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"Vittuda Koodathu" meaning ‘Never give up' was Neila Mami’s Mantra for life

By Rhama Sankaran

What were the principles, ideals and thought leadership of one of the most legendary and visionary dancer-choreographer-teacher and founder of Apsaras Arts, Smt Neila Sathyalingam? Rhama Sankaran, a board member of Loving Heart Multiservice Centre, Jurong, a Volunteer Welfare Organisation (VWO) and advisory board member of Apsaras Arts, gives a first person account of her observations, learnings and experiences in this rare blog.

Mami was the unifying force during the launch of National Arts Festival in 1991 bringing together Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society, Nriyalaya, Temple of Fine Arts and her own Apsaras Arts to produce a dance drama baed on the fusion of Indian and Buddhist theme. She had a tough time to get all the representatives from these major art institutions to agree to the production choreographed by Dr Padma Subramanyam of India. Mami worked tirelessly and used to conduct the meetings at the newly formed National Arts Council located at SLF building , Thomson Road. She also co- ordinated the Indian segment of the festival and made it as a unique blend of Indian art traditions by organising two other different events. 'King Lear' by French Director McRuvie staged in ancient Kathakali style and 'Therukoothu', reflecting an age old street theatre style of Tamilnadu, India.

When Mami invited the Indian artistes to Singapore, she used to focus on 2 things. Getting them a good monetary reward and made them teach their dance traditions to the local students. She had an unique loving style of getting the remuneration demanded by artistes from even Government agencies as a mark of respect for their lineage and talent. I witnessed this selfless effort when artistes like Padma Subramanyam were invited.

For Mami, the goal was clear. When she entered Singapore in 1974, she wanted the divine Indian dance form to reach the lower income families. She was determined to find a place for Indian art in the community centres, promoted by the grassroot agencies. Her aim was not just earning a place as an Indian dance teacher and artiste alone but to reach out to the multicultural audience of Singapore by developing a new generation of Indian dance teachers and dancers on all levels.

With this noble vision she entered People's Association as a choreographer and teacher in the early 80s. Mami took part in the Indian segments of the local festivals. Her productions made her popular with the other cultural art groups. Her dance production under the theme 'Fire' for the multi segmented cultural festival won her accolades from People's Association and other art groups. She became successful in forming a children's multicultural dance troupe and started flying around with these 'Little Angels' troupe. She could thus form and propagate the Singapore style of dancing in all National, religious and cultural events. Mami became the master choreographer of PA and took part in almost 15 Chingay parades. It created awareness and augmented the presence of Indians in the multicultural festivals.

Mami, as a winner of Cultural Medallion Award inspired all those who wanted to enter the creative and teaching profession in Indian dance in the late 80s.

They learnt just not the rhythm and expressions. But learnt the core values of Indian culture. Mami taught the way of dressing and choosing costumes. Mami herself was a stunning example when she walked around in Kanchipuram silk sarees and amazing regal jewellery.

She was keen to maintain the wardrobe on her own. She trained the students as how to manage the costumes. She made them learn the basics of make up etc.

I recall the moments of getting dancers from Mami at a short notice, sometimes just 5 to 6 hours with a 'ready to dance' mood and looks.She was an unassuming saviour suddenly when the performers didn't turn up during the 48 days cultural festivals of temples.

She taught a famous dancer of India how to dress up to dance when she was given an opportunity to perform in Singapore by Mami for the first time. She became popular as a film star later. Mami was a mentor to many.

Mami's pre production planning was very corporate in style. Not only the cost but technical aspects like lighting, sound effects, settings, costumes etc would be discussed in detail. Music and recording were very impactful always.

When Mami was discussing the setting for 'Kannagi', a Tamil epic production with Ms Anita Rathnam I was there listening as a media person. I could imagine the grandeur of the show. Every aspect of it urged us to publicise it to make it as full house.

Talking about Mami's pre production planning skills, I would like to mention our meeting with film actor, Nazar, who was supposed to play the lead role in her 'Sivakamiyin Selvan'.While the meeting was going on, Mami gave technical inputs on how to operate the lighting etc. It showed her extraordinary skills. The sequences appeared on the computer screen with her narration, proving her brilliant planning. Mami, through her tireless works acquired the media’s attention at Singapore.

Beyond her talents as a dance use and teacher, Mami remains as a loving kind human being in our hearts. ‘Vittuda kootathu' meaning ‘Never give up' is her 'Mantra' for life.

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