In PORTRAITS I look for the unguarded moment, the essential soul peeking out, experience etched on a person’s face… When I find the right person or subject, I may come back once or twice, or half a dozen times, always waiting for that right moment. Unlike the writer, once I pack my bags, there is no chance for another draft – either I have the shot or I don’t. This is what drives and haunts the professional photographer, the gnawing sense that ‘this is it’.
For me, the portraits in this book speak a desire for human connection; a desire so strong that people who know they will never see me again open themselves to the camera, all in the hope that at the other end someone else will be watching – someone who will laugh or suffer with them.
Waaaay back then, my mom enrolled my sister and me into all sorts of extra-curricular classes – Art, Music, Dance – and the only lessons that I loved were those dance lessons I attended weekly.
Being Singaporeans of South Indian descent, I guess it was only natural that our lessons were in the classical South Indian Dance called Bharata Natyam. This dance form originated in Tamil Nadu, which is the southernmost state of India and its roots go all the way back to the Sangam age (the period between the 3rd century BC and 4th century AD) which is the classical period in South Indian history.
As you can see from the photograph, my attire consisted of a bright pink sari (very securely tied and pinned so that it wouldn’t unravel during the vigorous dance movements), some costume jewellery and a pair of anklets. My grandfather had purchased the anklets and jewellery specially from Tamil Nadu. You can’t see clearly from the photograph, but my short hair was pinned back into a tiny bun with a jasmine garland wound around it. I’d just performed my first ever dance, called the Alaripu, which is always the first dance performed as it is an invocation to the Gods to bless the ensuing performance. Usually when a dance school showcases its dancers, the youngest/beginners are the ones who do this dance. As you can see by my grin, I’m feeling quite exhilarated after my dance – if I recall that night correctly, I was on a high the rest of the night and well on to the next day!
I am standing on a platform erected specially for the dance performance by my dance school in the assembly hall of a Hindu temple. Temples usually invite such dance schools to perform during Hindu festivals, and the dance program lasts for at least an hour. This is probably a continuation of the tradition of Devdasis who were the original temple dancers and who spent their life in the service of the temples they were tied to. The performances are of course free for the public and temple devotees. This is a hall specifically used for dance and music performances, for you can see the Nataraja relief on the wall behind me. Lord Nataraja (who is a manifestation of Shiva) is worshipped as the Lord of Dance so it is only appropriate that he is present.
So, back in 2010 I decided to do my first ever solo trip to Hong Kong. I’m not quite sure why I chose Hong Kong as my first solo destination since before making my decision, I’d never even entertained the idea of travelling there. But there you go.
To tell you the truth, I wasn’t quite sure what I was expecting. But I enjoyed myself tremendously and absolutely LOVED my trip there.
And since I was there, I knew I HAD TO make a stop at the Avenue of Stars along the Tsim Tsa Tsui waterfront in Hong Kong.
A couple on months back I’d written about the exhibitions at the Asian Civilisations Museum (incidentally, my favourite museum in Singapore). I’ve seen their permanent collection on display a few times since I ALWAYS make it a point to visit the museum every year (sort of like an annual pilgrimage). More recently though, I went there with the express purpose of viewing the current exhibitions, namely Devotion & Desire: Cross-Cultural Art in Asia and “A Way of Life” Photographs from the Leica Collection. Being a history affectionado as well as a photography enthusiast I was practically salivating at the thought of viewing the works on display.
First up, here’s a look at the Asian Civilisations Museum facade with a bit of history on the museum itself-
The Asian Civilisations Museum is located at the newly restored Empress Place Building situated along the Singapore River just opposite the banks from the Fullerton. For much of its history, the building functioned as a government office – functioning as the Immigration Department and Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages in its time. It was re-named the Empress Place Building at the beginning of the 20th century, in honor of Queen Victoria while we were still under colonial rule.
It is a really beautiful example of neo-Palladian architectural style on the outside, and on the inside houses over 1,300 artefacts from civilisations of China, Southeast Asia, South Asia and West Asia from the Museum’s permanent collection in its 11 galleries since it was renovated and opened to public in 2003. From time to time, the museum also features temporary or special exhibits in its temporary galleries. I for one have been in love with this museum since I first recall stepping into its gorgeous lobby, and have stayed in love ever since.
When I visited the museum on a Saturday afternoon (waaay back in December), I the first thing I noticed was the lack of visitors there. It was a Saturday afternoon and apart from myself and two other visitors, the lobby was empty (save for the museum receptionists of course!). It was a marked contrast to the almost suffocating crowd at the Art Science Museum I’d visited back in October. So basically, I had the run of the museum with no queue and no jostling to see the exhibits. Which was fine with me (but just a tad disappointing in the lack of interest in this wonderful museum, but I digress). Since the Leica Collection exhibit was on the ground floor, I visited the gallery first.
The exhibition itself was small and the photographs showcased in a modest space. This gave the viewer (myself) the experience of being in an intimate, almost personal gallery with an unimpeded view of the stunning original prints by actual photography legends. The icing on the cake (for me especially) were the 10 Henri-Cartier Bresson original prints that he’d given to Leica Camera, two of which are among my favourite images of his works. As I had the whole room to myself the entire time, I blissfully lost track of the time I spent in that modest room, immersed completely in the works displayed before me. Of course I eventually emerged from my reverie as I still had more to see elsewhere!
