Podcast 84: Traditional Arts: Dikir Barat, Kavadi Attam and Nanyin

ArtsEquator speaks to Lyn Lee, Nirmala Seshadri and Soultari Amin Farid about Nanyin, Kavadi Attam and Dikir Barat and the study and practice of traditional arts in Singapore. This is a follow-up on ArtsEquator’s series of animated videos “10 Things“, which sheds light on these three traditional forms.

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Nabilah Said: Hello everyone and welcome to ArtsEquator’s podcast. Today we’re doing something slightly different. Whereby ArtsEquator actually recently published a series of three short animated videos, where we focused on three traditional artforms that people might not know about. They are: Dikir Barat, Kavadi Attam and Nanyin. And these were hosted on our social media channels and website. We actually worked with three practitioner-consultants to help us come up with the information that we would put into a video. Because with the video, there’s only 10 things that we wanted to talk about, but of course, there’s actually a lot of things that you can probably talk about with each artform. And today, we’ve actually invited all three of them into our virtual Zoom studio, to tell us more about what they went through in terms of coming up with the content, but also perhaps, things that they didn’t have time to go into because of the form of the very short videos. Today we have with us, Soultari Amin Farid, Lyn Lee and Nirmala Seshadri. Hi, guys.

All: Hello, hi.

Nabilah: Thanks so much for doing this conversation with us. The first one that came out was actually on Dikir Barat, which is a performing art/musical artform. It’s a very complex artform that comes from the northern states of Malaysia, but also the borderlands of Southern Thailand – so that area. And then the second one that came out was on Kavadi Attam, which is really a dance form that has its roots in more ritual and ceremonial and the Hindu tradition. And then the last one that came up very recently was on Nanyin, which is a music form that originated from Fujian, which is a southern part of China, since the Han Dynasty. I’d like to invite each of you to maybe just introduce yourself first, and then tell us what your entry point is into that particular artform that we featured. So let’s start with Lyn.

Lyn Lee: Hello, everybody. Okay, my name is Lyn, and I’m the principal artist and arts manager of Siong Leng Musical Association. It’s a non-profit arts company that preserves, promotes and develops Nanyin. I started music when I was really young at six years old, but always been the field of classical Western music. Only at 17, I took up a course in arts business management, that was in Ngee Ann Polytechnic. It was then when I met a classmate who is now my husband, he was participating really heavily in Nanyin activities. And he was constantly away from school for travels, advocating and creating awareness of this ancient artform and representing Singapore as a Nanyin musician.

At the time, I was not too familiar about the music that he did. But just being really curious and passionate about music, I approached him and told him that, hey, you know what, I play the drums, the piano and a little bit of violin. And I think quite fortunately, his company was looking for a guest violinist to perform for Singapore Heritage Festival. This was in 2010. And that was really my very first experience with Nanyin. My initial thoughts of the music was that it certainly was so different from the western music I studied before, because Nanyin is music from the south, right? So its practices and beliefs were completely different. But I guess at that tender age, I felt like I needed to expand my musical knowledge. And I knew Nanyin came at the right time. And it became something that I ended up studying for the next 10 years.

Nabilah: Great. Thank you so much. I didn’t expect a short romance story there. Nirmala, what about you?

Nirmala Seshadri: Hi, everyone, I’m Nirmala. I’m a dancer and researcher in the field of dance anthropology, with a close to 50-year engagement with the Indian classical dance form, which is known as Bharatanatyam, of which the last couple of decades I have spent interrogating the existing inequalities, problematising boundaries of time, place, gender, and also caste, among other social constructs. And this I do through the body and the performance space.

