Interview with Ankna Arockiam

PhD candidate at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow, founder of a South Asian women singing group, co-founder of "Shared Narratives", a platform for researchers of colour in the performing arts, involved in quality enhancement and assurance in higher education, music and arts institutions. Interview by Jacques Moreau from Cefedem Auvergne Rhône-Alpes, 29.04.2021.


Ankna Arockiam, a PhD candidate at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow, founder of a south Asian women’s singing group, and co-founder of “Shared Narratives” discusses the role of artists as part of society, the need for arts education to redefine success in a neoliberal world, the current state of diversity in the arts, the need to hear underrepresented voices, collaboration, and building identity in a global world.


Hi, Ankna, please present yourself, your curriculum and what you are engaged in currently.

I’m Ankna Arockiam, I’m currently pursuing my PhD at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow. And my PhD is exploring musical cultural and social identities of young Indians that are learning Western classical music. So looking at it in a post-colonial context of learning other music in India.

My background? I am a singer. I have done my undergraduate at Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and I sing as a performer. I perform with a couple of bands and ensembles, which include a Bollywood band, a band that does indoor Celtic music and also another new ensemble with a tabla and piano and voice exploding. Actually my own musical identity? Performing music that is underrepresented and not performed as much.

Apart from that, I also am a founder of a South Asian women singing group here in Glasgow and a co-founder of something called “Shared Narratives“, which is a platform for researchers of colour in the performing arts. And apart from the music side of things, I’m also involved in quality enhancement and assurance in higher education, music and arts institutions.

Read More

How would you describe your relationship with institutes of higher arts education currently, which impact does this relationship have on you or which impact did it have? How do you see your relationship developing in the near future with those institutions?

So currently my main contact or my main institution that I’m mostly connected with is the conservatoire where I am studying. And it has had an impact on me because I did my undergraduate studies there and I decided to pursue my PhD. And even though I had opportunities to study elsewhere, I decided to continue studying in this conservatoire only because of how I had progressed, even as somebody that was involved in student politics and students representation. I think this institution was a platform where I kind of flooded and grew and developed and evolved, I think. So I think it’s been a very important part for the past nine years now, of my own development and how much the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland has been part of that, growth for me.

In the future, I don’t know, after my PhD, what job will back in me or which direction I will head. But I think my involvement with higher education music institutions would still be something I’m keen to pursue. Currently, also as a member of the MusiQuE board and very interested in learning about how institutions work in terms of quality enhancement and student experience, et cetera. So I think in those areas and fields, I would still like to be involved in. (NB : MusiQuE is a Quality Assurance Agency, accredited by EQAR and ENQA, founded on the initiative of the AEC).

Read More

From your perspective, with regard to both the present day and the near future, what role do artists, art and creative work play in society? What is the impact of artists, art and creative work on society from your perspective?

I think I’d like to start with something I say all the time and it’s perhaps the most cheesiest thing, but I believe in it so strongly that I do repeat it all the time whenever I’m given an opportunity. I think the creative arts and the performing arts, but of the most important things they do to humans and to me personally, is they teach us how to empathize. And I think that is something that isn’t taught in perhaps other fields or areas currently.

I think if you’re engaged in the performing arts, you’re able to express parts of yourself to the society. And I think therefore arts and music is part of the society. It is embedded even if, whether we believe it or not, whether we fund it or not, it is how it is structured. And therefore, I think the importance of performing arts is very integral for the society, whether it is a beat in the past, now or in the future. And I hope we don’t lose that, that sacred thread of performing arts that’s like weaving the community together.

And I think as artists, we do have a responsibility because we have the lucky, we have the privilege of dealing with and tackling with the social issues in terms of bead access or, bead mental health, or… There are so many other fields that are at intersectionality with the performing arts, but I definitely think it’s integral to development and growth of any society or community.

Read More

From that perspective, with regard to both the present day and the future, near future, what role do artists, art and creative work play in the economic sector? From what you can discover of that economic sector from where you are, what is the impact of artists on that economic sector?

I think, this is where I might slightly step into the political realms of how the society functions. And I think as long as, it’s perhaps a bold statement, but as long as we live in a capitalist world, I think the value of arts will not be recognized. As long as we live in a world where capitalisms succeeds and flourishes, I think the value of arts will only digress.

I think political heads and government, the government need to look at, they need to understand the value of arts to the community in order to support it. And there is plenty, if you look at, funding, bodies or funding organizations, there is plenty money to be redistributed or to be allocated for the arts, but unfortunately priorities aren’t the same when we live in the capitalist world, I think. So, I don’t know if that really answers your question, but again, this, because this is my personal belief, I think. That’s what I believe in.

