore, such as Cultural Medallion recipients Neila Sathyalingam and Santha Bhaskar, and accomplished dancer Rathi Karthigesu.

The briskly-paced series of presentations examined bharatanatyam from historical, teaching and scholarly perspectives. With the impressive roster of presenters assembled, some overlap in subject matter covered was inevitable. On several occasions, “bharatanatyam”-centered discussions were more broadly applicable to Indian dance forms, or even to South Asian art forms in the multiple contexts of local communities and global diasporas. Personally, I found the panels comprising both scholars and practitioners (teachers/students) of bharatanatyam the most interesting; it was where theory and practice came into synthesis—or, more excitingly, tension.

Historical:

Bhaskar’s keynote address—replete with old photographs and event posters—set the context for the presentations to come, with a recount of more than six decades of engagement with the local performing arts scene, and invocation of iconic personalities and momentous choreographic works. She noted that despite the colonial government’s prioritisation of Western forms of art, Singapore was hardly a cultural desert; in fact, “innovation without fear” was possible here, with different ethnic groups drawing inspiration from each others’ art forms, and further working together to creatively circumvent their common challenges (insufficient funding, and a lack of suitable performance spaces; both were reiterated as persisting problems in subsequent talks).

Teaching:

The educators present—many of whom teach more than one arts form—engaged in lively discussion that had audience members nodding or shaking their heads emphatically, perhaps bringing to mind their similar or contrary experiences. Issues covered included challenges teaching young students today (teachers observe they are less physically coordinated likely due to less time engaged in active play; new approaches are required to explain the stories behind pieces to a new generation that may not have grown up with the myths and traditional stories that their predecessors did); the changing relationship between teacher and student with the erosion of the strict traditional guru-shishya parampara; how to teach dance with knowledge that the vast majority of students will not pursue it beyond a certain age (with education, career and/or family life taking priority) and, briefly, working with male dancers in the female-dominated form of bharatanatyam.

Scholarly:

Scholars’ papers on bharatanatyam in relation to forces such as history, class, diaspora, and globalisation were fascinating insofar as they were not too difficult to follow given the use of impenetrable academic language. While several presentations focused on bharatanatyam in relation to Singapore, others took a more transnational or theoretical approach, often making explicit reference to the sociopolitical implications of studying the dance form: Dr. Urmimala Sarkar Munsi in her incisive keynote lecture on the material, social and ritualistic expectations placed on female dancers’ bodies; Prof. Davesh Soneji‘s research, incorporating written accounts and archival visual material, on regional representations of Tamil Devadasi dance; and the startlingly intelligent and eloquent multihyphenate Sadanand Menon’s lecture on his close associate, the late Chandralekha who challenged established conventions of content and form in bharatanatyam.

The conference ended on a productive and optimistic note, with the veterans in particular calling on the younger generation of bharatanatyam students to sustain the energy and entrepreneurial spirit of their predecessors and for different local institutions to support, rather than compete against, each other in hopes of developing a stronger collective voice with which to advocate for greater support (government and private sector funding; audience development). Another priority raised was increasing access to bharatanatyam lessons for those who fall outside of the demographics (largely middle- and upper-middle class, and, interestingly, there is an observed disconnect here between recent South Asian immigrants and Singaporean Indians as well) that comprise the majority of students in Singapore.

Bhaskar further listed ways in which students can remain engaged with bharatanatyam after they stop dancing: teaching, scholarly work, writing dance criticism or attending performances, for example. As one such individual, the above in addition to the exhortation that the critically conscious bharatanatyam student must continually engage with the sociopolitical is admittedly quite daunting, there already being the ever-present weight of cultural expectations. I felt a sort of kinship with others present who spoke of their initial dislike of bharatanatyam, more often than not having been sent to lessons by their parents without much say in the matter.

For years, bharatanatyam has been, variously, for me: a nerve-wracking Sunday morning ritual; a space in which my changing body was awkward and uncooperative; the wrong kind of dance, which didn’t make you cool at school; and, when everyone else’s expectations for my progress had finally moderated themselves, my own kicked in, and failure to meet physical, if not emotional, standards of performance would be yet another inadequacy in successfully negotiating a diasporic, multicultural identity.

All the same, the very opportunity to engage with such dilemmas has been a privilege afforded by a combination of socioeconomic factors and the ready presence of an active bharatanatyam scene in Singapore, and it has imparted lifelong lessons in art, discipline and an appreciation, simply, for what the body can do. The sense of community I felt, and all the new information I took in, at the two-day conference has rekindled such reflection and for this I must thank and congratulate all involved, particularly the dedicated organisers and hardworking volunteers.

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Thanks, Aditi!

Dear readers, did you attend? What did you think?

The Adventures of Squirky the Alien #2: What Happened to Planet Q? by Melanie Lee and Illustrated by David Liew

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My friend Melanie’s new book is out! The Adventures of Squirky the Alien #2: What Happened to Planet Q? by Melanie Lee and Illustrated by David Liew is the second in a series of six picture books about adoption. Melanie wrote these books for her toddler son; he was adopted as an infant.

In the author’s note, Melanie writes: “After Book #1 [The Adventures of Squirky the Alien #1: Why Am I Blue?], I received a few queries from adoptive parents regarding the issue of adoption disclosure… ‘What is my child can not stop being sad?” or ‘What if my child does not want to be part of our family after this?’ [they asked].”

