There is something for every Indian arts lover at this year's Kalaa Utsavam, the Indian Festival of Arts. Over 10 days (Nov 15-24), audiences can enjoy the best of Indian music from traditional to folk to Indian pop fusion, various graceful and grand dance forms, the best of Indian theatre and conversations with two of India's best-selling superstar authors - Chetan Bhagat and Amish Tripathi.
The festival, organised by the Esplanade, was first launched in 2002. It was then only a three-day affair. However, over the years it has grown to a 10-day festival encompassing all genres of Indian arts forms.
Kalaa Utsavam, which means arts festival, began as a festival of theatre, dance and music, but from 2011 a literary arts component was included. Indian poet and lyricist Gulzar held a session in 2011 as a part of this new initiative, while in 2012 writer Tarun Tejpal, who wrote novels like The Alchemy Of Desire, Story Of My Assassins and Valley Of Masks, held a talk at the festival.
This year, apart from conversations with authors Bhagat and Tripathi, a storytelling session for children, Forest Fables: Animals Of Mischief, will be held where many Indian folk tales and fables will come to life for the young listeners.
Speaking about Kalaa Utsavam and other festivals organised by Esplanade round the year, Esplanade's director of programming J.P. Nathan told tabla! that the priority for the centre when it opened in 2002 was to cultivate lifelong arts engagement among Singaporeans and to show people that the arts could be enjoyed by everyone.
He said: "A key approach we took was to programme annual festivals in conjunction with the major cultural celebrations in Singapore. So each year, during Chinese New Year, we present Huayi - Chinese Festival of Arts, Pesta Raya - Malay Festival of Arts during Hari Raya and Kalaa Utsavam - Indian Festival of Arts during Deepavali.
"By doing so, we wanted to give our communities a regular platform to come together, to celebrate rich traditions and a shared heritage through the arts and culture."
Already in its 12th year, this year's Kalaa Utsavam will begin with a colourful and magnificent dance performance titled Angkor: An Untold Story where internationally acclaimed bharatanatyam soloist Priyadarsini Govind will appear in her first collaborative performance with a dance company, Apsara Arts. The performance is co-produced by Esplanade.
Through the dance, Ms Govind and other artistes will recreate the forgotten past of Angkor and tales from the Khmer empire.
Another not-to-be-missed performance at the event this year is the unique Indo-German theatre collaboration called C Sharp C Blunt. The play is a solo act performed by artiste M.D. Pallavi from India and is directed by German Sophie Stepf, who runs Flinntheater in Germany. The play is a quirky take on what it takes to be a woman in the entertainment industry and Ms Pallavi plays Shilpa, an interactive and user-friendly mobile phone app. The play is highly interactive, allowing for generous audience involvement.
Ms Stepf told tabla! that performing her play in Singapore at the Kalaa Utsavam will give her the opportunity to interact with local artistes and allow for future collaboration.
The Esplanade's programming officer Rajeswari Ramachandran spoke at length about the various collaborative initiatives the centre had taken through the Kalaa Utsavam festival. She said: "We have developed close collaborative relationships with our local arts groups and reinforced our commitment to supporting the creation of new Asian works."
The Esplanade partnered two Singapore arts groups in large-scale productions this year. One, the earlier mentioned Angkor: An Untold Story and the other the musical performance Taal Express, which is a collaboration between the Esplanade and Temple of Fine Arts.
There are a total of 64 ticketed and non-ticketed events at the festival this year, with artistes from India, Singapore and other south Asian countries.
Ms Ramachandran said all the programmes are organised keeping in mind the diverse audience, adding that the range of free programmes is also highly diverse. She elaborated: "On the opening weekend, India's Margi Theatre will perform kathakali, a classical dance drama of Kerala that dates back to the 17th century. It is a highly stylised form of dance-storytelling that employs elements such as elaborate make-up, intricate costumes, ornate singing, defined gestures and facial expressions to dramatic effect."
During the performance, there will be explanation in English not only for its dialogue, but also to explain gestures and facial expressions.
Another free programme is Bangalore-based band Agam's unique blend of music known as Carnatic progressive rock. For Indian audiences familiar with well-known playwright and actor/director Girish Karnad, a must-see performance at the festival is the staging of his first English play Flowers.
The play brings together some of the best theatre talent from India like national award-winning actor Rajit Kapur, theatre star Ranga Shankara and, of course, the star playwright Karnad.
Flowers tells the story of a priest (played by Rajit Kapur) who has dedicated his life to decorating a temple with flowers. He finds himself in a moral dilemma when he falls in love with a courtesan.
Popular Indian pop duo Colonial Cousins are also back in Singapore after 10 years. Hariharan and Leslie Lewis will perform songs from their latest album Colonial Cousins Once More and other popular numbers at the 21/2-hour concert during the festival.
Speaking to tabla! about the festival they said: "We will rock. The songs will be from all our albums. The different genres of music will create a seamless fusion, a trademark of Colonial Cousins.
We have been betting between ourselves as to which song is going to be loved most by the audience. During the Australia tour we guessed right, but we're wondering if the Singapore audience is going to manage to fool us."
This year's Kalaa Utsavam is more grand and expansive than ever before. The Esplanade's programming group believes that in the coming years the Kalaa Utsavam will only get bigger and better.
Ms Ramachandran said: "There is so much richness in Indian arts and culture and Kalaa Utsavam is an important platform for Esplanade to continue to present the wide repertoire of programmes for our Singapore audience to enjoy."
She added: "Through the festival, we will also continue to work closely with Singapore and regional arts groups to develop their capabilities and to stage new works."
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