This is an article written jointly for Article14 and for The Guru Project and so I am making a small deviation from my usual focus on Singaporean society, politics and law. This is a review of a Tamil play that I watched on 27 June 2015. (It is not entirely a deviation from the usual stuff and so there is a bit of commentary on the socio-economic conditions of the Tamil community in Singapore during the colonial era.)
Murasu is a play about Ko Sarangapany, the founder of Tamil Murasu, the sole Tamil language daily in Singapore today. As a member of the local Tamil community, this play is of special interest for me as I have heard much about the struggles of the community during the colonial period and the Sarangapany story is also very much a story of the community between the 1930s to the 1970s.
His name is well remembered by my parents’ generation. We hear of efforts of people like Sarangapany as being crucial in the recognition of Tamil as one of the 4 official languages of Singapore. I do not want to do a summary of his life here.
The following links will enlighten those that want to have a broader picture of the man.
However, it will be useful for the reader to understand the position of the Tamil community during his lifetime.
KoSa (as he is known within the Tamil Community) lived in Singapore during some of this island’s most tumultuous periods. Arriving in Singapore in 1924, he would have landed in a prosperous and thriving port. Whilst there was a strong merchant community of Indians and many of them of Tamil origin, the British had engaged in an active policy of importing labourers from Tamil Nadu. The community of migrant Tamils in Malaya was composed largely of ‘coolies’.
The stereotype of the Tamil community was that of being uneducated labourers that got drunk on ‘todi’. Superstition and caste divisions were very strong within the community. In India, the 1920s coincided with the Tamil ‘self-respect’ movement. It was a movement intended to unify Tamils by giving them a sense of self-respect based on their true historical heritage and to destroy superstition and create a casteless society.
Intellectuals within the Tamil community in Singapore were keenly aware of the long tradition of Tamils as sea-farers reaching South East Asian shores for centuries as traders. The community has had trade links with Sri Vijaya and Majapahit and has been at the forefront of cultural, linguistic and religious influence from at least 800 AD. The official historical narrative about India during the colonial period had a tendency to avoid the Tamil country in the South almost as if it did not exist. (Nagapattinam to Suvarnadwipa: Reflections on the Chola Naval Expeditions to South East Asia is an excellent, well-researched, well-evidenced book that I have read that details the historical connections between the Tamil people and the South East Asian region. )
KoSa was symptomatic of the urge amongst Tamil intelligentsia of his time to resurrect the glorious tradition of the Tamil people and to correct the image of the Tamil people as a backward race. The treatment of the coolies in Malaya was degrading and inhuman. The coolies lacked self-esteem. The upper caste Tamils that were merchants in Malaya used to look down upon them. The community was divided along socio-economic lines and Tamils were also adherents of different faiths (Hindus, Muslims and Christians).
It was a community divided. A community shamed. A community whose soul was almost defeated.
Though some in today’s Tamil community in Singapore might still feel that we have divisions in our community and that problems such as drunkenness still exist, the fact remains that the community has made a great deal of progress from what it generally was back in the pre-independence era. KoSa and other community leaders of his time had done their part to rouse the community into taking responsibility for itself.
The official trailer for the play can be viewed here.
Karthikeyan in the lead role has done an amazing job of bringing to life the late KoSa on stage. The acting was better than I expected and he appeared to modulate his voice according to the age of the character from that of a young man of 21 when he first landed in Singapore to that of a man in his 70s. There were a couple of occasions when the Tamil letter ள came across as ல. Given that overall the acting was excellent, I guess the momentary lapse can be forgiven.
The scenes where Karthikeyan had to make rousing speeches turned out to be… well… rousing. The use of drum-beats to accompany the speech scenes was a good move and it went well with the idea of the ‘murasu’ (drum) itself. Each of those speeches came across as a rallying cry and there were moments when I felt that the actor was speaking not only in character addressing an audience from KoSa’s era but was also speaking to us, the audience of today in the University Cultural Centre.
More than Karthikeyan, there was another actor that got into me, reached into me, spoke to me and even chastised me. That is a powerful position to be as an actor. Kishore Kumaran played the role of Vasanthabalan, a coolie that the play used as representative of the general condition of Tamil coolies in Singapore during the colonial era. In a short scene where he is shown do be drunk and addicted to drugs, Kishore turned in what was for me the most outstanding performance of the night.
