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Theatre Literary Arts

N. Palanivelu

Tamil-language playwright, poet, essayist and novelist.


Published: 12 Oct 2016

Time taken : >15mins

Seeing nature is happiness. Seeing people is happiness. A labourer coming home is happiness.

N. Palanivelu was a Tamil language playwright, poet, essayist and novelist. A former contributing writer with Tamil Murasu; presenter-producer with Radio Malaya and subsequently Radio Television Singapore; and president and resident playwright with the Tamil Reform Association Drama Group, he wrote many poems, essays and short stories for newspapers and magazines. But it was his radio plays for which Palanivelu became most acclaimed. Written at a time when Tamil migrants formed a large part of the labour workforce in Singapore, Palanivelu’s plays reflected the social realities of the Tamil diaspora while entertaining and encouraging his audience to approach their lives in their new environment with courage, hope, hard work and pride in their Tamil identity.

Born in 1908 in the Tanjore District of Sikkal in Tamil Nadu, India, Natesan Palanivelu grew up under the influence of his playwright and songwriter grandfather. In 1927, after graduating from National High School in Nagappattinam, India, with a Secondary School Leaving Certificate, he travelled to Malaya and worked as a wages clerk and as a primary school teacher.

Three years later, in 1930, Palanivelu made his way to Singapore at the age of 21, finding work as a ticket clerk with the Singapore Traction Company, where he would remain employed for several years. He devoted his spare time to writing poems, plays, novellas and short stories based on his observations of the life of Tamil settlers like himself in Singapore and fuelled by his interest in both classical Indian literature and socio-political developments in India. In 1931, he published his first poem Valimai (Strength) in the magazine Navaneetham.

Soon after, Palanivelu became acquainted with Thamizhavel Ko Sarangapani, the founder of Singapore Tamil newspaper, Tamil Murasu. They found common ground in their shared ideals and interests and struck up a close friendship, and Thamizhavel would come to publish many of Palanivelu’s poems and stories in Tamil Murasu.

Shortly after his arrival in Singapore, Palanivelu also became a member of the Tamil Reform Association Drama Group, and in 1933 was appointed its president and resident playwright, a post he would retain until 1949. During this period of time, India underwent a period of social reformation as people started protesting against the social injustices of the Hindu caste system and the suppression of women legally and socially, and theatre became as a tool for social change by Indian dramatists and activists. Likewise in Singapore, the cause was taken up by Palanivelu and the Tamil Reform Association Drama Group.

After his service with the Tamil Reform Association Drama Group, he joined the then Radio Malaya (later Radio Television Singapore) as a Tamil language broadcaster, translator and presenter, and began writing more plays for radio broadcast.

By this time, Palanivelu had become a household name with Tamil Murasu readers. He had also amassed a large body of literary and dramatic works comprising poems, short stories, novellas, essays and radio plays, with many of his literary works being published in magazines as well. Among his most well-known works written in the '30s and '40s are Kalyana Panthalil, published in Tamil Murasu in 1936, and his poetry collection Kavithai Malargal, published in 1947.

But it was for his radio plays that Palanivelu would receive most acclaim and recognition. Palanivelu wrote his plays to entertain as well as build solidarity and community-mindedness amongst the migrant Tamil population. Tamil migrants formed a large part of the lowly paid labour workforce in Singapore and Malaysia, and Palanivelu’s plays reflected the present-day social realities of the migrant Tamil community in their simple yet realistic plots and dialogue. At the same time, they encouraged his audience to approach their lives in their new environment with courage, a sense of fellowship with others in the community and pride in their Tamil identity. In his plays, he sought to emphasise commonality and avoided caste distinctions. Instead, he wrote in standard colloquial Tamil and focused on universal values, concerns and topics such as love, family, community, social injustice and morality.

For his contributions to Tamil literature in Singapore, Palanivelu was honoured with several awards. He was bestowed the title of Naadaga Sigamani (Master Playwright) by the Bhaskar’s Arts Academy in 1978, the Kala Ratna award by the Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society in 1987 and the Thamizhavel Viruthu literary award by the Association of Singapore Tamil Writers in 1997. In 1986, Palanivelu received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to drama.

On 11 Nov 2000, Palanivelu passed away, leaving behind four sons, three daughters and a legacy of important Tamil literary and dramatic works.


28 Jun 1908

Born in Sikkal, Tanjore District (now known as Thanjavur), Tamil Nadu, India.

1913 to 1918

Attended primary school in Sikkal, India.

1918 to 1927

Attended primary school in Sikkal, India.

1918 to 1927

Graduated from National High School, Nagappattinam, India with a Secondary School Leaving Certificate.


Left India for Malaya.

1928 to 1930

Wages clerk, Bagan Pasir Estate, Telok Anson.

Teacher at the estate's primary school.


Moved to Singapore.

Ticket clerk, Singapore Traction Company.


First collection of poems Valimai published in Navaneetham magazine.


Member, Tamil Reform Association.

1933 to 1949

President and resident playwright, Tamil Reform Association Drama Group.


Wrote short stories for Tamil Murasu.


Short story Kalyana Panthalil published in Tamil Murasu.


Published first book of poems Kavithai Malargal.

1949 to 1969

Tamil language presenter-producer, Radio Malaya (Singapore) and Radio Singapore.


Published short story collection Kathal Kiliyum Thiyaga Kuyilum.


Conferred title Naadaga Sigamani (Master Playwright), Bhaskar’s Arts Academy.


Received the Muthamiz Semmal award, Tamil Association.


Published play Kaliyin Nalivu.


Received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to drama.


Received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to drama.


Received the Kala Ratna award, Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society.


Received the Thamizhavel Virudhu award, Association of Singapore Tamil Writers.

11 Nov 2000

Passed away at age 92 in Singapore.


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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