Speaking with Som Said and her son, Adel Ahmad, one can immediately sense the warm relationship between mother and son. And this familial warmth also extends to the workplace, given that Adel now leads Singapore’s first fully professional Malay dance company, Sri Warisan Som Said Performing Arts, that his mother founded in 1997. Sri Warisan is a complete family affair: Som oversees all artistic decisions, while her husband Ahmad Sawal manages the company’s finances.
Adel serves as the managing director, and his wife Marina Yusoff spearheads the marketing division. “My succession plan was executed in merely five years!” Som, a 1987 Cultural Medallion recipient, says half-jokingly. “When Adel came on board in 2000 after returning from his studies in Canada, he was able to modernise Sri Warisan, while I made sure that the practice stays rooted to tradition.”
Malay dance consists of five main types, namely the joget, masri, inang, asli and zapin, each characterised by a distinctive style, rhythm and music. The asli, for example, is a slow and graceful dance that follows the beat of the gong in counts of eight, while the joget is quick in tempo and often accompanied by the accordion and violin.
One of the first decisions by Adel upon joining the company was to digitise its operations, followed by a desire to take its practice abroad for international audiences to appreciate.
“Then, I wanted Sri Warisan to tour 100 cities in the next 20 years,” shares Adel proudly, knowing full well that his target has been met in 2016. Coincidentally, this year marks the 20th year since he took over the company, and it holds an impressive record of performances standing at 102 cities in 40 countries to date.
Apart from showcasing what the arts in Singapore and Malay dance have to offer, performing abroad has a multitude of benefits for the company’s dancers too. He says, “Our dancers learn something new at every festival and use that knowledge to train others.” For Som, this statement rings especially true. “I have travelled the world and know what it means for a dancer to showcase their craft and truly represent Singapore and our stories.”
Additionally, Adel’s initial determination to adopt the use of technology becomes even more relevant today as the arts sector finds its way through the current Covid-19 pandemic. He acknowledges that till today, “the traditional arts world is still perceived as boring. Therefore, to grab the attention of wider audiences, we have to showcase works that are captivating and relevant to the Singapore community.” Sri Warisan has shortened its wayang kulit performances to 30 minutes from its original length of eight to 10 hours, and incorporated modern elements like LED graphics and animation into their Malay dance performances. Adel shares, “Ultimately, we wish for the traditional arts to remain relevant to and be enticing for the younger generation.”
But the key to grooming a new wave of talent, according to Som, is to start them young. Today, the company has the Sri Warisan Academy of Performing Arts, its own arts education programme supported by the National Arts Council. Classes are split into three student categories—children, youth and adult.
But unlike convention-al dance classes with a syllabus and examinations, the teaching wing prioritises the need to inculcate values of wisdom and respect, along with the cultural and artistic values of the dance, done through mentoring during classes. “The path to being a professional performer is two-pronged,” says Som. “Before we identify their artistic talent, they must possess the important values that go beyond their tangible skill set.”
Three traditional dance veterans on keeping their art alive: Santha Bhaskar of Bhaskar's Arts Academy | Som Said of Sri Warisan Som Said Performing Arts | Lim Moi Kim of Singapore Chinese Dance Theatre