Having worked in the Singaporean Tamil theatre industry (in itself a contentious term) in various capacities since 2003 – as actor, playwright, director, theatre educator and dramaturg, I have been privileged to be a part of, and to have witnessed, the multifarious directions taken by theatre practitioners over the past twenty years. Certain patterns clearly emerge, which have in turn impacted my own theatrical decisions and outlook. The following essay sets out some of my observations and what I deem their implications and significance.
The new is perhaps old
Genre mixing in Indian theatre can be a fascinating discourse, since the modern boundaries between theatre and dance did not exist in classical Indian theatre (assuming there was such a generic entity in the first place). Dance in the classical Indian context had always been dance-theatre, and most classical dance forms in India happen to be forms of storytelling. Theatre without dance is therefore a modern creature. As such, if a practitioner were to bring dance into theatre, are they going modern, or actually going back to a previous performative iteration? Elements of characterisation, plot, storytelling, and in a heightened way, even ‘naturalistic’ acting have always been part of the dance-theatre form.
At the same time, when ‘genre-mixing’ as it is understood in contemporary performance does happen, it seems to function like the mixing of oil and water. The disparate parts remain disparate, without affecting one another. This leads to a sense of lack in the performance, as though it does not quite hold well and cohere together, and certainly affects the aesthetics of the performance as well. This needs to be understood within the context of how tradition and modernity play a part in the contemporary Indian performance.
Preservation or stagnation
Unfortunately, tradition appears to belong in a vacuum, hermetically sealed within a hyper-conservative space. While many still adhere to and value traditional cultural pursuits, the room for innovation within these pursuits remains very narrow. As a result, the traditional form ends up reflecting a distant past that has nothing to do with modern reality. They cannot and do not reflect modern sentiments or ethics as they are yoked to notions of purity rather than aligned to modernity. As a result, the ideals/practices/beliefs presented in traditional forms are not relevant to the Indian community of today. This should be problematic, but the potential conflict that might be thrown up by such a purist portrayal is evaded by keeping tradition as ‘purely’ traditional, almost at a ceremonial-ritualistic level. These traditional performances play up to a sentiment of a continuing living tradition, thereby deliberately evading just how this tradition has changed and evolved.
Furthermore, there is still an element of elitism in terms of just who learns and participates in these traditional forms. It is frequently the economically more successful who do so. Hence even the strongest performers in the traditional arts tend not to be ‘professionals’ or artists in the strictest sense, but those who, despite being very passionate in these forms, do not practice them as a career or as an important medium for self-expression. The irony here is that the practitioners of these artforms are themselves generally not truly conservative in their values. They rarely believe in the mindset that is propagated by these traditional performances, but the purity of the form comes first.
Interrogating tradition back into relevance
Having said that, attempts to create hybrid forms certainly exist. There may be innovation, but it is extremely limited. There is a clear distinction between the traditional and the contemporary even when the two are seemingly mixed – the oil and water syndrome. What is not happening is the questioning of tradition. As a result, the traditional is not being contemporised. A huge potential is being missed here. Rather than lead to a destabilization or deconstruction of myths and traditions, such questioning would in fact re-establish the relevance of these myths and traditions to the everyday life of the modern Indian. This could reignite our connection to our traditions and our past, instead of keeping them merely ceremonial and innocuous. Here some good work has been done by AKT Theatre, who have used traditional Tamil folk arts like Therukoothu, Villupaattu and Karagam to investigate and explore contemporary issues in the Singaporean Indian community. However, the lack of a dramaturg (and possibly a tendency to be involved in too many types of performances) has kept their productions from reaching their true potential – they do not probe and question enough. While their re-readings of traditional art forms and texts are commendable, they have yet to create that impactful strong reading.
