Speech by Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for Social Policies, at the Completion of the Digital Archives of Singapore Tamil Arts on 30 November 2019

Mr S. Iswaran, Minister for Communications and Information,

Mrs Elaine Ng, Chief Executive Officer, National Library Board,

Arun Mahizhnan, Director, Centre for Singapore Tamil Culture,

Ladies and Gentlemen,


1. It is a real pleasure for me to be here to celebrate our Tamil culture and heritage with all of you.

  1. Four years ago, we launched the Digital Archive of Tamil Literature.
  2. It was the first initiative under the Tamil Digital Heritage Project, which was started in 2013 to preserve and promote Tamil language and culture in Singapore.
  3. At the launch, I spoke of U. V. Swaminatha Iyer, the Tamil scholar and researcher best known for recovering ancient literary works written on palm leaf manuscripts.
  4. Without his remarkable efforts, many great pieces of classical Tamil literature would have been forgotten and lost to the world.

2. The work of the Centre for Singapore Tamil Culture, in partnership with the National Library Board (NLB), echoes the spirit of this great collector and publisher.

  1. a. Since 2013, the two organisations have worked tirelessly to produce digital collections on Tamil Literature, Theatre, and Music.
  2. b. Their combined efforts have resulted in more than 350 digitised books, and 4,400 materials on Tamil theatre and music being made available online.
  3. c. Special mention to Arun Mahizhnan for the passion he has put into this project, and the immense energy of the teams at the Centre and NLB.

3. It now gives me great pleasure to launch the fourth and final component of the project – the Digital Archive of Tamil Dance, which marks the completion of the Digital Archive of Singapore Tamil Arts.


4. The Centre has built up a collection of more than 1,000 materials that capture the vibrant history of Indian Dance in Singapore, starting from the 1950s.These include photographs, programme booklets, and recordings of performances, most of which were not publicly available prior to this project.

  1. Unlike traditional archival documents and manuscripts, dance is by its very nature ephemeral.
  2. Once the performance is over, it exists only in memory.
  3. The Archive gives these performances a lease of life beyond the impermanence of the stage.

5. The act of archiving is essential to history making.

  1. Archival materials capture, in tangible forms, memories and snapshots of the past that may otherwise wither away over time.
  2. The Centre has taken the initiative to work with closely with the literary, theatre, music and dance communities to preserve these unique aspects of our cultural heritage.
  3. These community archives complement the National Archives of Singapore (NAS), which is the keeper of records of national or historical significance.

6. These are important cultural assets.

  1. Community-initiated collections such as the Digital Archive of Tamil Heritage enrich our understanding of Singapore’s history and identity.
  2. They are a way of tracing our heritage, and being able to see how our culture has evolved over the years.
    1. Much of Singapore’s Indian dance is rooted in the South Indian Bharatanatyam tradition, believed to be the oldest form of Indian classical dance, going back to the second century, originatin. in Tamil Nadu. Over time, we have also seen other Indian classical dance forms, such as Kathak and Odissi, coming into Singapore.
    2. Indian dance here has also remained open and mutable, and there have been many cross-cultural influences between Indian dance and other art forms in our region.
    3. Angkor: An Untold Story, a 2013 production helmed by Singapore's Apsaras Arts, brought together Indian and Cambodian dance forms inspired by Hindu mythologies. It celebrated the deep exchange over many centuries between India and South East Asia that has shaped much of Asian art.
    4. Rasa & Dhwani, which was conceptualised and choreographed by Santha Bhaskar, and performed at the Esplanade in 2003, had verses by Singaporean poets in all four official languages to set to Indian dance. Photographs of this performance are in fact captured in the Archive.
  3. The collection is also a cultural asset for Singaporeans of all ethnic groups.
    1. It is a way for us to learn more about each of our cultures, appreciate arts and culture for their inherent aesthetic appeal.
    2. The Bharatanatyam is especially focused on the expression of the dancer. The meaning of the dance has to be conveyed through a sophisticated vocabulary of gestures, of the hands, eye and face.
    3. It is not surprising that it has had influence across other art forms

7. The Archive is also a tribute to pioneers and personalities who have played a crucial role in raising awareness and appreciation of traditional Indian dance forms.

  1. They include Rathi Karthigesu, Santha Bhaskar, and Jamuna Ranjan, all of whom are here with us today. Some like Neila Sathyalingan are no longer with us. They and others are featured fo their roles in the pioneering groups such as the Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society, the Nrityalaya Aesthetics Society, Bhaskar’s Arts Academy and others.
  2. Our dance pioneers had set up these groups in the late 1950s. They kept a cultural connection to the South Asian communities that they had come from.
  3. Over time, these groups have continued to thrive as part of multi-cultural Singapore. They have also been succeeded by numerous younger exponents, several of whom are with us here today.
  4. I must commend these groups for continually pursuing their passion for the craft, and passing the torch on to the next generation – despite it not always having been easy to attract students or donors. The Government will continue to support Indian dance through schemes such as the National Arts Council’s Major Company scheme and the Cultural Matching Fund, and projects such as the Digital Archive of Singapore Tamil Arts.
  5. I do hope too that we will see over time a broader, multiracial audience for Indian art performances, as with each of the cultures we must treasure in Singapore.

8. This year’s Bicentennial celebrations remind us that the Singapore story is a rich and constantly evolving tapestry, woven together from threads of stories from individuals, cultures and communities.

  1. The Tamil Digital Archive reflects the contributions of the Tamil community.
  2. I encourage all communities to also capture, preserve and share their stories.
  3. Together, we are building a national collection for the next generation.

9. Finally, I would like to congratulate NLB and CTSC for completing this journey together.