A Toast to Tamil Theatre

Published on 8 June 2015

You don’t have to be an ethnic Indian or Tamil- speaker to appreciate Tamil theatre, a genre that’s becoming more accessible and inclusive of multicultural audiences.

TEXT BY PAMELA HO

Language is a conduit for ideas, cultures and heritage. Through its unique vocabulary and idioms, it provides an insight into a community.

The various vernacular languages can provide interesting in-roads into our reservoir of Singapore stories. And if you can’t speak Mandarin, Malay or Tamil, the good news is that many theatre productions in the vernacular languages now provide English surtitles.

THE NEWSMAKER

In 1935, Tamil Murasu, a Tamil newspaper, was founded by a man named Thamizhavel G Sarangapany. While few Singaporeans know of him, this event is of significance to the Tamil community here because that publication is Singapore’s only Tamil newspaper, and this year marks its 80th anniversary.

“He was a very influential man in the lives of Indians in Singapore, a champion of free press, and he wanted to alleviate the problems of the pioneer Indians. So my biggest challenge was being factually grounded in telling his life story,” says Nallu Dhinakharan, resident playwright of Ravindran Drama Group (RDG), which will be staging Murasu in June. 

PHOTO Avant Theatre & Language

“The research took almost five months and it involved going to the National Library to look at microfilms, oral history records at the National Archives, as well as interviewing Sarangapany’s family members and other key individuals who knew him personally,” he adds.

Murasu traces Sarangapany’s life and times, from his arrival in Singapore in the 1920s to his death in 1974, and highlights the ups and downs of his career against a backdrop of socio-political events like the Japanese Occupation. Says T Nakulan, RDG’s managing director, “Murasu not only remembers the contribution of this Tamil pioneer but weaves the local Tamil-speaking community into the narrative of Singapore.” 

The cast includes veteran theatre and TV actor Rengasamy Sommasundaram and Chandran Rama, founder of Act 3 Theatrics. It also features non-Tamil speaking artistes, Gillian Tan and Joanne Bernard, an SPH Life! Theatre Award nominee. The play is staged mainly in Tamil with English surtitles, and a good mix of Malay, Hokkien and English.

CLOSE QUARTERS

What was it like living in the Public Utilities Board (PUB) staff quarters back in the 1970s?

“This setting has not been explored much in recent arts events, so in view of SG50, it felt apt to celebrate the memories associated with a type of housing that preceded the Housing Development Board flats and served as a melting pot of various cultures, thus giving rise to the multiculturalism we know today,” says Rajkumar Thiagaras, general manager of Avant Theatre & Language, a Singapore Tamil theatre group that will be staging Quarters this month.

PHOTO Avant Theatre & Language

Director G Selva and playwright Arivazagan Thirugnanam, who had both lived in PUB staff quarters in their childhood, jumped at the opportunity to share this insight in a play for SG50. Set against a fragile period of nation-building, the play explores this communal space as a microcosm of a society grappling with tolerance and understanding of one another’s customs and practices.

The story spans two days in the lives of multiracial characters living in quarters along King George’s Avenue during the eve and the day of National Day celebrations in 1975. “As the different families entertain us with their shenanigans, audiences witness a community come together for a true celebration of unity in diversity,” reveals Thiagaras.

Actors from MediaCorp’s Vasantham channel add some glamour to the production, which also features newcomers who participated in Avant Theatre’s Masterclass in Acting for TV & Stage programme, and are making their stage debut. The production involves about 30 artistes, spanning five generations.

Quarters will be staged mainly in Tamil with Malay and Hokkien dialogues interspersed throughout. It boasts a multiracial cast, including actors Kelvin Ho and Awad Salim, who have appeared on MediaCorp Channel 5. English surtitles will be provided.

BREAKING BARRIERS

In the past, Tamil theatre reached out to fairly exclusive circles, with audiences consisting mainly of friends, relatives and associates of the Tamil theatre field.

“But in recent years, there’s been an increase in young audiences attending Tamil plays. We’ve also seen more youths interested in being part of Tamil theatre productions as actors, scriptwriters, or as part of the production crew,” observes
RDG’s Nakulan.

“There’s also a growing youth audience who appreciates the classical elements that we infuse in our works with avant-garde staging techniques. We also see mature and critical audiences emerging, wishing to see more works based on literary texts and interpretations,” says Thiagaras of the changing face of Tamil audiences. 

“We’ve been making efforts in recent times to include non-Indians and non-Tamil speakers in our audiences by making our shows more accessible to them, like including English surtitles and Indian elements that are more familiar,” he adds.

“Our run of Akka in 2014, based on Indian transgender women in Singapore, was a major hit among Singaporean audiences who were able to enjoy the story through English surtitles. We believe there’s an audience out there who want to watch more theatre related to Indian themes and issues.”

Murasu plays at NUS’ University Cultural Centre, 27 June, 7pm. Tickets available via Sistic. Quarters plays at Victoria Theatre, 19-20 June, 7.30pm. Tickets available via quarters.peatix.com.

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