Structures of definition
Perhaps the strongest quagmire for Tamil theatre is the extent to which the Tamil language becomes the sole yardstick of any theatrical performance. There is a tendency to equate theatre with language. The defining characteristic of Tamil theatre is still taken to be theatrical performances in the Tamil language. One must speak Tamil to perform in Tamil theatre and naturally only Tamil-speaking audience members would be expected to attend such performances. Theatre is meant to inculcate and celebrate language, and this begins to severely limit the possibilities of what Tamil theatre can stand for and make possible. The result is a ghettoization effect within the context of Singapore. Tamil speakers form a very small proportion of Singaporeans, and this results in theatre companies all fighting for the same exceedingly small slice of the audience pie. This is compounded by the fact that most Tamil speakers are not theatre-goers (which will be further discussed), which makes the slice even smaller and thus economically untenable. More importantly, there appears to be an implied inference that only Tamils would be interested in Tamil theatre, totally taking away the possibility of non-Tamil Indians (both North Indians as well as non-Tamil South Indians, who form a significant proportion of the Indian population in Singapore) and non-Indians (the Chinese, Malays, Eurasians etc.) as potential audience members for these shows. But why is this impossible? If Singaporeans can watch Japanese and Korean programmes without needing a cultural connection, why not Singaporean Tamil performances featuring actors and stories they do encounter every day of their lives, albeit rather passively and only in passing?
Exploring and advocacy
Ravindran Drama Group (RDG) became interested in extending the possibility of what can be considered Tamil theatre. With the aim of expanding Tamil theatre to people who do not speak the language, they came up with Pathey Nimidam – a Tamil ten-minute play festival that took place annually from 2013 to 2022 (with a hiatus in 2018-2019 and again in 2021). The festival was also presented by the Esplanade, once as part of Kalaa Utsavam and twice as part of the Raga Series. The festival brought together Tamil speaking and non-Tamil theatre practitioners who collaborated in creating ten-minute Tamil plays. There were non-Tamil directors (Thai, Scottish, North Indian, Chinese, Malay) who directed pieces in Tamil with the help of Tamil speaking actors and dramaturgs. There were non-Tamil scripts that were translated into Tamil, including work that belonged to a completely different culture (Malay, Chinese, Australian). There were actors (Chinese, Malay, North-Indian, non-Tamil South Indian) who performed in Tamil although they did not know the language, and who incidentally in the process picked up the language and continued performing in the Tamil medium be it on stage or on television. The benefits were twofold. Firstly, it encouraged the participation of non-Tamil theatre practitioners in Tamil theatre, allowing for a flow of concepts, skills and manpower to and fro from various theatre industries (and television too), which continued with other productions beyond Pathey Nimidam. Secondly, the involvement of non-Tamils in the festival (and the inclusion of surtitles) also increased the audience base, as many non-Tamils gained access to these shows and became regular attendees.
The playwright’s collective Brown Voices has attempted to continue this extension of Tamil theatre (or to be more accurate, Indian theatre), by attempting to bring ‘brown’ narratives into mainstream (i.e. English) theatre through various projects, some of which were conducted under an artist residency offered by Centre 42.
The economics of language
Arguably, English-language theatre, a term that encompasses a range of works often not narrowly limited to the use of English, enjoys the greatest visibility in the Singapore arts scene. Mandarin theatre has the benefit of a large audience base, which gives it an economic advantage. In this equation, both Malay and Tamil Theatre are the Other in the Singaporean Theatre scene. Malay and Tamil theatre have a limited audience, which has been historically shaped and framed by the national psyche that the theatre of a particular language/race/culture is meant solely for the consumption of that community, and no one else would be interested in that cultural product. The result is the inheritance of an impoverished theatre. Why should it be this way? Singaporeans should be watching theatrical productions of all their “national” languages. In fact, language or culture should never be a barrier for access, especially in the cosmopolitan globalised world we inhabit today. Every cultural product should be consumed by everyone. Allowing language and race to define for whom a cultural product is meant for becomes a form of apartheid. This linguistic ghettoization remains insufficiently unpacked. When North Indian audience members watched Pathey Nimidam and saw Chinese and Malay actors speak in Tamil, a number of them expressed interest in picking up the Tamil language. One of them commented that if non-Indians can speak in an Indian language why should they not? The encounter of this cultural collaboration managed to sublimate the language politics of Singapore and create a new perspective, a more open one. Such is the power of theatre, yet to be fully and truly harnessed.
