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Literary Arts

K T M Iqbal

A prolific Singapore Tamil poet and essayist

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Published: 24 Nov 2021


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When you write any poem or a short story, it must have a very strong message… for somebody to change their life, or give them a spark or a new thought. It’s not just…beautiful words. That's how our Tamil Sangam poetry can stand for 2,000, even 3,000 years.

Mohamed Iqbal a.k.a. K. T. M. Iqbal is a Singapore Tamil poet and writer. A prolific poet and essayist, he has published seven collections of poems and written many literary articles, essays, radio plays, poems and short stories for the Tamil Murasu newspaper, magazines and radio programmes over the decades. For his efforts, he has received numerous awards including the NUS Centre for the Arts - Mont Blanc Literary Award (1996) and the Tamizhavel Literary Award from the Association of Singapore Tamil Writers (1999). He is a member of various literary societies and committees.

Mohamed Iqbal was born in Kadayanallur, a village in South India, in 1940. When he was a young boy, a cholera outbreak killed many in his village, including his mother and three younger brothers. Fearing for his remaining son’s life, Iqbal's father wrote to a relative in Singapore, and, together with Mohamed, left India for Singapore in 1951.

Here, Iqbal attended the Umar Pulavar Tamil School in Maxwell Road where he received his education in the Tamil language. Often in his spare time, he did chores for his relative, washing his car, doing his housework and helping to look after his young children. During this period, he also developed an interest in poetry. Back in the ’50s, Singapore had two Tamil-language dailies, and a young Mohamed found himself quite taken with the short poems that were regularly published in them. Inspired, he started writing poems himself in 1957 at the age of 17.

Shortly after he graduated, Iqbal began working at an auditor's firm, Gattey & Bateman, in Fullerton Building, which then housed government offices. When he turned 22, his father decided it was time for Iqbal to get married and, with the help of a relative, arranged for him to meet a prospective bride. Marriage made him take a hard look at his paycheck, a low $90. He decided he had to go back to school to improve his prospects. Thus, in 1963, at the age of 23, he attended evening classes in Cantonment Road Primary School where the language of instruction was English.

A year later, he continued his studies at Gan Eng Seng Secondary School where he completed his Secondary 4 education at the age of 27. At the same time, he also attended some bookkeeping courses. He became a clerk at the accounting firm he had worked at previously (which had by now changed its name to Coopers & Lybrand). After several years, Iqbal resigned to become a share registration officer at a merchant bank, Singapore International Merchant Bankers Limited (SIMBL). By then, he had five young sons, a wife and a father to support, and his new salary of $500 made it easier for the family to make ends meet. Mohamed would stay at SIMBL until his retirement.

Throughout this time, Iqbal continued to write in his free time. In the ’70s, he began working with Radio Singapore as a freelance poem/song lyric writer for its Tamil language channel's children's music programme, Let Us Sing (" பாடிப் பழகுவோம்”). He composed three poems for each programme on various subjects suitable for children. They were subsequently set to music and recorded for the programme. From the ’70s to the ’80s, he wrote over 200 children’s songs for the programme.

Meanwhile, Iqbal also wrote poems for adults. Often using the pseudonym K. T. M. Iqbal, he contributed many traditional and modern poems to local Tamil-language newspaper, Tamil Murasu. His first collection of poetry, இதய மலர்கள் (Flowers of the Heart), was published in 1975. Several other collections followed, including அன்னை (Mother) in 1984, முகவரிகள் (Addresses) in 1990, வைரக் கற்கள் (Diamonds) in 1996, கனவுகள் வேண்டும் (Dreams) in 2000, காகித வாசம் (Fragrance of Paper ) in 2003, and வானவர்கள் மண்ணில் இருக்கிறார்கள் (Angels Are On The Earth ) in 2005.

His poems காலை (Morning), நீலக் கண்ணாடி (Blue Mirror), and கவிதை மூச்சு (Breath of Poetry) have been included in Tamil texts for use in Singapore schools. Another poem, தண்ணீர் (Water), was selected by the National Arts Council for display on MRT train panels and for an exhibition at EXPO 2000 in Hanover, Germany. English translations of his poems, translated by R Balachandran, can be found in the poetry anthology, The Evening Number and Other Poems (2008).

On top of writing poems, Iqbal also wrote numerous literary articles, essays, radio plays, Poets' Corner, and short stories which appeared in dailies Tamil Murasu,and Malaya Nanban, magazines and radio programmes over the decades. He served as an associate editor of the Singapore poetry anthologies, Rhythms (2000) and Fifty On 50 (2009) and is still a member of various literary societies and committees.