As a child, I remember learning the Kavadi Attam in my dance class, and then performing it on stage. I do recall the excitement I felt, and being able to hold that small little kavadi. And to learn those movements, which were very different from the classical dance form that I was learning. Before that, of course, I had seen devotees in the processions, for Thaipusam, dressed in yellow and carrying the kavadi and dancing. So that was my entrypoint, through my my dance training. And in terms of an emotional entrypoint, I’d say it was the underlying spirit of devotion, the religious devotion, that is at the heart of the temple ritual. And that also under underpins the Bharatanatyam that I was taught. Also the songs of the Kavadi Attam, they are known as Kavadi Chindu. And these are sometimes featured in the classical Bharatanatyam repertoire, as short and crisp pieces performed towards the end of the repertoire. So this is really the starting point and my first introduction to Kavadi Attam, as a child.

Nabilah: And last but not least–

Amin Farid: Hello, everyone. So I’m Soultari Amin Farid. And I consider myself a practitioner-scholar of dance. But my background is in Malay dance, and very much like Nirmala, I also investigate, provoke things about Malay dance itself. However, Dikir Barat, I’ve realised that it doesn’t really conform to a particular genre, or particular artform, it in itself is an artform, which, encompasses music, lyric writing, dance, etc. It’s quite complex, like what Nabilah said earlier. My entrypoint into Dikir Barat would be, as a primary school student, I remember having to perform it with my friends. Now, I would say that I’m not an avid practitioner of the form, but I’m an avid aficionado – somebody who observes and tries my best to participate when possible. But I can say that the form has definitely evolved. And, very exciting times ahead for this traditional artform.

Nabilah: I think one interesting thing about this series, it’s also about talking about the artform in the Singaporean context. And it might actually, be quite different or be somewhat distinct from how it originated. But to me it’s also interesting, because you also, when trying to create the content, you want it to resonate with a Singaporean person watching it as well, who may not necessarily 1) know the form, or 2) come from that racial or religious background. So I wanted to ask, what was it like when we asked you to put together the content for the video? And to just come up with 10 things?

Lyn: I guess, it was certainly fun, digging up my roots again, right? And going back to history and foundational studies of Nanyin. But it was slightly challenging as we put together introductory materials, what was too much for a new audience to know and what was necessary to captivate our audience through this digital media. And I think what you brought up earlier, was how this artform has been practised in the context of Singapore. Because the practices have changed, right, and evolved. So then, how has Nanyin shifted in Singapore to other communities who have never really been exposed to a traditional Chinese artform.

Nirmala: For me, Nabilah, it was, I must say a very meaningful and enlightening experience. There was a lot of rumination that went on, on deciding which form to actually work on.

And then, when I think about it, the dance forms that are given a lot of prominence tend to be the elitist forms. So I felt that it would be good to move away from elite classical forms, and to focus on a type of dance that is, actually, if you think about it Kavadi Attam is very central to our culture here. It’s very alive, it’s not a form, which is kind of practised only by a few people. The moment Thaipusam arrives, it’s vibrant. And it’s a very relevant form, but somehow, due to various reasons, it is relegated to the edge of the margins in our context. So I kind of felt strongly– And I discussed it also with Amin quite a bit, and he also felt that that Kavadi Attam would be a good form to bring into the space.  If I have to think about the difficulties, I think the main challenge was how little material there seemed to be out there in terms of the dance movement analysis, vis-a-vis Kavadi Attam. And, you know, here for our project, we wanted to feature not only the temple practice, but also stage representation, right? And to give that some prominence as well. In a sense, I felt that one of the biggest challenges for me was having to talk about two dance forms in this 10 points.

Nabilah: Amin, what about you?

Amin: Drawing from what some of my colleagues here have shared, I think I would really say the whole reason why we got ourselves into this was also to, to provide that, you know, demystifying process, you know, because sometimes the performing arts – especially when it is relegated as an ethnic art form – it becomes just another presentation on stage. Especially when you go to public schools, and when we are celebrating some of what can be considered ethnic, cultural holidays. You know, it’s just another performance that the Malays or the Indians do, that kind of thing.  The form itself is so complex and requires a lot of other elements that was necessary to make it to make it “Dikir Barat”. This vibrant artform that’s practised in Singapore, even till today requires so much effort, but yet, it’s not a form that people understand. I also do agree with Nirmala, that Dikir Barat has not been researched thoroughly. And there has been very little analysis about it. And it’s really important for us to continuously interview the practitioners who are actively practising. But I think there’s something there. There’s something more to it when we put it under the microscope, and to have an intellectual conversation and inquiry about the form.

