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Malayalees in Singapore:

A Brief History of Malayalam Literature
and Theatre in Singapore
M K Bhasi

Singapore, one of the few remaining city-states is the smallest
country in South East Asia with a land area of 272 sqm (704 km2 ).
It is the second most densely populated independent country
after Monaco. As of September 2007, the population of Singapore
was 4.68 million. 3.7 million were citizens and permanent residents.
Chinese formed 75.2%, Malays 13.6%, Indians 8.8% and Eurasians
 and others 2.4%.

Malayalam is the mother tongue of Malayalees, who form the second
largest ethnic group within the Indian community in Singapore;
20% (25, 000) of the Indian population. Malayalam
belongs to a family of Dravidian languages and originates from Kerala,
the south-western coast of the Indian sub-continent. Malayalam is not a
dialect; it is a language with a very rich and flourishing literature..

Some of the finest and the best of contemporary Indian literature are
 to be found in Malayalam. The first ever Njaana Peetom award –
the highest Indian literary honour equivalent to the Nobel Prize
for Literature – was awarded to a Malayalam poet, G Sankara Kurup
in 1965. Since then, four such awards have gone to Malayalam, an
enviable feat in a country like India with fifteen official languages!
The first South Indian movie to receive the Indian President’s award
was Chemmeen, a Malayalam film acclaimed by critics abroad as a
poem in celluloid. On the trail of Chemmeen, films like Nirmalyam,
Kodiyettam, Chidambaram
, Elippathayam and Piravi won national
and international awards.

These achievements and high acclaim of Malayalam literature and fine
arts should form the backdrop against which we view the cultural
activities of the Malayalees in Singapore.

An impressive track record

Visitors from India have found it difficult to believe that there was a
Malayalam daily news paper published from Singapore. For fifty years,
the Malaysia Malayali - originally known as Kerala Bandhu-
kept the spirit of Malayalam alive. It started publication in 1939
from Batu Pahat in Malaysia as a weekly. Later it moved to Singapore
and became a daily with the help and co-operation of its long-time
publisher, K S Pillai. Malaysia Malayali was the one and only Malayalam
daily outside of Kerala at that time. The credit should go to its long-time
Chief Editor, V P Abdullah, a veteran journalist whose association with
the paper goes back to the very beginning of its publication.
The gradual dwindling of the Malayalam speaking readership forced
the paper to cease publication in 1988.

The very first staging of a Malayalam drama was organized in Singapore
as early as 1926 – more than 80 years ago. Singapore Malayali Association
originally registered as Malayali Samajam in 1917 and considered to be
 the first registerd Indian organization in Singapore presented some of the
best and most well known plays. Kala Nilayam, too, has had an impressive
track record in this field. It has presented some of our best cultural items
and produced more than 70 plays on 220 stages. Sree Narayana Mission
and Naval Base Kerala Library have also been active in the field of theatre
 with a number of highly acclaimed plays to their credit. Most of the well-known
 plays in Kerala have been staged successfully in Singapore. They include
 Karavatta Pasu, Ithu Bhoomiyaanu, Chavittikkuzhacha Mannu,
Vila Kuranja Manushyar, Kantom
Becha Coat, Puthiya Aakaasam Puthiya Bhoomi,
Mudiyanaaya Puthran, Sarveykkallu,Thoovalum Thoopayum, Vazhi Thurannu,
Bhagna Bhavanam, Aaraadhana, Kaattu Kuthira, Kallukontoru Pennu
and Mankoalangal.

The cultural pool

In the early period, Malayalam drama and other cultural activities flourished
because of the large pool of talent that was readily available in the Naval Base area.

After the British announced their withdrawal from east of Suez in the late 1960s,
there was an exodus of the Naval Base Malayalees to the United Kingdom and India.
This left a wide gap in the Malayalam cultural scene.

But about this time, a large number of work permit /employment pass holders
began arriving from Kerala. Among them were people with wide exposure to the
new and changing trends of the Malayalam cultural scene back in Kerala.
Together with the new generation of the Singapore Malayalees, they slowly
began to contribute substantially to narrow the gap in our cultural history.

The young and daring generation

The keen interest shown by the young generation towards Malayalam drama
and music is highly commendable. Many are handicapped by a lack of exposure
to the natural tonal qualities and nuances of the language, yet they have
 shown enthusiasm and daring. Some even learn their script in romanised
Malayalam. This enthusiasm will keep our stage alive and agile. Some of our a
rtistes possess beautiful singing voices and will go far with formal training.