How would you see this possibility of improving the relation between art and capitalism or the economic world as it is driven today?

I would like it not to be, and that would be an ideal world, but of course I’m not going to delve into idealism at the moment.

I think, in the current world, looking at the current kind of what direction we’re heading in, what we need to do is integrate arts into everyday living.

For example: music education in schools, or performing arts education in schools, how was that embedded? There’s plenty of research that shows the impact music education has on young people, the impact music has on people that are in various health centers, the impact music has on people that are in care homes. So there’s plenty of research that shows that if you look at music therapy et cetera, but still we’re not providing that infrastructure for art to kind of develop in those areas. And if that happens, there is no need to give separate funding for the arts, but actually arts will be so embedded in our day-to-day activities that we don’t have to think of it as a separate entity, but actually it is an entity that will help communities evolve and come together, et cetera.

Read More

On the part of your field of expertise, what you are currently involved in, what can the role of art and creative work play for the artists of your field? What role do artists, art and creative work play in your field of expertise? What is the interaction between the artists you know in music and other artists? How can they play a role in that interaction? In society, but also between those, between the music field of expertise and the other field of art expertise in that perspective for society. How can they work together?

So I think the key is that something that is perhaps drilled into my thinking when I think of the performing arts at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland is collaboration and how collaboration is key for, I hate to use the word survive, but of course I think collaboration is key for how music and the arts will survive. And that’s what I was talking about, integrating it into the society and the community in every possible way or format, that it would work. And, let me think. Collaborating with other art forms.

Personally speaking, I have worked with theater and pieces of drama where music has been part of it and also worked on an opera, which was based on folk tales from Nigeria. And we had dancers. So we had a couple of ballet dancers. We had Europa dancers, we had Europa drummers. We had a mini ensemble, a small ensemble, singers and a conductor. And the reason why I’m talking about this opera is this opera was performed in London, in an opera festival for two performances. But it was the first time I was in an opera on a stage. Whereas the main singer was singing this lullaby that she grew up listening, they were members in the audience from the British Nigerian community who started singing along with her. And to be in that space where you could see where this performer is connecting with this audience in terms of cultural kind of understanding and relation, and that kind of transcend, it was like a transcending experience for how communities can come together. So there were, because there were not just British Nigerians in the audience, they were, because London is so multicultural, there were people from all cultures there. And I think in order to build that community, build that, those cultural relations, again, I think performing arts would play such an important role in kind of connecting the two on these different areas.

Did that answer the question?

Read More

We will come back on that question later because I prepared the question on the specific role artists can play in the communities. We will be able to develop that aspect later. So in your opinion, what are the most influential general trends and developments currently and in the near future in society, economy and the arts. Comes back to that political question?

No, they have to come back to that. Because I feel the reason why I go back to the political aspect of it is because we cannot, well, personally, I believe that we cannot separate these aspects because decision-making of how art is funded, art is supported, is very much a part of the discussion. We can’t be like “oh, I would not like to talk about political things because I just want to focus on music making”, well, the decision-making doesn’t live, doesn’t rest with us, it comes from elsewhere, and hence, that should be part of the discussion.

And I think of course like, the government, in the world really, should be looking at how we are progressing, especially after what happened with COVID last year and how that’s made an impact on various sectors, but especially the performing arts sectors definitely made an impact. However, the number of people watching shows on Netflix or Amazon prime, or listening to music on Spotify or iTunes has significantly grown since we went into lockdown last year.

And if we did not have the arts, if we did not have the performing arts, if you did not have the film, we didn’t have that, what would have been the state – that would be really interesting study to see how the world would have got through that entire year of lockdown if we didn’t have the arts – and then for, I think governments need to realize the true value of art and not put it as just as a job, put it under like the tourism sector or just the cultural sector, actually, that is part of all sectors, be it like, even if we talk about technology, how can we collaborate, how can we work together with these various fields to make it as important for the society.

And I think moving forward in terms of trends, when we talk about technology, I guess a lot of content is now online. And, again, that has both pros and cons. Pros in the means that it has provided access, you could be sitting anywhere in the world, as long as you have internet, you can log into that concept. But of course it also has the cons where the human contact is reduced, but also increased in a weird way. I think that going online has done that. So that, I think, is an interesting trend to watch moving forward and where we’re heading with it right now, the discussions that various concert halls, various, um, higher education, music, institutions, et cetera, are thinking about moving forward, how they would kind of, um, integrate technology in their performances, et cetera.