So I made my way upstairs to the Permanent Galleries (3rd floor) and made my way to the main exhibition by wandering through the Lacquer Across Asia exhibition first.
I’ve been a fan of lacquer works since I first came across Vietnamese lacquer paintings a few years earlier. So this exhibition was particularly delightful for me as I got the chance to see truly beautiful works from all over Southeast Asia and China. As objects of wealth and prestige, lacquer works have been prized across Asia for centuries.
Though the use of lacquer has been documented in China for a few thousand years, the works in this exhibition span from the 15th century onwards, where their use spread across Southeast Asia. In Southeast Asia, most prized lacquer works were also donated as offerings to the Buddhist temples in this region. Other works would also feature themes from the Ramayana and Jataka tales which had entered into the Southeast Asian collective consciousness by this time.
I wound my way around the exhibition, which in turn led me to the main exhibition Devotion and Desire: Cross-Cultural Art in Asia – featuring the new acquisitions of ACM.
Clearly, the folks over at the Asian Civilisations Museum had quite the shopping spree. The exhibition was packed with artifacts from all over Asia, and there were so many of them that I think the curators just gave up trying to have a coherent curatorial approach and so decided on broad themes instead. The overarching curatorial concept was on the subject of trade in terms of religion, ideas and traditions and the artistic results of that. Here’s some of the highlights from each theme –
Here we see artifacts from the ancient kingdom of Gandhara – present-day northern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan. The unique location of this ancient kingdom meant that it was right at the crossroads between the East and West. The artifacts all show a beautiful blending of Buddhism ( the religion of the East) with realistically sculptured artforms such as those in Greece and Rome (the aesthetics of the West).
Cabinet of Wonders
When merchants and other travelers from Europe returned from the exotic East, they brought home objects unique to the regions they visited – to be displayed and admired by those not fortunate enough to have gone on these journeys of course!
The love for all things from the exotic Orient and mystical South Asia by Renaissance Europe meant that trading of objects from these destinations was a highly profitable enterprise.
It is a well-known fact that royal patronage has encouraged many a fine art form. Artists produced their very finest work for the rulers of the realm, who in turn sponsored their creative visions. Some of the exceptional works of art even made their way across land and sea to foreign lands as gifts or tribute – and these fine creations were admired and at times even imitated by the artists in the foreign lands who were inspired by their beauty and skill. Thus we have cultural syncretism of the best kind.
My journey through the museum ended with Beginning of the Becoming: Batak Sculpture From Northern Sumatra. Viewing the works here brought back nostalgia for my childhood. I’d visited Lake Toba way back… hmm… let me think…almost.. two decades ago! Wow! Ok. That was definitely awhile back. I still remember the trip quite vividly, since that was the first time I had sole possession of the family camera. Well.. for a couple of days at least; until my parents realized to their horror that I was taking ‘artistic’ shots of the Batak cemetery and multiple shots of the Batak sculptures. It was a film camera you see, and they felt I was wasting film (and their hard-earned money) on my so-called artistic shots instead of taking photographs of the family with the beautiful scenery. But that really was the moment I actually caught the photography ‘bug’ and it never left me. I wonder what my life would have been like if I’d decided to pursue a career in photography from that point. I’m hoping it’s not too late to begin my photography career now. Ah well… decisions, decisions.
So anyway, back to the exhibition. The Batak people are from the region around Lake Toba, an immense volcanic lake (It is the largest lake in Indonesia and the largest volcanic lake in the world) that formed in the volcanic crater after a massive supervolcanic eruption (yes, there is such a thing as a supervolcanic eruption. I know, it’s so cool right?!) tens of thousands of years ago. This eruption was so massive that it had a worldwide impact, changing the global climate and affecting the human population. The flora and fauna in this area is practically endemic and the Batak people are unique in their traditions. Their beliefs are largely influenced by the various Tamil, Arab and Javanese traders as well as the Christian missionaries who settled there – so it’s a whole religious mish-mesh going on in this region, which produces delightful religious sculpture and art such as those exhibited in this gallery.
It was really quite uncanny the sheer volume of memories it dredged up in me when I saw the sculptures – and the precise details I recalled. I’m glad that this was the last gallery I saw before leaving the museum as it left me with a feeling of nostalgia and reflection.
How to get there:
Nearest MRT station – Raffles Place
Exit at Battery Road and walk across the Cavenagh Bridge to the opposite side of the Singapore River.
Daily: 10am – 7pm
Fridays: 10am – 9pm*
Free for Singapore Citizens and Permanent Residents (you’ll have to produce your identity card at the reception counter to enjoy this privilege)
Regular ticket prices are $8 for adults and $4 for students.* On Fridays, tickets are half-price after 7pm
There are also joint tickets for the ACM and the Peranakan Museum which you can enquire about at the reception counter.
A visit to the permanent galleries are a must. Seriously guys, the museum has an AMAZING collection of artifacts from across Asia
There are currently 2 special exhibitions that I’d highly recommend
The ACM is a family-friendly museum, so go ahead and bring your kids. They do offer a number of educational guides and activities to keep the little ones interested. There are also special museum activities during museum open-house days that fall during the public holidays – you get free entries + fun activities which is great!