There are some clear obstacles to the true modernising and contemporising of Tamil theatre. One is the generational divide, specifically generational gap and politics. Young people still do join up with theatre organisations, where veterans function as mentors, but on numerous occasions this ends up as a toxic and exploitative experience. New members frequently do not get to express their new views, and this results in the maintenance and propagation of old views, even if they are utterly unrelatable for these new young practitioners. Young people are not respected in a culture where respect is still tied to seniority and age. Language politics plays a huge role here. If young practitioners are deemed to not speak ‘properly’, they will be judged by practitioners of an older generation. Yet this concept of ‘proper’ speech stems from the communal fear of losing language abilities, from a sense of already being in a disadvantage by being the speakers of a minority language. This fear leads to a kind of puritanism which in turn stifles innovation. When being a theatrical practitioner begins to feel too much like being in a repressive mother-tongue class back in school, young people inevitably begin to lose interest and motivation in Tamil theatre.
Talent drain and missed opportunities
Another severe obstacle is the competition from television and cinema. Many Singaporean Tamil youths think the style they encounter emerging via Tamil cinema from India is “it”. The ‘coolness” factor of the Tamil cinematic aesthetic could and should lead to a re-examination and reinvigoration of the possibilities of Tamil theatre, but leads, on the contrary, to a blinkering of the imagination, as Tamil theatre and acting become mere simulacra (not even parody) of the cinema. Tamil television appears to be blinkered in a similar way. While many television actors show immense potential, this is rarely reached, precisely because the methods and rigour of theatrical actor preparation is unheard of in the television industry. In fact, the lack of characterisation preparation by television actors would be nothing short of shocking to a theatre practitioner. Even though there are actors who successfully straddle across the platforms of television and theatre, neither platform appears to have been enriched by this. Television actor quality remains untapped (always falling short of cinematic and technical quality), while we have yet to see vibrant and innovative cross-disciplinary multimedia performances on the Tamil stage. This is compounded by the fact that television actors are well-known while theatre actors are known only to fellow practitioners (who then end up being the audience members to theatrical performances, leading to a strange kind of insularity within the industry). Hence, young people who are interested in acting gravitate towards television rather than theatre, leaving the Tamil theatre scene somewhat indigent. This is not due to actual financial gain, as television gigs rarely pay well. The allure comes mainly from the promise of popularity.
Following the money
An important third obstacle to contemporary innovation is finance. Commercial factors unquestionably come into play in the distinction between traditional and contemporary performances and art forms. Traditional art forms are considered high art, and as such traditional arts sell very well to a niche audience who generally can afford it. These art forms regulate themselves, remaining “pure” art in a self-sustaining market, resulting in the lack of need for innovation. In the case of contemporary Tamil theatre, commercial concerns predominate from the start. Even while conceptualising a performance, artists have to think like producers and consider viability. Can this project sell? Would this be a project the various funding bodies would consider funding? How can it be shaped so it can obtain grants and sponsorships and sell? While this makes the project practical, it also makes it less creative. There is a fear of taking creative risks, and creative vision always becomes inevitably subservient to financial practicality. Experimentation takes a back seat. For instance, there is a predominance of ‘social’ plays that address national and social concerns, which shape most performances into national allegories, making them unconsciously pedantic and paternalistic, and aesthetically less vibrant.
Reorientating what quality means
Raguvaran Naidu and Shahrin Johry at the Tunjuk Arah/Iyakkunar workshop. Image credit: Wisdom of Monkeys Productions.