Nabilah: I wanted to pick up a bit on what all of you were saying, was there something that was particularly interesting – maybe about how it’s practised now or certain discourses that have come out more recently – any of you want to share?

Amin: I would say that for Dikir Barat right, a lot of times what I hear from some of my female interlocutors, they would say that Dikir Barat is a “safer” form than Malay dance. And I always find it very interesting. I think it’s also to do with how, the introduction of the hijab, for example, as a costume, that you don’t necessarily have in Malay dance – because, for some of the practitioners, those who are hijab wearers, they would take out the hijab when they dance. But in Dikir Barat, they have found very creative ways to include the hijab, the headwear, into their costume. And it’s also safer, I think because the stigma of dance still exists within the community. Because Dikir Barat is a sitting dance, it’s more acceptable than having to be prancing on stage. So that was something I’ve noticed.

Nirmala: I did feel like there are quite a few points which I felt bad that we had to leave out, for instance, the idea of trance. Trance plays a big role in in the temple dancing. And the fact that the movements of Kavadi Attam have emerged out of these trance or trance-like states. And the transmission of these movements are not learned – I’m talking about in the temple context – they’re not learned, but they are performed through the memory of having witnessed or experienced the movements during the ritual.

And also regarding the music, it’s quite controversial, the music and percussion aspects of kavadi carrying in Singapore. We have stated, of course, that the lyrics that accompany the dance are generally folk songs with a fast rhythmic tempo known as Kavadi Chindu. We have stated that it’s dedicated to Lord Muruga. But what I would really like people to know is that these songs are sung by devotees to ease out some of the strain and physical exertion of the ritual. The audience plays this role in sharing the lived experience of the penance and pain of the Kavadi carrier.  And also, I wondered whether we had missed out the aspect that it’s a votive offering, to Lord Muruga in the temple context. And it’s kind of an endurance test, right. It’s not just that you go on that day and do it, but the pilgrims who perform this dance actually perform various ceremonies and austerities for almost six weeks in advance. So that for me was very interesting also.

Nabilah: I wanted to pick on something that I think Nirmala shared, talking about the lack of documentation about some of these artforms. Could you any of you speak about what you hope could be done with regards to documentation or what’s currently being done, maybe if there are some gaps?

Lyn: A lot of documentation in Nanyin is done in Chinese. Across the papers that I’ve read, they’re more or less pretty similar. And the only differences would really vary in like, which part of China Nanyin is practised. So some of them have different beliefs and practices to that. What is really lacking is Nanyin in the English community, because then translating certain things, especially from Mandarin to English, it dilutes certain information, which then becomes a problem. Because how do we actually find a term for you know, this musical term that is used heavily in Nanyin? Or, can I then refer it to a western music that we have now? How can I find its relevance? And would that actually be similar? I think this is something that Nanyin is struggling with. With this lack of documentation, in English especially, a lot of researchers find it a little bit tougher to talk about this topic, or Nanyin in general. So then it becomes so specialised, within a small community of practitioners in China or in Taiwan. What we really do, as managers in my company is to really dig up this information and start writing, documenting this in English, and really set it in stone that this is what has been said. And as we discover more, we’ll put in as well.

Amin: I guess the one thing I would like to see more in Dikir Barat research is – because at this moment we have a lot of Dikir Barat research about the Kelantan version, the Malaysian version, but not so much about the Singaporean version. It’s not to say that we endorse a very nationalistic idea of what the dance or what the form should be, but I think it’s also to accept that the form in Singapore and having the ecosystem that we live in, the policies that we’re subjected to, would have made a Singaporean version of the Malay arts very different. So, I would like to have more research about how the Singapore Dikir Barat is different.

