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Malaysian Bharatanatyam pioneer declared
'Living Heritage Treasure' by Malaysian Government
- Apsara Ram Gopal, Malaysia

July 27, 2008

Malaysian Bharatanatyam pioneer, Vatsala Sivadas, 66, has been declared a 'Living Heritage Treasure.' This was announced by the Malaysian Minister for Unity, Culture, Arts and Heritage Datuk Mohamad Shafie Apdal at a press conference on July 25, 2008. Vatsala was among 5 Malaysian artistes who was conferred this award, the first of its kind in Malaysia since it was instituted by an act of Parliament recently.

Datuk Mohamad Shafie told reporters that the UNESCO defines 'living heritage treasures' as "people with the highest degree of skills and techniques in core aspects of cultural heritage." "We will popularize their success in the programs that we organize," he added. The others awardees were Losimin Majanil, 83 (a shaman and source of reference for the Kadazandusun community in Sabah, Borneo island), Abu Bakar Jaafar, also 83, a 'Boria' (a Malay folk tradition) exponent, Ali Badron Tarbus, 75 (a master story teller) and Tan Hooi Song, 61 (an expert on traditional Chinese drums).

Born in 1942 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Vatsala's artistic journey began with her Arangetram in 1954 under her husband and dance guru (the late) V K Sivadas. The couple formed the 'Sivadas-Vatsala Dance Troupe' which took the whole Malaya by storm with a rich variety of items, costumes, props and supported by musicians of high caliber. The Sivadas-Vatsala Dance Troupe had the honour and privilege of performing at the inaugural Malaysian Independence Day celebrations on August 31, 1957.

In 1962, Vatsala underwent advanced training in Bharatanatyam under (the late) Kutralam Ganesha Pillai in Chennai. Sivadas and Vatsala were the pioneers to conduct Indian dance classes on a systematic and regular basis. They conducted their dance classes at many centers in and around Kuala Lumpur. Their students are a legion spanning 3 generations.

With the advent of television in 1963, their popularity grew even larger and they performed regularly over this new medium. The Sivadas-Vatsala Dance Troupe performed at many state functions and official receptions for visiting foreign dignitaries like US President (the late) Lyndon Johnson, the Prime Minister of India (the late) Indira Gandhi, (the late) Shah of Iran, for members of the British and Japanese Royalty and many others.

Sivadas and Vatsala were regularly called upon by foreign missions and organizations like the American Peace Corps to conduct lecture-demonstrations on Indian classical dance. They represented Malaysia abroad as members of cultural delegations to Thailand, Philippines, England, Australia, Singapore and India.

The Sivadas - Vatsala Dance Troupe helped raise funds for many charitable causes like The Pure Life Society (an orphanage) and many Hindu temples around Malaysia. Sivadas and Vatsala helped many of their promising Malaysian and foreign students take up advanced training in India and establish their artistic careers. The Indian High Commission presented Sivadas and Vatsala a rare gift of 2 sets of peacock feathers in recognition of their outstanding work in promoting Indian arts and culture in Malaysia.

In 1982, (the late) V K Sivadas and fellow dancer (the late) Gopal Shetty became founding directors of The Temple of Fine Arts (or TFA) in Kuala Lumpur. Vatsala Sivadas continues to teach at the Temple of Fine Arts to this day.

The 'Living Heritage Treasure' award is, indeed, a fitting honor to guru Vatsala not only for her selfless and dedicated service to the propagation of Indian fine arts in Malaysia but also to the greater cause of evolving a truly Malaysian cultural tradition.

Apsara Ram Gopal is the Artistic Director of Kshetra Academy, Malaysia.