Battle Lines

Published on 26 September 2017

Ebi Shankara uses his visibility to make a real change for the Indian theatre community.

By Jo Tan

Ebi Shankara wears more hats than Bruno Mars. He recently concluded a stint hosting TV game-show Cash Struck, and is currently performing in Sing’Theatre’s musical revue Forever Young, and directing young actors in Pazhuppu for this year’s Asian Youth Theatre Festival; all while continuing his ongoing duties as Artistic Director of the Ravindran Drama Group.

“I’m just grateful that this year has given me the opportunity to show off diverse sides of myself,” laughs the award-winning singer and theatre-maker. “I’ve played a giant egg in Itsy — The Musical to a slimy show manager in Tropicana, and now I’m playing an eighty-something-year-old man in Forever Young. And of course, when I’m hosting Cash Struck, I play the character of a show host.”

Shankara goes into each gig with a goal: to challenge and expand the perceptions of Indian identity in Singapore. For instance, Pazhuppu — meaning ‘brown’ — examines how Singaporean Indians connect with their cultural identity. “How much of our native ‘Indian-ness’ do we actually retain, and how do we perceive Indian expatriates?” he asks.

Even when acting, this ineffable quality of ‘Indian-ness’ is something that’s constantly on his mind.  “In many auditions I go for, people tell me to be more Indian, to bob my head and do an accent. That, for them, defines Indian behaviour. But most Indians I know, living in India or Singapore, don’t speak like that. For one comedy audition, I actually responded: ‘I can be funny without doing an Indian accent.’ I’ve played many Indian characters onstage that I hope challenge prevailing perceptions of the race. I sometimes manipulate stereotypes to make people aware of their own biases.”

A similar philosophy also drives the way Shankara runs the Ravindran Drama Group. “It used to be a Tamil theatre company, but now we do works in different languages that relate to different Indians in the diaspora. We’ve also opened up our annual ten-minute play festival to non-Tamil speaking theatre companies, which includes collaborations with north Indian friends. Our vision is ‘Discovering Indian-ness through world-class theatre’.”

For Shankara, it is hard work juggling his own performances with running the company. “But if the few of us trained Indian theatre-makers don’t do anything about it, who will be responsible for creating work the community can be proud of?  I make sure the company’s repertoire includes something for everyone: Experimental plays, commercial works that engage the larger audience, and youth theatre works to cultivate the next generation of audiences. I was fortunate, as a child of a single parent, to get scholarships for my diploma and degree from Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, and I want to help others have the same opportunity to learn.”

What’s even more admirable is that Shankara is not even fully Indian by ethnicity. “I’m actually half Nigerian, which comes with its own perceptions and stereotypes,” he laughs. “I’ll take it one battle at a time.”

Catch Ebi Shankara in Theater Ekamatra’s PAZHUPPU, 6-7 Oct 2017 at Aliwal Arts Centre. Get tickets here.
And don’t miss him in Sing’theatre’s 10th anniversary production FOREVER YOUNG! , 11-21 Oct 2017 at SOTA Drama Theatre. Get tickets here

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