Also, at the same time, what I think is lacking is research about the lyrics of Dikir Barat. Growing up, I was very envious of Dikir Barat lyric writers because they were able to talk about very pertinent and important things to do with the Malay Singaporean experience, and find a way to say it without having to be very direct about it, right? So you have the “kiasan” or the metaphorical writing about it. And it’s so interesting for somebody who loves language, the “kupasan”, or having to unearth, or to go deep into the meanings of these metaphors, were very interesting for me. And I would hope that there’ll be more research about that. The themes that some of these lyricists have written could range from talking about, politics to even things that are happening in the bedroom, but written in such a way that’s not so frontal, but done in a very tasteful way, and I’ve always enjoyed that. And I hope that more people will be very interested in it. I think what we need to do is also translating those lyrics, that in itself also requires a lot of effort. Because, we’re not only translating words, but we’re translating cultures. That’s also something to consider.

Nabilah: Nirmala, what about you?

Nirmala: Yeah, I have to agree with Amin about focusing on researching the Singapore version of Kavadi Attam, and that really, interests and excites me. I think there is some material out there, on the temple version, but from the angle of dance studies and dance anthropology. I think it’s important to have a longer term research project to allow one to dig deeper – this also requires not just going online or going to libraries, but to actually attend both the temple and stage performances. And not divorce it. I think there’s scope for practice and research, in this case, in terms of Kavadi Attam and that is also very exciting as a researcher – the possibilities with that. I think – I don’t know, I may be wrong, I stand to be corrected – but I think this is very new. And I think we’ve just put our toe into the water. As dance researchers, there’s a lot of scope, and it’s very exciting, actually.

Nabilah: It could also be about how traditional artforms have traditionally been seen and perceived by people, but also by maybe how the arts council looks at things, and perhaps earlier documentation efforts have looked at really roots and origins, having a historical perspective on things. But as it becomes part of contemporary culture and the arts, that evolving aspect of it is perhaps where new studies and new research can go into that realm of things.

Nirmala: To just take it from what you just said, I think you’re right. I think that, also, we’ve kind of put it into a box, right? In terms of Kavadi Attam, we’ve put that into the religious box and it’s temple, etc. So we haven’t really drawn that thread yet over here. And you’re right. It takes a lot of people and organisations to see it as a composite thing. So it’s also how we view it at a macro level, that can change how we move forward in terms of research and generation of new material.

Nabilah: I wanted to talk a bit about – since we are in the pandemic – this idea of things being transferred digitally. How easy or difficult is it for the traditional arts to like meld to a digital presentation?

Lyn: I really think it’s more than just presenting a traditional art. It’s more than just showcasing the music or dance, right? It’s also about the culture of the artists and the values that they take home from learning this artform from their master. So these philosophies and practices, for example, in Nanyin are very heavily reliant on Confucianism, like respect and filial piety. And these values are present in the learning and teaching of Nanyin, through live performances and live teaching, for example.

Nabilah: Can you give a sense of what were the activities that have been done online? Is it mainly teaching?

Lyn: Yes, my company we’re doing teaching, and most of the time, we create music videos. And really, that’s the best we can do for now. Because what the company usually does is, aside from sharing Nanyin in the context of Singapore, we do pay attention to this system, or this practice, and it’s actually a multi-sensory experience. When our audiences come and watch a show, they do get tea appreciation, they get to sip tea, there would be an aroma in front-of-house, they get to do hand rinsing. And it becomes a package of how we want to sell Nanyin in Singapore. I actually got a question from one of our audiences before, and she was asking how we could actually put this online. And I told her, we could easily send the tea over to your house, and then you can watch the online performance and you can sip the tea, but the entire experience becomes different. Because that whole culture of Nanyin with us as artists being present, and sharing our love and how tea plays a role in this traditional artform – it’s so different than doing it on a computer.