So in terms of other trends in the society? I’m trying to think: I touched on the political aspect, what COVID means, what it means to not see music as a separate entity but actually part of the fabric of the community. I think I’ve touched on things that I wanted to. If something comes up, I will…

Read More

What changes or evolutions can you see for the coming years for the institutions of higher art education as a global and what would for you would be the main challenges and drivers for that change?

Now speaking (of) the past year or past few years, actually we’ve had various movements such as me too movement, black lives matter movement, et cetera. And I think these movements, I mean just personally speaking, have made an impact in the world and also in the world of the arts and music and what it means in terms of representation, and access. And I think these movements have made a change.

For example, after black lives matter, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland has come up with an anti-racism action plan, and it’s not about equality or diversity or trying to make it sound all nice and welcoming, but it’s actually like: “no, we’re going to be anti-racist. And how do we do that actively? Because that has been part of the problem for such a long time.”

And I think the power that these movements have to make these changes is incredible. I mean, of course we shouldn’t be waiting for things like that to happen, to kind of get these movements started. But I think there has been a general growth of awareness among people about what it means to be part of a society that is not just your own culture, what it is to be in a multicultural. Because of course, with the growth of globalization, with the growth of like internet and access to various online portals, et cetera, has made the world a global place. And we’re more aware of what’s happening at the other end of the world, et cetera. So I think that’s a very key thing that we need to keep developing on.

And in terms of evolution, I think everyday higher arts education evolves. Everyday there’s a new thing that we need to tackle. Every day there’s a new thing that we need to develop or grow, or there’s a new idea, et cetera. While on the one hand that is very exciting because it is, I mean, any new development is exciting. However, on the other hand, I don’t think we should lose quality of what it means to be studying in a higher arts education. I don’t think we should dilute it. I think we should use it to enhance and embellish, but I don’t think we should dilute what it means to be studying in one of these institutions.

Read More

And aside of what needs to evolve in the institutions, what role can artists and the creative sector potentially play in regard to those trends, challenges and drivers?

So we have various, I don’t like using the term outreach because I think that’s like we’re doing it to get funding from one organization.

So I think educational programs that I’ve been part of – I worked with Scottish chamber orchestra, we did a project in a school in one of the multi deprivational areas, just out of Edinburgh, being the capital of Scotland. Not too far away from it is this area called Wester Hills, which has got, it’s in the multi deprivation index, it’s quite high. And we went to this school where music education is just one teacher for the entire school, and it’s very limited. And these young people are, some of them are like just learning how to play the keyboard or sing, or there are brass instruments, but they don’t have the necessary infrastructure or resources for them.

But going into that space and working with these young people, not only opened avenues for them, but actually opened avenues for us as tutors or leaders on that program, because we were introduced to a part of the community that we wouldn’t have been if we were just in a conservatoire sector where we only perform in big concert halls and that has become like the true definition of success. But actually what it is to actually step into the community and work with the community and to see the results and the fruits in like real time, I think is something that we need to focus on way more than just big concert halls.

In terms of these trends, again, talking about globalization, the global community – I keep talking about that because I come from India and to study in the UK and then be part of a couple of European organizations has kind of opened up opportunities for me but at the same time, there is also this whole discussion about identity, which I think is very current in today’s world. Is people realizing: “actually, who am I, what is my identity? Where do I really come from? What, what can I do that truly represents who I am as a person or who I am going to be as a person”.

And I think to bring it back to just yourself and that reflection on the community – I hope this is making sense in my head. It’s making sense, but as I’m speaking, I don’t want to go away on like a ramble. So please do, do not hesitate, like bring me back to what we’re discussing because I can get into like a big philosophical, theological discussion on it today – But I think on understanding identities is something that I have been able to do with, through music, through arts. And I have met a lot of people who have also been able to do that.

And my own personal research, which looks at the social, the cultural and the musical identities of young people, has been a process that has made me reflect and also made the participants of the study reflect on what it means to be learning Western classical music. How does it reflect their identity in this world that we currently live in? Do they feel addressing classical music belongs to the west? Do they feel that it is not their music or how do they react to it in a post-colonial context, et cetera? So I think identity is for me a key kind of, I wouldn’t say trend, but I definitely see in the past few years, people are questioning more and not just accepting what has been told to them, et cetera. So I think that is good. That is good. Instead of just blindly following.

Read More

I’ll stick to that question of building the identity of the students with two questions. First, do you think the current academic path, the current academic degrees, the current academic organization of higher institutions, help for what we can understand from your answers on the wish to build some individuals, some artistic individuals able to tackle all those questions? How could you see the future of education within the perspective you are giving us with your answers?

