Rhythm of Suvarna and JB Drums


On that evening of Saturday, March 18, when the Drum Up JB! show was staged at the Permaisuri Zarith Sofiah Opera House, I met my friend, Ajith Baskaran Dass of Suvarna Fine Arts, the Indian classical dance virtuoso in the art of Bharatanatyam.


Ajith Baskaran Dass [Right] watch as two
dancers dance to the drum beats by Lim Yi Kai

It was easy to spot the familiar figure that was Ajith among the crowd who were waiting for the call bell to signal the start of the show. With him was, Lim Shao Xi, his student who will soon graduate from the Suvarna dance academy next year.


I am fondly recalling this evening because it was significant that two cultural activists, Ajith of Suvarna Fine Arts and Tan Chai Puan, co-founder of the art of the 24 Festive Drums, who have established their artistic reputations not only in Johor but also to a worldwide audience, were there.


It was very special to meet them together again because I had the privilege to document the stories of both Tan and Ajith under Portraits in Book One of My Johor Stories, My Johor Stories: True Tales, Real People, Rich Heritage, a book that went on to become an MPH Non-Fiction Bestseller in 2017.


I was with Tan Chai Puan, co-founder
of the art of the 24 Festive Drums

Among the activities planned to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the founding of the 24 Festive Drums was the Drum Up JB Coffee Talk held on Sunday, June 18, where I had the pleasure to participate as Moderator with three guest speakers, Tan, Ajith and Mohd Shahril Abd Manan, Programme Manager with Think City Johor Baru.


I thought this was a major milestone event which brought together key personalities and likeminded people in the local arts, culture and heritage scene to share their thoughts, issues and ideas, with the aim to bring about change and progress.


While many valid points were highlighted and discussed in this event, it was very good that the conversation continued among the guest speakers and others in the audience, in a profitable post-event discussion.


Lim Yi Kai in a scene from
the Drum Up JB! show

This Coffee Talk certainly did its part to connect people and one of the interesting outcomes of this event was an arrangement between Lim Yi Kai of JB Drums and Ajith of Suvarna Fine Arts to meet up to explore a possible collaboration between the art of the 24 Festive Drums and the art of Bharatanatyam.


Needless to say, I was absolutely thrilled that this was actually happening!


This was because Ajith and I already had an exciting discussion – long before this – about how wonderful it will be to present a performance of Bharatanatyam to the beat of the Chinese drum in the art of the 24 Festive Drums.



Ajith listening to the rhythm
as Lim Yi Kai beats the drum

After their first get-together at the dance studio of Suvarna Fine Arts, I was delighted to receive from Lim, a group photograph taken after their practice session with Ajith.


I did not hesitate to share my excitement with Ajith and in our conversation, I could feel the determination to share his knowledge with Lim in spite of the cultural differences and their language barrier.


It was interesting to learn that Ajith made himself clear to Lim with the help of Shao Xi, who translated Ajith’s instructions to Lim in Mandarin.


With their next practice session arranged in the following week, Ajith invited me to join them and I did not hesitate to accept.


Suvarna Fine Arts is located on Level Two

That evening, I arrived just on time to see Lim – along with his Chinese drum, stand and drumsticks – waiting for Shao Xi to open the door.


It was good to see Lim, all geared up to learn more about Indian classical music. We were joined by his colleague and fellow drummer, Jarratt Leong Shi Kit.


As in any other art form, it will take time and effort to learn and it will depend on their level of commitment and how much they wish to invest their time and effort.


Ajith guiding Lim Yi Kai and Jarratt Leong
Shi Kit [Left] in learning the beats for the rhythm

Just inside the door, a shoe shelf was provided for us to remove our footwear before heading up the flight of stairs to reach the dance studio for Suvarna Fine Arts on Level Two.


I was warmly welcomed into the studio by Ajith who introduced me to his students and Shao Xi, whom I had met with Ajith at the Opera House in March.


A few minutes later, we were joined by Ms Chow Pei Foon of Chow Drama, a performing art school in Johor Baru.


Then I learnt that when Shao Xi was a student with Foon Yew High School, Chow was the instructor in their Drama Society.


