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Born to a prominent politician father and housewife mother in Sri Lanka in 1930, Sathyalingam Suntharalingam is celebrated for his contribution as co-founder of Apsaras Arts in Singapore. A purist at heart when it comes to classical art forms, he has brought Apsaras Arts to international arts festivals in Singapore, Australia, Japan, Sri Lanka, United Kingdom and United States. Sathyalingam died in 2011 at the age of 81, but his legacy and love for the arts lives on through his children—daughter Mohana sings for Apsaras Arts’ performances, while another daughter, Nandana, runs a similarly-named arts academy in Australia—and his wife—respected classical Indian dancer and co-founder of Apsaras Arts, Neila Sathyalingam.
A former medical student, Sathyalingam Suntharalingam was born to an outspoken and prominent politician father in Sri Lanka in 1930. Midway through his studies, Sathyalingam decided to give up his respectable, medical pathway to pursue one in music instead. He received training from various eminent gurus, and went on to obtain his music qualifications at Kalakshetra—a cultural academy in Madras (now Chennai). It was there that Sathyalingam met his wife-to-be, Neila, who was his one-time student. Two years of courtship later, the couple married in 1956.
While Sathyalingam pursued his artistic passions, he held a job as an area sales manager with a multinational firm. In 1974, his destiny beckoned, and he was posted to Singapore by his company. While in Singapore, Sathyalingam saw the lack of a diverse art scene and decided to set up an arts academy with his wife. In 1977, they founded Apsaras Arts, and the academy began its life with a class of 20 students at the Cairnhill Community Centre.
Apsaras Arts grew to be a full-fledged company and Sathyalingam became its music director. Under the guidance of Sathyalingam and his wife, Apsaras Arts became a significant contributor to the arts in Singapore, training amateurs into professional artists in their own right, and providing opportunities for international performances. Sathyalingam was a strict, rigorous teacher who was known as a perfectionist by his family and students, and was tireless in presenting the best he could on stage.
While wife Neila found inspiration in the various cultural traditions that permeated Singapore’s early arts scene, Sathyalingam himself was a purist who preferred to keep to the traditions of classical Indian art forms. The result of this was bharatanatyam dance that was innovative and expansive set to Sathyalingam’s classical Indian music of the highest standards.
Besides his role as music director of Apsaras Arts, Sathyalingam also contributed his expertise as a member of the Music Advisory Panel of the National Arts Council. For his contributions to Indian arts, Sathyalingam received the Viswakalaa Bharathi arts award in Chennai in 1995.
Classical Indian arts were a lifelong passion for Sathyalingam, and he is said to have insisted that his students continue with their performances while he was on his deathbed, lest funereal obligations unnecessarily mar and disrupt the audience’s expectations for a good show. This was an artistic commitment that Sathyalingam valued greatly.
In 2011, Sathyalingam Suntharalingam passed away at the age of 81. He survived by his wife, Neila, and four children, with daughters Mohana and Nandana carrying on the family’s involvement in classical Indian arts into the next generation.
Born in Sri Lanka.
Later graduated from the University of Madras with Degree in Music; also attained Diploma in Music from Kalakshetra.
Began performing classical South Indian music and accompanying bharatanatyam dancers across India, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Australia, Japan and the United Kingdom.
Moved to Singapore, working at first with American company Uniroyal Chemicals; later began teaching Indian music and dance classes at the Tanglin Community Club.
Founded Apsaras Arts with his wife, dancer Neila Sathyalingam.
Music director, Apsaras Arts.
Brought Apsaras Arts to the Australian Youth Music Festival and the ASEAN Festival.
Performed at the Hong Kong Arts Festival.
Conferred the Viswakala Bharathi award by Bharath Kalachar in Chennai.
Toured Australia with Apsaras Arts.
Apsaras Arts presented at the World of Music, Arts and Dance (WOMAD) festival in Singapore.
Brought Apsaras Arts to the National Cultural Festival in Thailand.
Apsaras Arts presented at the Indian Festival of Arts in Singapore.
Passed away in Singapore at age 81.
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Sathyalingam (2nd from right) with George Harrison of The Beatles and members of the Asian Music Circle in London. 1966.
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.