Hybrid culture of Chetti Melakans on show at the Indian Heritage Centre

Chetti Melakans (from left) Ponno Kalastree, Sanasee Philips Roy and David Bok.
Chetti Melakans (from left) Ponno Kalastree, Sanasee Philips Roy and David Bok.PHOTO: GIN TAY FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
The Chetti Melaka of the Straits: Rediscovering Peranakan Indian Communities exhibition features 175 artefacts and photographs.
The Chetti Melaka of the Straits: Rediscovering Peranakan Indian Communities exhibition features 175 artefacts and photographs.PHOTO: GIN TAY FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
A Hohner accordion from the 1970s at the Chetti Melaka of the Straits: Rediscovering Peranakan Indian Communities exhibition.
A Hohner accordion from the 1970s at the Chetti Melaka of the Straits: Rediscovering Peranakan Indian Communities exhibition.PHOTO: GIN TAY FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

SINGAPORE - They offer food to the dead like in Chinese ancestral worship, but they practise mainly Hinduism.

They speak a creole that is largely based on bazaar Malay but also has elements of Tamil and the Hokkien dialect.

For instance, the term for grandmother is nenek (Malay), grandfather is thatha (Tamil), and uncle is mama (Tamil).

They also feature the Hantu Tetek - a voluptuous female ghost - from regional folklore for their annual Hindu procession. They believe the Hantu Tetek crushes evil with her giant breasts.

The Chetti Melakans, who originated from Melaka, have a diverse and colourful culture that has been largely undocumented and "lost" for decades.

But an exhibition which opens on Friday (Sept 7) at the Indian Heritage Centre will showcase the history and culture of the community.

Chetti Melaka of the Straits: Rediscovering Peranakan Indian Communities features 175 artefacts and photographs. A majority of the items have never been publicly exhibited before and they are on loan from the Chetti Melakan community here, which numbers around 5,000.

They include a pair of miniature Hantu Tetek figures, documents and portraits of the community's pioneers, jewellery as well as everyday household items and kitchenware.

The Chetti Melakans form a small but significant community of early migrants who have made Singapore their home over the years. They moved here because of job opportunities during the colonial era.

Their ancestors were Tamil traders who first settled in Melaka in the 15th to 16th centuries and married local women of Malay and Chinese descent.

In Singapore, some of their homes were located in Chitty Road in Little India.

Mr Ponno Kalastree, 69, president of the Peranakan Indian (Chitty Melaka) Association Singapore, said it is important to safeguard the community's legacy and pass it on to future generations.

"We hope that through this exhibition, we can help generations of Chetti Melakans to reconnect with their roots, and also share our very special heritage with others," he said.

Perhaps one of the most multicultural groups in Singapore, the Chetti Melakans' traditional attire reflects the fashions of the Javanese, Bugis, Achenese, Batak and Tamil.

The traditional attire for men typically includes headgear that looks like a Malay songkok with a triangular tip in the front. Women usually wear sarong kebayas and sometimes add a vermilion mark above the forehead if they are Hindu and married.

Visitors to the exhibition will get to watch a short film tracing the journeys of two young Chetti Melakans who rediscover their roots. One of them is tearful as she discovers that much of her family history has been lost.

Visitors can also take home nine Chetti Melakan recipes.

Curator Nalina Gopal, 34, said the community here only started actively documenting their history in the late 2000s following the launch of the book, Peranakan Indians In Singapore And Melaka, by historian Samuel Dhoraisingam.

She said: "Unlike Melaka which is home to Kampung Chetti, Singapore does not have a tangible place associated with the community. Music, pantuns (Malay poems), games and recipes have been lost over time.

"Together with Mr Kalastree, we met members of the community in Kampung Chetti and walked through the kampung. We also worked with Singaporeans in the community to put together the exhibition as we recognise the importance of documenting this heritage."

The exhibition will run till May 5 next year.