Nabilah: The idea of like presence, right? How do you convey that through a screen.

Lyn: That’s right.

Nabilah: And I think Nirmala, you’re talking about those ritual aspects or trance, which sometimes it’s just harder to convey it, when you’re not in the room. I don’t know whether you had thoughts about not just Kavadi Attam, but in general, traditional arts with digital presentations. How is that for you?

Nirmala: I think traditional arts, or any arts for that matter, I would think that it hinges on the form, the medium, the motivations, for whatever format we choose to present in. I mean, right now, we don’t have a choice. What comes to my mind is Kavadi Attam and Bharatanatyam, these two forms that I’m now aligned with. Kavadi Attam, I think, for me, it worked in this medium that ArtsEquator has chosen. Of course, it’s not the same as going to a temple and being part of the Thaipusam and actually watching it and feeling it there. But at the same time, we have to keep in mind that the very fact that it’s gone from temple to theatre is already a kind of translation into another context. And that in a way, in a relative sense, the stage is a simulation in some ways, right? So this is just another level of that right?

Having said that, I think this medium, to a large extent works because of how well they managed to bring it out because for me that frame [in the video] with them carrying the Kavadi, and the way it’s synced to the music – I still get goosebumps when I watch that. I mean, there is some kind of arousal there, right? And then the other thing, talking about Bharatanatyam, I do feel that yes, the live has a lot more to offer very often, but at the same time I want to say that in Bharatanatyam, we have the footwork, the “nrita” aspect, which is pure dance movement, then we have the “abhinaya”, the expression aspect. I have to say that years ago when I was working in Chennai, one of my video editors told me, he had come for one of my productions, and he said, that, yes, the pure dance, the movement aspect, he could feel and enjoy when he’s in the theatre. But he said that because he had the experience – also additional experience of editing me and my face and all that – he felt that for him, it was actually much more meaningful and stronger on screen than sitting in the audience in the 15th row, and trying to feel my emotional expression. So that’s why I think there’s so much consideration. It’s not something that we can generalise.

Nabilah: Amin, I’m curious to know from your perspective, also for Malay dance being translated online.

Amin: I would like to say that this COVID environment has afforded younger practitioners an opportunity to be the guru now. So this guru-disciple dynamics, master-disciple dynamics have overturned somehow, that it’s the student who’s also teaching the guru, how to go digital. We’re seeing a lot more younger practitioners being more actively showing and presenting their works online. And I think their gurus are also learning that this is a possibility. And it’s really interesting to see… for example, in Malay dance, in the community, we don’t necessarily have open classes like that of hip hop and jazz, for example, where you can just attend a class. But in Malay dance, you follow your guru, right? So now there are opportunities to do open classes. And that’s something that’s happened, of late.

Also I had the opportunity to organise an online competition via Instagram, for youths as part of the Malay language month. And it was really interesting, because I had to work together with my gurus. They were still functioning in a way where the competition is the physical competition. There were also intentions to create a workshop on how to do solo dancing online. And I think that was really interesting, because this is a TikTok generation, right? You don’t need to teach them that. They would know how to do it themselves. I had to inform my gurus to trust the process, trust the youths. And true enough, there were about 30 participants. Interesting works that they have come up with, they were engaging friends who are very skilled in camera techniques, etc. I can say that they found their way.

I would like to say also Dikir Barat, even before the COVID environment, it being one of the youngest forms of Malay performing arts in Singapore, it’s more open to change and development. So what happens was that a few years back, we were already seeing Dikir Barat competitions, done online, meaning the physical competitions are streamed live. And there you already see a lot more following coming from Malays who are living outside of Singapore who are tuning in to see that, oh there’s such a vibrant practice of Dikir Barat here in Singapore. So they have achieved that. I don’t necessarily see a lot of Malay dance and actually, maybe close to none of Malay dance competitions being streamed live, by Dikir Barat has done that. And I think they have also naturally progressed to now finding ways to how they can create Dikir Barat competitions via online as well.

