Leading exponent of Indian classical dance in Singapore
Neila Sathyalingam is a leading exponent of Indian classical dance in Singapore. Her training began in Sri Lanka when she was five years old and her talent was soon apparent. In 1954, when she was 16, she won the gold medal at the All-Ceylon Dance Festival and performed for Queen Elizabeth II when the British monarch visited Sri Lanka.
Neila then enrolled in one of the best dance institutions in India, Kalakshetra, where she trained under the famed Rukmini Devi Arundale. While at Kalakshetra, she met her future husband, Sathyalingam, an expert in Indian classical Carnatic music.
In 1969, Neila and Sathyalingam moved to Madras in the hope that their three daughters would imbibe the rich cultural heritage of the Indian classical arts and that their disabled son would receive cutting edge medical treatment.
In 1974, Neila and her family moved to Singapore. This exposed her to different dance cultures and traditions and inspired her to create novel Indian dances. In 1977, Neila and her husband founded Apsaras Arts to promote traditional Indian dance forms in multiracial Singapore.
Apsaras Arts is regarded as Singapore's pioneer Indian arts group and has performed extensively in dance and music festivals in Singapore and around the world. These include the Singapore Arts Festival (1982); Asean Festival in Malaysia (1983); the Australian Youth Musical Festival (1983); the Hong Kong Arts Festival (1990); the 17th National Cultural Festival in Nong Khai, Thailand (2003); and the Indian Festival of Arts in Singapore (2003).
In 1977, Neila started teaching at the Indian Dance Group of the People's Association (PA). Over the next three decades, she taught Indian classical dance to children from lower-income families. She also choreographed and presented the Indian dance segments for some 20 Chingay and National Day parades. Neila was appointed PA’s first Master Choreographer in October 2010.
Together with fellow choreographers from other cultures, Neila in 1988 set up the Lion City Angels, a multiracial children's dance troupe. A milestone in Neila’s career was the 1998 production entitled “Kannagi” a dance, music and spoken drama, a first in the local arts scene. The Indian epic dance-drama "Sivagami" involving 65 dancers from Apsaras Arts and India in 2007 was another high point of Neila’s and Sathyalingam’s creative leadership.
In 1989 Neila was awarded the Cultural Medallion for her contributions to dance. Her international honours include the Viswa Kala Bharathi, an award given by Bharat Kalachar, a music and dance Academy in Chennai, to non-resident Indian artistes who have helped to propagate Indian arts in foreign lands.
Two of Neila’s daughters, Mohana Harendran in Singapore and Nandana Narendran in Canberra, are carrying on her legacy and teaching Indian music and dance. The running of Asparas Arts was handed over to others some years ago, and these days Neila focuses on teaching and choreography and inspiring the young to study Indian classical dance.
"You have to fight against so many odds to be happy. But after you’ve fought all these battles, you come to a point where you have achieved something; you move on from there, so you call that part of it a happy experience."
"Art is a way of living, so live it 24 hours a day."