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Lalitha Vaidyanathan

Carnatic violinist and founder of the Singapore Indian Orchestra and Choir.

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Published: 12 Oct 2016


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Music is a vast ocean. You cannot say that you’ve done it and that’s the end of it.

Lalitha Vaidyanathan is an accomplished Carnatic violinist, renowned conductor and pioneer of the Indian orchestra and fusion music for Indian orchestration. With her founding of the Singapore Indian Orchestra and Choir in 1985 under the People’s Association, she became one of the first to bring the Western concept of the orchestra to classical Indian ensemble-playing in Singapore, and also introduced a repertoire of multicultural and cross-genre works for Indian orchestration. She was concurrently the Principal of the Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society Academy from 2004 to 2008, and has received the Min-On Arts Award from Japan, PACT Artistic Excellence Award from People’s Association, the GOPIO Award for her contribution to Carnatic music, and the Pingat Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Medal).

Lalitha Vaidyanathan was born in Singapore in 1949 and is a third-generation Singaporean. Her mother—who migrated from India and made Singapore her home—was a multi-faceted personality who composed music, sang, and was a radio host, critic and speaker on Indian music on Radio Singapura. Influenced by her, and growing up in the rich arts environment of Kirk Terrace, it was no wonder that Lalitha and her sisters loved music and dance from a young age. Formally trained in the performing arts, two of her sisters excelled at Carnatic singing, another two became classical Indian dancers and Lalitha—the fifth and youngest sister—became proficient on the violin, having taken lessons in both Western and Carnatic music.

After obtaining an Honours degree in Chemistry from the University of Singapore, Lalitha started her career at Texas Instruments, working for four years in Quality Control. Her father, a Head Clerk at St. Joseph’s Institution, had a great passion for teaching. Influenced by her father, Lalitha followed his and her sisters’ footsteps and became a teacher in 1978. She taught at Catholic Junior College for 20 years and subsequently at Anglo-Chinese School for another five years.

She pursued her love for music while she taught, and gave many temple and stage performances together with her sisters. In 1978, she received her first break when she was invited to revive and lead the now-defunct Ramakrishna Sangeetha Sabha Orchestra (RSSO). Lalitha proved her mettle by expanding the eight-member orchestra to a comprehensive group of 30 and led the orchestra to win the first prize in the National Music Competition, organised by the National Arts Council in 1979. Under her able conductorship, the RSSO had a glorious five years of performing at various festivals and temple functions. She then took a short break to administer to her ailing father and look after her two young daughters.

The Singapore arts community was pleasantly surprised at the successful stint of the young female conductor. Destiny beckoned Lalitha in the form of an invitation by the People’s Association to form a pop orchestra in 1985. Lalitha accepted the invitation but wanted to use the opportunity to popularise Carnatic music among the non-Indian community. Drawing from her exposure to Western and Carnatic music as a student, Lalitha wanted to rearrange traditional classical Indian music scores to include Western harmony. Her radical ideas received a welcome response and under the guidance and encouragement of eminent Indian composers such as the late M.Y. Kama Sastry and the late Dr L. Vaidyanathan, Lalitha innovatively embellished traditional classical Indian music with Western music. The Singapore Indian Orchestra and Choir (SIOC) was thus formed.

The SIOC—probably the first of its kind—broke new ground in India and Singapore by presenting carefully created pieces infusing the aesthetics of both musical genres. The new genre of music pioneered by Lalitha received rave reviews and accolades in Singapore and abroad. The SIOC embarked on a musical journey performing to packed houses and received standing ovations from the multicultural community in Singapore and in other cities including Chennai, the seat of classical Indian music. The SIOC marked its presence at the 2nd ASEAN Composers Meet in Thailand with a performance and a presentation by Lalitha on “Orchestration in Indian Music” at the Composers Forum on traditional music. The SIOC also had the honour of being the only Indian choir to perform at the first Asia-Pacific Choral Symposium in Singapore.

Reflecting the multicultural character of her home, Lalitha blended Carnatic with Chinese, Malay and Western classical music by introducing non-Indian instrumentation to the orchestra—featuring the sitar, tabla and veena alongside the Chinese pipa, modern drums, keyboards and clarinet. Not wanting to merely have token combinations of different elements, she worked towards creating genuine fusion music born of an understanding of each cultural genre. She worked with renowned composers, both Indian and Singaporean, including L. Vaidyanathan, D. L. Subramaniam, T.V. Gopalakrishnan, Iskandar Ismail, Dr Joseph Peters and Dick Lee.

