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Shankar Rajan

Indian classical musician and musicologist.

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Published: 12 Oct 2016


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The arts are not as unstructured as a lot of people think. There's a lot of work involved in making sure you do correct fundraising, that you make ends meet.

Shankar Rajan is a Singapore Indian classical musician and musicologist. Over the last four decades, the classically trained carnatic vocalist and mridangam (Indian drum) artist has made significant contributions to Indian classical music in Singapore through his performances as well as in his various administrative capacities as Deputy General Manager of the National University of Singapore's Centre for The Arts, Leader of the People's Association's Singapore Indian Orchestra and Choir, member of the National Arts Council and National Youth Council committees, and as Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society's Academy Registrar and Principal. Together with his late wife Saradha Shankar, he has received honours such as the Singai-Gamma Award for semi-classical singing in 1992 and the Veteran Musicians Award in 2004.

Shankar Rajan was born on 11 December 1949 in India. In March 1952, at the age of two, he and his family relocated to Singapore. His mother had been trained as a classical singer in India, and, in Singapore, she would go on to perform regularly on radio and television from the ’50s to the ’70s. Shankar’s father, too, was musically oriented. He knew Telugu as well as several other Indian languages and was very knowledgeable in music.

With such parents as his first teachers, Shankar grew up immersed in a musical environment from a very early age. He first learnt Indian classical vocal music and rhythm from his mother. At the same time, regular visits to the temple with his family got him interested in percussion and its complicated rhythmic structure. Thus from the age of seven, Shankar began learning percussion as well. He took lessons in mridangam from a local teacher, and had his debut performance in a mridangam arangetram at the age of 11 in 1961. This was the the first ever mridangam concert to take place in Singapore.

At the Serangoon Garden School and Raffles Institution where he was a student, Shankar stood out from the crowd with his taste in music. While everyone else was tuned in to the Beatles and Elvis Presley, he was listening to Indian classical music. "I was a bit of a misfit at the time", recalls Shankar. "Somehow I never outgrew my interest in classical music even from a young age and kept at it."

However, when Shankar graduated from school, he did not choose music as a career, despite his dedication to it through the years. Like most other young men from working- and middle-class families in Singapore, he chose the path of pragmatism that would enable him to build his family. He enrolled in the National University of Singapore (NUS) to study Chemistry and Mathematics, and, after graduating in 1971, took several courses in finance, eventually becoming a qualified financial adviser.

In February 1974, Shankar became a financial administrator in the Office of Finance at NUS, a role he would hold for 28 years until 2002, when he took on the senior role of Deputy Bursar.

At the same time, Shankar remained deeply involved in his music. In fact, he spent any spare time he had, after work and family commitments, with his music. In the ’70s, he had gotten married to a young Singaporean lady, Saradha, who had been trained in carnatic vocal music in India where she attended university. Theirs had been an arranged marriage. Recalls Shankar, "I asked for only one condition: that she had to be interested in music."

Shankar got more than he asked for. His wife was not only supportive of his music, but passionate about it herself. She taught music at home to many students. She also gave vocal performances. Together, Shankar and his wife performed—vocal duets as well as orchestral performances with the People's Association's Singapore Indian Orchestra and Choir (SIOC)—on stage, radio and television in Singapore as well as overseas in India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Japan and Australia for over 30 years.

In 1990, he became the Leader of SIOC, a role he retains today. With the group, he performed regularly in Singapore, Malaysia, India, Hong Kong and Japan, among other countries. In 1999, together with Lalitha Vaidyanathan, he organised and conducted a musical camp in Chennai, India in December, which was the first time an Indian musical troupe from Singapore undertook a programme of immersion learning from the musical stalwarts of India. He assisted the SIOC Conductor in the Hong Kong Chingay Parade in February 2000 and the Singapore Chingay parade in February 2001.

