Since the early 1900s, Brickfields has seen many changes; however the Ashrama’s purpose remains the same, which is primarily to serve the Tamil community and support the schools under its care.
Throughout the Ashrama’s humble beginnings and long history, it has experienced momentous events, from the Second World War to Malaysia’s Independence. Through it all, the various caretakers of the Ashrama, from the Management Committee and Board of Trustee members to its headmasters and many supporters, have always endeavoured to keep the noble vision of Swami Vivekananda alive while maintaining high standards of education.
In recent years, rapid changes in the learning environment and the increasing need for skills training that are relevant in today’s modern world, prompted a closer look at the Ashrama’s future as well as the future of the four schools under its care.
With the commercial value of the land, and corresponding interest in purchasing the land, increasing by the year, in 2014 the Board of Trustees considered the sale of 0.4 hectares in order to make more funds available for the Ashrama, enabling greater service to the community. This decision was made in acknowledgement that donations and ad-hoc fund-raising activities are unsustainable in the long-term. This sale would have made way for an apartment block and multilevel parking structure, with the condition that the original Ashrama be preserved for its historic significance. However the news met with public protests and in 2016 the Ashrama was designated a national heritage site.
Custodians of Culture and Faith
A Pioneer in Performing Arts
For the Tamil community of Brickfields, with its shared cultural and religious heritage, the performing arts is an important aspect of heritage and tradition. For this reason, the Ashrama has always actively encouraged music and dance as an extracurricular activity, complementing the each student’s academic life and filling the cultural void.
This goes as far back as 1923 with the establishment of the Sangeetha Abivirithi Sabha, with the Deity of Fine Arts, Sri Saraswati, as its Divine Patron. This sister organisation is tasked with the responsibility of organising and managing all the cultural activities of the Ashrama. By bringing Indian Carnatic music to the heart of Kuala Lumpur, the Sabha made it more accessible to the Tamil-speaking population and helped bring the community together.
The Sabha’s first teacher was the famous Vidwan S Ghousemian Sahib, a devout practitioner of Carnatic music, who in 1925 organised music, literature and drama classes in its own premises along Jalan Tun Sambanthan before moving to the Ashrama.
The faculty boasted professional musicians well versed in both classical and contemporary music, using musical instruments like flute and violin as well as traditional ones such as veena, mridangam and tabla. Thevaram* classes were also conducted with noteworthy othuvars (exponents of Thevaram) such as Swaminathan Kurukal, Muthukumaraswami Kurukal and TK Govinda Rao.
* Thevaram refers to the first seven volumes of the Tirumurai, a twelve-volume collection of devotional poetry. The singing of Thevaram is a hereditary practise in all Shiva temples in Tamil Nadu.
Under its Music educational programme, students could pursue a three-year diploma following three years of theory followed by practical training. Some of those who graduated and achieved the title Sangeetha Bhushanam returned to teach in the Sabha and elsewhere, including Sangeetha Kala Booshanam Vijayalakshmi Kulaveerasingam, a past student of the Sabha who became a renowned violinist and vocalist. She taught violin lessons in the Sabha and for more than forty years, she was responsible for providing all the musical accompaniments for the cultural activities and the Navarathiri celebrations organised by the Sabha. Music classes ceased in the 1960s.
The drama section of the Sabha blossomed between 1927 and 1939, with students staging famous plays annually, such as Lanka Thahanam (1928), Kovalan (1930), Rajambal (1932), Krishnan Thoothu (1934), Kandamani (1937), and Panja Pandya Kauravam (1938).
The Sabha saw many talented individuals, from experts to former students and even professional performing artists, lend their support to the teaching and training of students. These included:
- Pioneers of Indian dance in Malaysia such as Gopal Shetty, V.K. Shiva as and Vatsala Shiva, who taught dance and organised dance performances for the Sabha
- Former students like Ambiga Selvendra and Amithra Sahadevan who helped the next generation of students showcase their talents in Annual Dance Competitions held by the Ministry of Education.
- The late Ray Shanmugan, Malaysia’s pop icon, was responsible for creating the music for the dance dramas during the birthday celebrations of Swami Vivekananda.
Highlights of the 1980s include:
- Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 1983; the four-day celebration included vocal recitals and dance performances by students past and present, musical performances as well as a Carnatic vocal performance by Trichur V Ramachandran.
- Padma Shri Chitra Visweswaran’s dance troupe performed the Ramayana in 1986 to raise funds for the Sabha’s cultural activities.
- The Sabha and dance troupe Sutra organised the Kitatakatarikitatom, choreographed by world-renowned dancer Padma Sree Ramli Ibrahim, who also conducted Bharata Natyam and Odissi classes at the Sabha premises.
- Bharat Ratna Pandit Ravi Shanker’s sitar performance in 1988; held at the Putra World Trade Centre, more than 3,000 people attended, including then Prime Minister YABhg Tun Dr Mahathir Mohammed.
The positive response inspired plans to transform the Sabha into The Vivekananda Ashrama Cultural Centre. Well-known architect Hijjas Kasturi volunteered his/her services to create a space where the learning of traditional music and dance could be formalised. The Centre would also enable examinations to be conducted, giving students the opportunity to pursue the performing arts as a career path.
The building plans were approved and fund-raising efforts included a nationwide lottery drive; however the sum fell far short of its goal and the plans were suspended indefinitely. Since 1990, all cultural performances organised by the Sangeetha Abivirithi Sabha have been on an ad hoc basis and largely sponsored by well-wishers and fans of traditional Indian performing arts.
During its early years, the Ashrama regularly organised talks by visiting missionaries and professors of philosophy. More recently, sessions in religious discourse have been organised with professors from India. The week-long discussions, which centre around the four Hindu Saints Sambhandar, Appar, Sundarar and Manikavasagar, are recorded and sold.
Over the years, the Ashrama has noted that interest in religious talks, especially among the younger generation, is low hence to keep Swami Vivekananda’s teachings alive, celebrations to commemorate his birthday are now organised at the Tamil schools with various competitions that revolve around Swami Vivekananda’s life and philosophy.
The iconic statue of Swami Vivekananda in front of the Ashrama Building, commissioned from India and installed in 1992, marks the 100th Anniversary of Swami Vivekananda’s Chicago Address.