SINGAPORE: Did you know that the popular board game Snakes And Ladders originated from India?

One of the artefacts on display at the Indian Heritage Centre’s (IHC) new exhibition is a late 19th century version of the game – called gyan chaupur in the north and paramapadam in the south – which has banyan tree roots in lieu of the ladders and was used to trace the genealogy of its users.

“Snakes And Ladders is a game that you can trace to the early part of the Common Era. A lot of the board games that we know and play – including chess and ludo – have their roots in India,” explained IHC curator Nalina Gopal.

An old version of Snakes And Ladders from 19th century, where “ladders” come in the form of banyan tree roots. (Photo: Mayo Martin)

The artefact is one of a few objects in the section on games from the centre’s show titled Symbols And Scripts: The Language Of Craft, which runs from Dec 7 to June 13, 2018.

It features around 140 rare artefacts – from jewellery and maps to textiles and masks – that trace the subcontinent’s rich crafts and scripts traditions that stretch back five millennia, including seals that date back to 3,000 BCE and feature motifs such as the swastika and a presumed unicorn image.

The exhibition also coincides with IHC’s CultureFest event, which runs from Dec 7 to 17, and includes workshops and performances.

The Indian Heritage Centre’s Symbols And Scripts exhibition features 140 rare artefacts, some of which date as far back as 5,000 years. (Photo: Mayo Martin)

But Symbols And Scripts won’t just be presenting objects on display – throughout the duration of the show, the centre has also invited 15 craftspeople from all over India, who will be present to showcase their skills and even give workshops to visitors.

The different crafts include, among others, kottan (palm leaf baskets) from Tamil Nadu and wood-carving inlay from Uttar Pradesh. It kicks off with the presence of craftspeople from New Delhi and Andhra Pradesh, who will be demonstrating calligraphy and leather-puppetry-making from Dec 6 to 20.

“The Indian communities in Singapore would have had these crafts and traditions but things have gotten lost from generation to generation, so our job is to try to promote and transmit some of these, to remind us of our intangible cultural  heritage,” said IHC general manager Mr Saravanan Sadanandom.

Leather craftsman Sindhe Sreeramulu from Andhra Pradesh in India will be in town to showcase his skills at creating leather crafts, including shadow puppets. (Photo: Mayo Martin)

In bringing these master craftsmen from different parts of India, the centre hopes to rekindle a connection that older generations of Singaporeans of Indian descent may have forgotten – and remind the younger ones of their roots as well.

“There are many people (in Singapore) who come from the same home states as the craftspeople. We thought it was a beautiful way to introduce, through the idea of nostalgia and interaction, their own rich cultural heritage to them, because there are a lot of traditions that have been left behind and forgotten,” said Ms Gopal.

She cited as one example the story of the Kadayanallur community in Singapore, a Tamil Muslim community that had its roots in a village in present day Tamil Nadu.

A detail from a map of the holy city of Benares, circa 1750-1850 BCE. (Photo: Mayo Martin)

“They were traditionally a weaving community. However, when industrialisation happened and the (Indian) markets were being flooded with European goods, they were completely displaced (after World War II),” she said.

“So they traveled out to places like Singapore and Malaya, and had to leave behind their traditional trades to find new opportunities. They became traders or professionals, completely leaving behind that aspect of tradition. And this is something that could have happened with many others.”

The exhibition’s focus on reconnecting with traditions also takes a more contemporary detour. A specially commissioned art installation looks at a more recently lost practice that involved the Indian diaspora in Singapore: The rubber industry in Malaya.

Madhvi Subramaniam’s Ode To The Unknown installation, featuring rubber-tapping clay cups, is a nod to the Indian migrant workforce that used to work in Malaya’s rubber plantations. (Photo: Mayo Martin)

Created by Singapore-based ceramicist Ms Madhvi Subramaniam, the work Ode To The Unknown comprises around 500 rubber-tapping clay cups reminiscent of the kind that were created by the Chinese migrant labour force and used by their Indian counterparts in the region’s many rubber plantations.

Citing the coming together of the two migrant groups in one of the industries that what was then Malaya was known for – and the use of the island state’s very own rich clay soil resources that made these objects, Ms Subramaniam said: “The story of Singapore is in those cups.”

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