At the Temple of Fine Arts

17 October 2017

In the spirit of Deepavali, we celebrate the festival of lights by shining a spotlight on the Temple of Fine Arts, and its efforts towards the promotion of awareness and appreciation for Indian fine arts in Malaysia.

In India, temples are sanctuaries and strongholds of art and culture; musicians would practise and perform music in temples to please deities and devotees.

In Malaysia, at the Temple of Fine Arts (TFA), dance and music are today connected more to a cultural – or secular – context, while not absolutely alienated from spiritual emancipation and sentiment of devotion. It was in 1981 that His Holiness Swami Shantanand Saraswathi – with the help of two extraordinary dancing duos, Gopal and Radha Shetty and V. K. and Vatsala Sivadas – founded TFA to promote awareness and appreciation for Indian fine arts, especially dance and music, as a link between the past and the present.

His aim was to make arts accessible to all, for Malaysian Indian youths to rediscover the cultural wealth of their forefathers while ensuring its relevance for the generations to come.

The Temple Fine Arts in Brickfields is a five-storey building housing dance studios and music rooms, a performance hall, library and more.

Today, TFA sits in the centre of the crescent-shaped Jalan Berhala in Brickfields, facing the Buddhist Maha Vihara and within walking distance to YMCA KL. The five-storey building houses dance studios and music rooms with air-conditioning, sprung floors and wall-to-wall mirrors; a 600-seater performance hall, the Shantanand Auditorium; and a library stocked with books, reading materials and research papers apt to the subjects taught at TFA.

Also at TFA is Lavanya Arts, a treasure trove of Indian artefacts and handicrafts; think Kalamkari paintings, Kanchipuram weaves, and Tanjore art to terracotta figurines. A team of doctors, including gynaecologists, paediatricians and ophthalmologists, volunteer at Klinik Derma Sivasanta at TFA, a free clinic offering general healthcare.

Kumar Karthigesu, TFA’s music director, with his sitar.

The Temple has dance and music classes for students, parents and patrons of all ages from all walks of life – from bharatanatyam to Bollywood, and kathak to kuchipudi, as well as carnatic vocal classes and instruments such as flute, mridangam, tabla, sitar, and veena.

The sitar, a traditional stringed instrument.

“For Indians who have migrated to Malaysia, who are now third-generation Indians here in Malaysia, while they identify as Malaysian first and Indian second, the Indian arts – traditional arts, especially – and culture is still very important to many Indian families,” says Kumar Karthigesu, the music director at TFA.

“It is important to Indian parents that their sons or daughters learn dance and music, literature and language, at least to a reasonable level. It is primarily why institutions like the Temple thrive.”

Kumar (right) teaching a sitar class.

“We do our bit to promote Indian culture as part of the greater Malaysian culture,” he says. “Indian culture is an inheritance of Malaysia, and every Malaysian should have some awareness as to what Indian culture is, what Chinese and Malay cultures are, to be better Malaysians.”

Kumar has been affiliated with TFA since the time of its inception in 1981, first as a student in the Penang branch, and then from 1989 in Kuala Lumpur. His passion runs parallel to Vasuki Sivanesan’s, who has taught at TFA for the past 34 years. She teaches bharatanatyam also at Akademi Seni Budaya dan Warisan Kebangsaan (ASWARA), like many of TFA’s more senior teachers who teach part-time at ASWARA in traditional Indian arts and dance styles.

Vasuki (far left), and her bharatanatyam students.

“Seven of my students from ASWARA, which include Chinese and Malay students, have performed their arangetram,” says Vasuki. Arangetram refers to the ascension to stage to deliver a debut performance, akin to a graduation performance at TFA; it requires a mastery of a classical dance style of study. Some of Vasuki’s students have had children and grandchildren of their own, whom Vasuki also teaches.

“Indian dances are mythology-based; it’s thematic,” she says. Dancers of all art forms in India retell the tale of Ramayana, as an inspiration, for instance.

“When learning art forms and genres, as an artist, you have to be a little bit more open-minded – it’s about your bakti, your devotion.”

Vasuki has taught at TFA for the past 34 years.

Bhuma Manoharan, too, started studying at TFA since she was four years old; today, she teaches music on a part-time basis, armed with a music degree, which she studied while working as a medical doctor abroad. “I came back to Malaysia because it’s home – and the Temple is one of the aspects of it being home, the availability of this place, this space,” she says. Bhuma and her husband wanted to raise their children in this environment, the way she herself was raised.

“Children end up being in the classes because it’s a tickbox exercise for the parents. God willing, time willing, some of them take a natural interest in the arts and pursue the arts for what it is, rather than because they’ve been put into a class,” Bhuma says.

TFA recently organised the fourth edition of the Shantanand Festival of Arts, an annual arts festival of dance, music, and theatre; the festival, which ran for three weeks, featured a diverse range of artists, genres and performances, including a dance ballet in the bharatanatyam style, the Malay Mekmulung dance, and Under the Kayon Tree, a full-length production bringing to life Malaysian folktales and legends. In line with TFA’s ethos of making arts accessible to all, the festival has a pay-as-you-wish admission for audiences.

A Bollywood dance class in session.

“Even if you’re the poorest man in town, you can pay us one ringgit to watch a performance. In that, we appeal to sponsors and well-wishers to help us fund these projects, and thereby the institution,” Bhuma says.

“As inter-culturally happy as we’ve been in the past years, I think you see it most in moments when everyone comes together. I believe the arts play a huge role in that.”

Address: Temple of Fine Arts, 116 Jalan Berhala, Brickfields, 50470 Kuala Lumpur. For more information and to register for classes, contact 03 2274 3709 or email admin@tfa.org.my.

By Ng Su Ann
Photos and video by Teoh Eng Hooi

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