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Born into a family of doctors and artists in 1940, Uma Rajan grew up surrounded by the arts as a child, giving her first solo public dance performance at Sri Thandayuthapani Temple in Singapore, aged six. Her combining of triple careers in healthcare, volunteerism and the arts have cemented her a place in Singapore not only in the Indian community as an accomplished dancer and arts administrator, but also nation-wide as a promoter of arts education and appreciation among Singapore’s grass-roots communities. In 1991, Uma Rajan became one of the first 15 charter members of the newly-inaugurated National Arts Council, and went on in 1993 to lead the institution’s first Festival for Asian Performing Arts. Today, she continues to advise on arts and healthcare issues in Singapore, performing duties such as Chairperson of the National Arts Council’s Cultural Medallion and Young Artists Award Selection Committee, NAC Arts Resource Panel, Chairperson, Joo Chiat Community Arts and Culture Club of the People's Association and her ongoing duties as an independent consultant in healthcare and Indian arts, culture and heritage.
Born into a family of artists which included musicians, dancers, actors and writers, Uma Rajan grew up personally experiencing the arts every day. But even before birth, her first exposure to the arts was most likely—in her own words—“in utero”, when her musician mother was already playing the violin and singing to her.
Giving her first performance as a dancer in a temple at the age of six, Uma left for Madras (present-day Chennai) aged nine in pursuit of an academic education in a convent along with education in classical Indian music and dance. There, she trained intensively as a bharatanatyam dancer for five years. She graduated in 1954 with her arangetram, a debut solo performance lasting three and a half hours. Returning to Singapore aged 15, she enrolled at the St. Margaret’s School and eventually at the University of Malaya (now National University of Singapore) to study medicine.
Strongly supported by her family, she staged dance performances for charity events and cultural events. She danced solo, and quite often took on male roles when called upon, owing to her relatively taller stature and due to the lack of male bharatanatyam dancers. Her time as a dancer took her overseas to perform in Hong Kong, Malaysia and Sri Lanka.
In 1965, a bout of bad health prevented her from dancing. However, still passionate about dance, she directed her efforts to presenting and hosting Indian classical dance performances. She compèred shows of international performers who came to Singapore, introducing and educating audiences who were unfamiliar with Indian classical dance.
Uma forged herself a career in the field of public health and her love for dance and the arts continued to influence and affect her path as a medical professional. She worked with young children and then with the elderly, and brought her parallel artistic insights into the world of healthcare, devising and promoting art and music therapy programmes for her patients. Following the untimely death of her husband, she also began to take a critical interest in volunteerism, and was responsible for initiating some of the earliest Indian dance and music classes available at community centres throughout Singapore.
In 1991, Uma was invited to become a charter member of the first National Arts Council, and chair its inaugural Festival of Asian Performing Arts, which opened in 1993. The Festival included a Festival Village at Fort Canning Hill that featured a variety of Asian villages in its compound. This was to be an especially memorable experience for her. She went on to chair the next two Festivals of Asian Performing Arts and expanded the scope of the festival, bringing to Singapore performing arts groups from all over Asia. She has contributed to the arts in many advisory roles, and serves today on the Cultural Medallion and the Young Artist Award selection committees.
More recently, Uma has turned her skills to writing, penning A Life For Others, a biography of the Buddhist nun, Venerable Ho Yuen Hoe in 2006. In 2011, she collated and edited the celebrity cookbook collection, Spice Potpourri in conjunction with the Singapore Food Festival in 2011, a project funded by the National Heritage Board.
Born in Singapore.
First solo dance performance for Navatri celebrations at Sri Thendayuthapani temple.
Enrolled at Convent for the Good Shepherd in Madras (present-day Chennai), India. Studied Indian classical dance and music.
Returned to Singapore. Enrolled at St. Margaret’s School.
Enrolled in University of Malaya. Graduated with MBBS, MSc (Public Health) from the National University of Singapore.
Joined the Ministry of Health, eventually serving as Director of School Health Service and then Elder Care.
Member of the Fellow of the Academy of Singapore.
Became one of the first charter members of the newly established National Arts Council.
Chairman of inaugural Festival of Asian Performing Arts and following two editions.
Director of Man Fut Tong Nursing Home.
Member of Esplanade Ad Hoc Resource Committee, Esplanade Carnival and Festival.
Publishes A Life For Others, a biography of the nun, Venerable Ho Yuen Hoe.
Received Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Star).
Publishes Spice Potpourri, a celebrity cookbook.
Chairperson, Community Arts & Culture Club, Siglap South (Joo Chiat).
Advisor, Little India Shopkeepers and Heritage Association (LISHA).
Advisor, People’s Association, Lifeskills & Lifestyle.
Member, Stamps Advisory Committee, Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore
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.