For his contributions to Singaporean Tamil literature, Iqbal was awarded the Montblanc- NUS Centre for Arts Literary Award (Tamil Category) in 1996, the Tamizhavel Award from the Association of Singapore Tamil Writers in 1999, the South East Asia Write Award in 2001, and the Kala Ratna (Gem of the Arts) Award from the Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society in 2004 and Cultural Medallion in 2014.

When asked what challenges he has faced as a poet, Iqbal unhesitatingly replies that he has had none. "I enjoy writing!" he exclaims. Poetry for him, he says, has been a process of self-renewal. It is also about sharing one's ideas with others. He considers his wife his first and biggest fan and critic. Each time he writes a new poem, he reads it to her first, then listens to her feedback. "There's no pre-planning. Sometimes, you go very deep into the world unknown to you… once you start to imagine."

In his 70s, Iqbal remains active in the literary scene. He wrote a poem at the request of the Tamil Writers' Association, which was published in a book entitled Tribute To The Great Man Lee Kuan Yew, in 2013 commemorating Mr Lee Kuan Yew's 90th birthday. He was also one of the featured authors at the Singapore Writers Festival 2015. In 2013, the festival published a book on Thamizhavel G Sarangapani, a Tamil pioneer who was the founder and editor of Tamil Murasu. It collected poems published in past editions of the daily since the year of its inception in 1935. Among them are Iqbal's poems and he himself was tasked with selecting poems from Tamil Murasu’s archives.

Although the poems he chose are by modern poets, he wishes that more young people would also read the classics. "We (Tamils) have a very rich literature," says Iqbal. "Sangam literature (dates back) 3,000 years... They (young poets today) must read. It's not just enough to read modern poetry…. When you write any poem or a short story, it must have a very strong message… for somebody to change their life, or give them a spark or a new thought. It’s not just…beautiful words. That's how our Tamil Sangam poetry can stand for 2,000, or even 3,000 years."

Timeline

1940

Born in Kadayanallur, South India.

1951

Came to Singapore with his father.

Attended Umar Pulavar Tamil School.

1957

Started writing.

1963

Attended Cantonment Road Primary School.

1964

Attended Gan Eng Seng Secondary School.

1971 to 1989

Wrote over 200 children's songs for Radio Singapore music programme Let us Sing.

1975

Published poetry collection இதய மலர்கள் (Flowers of the Heart).

1984

Published poetry collection அன்னை (Mother).

1990

Published poetry collection முகவரிகள் (Addresses).

1996

Won the Montblanc-NUS Centre for the Arts Literary Award (Tamil Category).

Published poetry collection வைரக் கற்கள் (Diamonds).

1999

Won the Tamizhavel Award from the Association of Singapore Tamil Writers.

2000

Published poetry collection கனவுகள் வேண்டும் (Dreams).

Associate editor of poetry anthology Rhythms.

2001

Received South East Asia Write Award.

2003

Published poetry collection காகித வாசம் (Fragrance of Paper).

2005

Received the Kala Ratna (Gem of the Arts) Award from the Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society

Published poetry collection வானவர்கள் மண்ணில் இருக்கிறார்கள் (Angels Are On The Earth).

2008

English translations of his poems published in a collection entitled The Evening Number and other Poems.

2009

Associate editor of poetry anthology Fifty on 50.

2014

Received the Cultural Medallion.

TributeSG

TributeSG celebrates the arts community’s most senior members, and those who have made a lifetime of contribution to the arts. These artists, administrators, educators, patrons, and champions include many Singapore arts pioneers who laid the foundations of the vibrant arts and cultural scene we enjoy today. The many profiles in TributeSG let us into the minds and worlds of these pioneers, and help us understand our shared arts heritage. When we revisit their works and rediscover their journeys, we learn where we came from and how we came to be. Collectively, their stories tell the tale of the making of a nation’s artistic identity.

In putting together this collection, the TributeSG team consulted an external advisory panel, consisting of Arun Mahiznan, Choo Thiam Siew, J. P. Nathan, K. K. Seet, Kwok Kian Chow, and Iskandar Ismail. Those selected to be profiled in TributeSG met one of the following criteria: they were at least 60 years of age as of 12 Oct 2016, or deceased, or had received national recognition in the form of the Cultural Medallion. This journey of arts archival officially came to a close on 12 Oct 2016, after four years of extensive research, interviews and collation of information graciously provided by the TributeSG pioneers, their families and peers. TributeSG also benefited from enthusiastic help from like-minded friends and organisations who supported Esplanade’s cause—to remember, honour and celebrate Singapore’s arts pioneers.

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