Nabilah: Thank you so much. I really love that we sat down to do this, because the video was really just the start of the conversation. So I want to end with a question that I will put to you. My question is, why do you love the traditional arts?

Lyn: For me, it’s too many secrets I’ve yet to uncover. I love how I learn something about my passion every day and to really work with my fellow artists and colleagues who share the same love for me, I think that really drives me to pursue what I want to do. And like what Nirmala has also mentioned, once you find that passion, it will drive itself and I do want to see that for myself for the next few years.

Nirmala: I think my response to that question would be that I love the arts. I happen to be thrown into traditional arts and not by choice, but by my parents, who felt that I should be learning classical Indian dance and music. So it’s become so much a part of me since childhood. Sometimes I do think I take it for granted as well – I’m critical of it. But yet it’s a thing, it’s always there. It’s been a companion all these decades for me, since the age of five or six. I feel there’s a richness, there’s a depth, a sense of history, and I think – I’m not saying it’s the only way, there are many ways – but this is one way to start to dig deeper and deeper into who we are, what we’re all about, where we’ve come from. And I think – coming back to this project – it’s our own forms, and others’ forms as well. I remember something that Mdm Goh Lay Kuan once said when I was doing an interview with her, that as you dig deeper and deeper, you’ll find that somewhere, at the bottom of it, it connects. We may think it’s separate, and we come to that point where we see. That’s an imagery I have in my mind, but I think it allows that sense of identity, a sense of difference, and yet, a means of connection. That has been very valuable for me on my journey so far.

Amin: For me, yes, I do love the arts, but in particular, to my artform that is Malay dance, I agree with Nirmala, it’s also my companion. It’s something that I go back to when I want to do something else, but I realise that I’m so attached to it. It’s a sense of rootedness, a sense of place, a sense of history and also now that I’m embarking on a more deeper engagement of the form, I’ve begun to realise that there is something more than just the cursoriness of it. There is something very deep about the form that we – meaning all practitioners – have yet to acknowledge, and find. And I agree with Lyn about the secrets, that there is something more to that, from the unearthing of it, and the digging deeper. And I would like to encourage more of my fellow friends to also embark on this journey of digging deeper, and not to look at it on a very surface level. There’s something more to the form than just the fanfare.

Nabilah: Awesome, thank you so much to all three of you, Nirmala, Lyn and Amin for talking about this. I’m inspired and it’s been wonderful. I hope that this also makes people look at the videos if they’ve not watched the videos and see what we’ve been talking about. But also, I encourage you to check out these artforms and the work of the three interviewees that we’ve had today. I guess that’s all, thank you so much, guys. Bye-bye.

All: Bye. Thank you.

10 Things is part of a series by ArtsEquator supported by the National Arts Council. Check out other parts in the series here.


About the author(s)

Nabilah Said is an award-winning playwright, editor and cultural commentator. She is also an artist who works with text across various artforms and formats. Her plays have been staged in Singapore and London, including ANGKAT, which won Best Original Script at the 2020 Life Theatre Awards. Nabilah is the former editor of ArtsEquator.

Muhd Noramin Mohd Farid (Soultari) is a choreographer, arts educator and researcher from Singapore. He received his Doctorate in Theatre and Dance studies (2021) from Royal Holloway, University of London, UK. He is a recipient of the ASEAN-India Youth Award (2018), Singapore Youth Award (2017), National Arts Council Scholarship (2017) and Goh Chok Tong Mendaki Youth Promise Award (2016). Amin is the Joint-Artistic Director of Bhumi Collective, a multidisciplinary performing art and producing company. He writes occasionally for Arts Equator, Straits Times and the Esplanade Theatres by the Bay.

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