Singapore, 21 October 2016  Little India, 200 years ago, was a sight to behold. Its intricate network of roads and streets once served as home to cattle traders, Dhoby men, brick-makers, and even Singapore’s oldest Chinese puppet troupe – adding much colour and spice to one of the nation’s oldest precincts, and the heart and soul of Singapore’s Indian community.

These stories, testament to Little India’s rich and vibrant history, will take centre stage in the Indian Heritage Centre’s (IHC) first special exhibition entitled Once Upon a Time in Little India. Launched this evening by Mr S. Iswaran, Minister for Trade and Industry (Industry), the exhibition details the lives of the early South Asian migrants who came to call Little India their home, and uncovers the history of the precinct through key arterial roads that many of us are familiar with, such as Serangoon Road, Kandang Kerbau, and Mackenzie Road. Each has its own story to tell of important historical events, and memories of its diverse communities.

Minister S. Iswaran launching the Once Upon a Time in Little India exhibition at Indian Heritage Centre
Minister S. Iswaran launching the Once Upon a Time in Little India exhibition at Indian Heritage Centre

Ms Trudy Loh, Director of Heritage Institutions at the National Heritage Board, said, “Little India is a precinct so steeped in history, but despite its transformation across the years, it has firmly remained as a focal point for Singapore’s Indian community. This demonstrates how a precinct is but a space like any other without its inhabitants. In the case of Little India, its lasting legacy through the years speaks of the strong bonds and spirit of its people, and its continued relevance as a community node.  It is thus apt that the IHC, the newest addition to the Little India precinct, and an icon of the Indian community in Singapore, is working with residents, partners and stakeholders to present this exhibition.”

From Old to New

Once Upon a Time in Little India features a showcase of over 100 new artefacts contributed by more than 30 donors and lenders from the community, and drawn from our National Collection. They include items belonging to the temples and mosques in Little India, a clothing iron used at one of Singapore’s last remaining traditional Indian laundries, string puppets used by a traditional Chinese puppet theatre located in Dunlop Street, as well as old photographs dating back as far as the 1890s. Together, these provide visitors with a comprehensive understanding of Little India in the past.

Providing an interesting contrast to the historical accounts of the precinct are specially-commissioned works by three local and international contemporary artists. The first is a trilogy of short films entitled The Day I Lost My Shadow by renowned Singaporean filmmaker K. Rajagopal. Its narrative is rooted in three iconic locations in Little India; Race Course Road, Campbell Lane and Syed Alwi Road. This marks the director’s first film after a successful showing of the critically acclaimed A Yellow Bird in the prestigious Cannes Festival this year.

The second is a visually-arresting installation spanning two levels of IHC entitled The Weighing Scale by prominent visual artist Kumari Nahappan. The larger-than-life installation comprises three tonnes of saga seeds gathered from around the region across 18 years, and references the spread of the global diaspora, specifically traditional Tamil goldsmiths in Little India, who used the seeds as weighing measures in the past.

The last is a three-part multi-disciplinary artwork entitled Passage to Little India by Thai-Indian artist Navin Rawanchaikul, which includes a monumental close to 14-metre long collage of over 250 people associated with Little India, and films inspired by his discovery of and encounters in the precinct.

This juxtaposition of historic artefacts and contemporary works portrays Little India as a precinct not only steeped in history, but also as a culturally rich district maintaining its relevance into the future. Through the contributions of varied members of the community, as well as local and foreign artists’ works, different perspectives from across the global Indian diaspora are presented, demonstrating how Little India doesn’t exist in isolation but is connected to other enclaves of migrant Indians around the world.

A Community Collaboration

IHC has also worked with various partners and stakeholders in the Little India precinct to organise a series of programmes. These supplement the special exhibition, and will provide visitors with opportunities to embark on an exploration of the precinct, as well as other Little Indias around the world.

Programmes include lectures by esteemed local and international speakers, art and cultural performances by dance and musical troupes, as well as tours to various temples and institutions around Little India, who have opened their doors to visitors for a behind-the-scenes look of the vibrant and colourful life of the precinct.

The exhibition will take place from 22 October 2016 to 21 July 2017. Visitors can visit for more information.

The exhibition is a parallel project of the Singapore Biennale 2016.