The Tunjuk Arah/ Iyakunar project was, in part, a child of these circumstances. Perhaps the main concern of the project was a perceived lack of ‘quality’ in contemporary Tamil and Malay theatrical performances. There is some truth to this lack, and the reasons for such a lack have been discussed above. The ghettoization of Malay and Tamil theatre has led to a lack of knowledge of theatrical possibilities and contemporary movements occurring outside, within the theatre industries of other languages and indeed, on the world arena. Perhaps, due to an ‘insider’ culture and due to the way commercial factors undermine possibilities of risk-taking and experimentation, it was also felt that necessary practitioner knowledge was lacking in current directors. Tunjuk Arah/ Iyakunar attempted to redress these problems through numerous masterclasses conducted by theatre experts, as well as a final presentation mentored, facilitated and curated by Edith Podesta.
By inference, the yardstick for the theatre production of ‘quality’ was the contemporary Singaporean English theatre. Perhaps rightly so. However, an unintended consequence of this was the overly Western bent of the theories and practices advocated by the masterclasses. One wonders if perhaps Asian theatrical elements could also play a part in the formalisation of a contemporary theatre of ‘quality’, especially if freed from the shackles of pure tradition, with experimentation and innovation enabled.
Perhaps what was truly needed was not so much quality policing to assure adherence to western standards of theatre (although this undeniably has its merits) but greater awareness of what other ‘Others’ are doing, of greater visibility of one another’s practice and vision, which could inform one’s own practice and lead to greater creativity. There were moments within the project that allowed for interaction among the practitioners and there was a chance to watch one another’s presentation. Perhaps it is these conversations and the collaborations that can ensue that can lead to the next big thing in contemporary Malay and Tamil theatre.
Susie Penrice Tyrie and Veena Puthran Bangera at the Tunjuk Arah/Iyakkunar workshop. Image credit: Wisdom of Monkeys Productions.
Tunjuk Arah/ இயக்குனர், is a developmental programme for young, experienced directors to reflect on their practice and grow, be groomed by various local and regional directors and receive a structured learnin. The masterclasses and sharing sessions of Tunjuk Arah/ இயக்குனர் took place from Dec 2021 – Feb 2022 and was supported by the National Arts Council. This article is sponsored by Tunjuk Arah / இயக்குனர். The money earned from paid advertising goes towards covering ArtsEquator’s running costs and content creator fees. We have a strict policy regarding which content which can and cannot be sponsored. To read more about our editorial policy, please go here.
About the author(s)
Hemang has penned and directed a number of plays, including a modern Noh play All The Crazy People (Wisdom of Monkeys, 2010), Maya: Demon Architect (Esplanade Raga Series/RDG, 2014), the opera-based play Letter to Juliet (Bellapoque, 2014), site-specific plays for the annual Arts Walk Little India (RDG, 2017-2019) and Pongal (Late Nite Texting 2019, Dastak 2021). Dramatised reads of his plays Malavika and Shakuntala were presented by Theatreworks and Esplanade respectively. He is a member of the writers collective Brown Voices. He directed Anbudan Uppuma for Solo/Oray Aal and Love Etc as part of the Voilah French Festival in 2021. Hemang has played memorable roles like the Bhagavadha in Girish Karnad’s Hayavadhana (Experimental Theatre Company, 2006), Kent in Ho Tzu Nyen’s The Lear Universe (Singapore Arts Festival, 2008), Demetrius in Stageclub’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Godse in Elangovan’s Satyameva Jayate (Agni Koothu, 2009), Bhima in WeCanDoIt’s Trikon (performed in Bangalore, 2011), Patel in Mahesh Dattani’s Tara (RDG, 2015) and Pillay in the site-specific First Storeys (2019). He worked as a dramaturg for Saga Seed’s The Shape of a Bird, RDG’s Adukku Veettu Annasamy, Drama Box’s Chinatown Crossings and Bhaskar Arts’ Marabu 2. Hemang has been the festival director of the annual Tamil ten-minute play festival Pathay Nimidam, which brings together Tamil and non-Tamil theatre practitioners.