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Like any work of art, bringing an idea into fruition, especially one with many moving parts, involves a good amount of time, planning, vision and execution. Over the last 20 years, Kalaa Utsavam – Indian Festival of Arts has become an institution in the local Indian arts community with its broad-based programming and roster of top-billed artists and emerging performers. Its mentorship and audience development programmes have also ensured the continuous relevance of the festival whilst setting the bar for others to follow.
Celebrating the labour of love that has gone into making Kalaa Utsavam what it is today, this special anniversary feature brings together some of the festival’s long-time collaborators as they assume the role of interviewer to fire up some of the burning questions they have for producer Rajeswari Ramachandran.
Aditi: You know, it's strange that we’ve known and worked with each other for so many years, yet I don't actually know much about your personal life. Tell me about yourself. How did you end up becoming a producer for Kalaa Utsavam?
Rajes: Thank you for that very sweet question. Rarely do I get an opportunity to share about my life with artists because it’s always about flights, lighting designs, contracts etc. My father was one of the pioneer Indian musicians in Singapore who contributed a lot to the music scene, so I was exposed to the Indian arts at a young age. Under his influence, I underwent formal training in bharatanatyam and also studied the carnatic violin.
I had always wanted a job related to the arts and, thankfully, ended up at Esplanade doing what I love. It’s been 15 years since, and I think becoming a producer was a natural progression for me. Because of my formal training, I’ve had the advantage of understanding the nuances in my discussions with artists. This job has also allowed me so many travel opportunities to meet artists such as you. I believe it was in Toronto when we first met? I had been following you for a while before that.
Aditi: Yes, it's been a long journey. You once said that it’s very important to not only have faith, but to build a bridge that connects artists and audience. Can you elaborate?
Rajes: Some of the most important aspects of this job are the responsibility and respect we have for our artists and audience, and being transparent with them. Remember back in 2014 when we presented your work, WITHIN, and weren’t able to fill a large venue because the audience at that time was not ready for contemporary work? That didn't stop us from keeping the faith, that by growing the audience’s interests with new works, the window of opportunity would eventually open.
Aditi: Yes, I remember you telling me this, then we came in 2019 with Interrupted and did the post-show talk. There were very interesting questions raised by the audience. The numbers also got a lot better. I think this kind of initiative really helps, and it’s not something that can happen overnight.
Raffee: What are some of the challenges or gnawing issues you have encountered when engaging local artists and how do you maintain your standards for quality and professionalism?
Rajes: As you know, we work with a range of artists with varying capabilities, and while these interactions with them remain very close to my heart, the nature of the job, unfortunately, sometimes requires me to deliver bad news. That includes breaking it to some that they’re not ready to be presented in a certain format, for example, or the conversation gets too heated up because we’re overly passionate about getting our points across. It's not out of ill-intent that I sometimes hurt people’s feelings, but as a producer, I have an obligation to make sure that everything is at its best. I’m not sure if you’ve encountered such moments with me.
Raffee: There has always been a clear line of mutual respect between us, because you knew what I could do, and I knew what we could do. There's nothing personal about it.
Rajes: This is why we develop programmes such as the Raga series to nurture artistic capabilities and prepare the younger artists for what’s next. It’s important to start conversations with artists and arts groups and ask them questions such as, “Okay, what shall we focus on?”, “What do you want to try next?” or “What's your ambition?” That’s how relationships are built. I remember having a similar conversation with you when we worked together on Samarpanam for Esplanade’s 10th anniversary. Everyone knew you for your work in film and television, then we invited you to try on a different hat as the music director of a live show.
Raffee: That was a great one. I had a lot of positive feedback that there has been nothing quite like it. That's the truth, right? It was because there was a lot of sincerity. And it led to the Vasantham Live! series. Actually, it was you who initiated it.
Rajes: Thank you, this conversation takes me back. By the way, I’d like to congratulate you on your 50th anniversary as a musician. You have set the bar for the younger generation with everything you’ve done.
Raffee: I’m just carrying on what was before me. I still remember my father praising yours on how good a singer and musician he was. This kind of memories live in me. Life is like a river that we just flow through, you know. What I learned from them, the experiences I’ve gained from those before me, I pay them forward.
Nawaz: As an artist, sometimes I have a plan for a show but things happen along the way and what I put on stage is nothing like what I planned. How do you as a producer deal with such changes? What kind of mindset do you have when you go about planning a production?
Rajes: I’d like to draw on the dynamics of our relationship to answer this. We’ve known each other longer than the years I’ve worked at Esplanade—I performed in one of your earlier productions, I think it was Water. We’ve been through rough patches and good times, and you are one person whose ideas have benefited the festival in so many ways. The level of trust and dynamics that we have built over the years is the foundation of all the productions that we have successfully staged.
As a producer, I feel that there needs to be flexibility in how we plan around a show, because there's never a straightforward formula. At the same time, we need to understand the artists too and that’s where conversations come in (although with us, things get intense quite often). It is important to have trust and be able to put in the extra hours to see to the changes.
A good example is the Chakrathon series you and I have been doing over the last three years. Due to the pandemic, we weren’t able to fly in artists from India, neither were we able to fully realise it as a 24-hour show like we initially planned. But there is always a silver lining. With digitalisation, we were able to get overseas artists to record and broadcast the music for 24 hours even though it was different from what we had envisioned. That’s the kind of flexibility I’m talking about.
Nawaz: Yes, it was the first time we did a digital show, and it produced unexpected results. I went in thinking it was going to be a mess, but as it turned out, it was shared on various online platforms and garnered a lot of positive feedback. It was very meaningful.
Rajes: Another thing I’d like to add to what I mentioned about dynamics is knowing how I can add value to the artist. Artists are full of artistic ideas, right? They're the experts in their disciplines. I think of how I can add value in other aspects such as offering a fresh perspective, whether creative or technical. Our role as programmers is to see the big picture and plug in the gaps.
Nawaz: Absolutely, I think we often forget that a programmer is also an artist, not intentionally though, but it's a process of the creative work that we just think about the production from our perspective.
Renu: I've been a part of Kalaa Utsavam’s children's theatre productions for a few years now, and it's so gratifying to see kids come with their parents and the interactions we have with them. I'm just wondering, how would you like to take it forward in the years to come, and how can we better engage these kids in a Singaporean context?
Rajes: Do you remember the first time I approached you to work on a kid’s production for Kalaa? It was The Peacock’s Tale. One of our first conversations took place at your home, and I thought you were a perfect fit not only because of your background in Western, Hindustani and Indian classical music but your experience as a music teacher as well. In fact, we conceived the idea right there, and began working on the music first.
So, we were both going in without prior knowledge of how to do a children’s production, and how we’ve approached each one since has been very different. What really stands out for me is that while Kalaa Utsavam is an Indian arts festival, nearly half of the kids who come for the production are not Indian, and this has been so. Moving forward, I think we would want to continue sharing these stories from Indian mythology, and I feel that language, the musical components and creative inputs of artists are very important. We also try to think out of the box each year so that the presentations have some local elements that make each a different experience, whether in the instrumentation or dance.
Renu: I know what you mean. It’s a tall order putting it all together, but after going through it a few times, it’s a nice sense of achievement. I once bumped into a mother with three kids and she was gushing with excitement over the productions we’ve done. She remembers all the titles and some of the songs too.
Rajes: Even though we have heated discussions at times, I’m always amazed at how you never lose your cool. Your personality really brightens me up. Whenever I feel tense during the festival, I’d drop by the children’s production, have a good laugh with you, then I’d go back to my things.
Renu: We do have a lot of fun. I find that the best ideas come when we are relaxed.