There are many of us that speak of uplifting the community but we do so with no knowledge of the actual experience of those that are trapped in a socio-economic prison. Kishore chastised us well.
Gillian Tan as Lim Boon Yeo, KoSa’s wife, did a good job as a coy young woman taken in by a ‘revolutionary’. Multi-lingual scenes are not easy to pull off in a way that appeals to the audience but Gillian Tan and Karthikeyan were comfortable in their conversations and the love-story component of the play was well-executed.
Nearly every single actor carried their share of the weight very well and the play on the whole was good. I don’t have complaints on the acting front. The comedy scenes were pulled off very well. For comedic talent, special mention has to be made of the Mdm Neo character played by Joanne Tian Lye and the Rama character played by Abbdul Kather. Both actors got the audience laughing non-stop in the coffee-shop scene.
Although the comedy scenes were good and were well acted, I wonder if it was really necessary to have a couple of scenes of banter between the Rama and Seetha character. Perhaps, the scriptwriters could have done away with those scenes? Comic relief, no doubt. But, it didn’t contribute to advancing the plot. My son was sitting next to me and he commented that he thinks that they had the comedy scenes because they were changing the props behind the black curtain. He might be on to something there. Some of the comedy scenes created a disjointed feel in relation to the overall narrative. (To be honest, I enjoyed the comedy.)
Some amongst the audience started leaving after 11pm. I suspect that the reason was that the play was going on longer than necessary or those members of the audience were suffering from Cinderella syndrome and wanted to avoid the midnight charge for the cab ride home. The length of the play was probably its biggest downside. With little to complain about the acting, the script, the music or the props, it is the length of the play that stands out as something that could have been worked on. The play was scheduled to start at 8pm and in fact commenced only at about 8.30pm and it ended at 12 midnight with a 15 minute break that was given at 10pm.
To be fair to the producers, it is not easy to encapsulate the life of a community leader within a short time frame.
The one moment in the play that I felt the combined effect of its length and lack of dramatic connection was when a montage of the race riots in the 1960s was projected onto the stage. The projection was of poor quality and the images were not clear. This play’s strong suit is the quality of acting and with attention turned away from the actors towards badly projected black-and-white images, it was inevitable that many of us glanced at our watches. Given the context of the story, the montage was not misplaced but it was badly projected onto the screen.
The same happened when Aug 9, 1965 was depicted. A montage of newspaper reports screaming “Singapore is Out”, footage of the Tunku announcing separation and that cringeworthy footage of Lee Kuan Yew shedding tears was projected. Again, the projection was of poor quality and the images were unclear. The scene was saved by Karthikeyan’s voice in the background exhorting the Indian community to come together to be part of this new nation and to join together as brothers.
An important aspect of KoSa’s contribution to the local Indian community was his effort at citizenship registration for Indians. My father applied for and obtained his citizenship during this period in the 1960s. It was common for many Indians in the past to work in Singapore, save up sufficient money to build a home in India and then return to India. The Indian community remained a transient one with no real intention to sink roots into Singapore. However, KoSa’s efforts at encouraging citizenship registration meant that many Indians remained in Singapore. If you are into conspiracy theories, then this could be read as creating a ready and reliable vote bank for the PAP especially after the race riots between the Malays and Chinese. In fact, the play does have a scene depicting a conversation between Lee Kuan Yew and KoSa where the former seeks the latter’s indulgence in attending a meeting of community leaders. KoSa sees the possible role of Indians as a steadying influence and a middle ground in racial relations in the country. Joshua Lim played LKY. The role was limited and there was not much room for the actor to shine.
On the whole, it was a great night out. Leaving aside the issue of the length of the play, the acting was great and so was the script. The thing I enjoyed the most was the use of the Tamil language throughout. On that note, the song, Arima Thamizhan composed by Shabir was simply outstanding.
The play depicts Sarangapany as a rebel and as someone that would speak truth to power. Today, the newspaper that he founded is owned by SPH and is effectively nowhere near being revolutionary or anti-establishment. Perhaps, there is a need for a new Murasu, a new drum-beat, a new rallying cry.