Theatre tribute to Tamil Murasu founder

Lead actor Karthikeyan Somasundaram (above) had only old photographs to rely on to portray the late champion of the Tamil language.
Lead actor Karthikeyan Somasundaram (above) had only old photographs to rely on to portray the late champion of the Tamil language.PHOTO: RAVINDRAN DRAMA GROUP

The play remembers the role Mr Thamizhavel G. Sarangapany had in championing the Tamil language in Singapore

It was challenging for Karthikeyan Somasundaram to play the role of Tamil newspaper founder Thamizhavel G. Sarangapany in the upcoming play Murasu. He had no archives or video footage to refer to and was forced to rely on only photos to portray his character.

"There was also contradictory information from the people we spoke to, so we had to figure out which accounts to follow to portray him and his life philosophy accurately," says the 31-year-old actor.

Staged by the Ravindran Drama Group, Murasu is the story of the man who founded the local Tamil newspaper Tamil Murasu and strove to give Tamil Indians a voice in post-colonial Singapore.

  • Book It

  • MURASU (TAMIL WITH ENGLISH SURTITLES)                           

    Where: University Cultural Centre, National University of Singapore  

    When: Saturday, 8pm

    Admission: $20 from Sistic (go to www.sistic.com.sg or call 6348-5555)

The play - which has received grants from the National Arts Council, the Arts Fund, as well as the SG50 Celebration Fund - commemorates not only Singapore's 50th anniversary of independence, but also the 80th anniversary of the newspaper this year.

The late Mr Sarangapany is well-known in the Tamil community not only as the founder of Tamil Murasu, but also as the man who campaigned for the Tamil language to become one of the four national languages in Singapore.

He encouraged Tamils to embrace Singapore as their home country. He died in 1974 at age 71 and his name is still imprinted on the cover of every issue of the newspaper.He named it Tamil Murasu, which means Tamil drums, because drums were traditional-ly used to make announcements in the community.

The director of the play, Subramanian Ganesh, 31, says: "If we were to sum up Murasu in one word, it would be the celebration of one man's life. I want the audience to be able to see the extravaganza and colours during Sarangapany's life."

For the historical context of the play, playwright Nallu Dhinakharan spent five months checking aural records from the National Archives, historical books and first-hand accounts from people who knew Mr Sarangapany, including his second daughter Rajam Sarangapany and former associates.

The 28-year-old playwright says: "One of my greatest challenges was having to fictionalise parts of his life story for dramatisation. We had to imagine how Sarangapany would have acted in certain situations."

Ganesh adds: "Writing and directing fictional work is easy, but replicating someone's life is tricky. It has to be accurate. Even things like the lingo and mannerisms of that era have to be noted."

For example, Mr Sarangapany was very focused on whatever he was working on and would never look up from his work even when someone entered the room or spoke to him. This was one of the mannerisms Karthikeyan had to work into his character.

Dhinakharan made sure to focus on the earlier parts of Mr Sarangapany's life, such as when he arrived in Singapore from Tamil Nadu in the 1920s and the numerous setbacks he faced in trying to establish the newspaper.

Says Dhinakharan: "I wanted to humanise the character, not idealise him into a perfect person. The aim of the play would be to show the audience an entirely different side of him, be it through his pitfalls or his married life."

The play's 23-strong cast comprises Indian actors, as well as Chinese actors such as Gillian M. Tan, who plays Mr Sarangapany's Peranakan wife, Ms Lim Boon Neo.

Mr Sarangapany and Ms Lim, who died in 1988 at the age of 70, had four sons and two daughters.

The drama includes six songs composed by five musicians and dance sequences coordinated by local dance group Manimaran.

Murasu has a production budget of $140,000. The stage sets include double-storey buildings, cars and a ship deck. Nearly 30 crew members are tasked with fixing the props and designing the costumes.

To the cast and crew, what is important is remembering Mr Sarangapany's legacy through the theatrical biography.

Mr T. Nakulan, executive producer of Murasu, says: "There's a verse in Tamil that translates into 'to be forgotten is worse than death itself' and I think that to forget the great achievements of people such as Sarangapany would be dreadful."

samgohwy@sph.com.sg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 23, 2015, with the headline 'Tribute to Tamil Murasu founder'. Print Edition | Subscribe