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Dedicated singer, musician, composer and drama actor Pandit M. Ramalingam was a pioneer of Indian classical music in post-war Singapore. A noted harmonium and sarangi player who brought together the worlds of Indian classical music and Tamil movie music, he played an instrumental role in propagating interest in Indian classical music in Singapore. He founded the Sri Ram Orchestra—Singapore’s first Indian classical music group—and taught scores of musicians in Singapore’s fledgling Indian classical music scene, and many went on to become acclaimed musicians in their own right. On Singapore’s first National Day in 1966, he received the Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Star) for his contributions to Indian arts in Singapore.
Born in Madurai, Tamil Nadu on 10 Jan 1912, Pandit M. Ramalingam showed a keen interest in languages when he was a young boy. At age 13, he studied Indian languages—Tamil, Telegu, Sanskrit and Malayalam—and traditional Indian medicine for eight years at the Swami Sri Yogananda’s residential school. At the same time he learnt music from his elder brother Madurai Maruthappa, who was a popular personality in the movie industry.
After graduating, he went on to attend the Madurai Tamil Sangam where he would complete the Tamil Pandit course and attain the title of “Pandit”, which was given to scholars of Tamil language. During this time, Ramalingam continued his passion for music, learning Carnatic music from Krishna Bhagavathar. His proficiency for languages served him well in his musical pursuits, as he was able to read the Sanskrit musical scores used in Indian classical music.
After completing his studies, Ramalingam chose to be a musician instead of a teacher of languages. He was invited to sing and record his music for the Sarawasthi Gramophone Company, which published his records, gaining him fame as both a musical drama singer and actor of records such as Kattabomman and Ramadas.
In 1937, Ramalingam moved to Singapore. With his fame as a singer preceding him, he was invited to be an othuvar (temple singer) at the Sri Thandayuthapani Temple, a post he would hold for eight years. Ramalingam did not initially plan to stay in Singapore for long, but the Second World War made it impossible for him to return to India. In 1945, Ramalingam got married and decided to stay on, making Singapore his adopted country. He briefly visited India in 1947, but returned to Singapore, eventually obtaining his Singapore citizenship in 1958.
When Ramalingam ended his service as othuvar at the Sri Thandayuthapani Temple in 1944, he joined Radio Singapore as a musician in the Indian Section. He also began teaching Indian classical music part time. This marked the beginning of Ramalingam’s instrumental role in the development and growth of Indian classical music in Singapore. Many Tamil families, particularly those from Sri Lanka, approached Ramalingam for music lessons, and he went on to teach hundreds of musicians, many of whom went on to become acclaimed Indian classical musicians.
Although classically trained in Indian music, Ramalingam taught his own brand of music which brought together Carnatic music and Tamil movie music. Innovative in his practice and teachings, he was a patient and kind teacher who taught his students that if one knew how to sing Carnatic songs, one could easily also sing songs from Tamil movies. At that time, Indian classical music was played adhering rigorously to traditional methods and structures. Eschewing tradition, Ramalingam emphasised improvisation in his lessons and encouraged his students to play Indian classical music in new ways, in different ways from how it is traditionally played.
Besides being a music teacher, Ramalingam’s music career also grew along with his reputation as a musician. He began working with other Indian artists, writing and composing musical scores which acted as accompaniment to other Indian art forms. He embarked on a particularly fruitful artistic relationship with K. P. Bhaskar, who was looking for a musician to write and compose songs for the Bhaskar’s Arts Academy’s dance drama presentations. Starting with Siva Thandavam, Ramalingam would go on to provide the musical score to more than 100 dance drama presentations by Bhaskar’s Arts Academy. Described by Bhaskar as a “music wizard”, Ramalingam composed the score to Bhaskar’s Arts Academy’s significant pioneering cross-cultural presentation of the Chinese legend The Butterly Lovers, with Ramalingam’s music based on Chinese melodies and played using Indian classical instruments.
Besides Bhaskar’s Arts Academy, Ramalingam wrote music for many musical dramas written by N. Palanivelu and K. Perumal. He also composed movie-style music for Paadip Palakuvom (Let Us Practise Singing) which was broadcast on the School Children’s Radio Programme in Singapore and Malaysia. A regular writer of articles on Indian classical music, Ramalingam also presented the Indian classical music radio programme Isai Vilakkan (Music Explained), where he introduced South Indian classical music and a variety of ragas.
In 1949, he, together with other Indian artists, founded the Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society, and he would serve as its founding member for several years. In 1958, Ramalingam formed the Sri Ram Orchestra, with which he toured frequently to perform in West Malaysia and Brunei. The Sri Ram Orchestra was the first Indian classical music group in Singapore, and Ramalingam would also become the first person to lead and present an Indian classical music performance on Singapore radio and television.
Throughout his musical career, Ramalingam would be a mainstay in the Singapore music scene, participating in musical performances in community centres, National Day celebrations and other cultural events. In 1963, he led an ensemble of over 40 Indian classical musicians in a performance at the National Theatre for the Southeast Asian Cultural Festival.
Well-respected and loved by the Singapore Indian music community, Ramalingam received acclaim and recognition for his contributions and service to Indian music. In 1970, he was conferred the title of Sangeetha Kalanidhi by the Singapore Indian Film, Arts and Dramatic Society. And he received Golden Shawls from both the Tamil Representatives Council in 1981 and the Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society in 1984.
Pandit M. Ramalingam passed away in 1985. A music lover who was always ready to guide and train younger musicians without expecting any recompense, Ramalingam is remembered as an instrumental proponent of Indian classical music in Singapore. His legacy lives on through the many musicians who have been taught by him, and also through his children, some of whom he taught how to play Indian classical music.
Born in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, India.
Attended Swami Sri Yogananda's residential school. Studied Indian languages and traditional Indian medicine.
Learnt music from his elder brother Madurai Maruthappa.
Studied Indian classical music with Krishna Bhagavathar.
Recording artist, Sarawashti Gramophone Company.
Released music album Kattabomman.
Released music album Ramadas.
Othuvar (temple singer), Sri Thandayuthapani Temple.
Moved to Singapore.
Musician, Indian Section, Radio Singapore.
Private music teacher.
Founding member, Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society.
Wrote and composed music for The Butterfly Lovers, Bhaskar’s Arts Academy.
Wrote and composed music for radio programme Paadip Palakuvorn (Let Us Practise Singing), School Children’s Radio Programme.
Leader, Sri Ram Orchestra.
Founder, Sri Ram Orchestra, Singapore’s first Indian classical music group.
Received Singapore citizenship.
Wrote and composed music for Siva Thandavam, Bhaskar’s Arts Academy.
Leader and performer, Carnatic music ensemble, Southeast Asian Cultural Festival, National Theatre.
Received the Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Star).
Conferred title Sangeetha Kalanidhi, Singapore Indian Film, Arts and Dramatic Society.
Received the Golden Shawl, Tamil Representatives Council.
Received the Golden Shawl, Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society.
Passed away at age 73.
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M. Ramalingam (seated centre) with members of the Singapore Indian Music Party, including Mr V Ramachandran (seated left) and Mr V Suppiah (seated right). c. 1960s.
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M. Ramalingam with fellow musicians who performed at the Bhaskar's Arts Academy graduation ceremony. c. 1960s.
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M. Ramalingam with his eldest daughter on the day of her wedding at his Queenstown home. 1975.
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M. Ramalingam (far right), wife and youngest daughter (far left) at the wedding of his eldest daughter. 1975.
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.