I visited the new Indian Heritage Centre, whose shiny, gleaming façade towers over the neighborhood’s historic and colorful shophouses on Campbell Lane and Clive Street, on Saturday. The museum traces the history of the South Asian communities of Singapore and Southeast Asia, and I have been curious as to the stories it would choose to tell for some time.
The permanent collection, housed on Levels 3 and 4, is divided into five chronological themes. The “Early Contact: Interactions Between South and Southeast Asia, 1 B.C.E – 19th Century” galleries, which illustrate thousands of years of trade and cultural relationships between these two regions of Asia, covers much of the same ground that the Asian Civilisation Museum does. Dr. Gauri Krishnan, the centre’s Director, was previously curator of the South Asian collection at the Asian Civilisation Museum in Singapore, so perhaps this is no surprise.
Other galleries—organized under the themes “Roots and Routes: Origins and Migrations, 19th Century – 21st Century,” “Pioneers: Early Indians in Singapore and Malaya, 19th Century – Mid-20th Century,” and “Social and Political Awakening of Indians in Singapore and Malaya, Mid-20th Century”—are a straight and factual, if cursory, introduction to the history of Indian and South Asian communities in Singapore and Southeast Asia. Of note are artifacts gathered via donations and loans from Singapore’s South Asian community (nearly 450 items), which are joined by other significant artifacts from the National Collection as well as those gifted or loaned by the Government of India and the British Library.
The final gallery, “Making of the Nation: Contributions of Indians in Singapore, 1950 – 1980” showcases the contributions of South Asian Singaporeans in creating the modern nation-state, a rather one-dimensional, celebratory treatment. The choice to end this narrative in 1980 and not tell the the story of today is an unfortunate one, but a “pragmatic” one, I suppose. “Heritage” in Singapore is rarely recognized as active, changing, and evolving. Also in these galleries, it is made stark how few South Asian women have held positions of power in independent Singapore, outside of the domestic and community spheres. Not one South Asian Singaporean woman is represented in the fields of government, law, business, the literary arts, science/medicine, or media in a wall mural highlighting prominent Singaporeans.
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The Indian Heritage Centre is free to the public for the month of May in conjunction with the Centre’s inaugural “Culture Fest.” The festival will showcase, over the month, the arts and culture of the South Asian community through performing arts, workshops, lectures, and film screenings. On Saturday, I caught an awesome Panchavadyam troupe from Kerala, and participated in a number of South Asian-themed arts and crafts. I will definitely be returning to the Indian Heritage Centre for more performances this month, including three Carnatic and Hindustani music concerts.