Maybe sometimes I see an issue in us talking about what can we do for the society as if music and the performing arts. I think we kind of do it to ourselves. We separate ourselves from the society in a way I think, what can we do for the society? But actually we are part of the society.

And I think for students to understand that they are citizens that are going to be stepping out after their education, they will be part of the society. They are part of the society. And I think just that realization alone would make an impact on how people think when they’re studying.

And I think that is also something that educational establishments need to think of, of what it means, like even talking about like music in society, what does that actually mean? That does not mean only concerts in concert halls, that does not mean opera in opera houses. That means a lot more that I think that part of the conservatoire, according to me is slightly outdated, now.

I think we have evolved. We have come so far that doing community projects should not be a side thing, something to do to get funding or something we do as a side thing. But actually that should be also drawn into the main, because what that does is that changes how students perceive what success would be after graduating from a music institution. Because once they see that actually success is not being the first violinist in the national orchestra, but actually success is me feeling great about doing this community project and the school, or working in this care home.

And I think that definition of success needs to be like actually taking a hammer and like hammer down, it needs to be like destroyed. Um, and these avenues need to open because until that doesn’t happen, we’re still going to live in a very outdated kind of field that is not very relevant because we are not making it relevant, but orchestras and operas are definitely relevant to the society. Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying they’re not relevant. But what I’m saying is that is not the only role music and the performing art plays in today’s world. In today’s world, we also have film, which is a big kind of booming industry at the moment, especially with things like Netflix and Amazon prime, et cetera. How are we encouraging our musicians, how are we encouraging our students to step into these various fields that still have transferable skills for the music industry, but how are we preparing them to understand what success is? It is individualistic. It is unique to each person and that there is no one definition to what success would be. And I think that has to be the driving force for institutions to kind of integrate in the curriculum, integrate more than the curriculum. It should be integrated into the culture, into the thinking, into the very like heart of music education that actually music education is very much part of the society and society’s education.

Like it needs to be the one thing. And I think as long as we keep them separate, we’re always going to struggle in terms of funding, in terms of making it relevant, in terms of the growth of like various mental health, issues in the past few years, which conservatories are seeing et cetera as well. So I, I think we really need to challenge and discuss and kind of unpack what success means, and what it means to be a citizen after students step out. Or even not when they step out: a lot of the students even work and perform while they’re studying. So I think this needs to be integrated quite earlier on, and that would actually go back to education from earlier onwards.

Read More

So we understand that you are in favour of widening the competencies of a student at the end of his graduation, his curriculum. And this is one part of the question, to improve what you are aiming to. And how can you see the role of technology within this wider perspective for an artist’s role in society?

I touched on it earlier. But I think collaborating and using technology for the arts would only be beneficial.

Ultimately another sense in the current capitalist world we live in, governments will perhaps give more funding if there was technology and science involved. So it’s a sad world we live in, but definitely that could be used as well.

I know there’s research being done in terms of psychology and engineering and music, et cetera. That’s unfortunately not my area of expertise at all, but based on my own experience, I think technology can very well, very well enhance and help music and arts moving forward, be it in terms of education, be it in terms of performance, be it in terms of research, be it in terms of access, be it in terms of representation, so many factors. I think technology can definitely enhance the role of music in the society.

Again, it’s about how… I think in the future, all of this, if we do it correctly, all of this will be so integrated that we won’t be able to separate these: “oh, it’s technology, that’s music”. I think we will live in a world where everything is so interrelated, interconnected with so many intersections that it might be complex, but also maybe that’s how we will evolve to be, you know. That will be pretty exciting actually. And of course, no capitalism.

Read More

Concerning the questions of diversity, accessibility, you spoke of earlier, do you think also on that perspective, technology can play a helping role for giving access to everybody in the communities and everywhere, to art and creation, creative arts?

What I think I can not acknowledge is digital poverty. And in the past year, one of the things that has come to light has been digital poverty. That why it has been great? Like I said, the pros and cons of having concerts online, having classes online, what has been great on the one hand in terms of access, people have been able to access from around the world, but we also need to see what class of people have had access to that because there are communities that, have perhaps, for example, no internet there or in their houses or they don’t have, they just have one computer to share among three people, three young children who need to be attending school and classes. So digital poverty is definitely something we need to examine.