What Happened to Planet Q? addresses an adoption’s loss, tears, and questions with honesty, love, comfort, and hope.

Books about adoption are rare in Singapore. Culturally-specific books about adoption are even rarer. Which all makes What Happened to Planet Q? a very important book. Melanie’s series offers the opportunity for an adopted child to see himself or herself reflected in a book without judgment; to see another child have experiences similar to his or her own; and to develop strategies to cope with issues in his or her own life.

What Happened to Planet Q? does not include a FAQ for parents of young adoptees as Why Am I Blue? did, unfortunately. Such a culturally-specific resource is hard to find here, and is utterly invaluable. I hope Melanie will continue to support adoptive parents in subsequent volumes of this series.

Miss Moorthy Investigates by Ovidia Yu

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As you may recall, several months ago I read Aunty Lee’s Delights by Ovidia Yu. I wrote then: “[The novel] lacked pace and narrative tension… Aunty Lee’s Delights [is] the author’s first, if slightly flawed, [foray] into the genre.”

I was incorrect: Aunty Lee’s Delights isn’t Yu’s first mystery novel. I recently snagged a used copy of Miss Murthy Investigates, a mystery novel by Yu originally published in 1989 by Hotspot Books (Singapore), but repackaged and rereleased in 2012 by Westland (New Delhi).

Like Aunty Lee’s Delights, Miss Murthy Investigates is also a cozy mystery  and features an intuitive amateur detective, often dismissed by the authorities in general as nosy busybodies, as novels in this sub-genre almost always do.

Miss Murthy Investigates is set in 1975 in “safe” and “straight-laced” Singapore. The novel stars Savitri “Savi” Moorthy, a thirty-something, sari-wearing secondary school English teacher—a “well-bred Singapore girl.” Her colleague, Evelyn Ngui, is murdered, presumably by “The Strangler,” a serial killer who targets single “career women.”

This whodunit was much more enjoyable than Aunty Lee’s Delights, which, admittedly, was a bit of a slog. Miss Murthy Investigates was an entertaining novel; Yu keeps the suspense percolating with several brightly-colored red herrings to obscure the real killer.

‘Twas also delightful to read a Singapore book with a South Asian protagonist, replete with Bollywood references (Miss Moorthy’s mother’s “Hema Malini impression.”) Miss Moorthy is not a particularly well-developed character: the reader learns more about her free-spirited flatmate, Constance Chay, and her on-again-off-again beau, Dr. Anthony Tan, than the reader does about Miss Murthy. Still—delightful, and likely the reason why the book was re-published in India, and not in Singapore.

I’ve bumped Yu’s Aunty Lee’s Deadly Specials to the top of my reading queue after reading, and enjoying, Miss Murthy Investigates. Yu spins a good yarn; I guess Aunty Lee’s Delights was just a dud.

Indians in Singapore, 1819-1945: Diaspora in the Colonial Port City by Rajesh Rai

indiansinsg_bigI learned of scholar Rajesh Rai, Associate Professor, South Asian Studies Programme, National University of Singapore, when I acquired The Encyclopedia of the Indian Diaspora (University of Hawai’i Press, 2006) of which he was an editor. The tome has become an indispensable, though now somewhat outdated, resource for my personal and professional interests. Dr. Rai specialises in diaspora studies, nationalism, and the postcolonial history and politics of South Asia.

I just finished his first single author book, Indians in Singapore, 1819-1945: Diaspora in the Colonial Port City, a comprehensive study of the Indian diaspora in colonial Singapore. The book draws “from administrative archives, intelligence reports, observer accounts, newspapers, oral testimonies, and community-based records, [and] provides a meticulous historical account of the formation of the diaspora in the colonial port-city, and its socio-political, religious and cultural development from the advent of British colonial rule to the end of the Japanese occupation.”

Dr. Rai offers a multi-layered portrait of the early diaspora. Of particular interest to me were two extended chapters on the Japanese Occupation and the Indian National Army, including the history of the Rani of Jhansi Regiment, a regiment of the Indian National Army led by Bengali revolutionary Subhas Chandra Bose, which was composed largely of teenage volunteers from Malayan rubber estates.

However, Indians in Singapore, 1819-1945 is an academic text and requires a certain fortitude to read. It was very educational and I highly recommend it. Now, where’s Indians in Singapore, 1945-Present, Dr. Rai :)?

Epigram Books Christmas Pop-Up Store

10687480_761678180536013_6348579867881950473_oEpigram Books sends me tons of books, so the least I can do is help publicize their annual pop-up store!

Get your holiday shopping done the Epigram Books way this December—great Singapore stories, massive bargains, hearty conversations, and free prosecco!

My recommended buys: A Certain Exposure by Jolene Tan; Blanket Travel by Kim Da-Jeong (Translated from the Korean); Girl Overboard!: A Rose Among the Thorns and Girl Overboard!: A Rose Grows in the Jungle by Sheri Tan and Fernando Hierro; The Epigram Books Collection of Best New Singaporean Short Stories: Volume One Edited by Jason Erik Lundberg; The Goddess in the Living Room by Latha, Translated by Palaniappan Arumugum, Sulosana Karthigasu, Kavitha Karumbayeeram, Yamuna Murthi Raju, Ravi Shanker, and Kokilavani Silvarathi; and The Last Lesson of Mrs de Souza by Cyril Wong.

The sale runs runs from Friday, December 12 to Sunday, December 14 at 1008 Toa Payoh North, #03-08. Happy shopping!

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