In 2002, Shankar left his job as Deputy of Bursar to take on the post of Deputy General Manager for NUS’s Centre for the Arts (CFA). The following year, he reorganiseddeveloped CFA's Indian music and dance groups and took them on a concert tour to the 9th Japan International Youth Festival in July 2003. He also chaired the organising committee behind the 2nd International Tamil Conference held at the University Cultural Centre in NUS.

In 2003, Shankar also coordinated CFA's first international tour to South India, and managed a group of 50 dancers and musicians from four different dance and music groups within CFA. The tour successfully brought Singapore's multiculturalism to Cochin, Mysore, Pondicherry and Chennai in South India. The tour was video-recorded by Vasantham Central of TV 12 Singapore and turned into eight episodes broadcast over TV 12. He remained in his role at CFA until 2005.

Then in 2006, Shankar took on the role of full-time Academy Registrar at the Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society (SIFAS). Two years later, he was appointed as Principal. In the first few years of his tenure, he made many significant changes. He revamped the examinations system, obtained accreditation for its 8th year Music Diploma and the 8th year Bharata Natyam (dance) Diploma by the University of Madras for admission into its Master of Music Degree Programme, established linkages with several arts/cultural/educational organisations in Singapore, and increased faculty and student numbers in SIFAS.

He was also instrumental to the prestigious University of Madras starting an International Festival of Fine Arts in 2007 with programmes from countries like Singapore, Malaysia, UK, USA, Japan and New Zealand. In 2008, the SIFAS Dance Diploma was approved by the Madras University Senate for admission to its Master's Programme, the first of its kind for any Indian arts organisation in Singapore. In 2011, Shankar obtained official affiliation with the Madras Music Academy, Chennai’s top teaching and performance musical institution.

Shankar represented SIFAS in presenting several scholarly papers in India and US, and also led delegations of artists as representatives of Singapore to festivals and events in China and Thailand.

Outside of work and performing commitments, Shankar has also been busy as a music and cultural administrator over the decades, serving in secretariat and advisory capacities with organisations such as the Singapore Indian Development Association, the Hindu Endowments Board and the National Arts Council.

Shankar has written Indian classical concert reviews, both in Tamil and English, for the Singapore and Indian dailies and academic articles for journals like The Arts (NUS) and (the now-defunct) The Arts Magazine (Esplanade), and SIFASPOST. He has also conducted seminars and workshops in Singapore and Australia on Indian Music, and conducted, with his late wife Saradha, music appreciation workshops at local tertiary institutes and schools with music electives.

Shankar has also tutored children in both carnatic music and mridangam. His regular performances on radio over the last 30 years have included a weekly presentation on OLI 96.8 (Radio Station in Singapore) in 2005 in a programme called Oru Ragam Padalodu and a series of daily programme snippets on OLI 96.8 called Thirai Isaiyil Raga Ragam, begun in September 2011, which enlightened radio listeners on the rudiments of classical ragas (melodic structures) and their use in film songs.

Shankar and his wife were jointly awarded by Singapore's Saras Productions "in recognition of life achievement/contribution in the field of semi-classical songs (duet)" in 1992, and a Veteran's Award for their contributions to the music scene in Singapore in 2004. Shankar himself also won the Long Service Award from the People’s Association for his dedicated service to SIOC in 1997, a special award from Global Arts and Culture for his contributions to the Singapore Indian cultural scene for the last three decades in 2010, and the Dhruva Award in Chennai, India for his contributions to the arts scene in Singapore in December 2012, making him the only Singaporean to receive this international accolade. Says Shankar of this achievement: "I was very proud that I was singled out, from Singapore, for having given 35 years of my life [to music]."

Shankar's wife passed away in January 2006, leaving him with their two adult sons—an engineer and a lawyer. Both Shankar's children are trained in Indian classical music and they occasionally perform together with him, especially for SIOC programmes and at in temples.