Another thing that I would be slightly wary of would be the environmental kind of aspect of it as well, what it means like: developing technology for access and to answer some other issues that we’re having should not have a negative impact on climate and the environment. So I think that again, that also needs to be part of the discussion and it shouldn’t be like: “now let’s talk about diversity, now let’s talk about climate change”. Actually, all these should be part of the main discussion as well. Again, we were somewhere where conservatoires or music education institutions, or just education institutions in general, need to think about these things as not a separate thing, but actually part of the main discussion.

Read More

Let’s jump into the future thinking. Could you draw an image of the ideal institutions of higher education you would wish to see in 25 years? Meaning what would be the best and the worst version of that? How do you think this desirable future can be achieved?

I think the worst thing would be if 25 years from now, we would still be functioning the same way. I think that would be the worst in a way. Again, that goes back to my comments about what success means, because in the past success meant we’re getting a good job in an orchestra, but now we don’t have as many jobs. We need to use music as a means in the society for societal change. So I think if we have the still the same outlook towards music and the role of music in society, then I think we have failed, um, an ideal. I actually don’t know what the ideal scenario would be. My ideal scenario would be again, as I mentioned in my previous questions is that we don’t look at music as a separate entity, but actually it is part of every person’s growth and development and education.

And I think that would be for me success and that everybody has access to music. I’m not saying everybody should be musicians. What I say when everybody should have access to music, is should they want to learn music? Should they want to engage with music that they are able to do? So without any challenges or barriers so badly or less access to music, education would be ideal. And music education as part of young children’s development, and again, at every stage of education, that would be ideal where we don’t have to struggle to fund the arts would be ideal where, where the value of arts is realized and is solid defied within societal understandings. That will be good.

And if music is part of the education, so young people can learn, music are able to empathize better. And I think as humans we’re able to empathize better, we’re already making massive leaps and groups like in terms of development, of building a safer society. Um, if we’re able to understand each other better and where we come from and who we are, where we’re going, et cetera. So, yeah, I think that would be my ideal. It’s a lot of different scenarios, but I don’t know what it’ll be, but hopefully it’ll have these things in it.

Read More

And do you have an insight into how those desirable futures can be achieved?

Listening to underrepresented voices, ready to accept? We need to change, ready to accept that it is going to be lots of hard work, but together it will not be so hard, but it is going to be a tough path to venture.

Thank you for those answers. Is there anything else we haven’t discussed yet that you would like to have a word on, consider relevant to the topics of this interview?

Maybe a couple of things. I think it’s nice that we are talking about thinking of what the future will be like. And it’s always nice to discuss that and always exciting, but I worry that – apologies if this comes across as slightly cynical – but I worry that we, in that process, we ignore the present.

For example, I was in a diversity conference and somebody was like: “oh, in 10 years, conservatoires will be extremely diverse”; and then one of the panel members was like: “well, what about now? I am in the conservatoire now, what are we doing now to tackle that?” And to talk about issues such as, for example, black lives matter or diversity in that respect, it’s not going to be easy. It’s not going to be just sitting together and having a lovely discussion over a cup of tea or something.

This is going to require hard work. And I think we as institutions, if we’re not ready to put in that hard work, we are going to fail. We are going to fail our students. We’re going to fail our students that are part of the societies. We will fail society. And we have the privilege of being in a position where we can connect societies. We can bring communities together through the power of art. I strongly believe in that. So I think we should not forget that there is lot of work to be done. It’s hard work, but the results will be what they need to be.

What’s interesting is nowadays, having a radical left thought is actually just being what should be the normal thinking of people in terms of diversity, in terms of accepting people for who they are from diverse communities, from diverse backgrounds, with disabilities, without disabilities, et cetera, is now a very radical left thought. But actually that should be the case. When we talk about access to music, everybody should have access to music. That shouldn’t be like: “Oh, that is a very radical idea. Whoa, we won’t be able to do it”. Actually no: everybody should be able to access, everybody should have those equal opportunities available to them. And that’s what we need to work towards.

And working towards that doesn’t mean we only work towards music and performing arts. That is a struggle for the entire society to work together. That’s for all of us to work together as a community and not just how can we lead the way. We definitely can lead the way in terms of what we do as performing arts and bringing people together. But I think this is a discussion of how we integrate – like I mentioned, I think in my first answer – how do we integrate the performing arts in the fabric and actually work towards building this community together and not separately. Because as long as we’re doing separately, as long as we’re not collaborating and working together, it is just going to take longer to do that. I hope that made sense.

Wonderful. And I will not add any words to that because it’s coming from so deep inspiration. I thank you very much for that interview and wish you the best for your thesis and for the coming years. Thank you Ankna.

Read More


No feedback has been added yet

Share a Thought

Leave a Reply