During the last few years an average of four dramas were staged by Malayalee
cultural groups. The response from the Malayalee audience was encouraging;
 hardly was there any stage performance that was not sold out.

In this connection, the role of the former Ministry of Community Development
and its successor, The Ministry of Information and the Arts is highly commendable.
It has given not only encouragement but also funds to support the activities
of our cultural groups.

We have come a long way since 1926 when the first Malayalam play was
staged in Singapore. We should now aim higher and, in tune with the nation,
 go for excellence.

Award Winners

The works of Singapore Malayalee writers have won recognition and awards
 in India. Njekkad and Vilasini (M K Menon ) are two such novelists who
have enriched Malayalam literature by drawing extensively from their
Singapore and Malaysian experience. Vilasini , an accredited journalist returned
to India to become a full time writer. His monumental work, Avakaasikal,
the longest novel in Indian literature, won the Sahitya akademy award.

Poems by N C Kattel and M K Bhasi (that’s me!)have appeared in many
reputed literary periodicals like Mathrubhumi, Mangalodayam, Kaumudi
and Kumkumam in Kerala and their collected works have been published
 and distributed by the National Book Stall (NBS), the largest publishing
 house in India. Kattel has written two plays which have been successfully
 staged in Singapore. Shakuntala, a poem by Bhasi won the Kaumudi
Award (1952). He has also won the Kerala Kavi Samajam Award 1995
for his poem, Ahalya. Another poem, Ithile Nadannavar, receivedboth
 the Gayatri Award 1997(New Delhi) and the Deccan Cultural Society
1998 (Bangalore).

George Netto and Kazhimbram have a number of titles to their credit.
Other authors who have published their works in book form include
J M Moni, M P Premraj, V M Sainuddin , J Alexander ,
Sarojini Chasndran and N Valalan. Premraj’s association with the
Malayalam theatre extends to more than four decades.

K P Bhaskar and Santha Bhaskar need no introduction to lovers of Indian
classical dance. Bhaskar, the President and Artistic Director of Nrityalaya
society established Bhaskar’s Academy of Dance in Singapore in 1952.
He has written three books on Indian Dance. He has been bestowed
with many awards in India, Malaysia and Singapore including the
Pingat Jasa Gemilang (PJG) by the President of Singapore. Santha Bhaskar
joined her husband in Singapore in 1956. She taught and choreographed at
Bhaskar’s Academy. She was awarded the Cultural Medallion in 1990.
She has also received the Kala Rani award by the Indian Film Arts Society
and the Kala Ratnam award by the Singapore Fine Arts Society. Presently
she teaches at the Centre for the Arts, National University of Singapore.

Malayalam at crossroads

Eventhough Malayalees form a significant group within the Indian community;
 the use of their language is slowly and steadily decreasing among the young
and surprisingly even among the older generation. Yet, there is a redeeming
factor: a revival of interest within the community, especially among
the young to learn Malayalam.They have shown a keen desire to be exposed
 to cultural programmes in Malayalm. Asianet is playing a significant part in this.
This has prompted the community to make a concerted effort to promote
the language. The government’s new policy to encourage the various ethnic
groups to promote their languages, arts and culture has contributed to this new
awakening. Plans are in full swing to have a Malayalee Cultural heritage centre
 in Little India.

The lessons from yesterday

However, our attempts to deepen our knowledge of our ethnic roots and cultural
 heritage must not in any way harm the racial harmony and religious tolerance of
our society. This is what we have learnt from the perils of yesterday, as, today,
we move steadily towards the promises of tomorrow. This is what we want our
children to learn and remember as they witness the insanity which tears countries
 apart and turns otherwise peaceful and gentle nations into living hell.

In this context it is worth noting that Malayalees are not of the same religious
faith. Malayalee Hindus, Malayalee Muslims and Malayalee Christians, with
their religious diversities and practices, are bound together by one thing:
their common language, Malayalam. It is the shared values that they
herish as their culture and heritage.

In recent years, large numbers of expatriate Malayalees have hit the
Singapore shores. For the Malayalee cultural scene to benefit from this,
here should be no divide between them and the local Malayalees.
The culturally aware and competent expatriate Malayalees should rejuvenate
 the Malayalee cultural scene by joining hands with members of the Singapore
 Malayalee Association and SMA should realize that new blood is essential
 for it to ride into the future.

The writer is currently the Singapore Bureau Chief of kaumudisingapore,
 an online edition of Kerala Kaumudi.