Among the posters on the wall was
this rendition of a portrait of Ajith
captured in his younger years

For further education, Shao Xi went to university in Taiwan where he studied Western classical music and trained as a vocalist when he pursued a Degree in Western Fine Arts.


“I’m a baritone,” Shao Xi modestly declared in English that was heavily accented with Indian nuances.


When he struggled to find the English words to express himself, Ajith gently helped to supply the words. Shao Xi then explained that his English language improved with the help of his Dance Master, Ajith.


Shao Xi, who’s ethnic Chinese, was proud to share with me that he had his family’s support to pursue Indian classical dance in the art of Bharatanatyam under Ajith’s tutelage.


When Shao Xi was still in Taiwan during the global pandemic and lockdown periods, he felt acute homesickness and sought to continue with his dance practice in his free time.


In Taiwan, he worked part-time with a Chinese restaurant and after business hours, he had permission to use the space for his dance practice.


After he had shifted the tables and chairs to create a space to dance, he would meet his Master online for his online dance classes with Ajith.


A powerful performance of classical Indian dance,
Bharatanatyam to the beat of a Chinese drum

That evening, Ajith wanted me to meet with Chow and explained that Suvarna Fine Arts recently conducted workshop sessions with Chow Drama with much success.


Ajith hoped that this could be the start of an exciting collaboration where he could transfer his knowledge in Indian classical dance to enhance the training and experience of the students in Chow Drama school.


I believe the experiences of both Shao Xi and Chow with Suvarna Fine Arts were an inspiration to Lim who had returned to continue with his drum practice session with Ajith.


When I asked Lim about his learning experience with Ajith, he smiled widely and simply replied, “Maths lesson!”


I paused to digest Lim’s reply but Ajith came to the rescue and explained that there was a science in Indian classical music where a circle of rhythm is repeated in five rhythmic cycles. He said this cycle was called, “Pancha Nadai,” in Sanskrit.


As Ajith declared that it was, “Very simple,” I turned the pages in my mind to my little knowledge of Hindi – which my dad taught me – and counted from one to five and confirmed with Ajith that, panch, was indeed five in Hindi.


Lim using a drum stick to beat the rhythm
on the wooden floor to learn the cycle of beats

While I’m quite a dud with numbers, I was pleased that Lim was a versatile learner who easily grasped the difference between the standard four-beat rhythm in drumming the Chinese drum and the song in cycle of 16 in Indian classical music.


At the recent Coffee Talk, Ajith had emphasized that Indian classical dance and music was based upon ancient tradition, characterized by intricate and subtle melodies and complex rhythms, and was not pop culture or the stuff from Bollywood.


Ajith had prepared a blank sheet of paper for Lim to make his own notes as he guided Lim to strike the Chinese drum at three different speeds; single, double and quadruple beats.


Meanwhile, Ajith the prolific instructor, had prepared his own music sheet as a guide through the practice and had Lim sit down with him to learn the beats by the clapping of hands.


Then I watched with interest as Ajith continued in his traditional role as teacher, conductor in music and rhythm, and as vocalist while Lim responded with drumming to the rhythm, the senior students playing the traditional Indian metronome instruments and the two young dancers, Lim Shao Xi and Gayatiri Rajendiran danced to the beat.


Shao Xi and Gayatiri dancing to the rhythm
 of the Chinese drum beats by Lim Yi Kai

It was fascinating to observe that Lim was beating the Chinese drum to the rhythm of Indian classical dance in coordination with the tinkle of the tiny cymbals while the two dancers performed their routine in graceful unison.


“Artistes connect at different levels,” declared Ajith who believed that the core was the same and that artistes can easily connect with artistic integrity.


At the close of this practice session, Ajith was pleased to see that Lim had risen to the challenge and felt optimistic that with this humble start, the next generation will progressively build on what they have learnt in this exploration for collaboration.


I echo Ajith’s sentiments and agree with him that our time together was a wonderful exchange of knowledge and cross-cultural assimilation.


I know that mastering the art of Indian classical music may take some time but with commitment and a lot of practice, I am confident that Lim will achieve a performing level that meets with Ajith’s requirement.


Suvarna Fine Arts is located at Nong Chik Riverside, No. 17, Level 2, Jalan Kolam Ayer 2, Kampung Mohd Amin, 80200 Johor Baru, Johor. [Reference, JJ Fitness]

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