Under Lalitha’s leadership, the SIOC gave many performances in Hong Kong, Mexico, Japan, Brunei Darussalam, Australia, Thailand, India, Malaysia and Sweden. In Russia, the orchestra performed in collaboration with the Russian Opus Posth Ensemble and Russian violinist Tatiana Gridenko at the Tchaikovsky Hall in Moscow. The orchestra also produced a music education video for the Ministry of Education, Singapore, titled Raaga & Taala, and two CDs—Ghana Varshini (1997) and Sonic Orders in ASEAN Music (2000). Lalitha also set up the Youth Orchestra in 2006 to provide training and opportunities to perform for budding performers. The Youth orchestra went on to win the first prize twice in the National Indian Music Competition (Ensemble category).

As a recognition of her efforts to bring Indian music to a diverse audience, Lalitha has received numerous accolades including the Min-On Arts Award from Japan, PACT Artistic Excellence Award from the People’s Association, the GOPIO award for her dedicated contribution to the field of Indian music, choir and orchestra and the Pingat Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Medal) from the government of Singapore. From 2004 to 2007, she served as Principal of the Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society Academy.

Lalitha continues to journey into newer genres and collaborations of the fine arts. Her latest project, in 2011, was an SIOC-led collaboration with the leading music composer Bharadwaj and guest musicians from Chinese, Western wind and choral ensembles. Together, they formed an 80-member orchestra and performed an original musical score set to a landmark silent movie, Shiraaz, made in the 1928 that told the poignant story of the Taj Mahal. The performance entitled Taj Mahal - The Romance of India at the Esplanade Concert Hall received popular acclaim, and displayed the viability and richness of Lalitha’s artistic vision. In 2012, the SIOC was invited to perform Taj Mahal at the Kallang Theatre in 2012 for Project Smile, a charity drive organised by the Little India Shopkeepers & Heritage Association.

Singapore Indian Orchestra and Choir (SIOC)

Timeline

1949

Born in Singapore.

1972

Graduated from National University of Singapore, with BA in Chemistry.

1977

Enrolled for Diploma course in National Institute of Education (NIE).

1978 to 1995

Lecturer, Catholic Junior College.

1979 to 1984

Artistic director and conductor, Ramakrishna Sangeetha Sabha Orchestra.

1985 to present

Founder and conductor, Singapore Indian Orchestra and Choir.

1996 to 1999

Teacher, Anglo-Chinese School.

1996

Received the Min-On Arts Award from the Min-On Concert Association, Japan.

1997

Singapore Indian Orchestra Choir voted as the Best Community Spirited Orchestra by The Straits Times.

1998

Received the Pingat Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Medal) at the National Day Awards.

1999

Received the PACT Artistic Excellence Award from the People’s Association, Singapore.

2005 to 2007

Principal, Singapore Indian Fine Arts Academy.

2010

Received award for Artistic Excellence in Music, Global Organisation of People of Indian Origin, Singapore.


TributeSG

TributeSG celebrates the arts community’s most senior members, and those who have made a lifetime of contribution to the arts. These artists, administrators, educators, patrons, and champions include many Singapore arts pioneers who laid the foundations of the vibrant arts and cultural scene we enjoy today. The many profiles in TributeSG let us into the minds and worlds of these pioneers, and help us understand our shared arts heritage. When we revisit their works and rediscover their journeys, we learn where we came from and how we came to be. Collectively, their stories tell the tale of the making of a nation’s artistic identity.

In putting together this collection, the TributeSG team consulted an external advisory panel, consisting of Arun Mahiznan, Choo Thiam Siew, J. P. Nathan, K. K. Seet, Kwok Kian Chow, and Iskandar Ismail. Those selected to be profiled in TributeSG met one of the following criteria: they were at least 60 years of age as of 12 Oct 2016, or deceased, or had received national recognition in the form of the Cultural Medallion. This journey of arts archival officially came to a close on 12 Oct 2016, after four years of extensive research, interviews and collation of information graciously provided by the TributeSG pioneers, their families and peers. TributeSG also benefited from enthusiastic help from like-minded friends and organisations who supported Esplanade’s cause—to remember, honour and celebrate Singapore’s arts pioneers.

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