Shankar retired from his post in SIFAS on 31 December 2012, but continued to lead and perform with SIOC. He also sits on several National Arts Council and Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (MICA) committees as an Arts and Culture resource person. Although the accompaniment of his wife is sorely missed, he continues to perform on radio and television regularly. "[Music is] worth every minute of my time", says Shankar. "It's worth it because I'm a full person. And today, in my retired life, I have something I can look forward to."

Timeline

11 Dec 1949

Born in India.

1 Mar 1952

Moved to Singapore with his family when he was two years old.

1961

Attended Serangoon Garden School.

1962 to 1967

Attended Raffles Institution.

1971

Graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry and Mathematics from the National University of Singapore and became a qualified financial adviser.

Feb 1974 to Apr 2002

Financial administrator and subsequently appointed as Deputy of Bursar in the Office of Finance, National University of Singapore.

1982

Attended Financial Administration course at the University of Oxford and Pembroke College, Oxford from June to July.

1984

Attended the University Administrators’ Conference at the University of Waterloo, Canada, from July to August.

1990 to 1991

First appointed Secretary of Singapore Indian Development Association (SINDA).

1990 to present

Leader of People's Association’s Indian Orchestra and Choir.

1992

Mr Rajan and his wife were jointly awarded by Saras Productions, Singapore, "in recognition of life achievement/contribution in the field of semi-classical songs (duet)".

1993 to 1996

Member of the Hindu Endowments Board (HEB).

1994 to 1996

Secretary of Sri Sivan Temple.

1996 to 1998

Chairman of Cultural Affairs and Religious Discourse Committee of HEB.

1997

Received the Long Service Award by People's Association for his dedicated service to the Singapore Indian Orchestra and Choir.

1998

Member of the National Arts Council (NAC) Resource Panel for the first ever National Indian Music Competition held in December.

1999

Attended Committee Administrator's Course at Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand in November.
Organised and conducted a musical camp in Chennai, India in December, which was the first time an Indian musical troupe from Singapore undertook a programme of immersion learning from the musical stalwarts of India.
Chairman of the Cultural Committee for the Deepavali light-up.

2000

Member of the National Indian Music Competition Committee and Panel Member of the Music Specialist Panel for the Cultural Medallion and Young Artist Award.
Chairman of the Cultural Committee for the Deepavali light-up.

2001

Panel Member of the Music Specialist Panel for the Cultural Medallion and Young Artist Award.

2002

Attended a seminar CINARS Mart, Montreal, Canada in November.
Attended a conference International Society for Performing Arts (ISPA), New York, USA in December.

2002 to 2005

Deputy General Manager for the Centre for the Arts, National University of Singapore.

2002 to 2006

Vice-Chairman of the HEB-administered Sri Vairavimada Kaliamman Temple Management Committee.

2003

Coordinated National University of Singapore's Centre for the Arts’ first international tour to South India.

2004

Chairman of the organising committee behind the 2nd International Tamil Conference held at the University Cultural Centre, National University of Singapore.
Member of the Resource Panel of Esplanade's Kalaa Utsavam – Indian Festival of Arts.
Received the Veteran's Award from Janas Services/ Kanjana Productions Singapore for his and his wife's contributions to the music scene in Singapore. The award was presented by famous Indian musician A. L. Raghavan.

2006

Chairman of the Advisory Committee, Indian Music Competition.
Full-time Academy Registrar at Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society.

2006 to 2008

Member of the NAC Arts Resource Panel.

2007

Instrumental in the University of Madras, Chennai, starting an International Festival of Fine Arts.

2008

Appointed Principal of the Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society.

2008 to present

Member of People's Association's National Youth Council Advisory Committee, which selects Outstanding Youth of the Year.

2010

Received a special award from Global Arts and Culture for his contributions to the Singapore Indian cultural scene for the last three decades.

2012

Received the Dhruva Award in Chennai, India for his contributions to the arts scene in Singapore. He is the only Singaporean to receive this international accolade.

2015

Content coordinator and author of several chapters in a book titled Kala Manjari – 50 years of Indian Classical Music and Dance in Singapore, which was launched by the Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society.


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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