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Literary Arts

Rama Kannabiran

Singapore’s foremost Tamil language short-story writer and novelist

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Published: 25 Nov 2021


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As a writer my earlier effort was mainly productive, penning fiction and articles in literary periodicals. As an author, I collected all my works in book form for permanent readership. Now I contribute my literary wisdom back to the new writers through workshops and seminars. My present feeling is that I have really gone through a meaningful cycle of my literary journey.

Rama Kannabiran was born in Amapat, India, in 1943 and came to Singapore aged 10. As Singapore’s foremost Tamil language short-story writer and novelist, he was instrumental in putting the language on the island’s literary map. His notable works include Irupathainthu Aandukal (Twenty-Five Years, 1980), Peedam (Seat Power, 1988) and Gypsies (2007). He has received the Thamizhavel award, the South East Asia Writers Award, and the Cultural Medallion.

Rama Kannabiran began his love affair with literature as a cure for loneliness, when his father was forced to leave his home and family in Singapore for a period of time to find work in India. The young Kannabiran turned to his grandmother’s stories, a lending library at the Ramakrishnan Mission, and also a teacher who was a translator in Parliament. This kind soul, one Mr Narayana, had lent his books to the young, voracious reader. Inspired, Kannabiran began to write his own tales, submitting them to writing competitions organised by Tamil Murasu. He would come to win one of these writing competitions.

Following the winding down of his family’s business in 1965, Kannabiran travelled to India, giving up writing for a while. He returned to Singapore the following year with a new bride, however, who encouraged him to write again. During the late ‘60s and ‘70s he was extremely prolific, writing and publishing some 40 short stories, while maintaining a full-time career in teaching.

In 1982, Kannabiran became the first Tamil language writer to win an award given out by the National Book Development Council of Singapore. This was conferred on behalf of his collection of short stories, Irupathainthu Aandukal (Twenty-Five Years). In 1988, he took part in a writing workshop at the Iowa International Literary Forum, which resulted in the publication of Peedam (Seat of Power). He would go on to spend three years in at the University of Iowa as a Honorary Writing Fellow.

He received the South East Asia Writers Award in 1990 and the Montblanc-NUS Centre for the Arts Literary Award in 1998. In 1999, he received both the Thamizhavel Award and the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to literature.

Today, Kannabiran continues to write, conduct workshops for aspiring writers, and adjudicate at writing competitions. His works, which have played a significant role in integrating Tamil identity into national identity, have been published in Singapore and India in a variety of languages.

Timeline

1943

Born in Amapat, South India.

1953

Moved to Singapore. Enrols at the MacNair Primary School and Raffles Institution while supported by family's bookshop and textile business.

1958

Won writing competition organised by Tamil Murasu..

1965

Moved back to India and got married.

1966

Returned to Singapore and began teaching at Rosyth School. Also continues to write again after a brief hiatus.

1968 to 1978

First short story published in Tamil Nesan, Malaysia, beginning a decade which sees some 40 published works.

1980

Published Irupathainthu Aandukal (Twenty-Five Years), a collection of short stories.

1982

Received National Book Development Council of Singapore Book Award for Irupathainthu Aandukal (Twenty-Five Years).

1988

Represented Singapore at the International Writing Programme in Iowa.

Published Peedam (Seat of Power)..

1988 to 1990

Honorary Writing Fellow at University of Iowa, USA.

1990

Received the S.E.A. Write Award.

1998

Received the Montblanc-NUS Centre for the Arts Literary Award.

1999

Received Thamizhavel Award.

Received the Cultural Medallion for contributions to literature.

2000

Member, Arts Advisory Panel for Literature, National Arts Council.

2011

Conference Committee Member, Singapore Tamil Writers Conference.

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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