History textbook comes alive

Singing, dancing and pyrotechnics in Murasu.
Singing, dancing and pyrotechnics in Murasu.PHOTO: RAVINDRAN DRAMA GROUP

Review Theatre

MURASU

Ravindran Drama Group 
University Cultural Centre 
Last Saturday

Murasu is an ambitious portrayal of one man's important contributions to the Tamil population in Singapore; at times fascinating and entertaining, at others didactic.

For a non-Tamil speaker like myself, the play was a crash course on the life and times of one G. Sarangapany, founder of the Tamil-language newspaper, Tamil Murasu.

He was also a pioneering leader advocating that the Tamil community should be educated and sink roots into early Singapore.

There is much to absorb from the show, which spans a period of about 50 years - from Sarangapany's early days in the 1920s witnessing first-hand how poorly coolies were being treated and how poorly they viewed themselves, to his blossoming relationship with a young Peranakan woman who fancies his revolutionary ideals; and setting up Tamil Murasu in 1935 and the Tamil Reformist Association in 1951.

The production, presented by Ravindran Drama Group, felt like a history textbook come alive, albeit with enough singing, dancing and even pyrotechnics to keep the audience entertained.

Credit must go to lead actor Karthikeyan Somasundaram for bringing the protagonist to life. He excelled in portraying the elegant and righteous side of the man, as well as his more humorous side as he woos his future wife, Lim Boon Yeo.

In one scene, after reciting a Tamil love poem to the non-Tamil speaking Boon Yeo, he fibs and says: "I'm talking about women's rights."

Then, he confesses, to the uproarious laughter of the audience: "I'm talking about the right woman."

Moments of levity such as this made the first half of the play well paced.

Comic relief from Sarangapany's rotund friend, Ramakrishnan (played by a lovable Abbdul Kather Abu Bakar), was also much welcomed in the otherwise heavy story.

Without such scenes, the second half felt draggy. It did not help that it was about 10pm by the time the intermission ended - the show started at 8.30pm and ended close to midnight. This reviewer heard someone yawn very loudly somewhere during the second half.

Nonetheless, though playwright Nallu Dhinakaran laid it on too thick, the second half had some interesting plot developments as Sarangapany's efforts in promoting an educated and informed Tamil public dovetailed with nation-building efforts led by Singapore's founding prime minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

In one brief but powerful scene, he meets the "Man In White" to discuss the setting up of a "goodwill committee" that would help the young People's Action Party gain the favour of the Tamil-speaking community. This was created in response to the 1963 racial riots and was the precursor to our modern day Citizens' Consultative Committees.

Director Subramanian Ganesh brought the play to a sufficiently rousing end, as Sarangapany is shown visibly weakened in old age in 1974, even as he proudly proclaims that "Tamil will live even though we cease to exist" while standing in front of his beloved printing press.

It is at the end that everything clicks, though perhaps belatedly so.

The work that the 27-year-old Ravindran Drama Group continues to present in the realm of Tamil theatre can be traced to the efforts of this one man, Sarangapany, who persisted when it was not in fashion to do so, and who leaves behind a rich legacy, as Tamil can still be heard on official radio and TV channels, and read in the papers and on signboards.

That the theatre was packed to the rafters with about 1,800 people to catch the special one-night-only show, was significant.

It makes the title of the play, which means drums in Tamil, ever more poignant. That even as the man has passed away, his convictions live on like an ever steady and unceasing drum beat.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 29, 2015, with the headline 'History textbook comes alive'. Print Edition | Subscribe