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S. S. Sarma is a Tamil-language journalist, playwright and theatre director. He has played a key role in the development of Tamil-language theatre in Singapore, writing and presenting plays sited firmly in Singapore themes and issues where previously there existed only India-centric dramas. His popularly received plays have been presented on stage, radio and television. The founder of the Indian Arts Centre (now known as Tamil Cyber Society), Sarma modernised Tamil-language theatre in Singapore, and has received accolades for his significant contributions.
Sambasiva Sarma’s father migrated from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to Pahang, Malaysia where Sarma was born, growing up in a Brahmin community. Sarma would begin his early education in Pahang, but be forced to relocate to Kuala Lumpur with his family as the Japanese invasion began during World War II.
Living under Japanese Occupation in Kuala Lumpur, Sarma learnt some Japanese in school. Later, following the wishes of his father who was a temple priest, Sarma studied under a guru and became an assistant priest at the Shree Mariamman Temple. At the same time, he developed an interest in Tamil-language newspapers and plays that were staged during the time.
At the end of the war, Sarma continued his education in Seremban, Malaysia. By then, he had a strong interest in journalism and had begun to submit articles to Tamil newspapers and Madras magazines where they were published. He moved to Singapore in 1946, and pursuing his passion for journalism, joined the editorial staff of Tamil Murasu three years later as a proof reader. He would spend almost a decade working at the Tamil daily.
In 1952, the Shaw Brothers Studio started the Indian Movie News magazine, and Sarma was appointed as its editor. He soon became the senior editor of the widely read magazine, and also started writing a syndicated story for the magazine which was very popular as well.
During that period of time, Tamil-language plays that were staged in Singapore were based on traditional scripts that were written by Indian playwrights and that reflected Indian issues and themes played out against Indian settings. Seeing this, Sarma suggested to the drama practitioners that they change the script to suit the local setting but was met with reluctance. Seeing the need for this, and encouraged by the reception of his syndicated story in Indian Movie News, Sarma decided that he would try his hand at writing and producing Tamil-language plays.
This began Sarma’s instrumental involvement with Tamil-language theatre in Singapore. He began writing and presenting Tamil-language plays that were firmly rooted in the Singapore experience with Singaporean themes and issues that resounded especially well with Singapore audiences. A modern thinker and an innovative playwright, he also helped modernise Indian society by weaving progressive ideas in his productions through humour and introduced science fiction themes in his work when the norm was social and mythological plays.
Sarma also helped to modernise the technical aspects of Tamil theatre in Singapore. Then, Tamil plays were frequently presented in multi-purpose stages in New World and Great World that were shared by productions of all kinds. In order to raise the production standards of Tamil theatre, Sarma moved his productions into the Victoria Theatre, resulting in more polished and higher quality presentations, and also in higher skilled Tamil theatre practitioners who now had to learn how to work in a modern theatre environment. Putting up regular performances in Singapore at various cultural and drama festivals, his troupes also travelled to Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka and the Seychelles.
Besides the stage, Sarma also wrote many plays that were broadcast on radio and television. Throughout his time as a playwright and director, Sarma also contributed his time towards the development of Indian culture and language in Singapore. In 1968, Sarma founded the Indian Arts Centre (now Tamil Cyber Society) and served as its president until 1979. He also served as honorary secretary of the Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society and the social and cultural secretary of the Singapore Indian Association. He also continued in his journalistic activities, spending time as editor and publisher of the popular magazines Vel, Alai Osai, and managing editor of Singai Chudar.
Sarma also became the author of over 20 books. Sarma’s Stage Experience (2004) is a collection of Sarma’s stage plays and dance dramas from the 1950s to the 1990s covering 40 years of experience in writing, and directing plays and cultural programmes. His non-fiction book Tamil Culture: Beyond the Horizon (2011) is a collection of essays originally published in various periodicals as well as research articles presented at seminars on ancient Tamil culture in Southeast Asia.
For his contributions to Tamil theatre and culture, Sarma has received recognition such as the Kala Ratna (Gem of the Arts) Award from the Tamil Nadu Parthasarathy Internaional Academy, Chennai, India. In 2011, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award for Tamil Literature from the Chennai Kalai Magal Foundation, India.
Sarma currently serves as the vice president of Tamil Cyber Society, which he founded as the Indian Arts Centre, and continues to contribute and write for Indian Movie News.
Born in Pahang, Malaysia.
Attended Clifford School, Pahang, Malaysia.
Assistant priest, Shree Mariamman Temple, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Attended King George V School, Seremban, Negri Sembilan, Malaysia.
Moved to Singapore.
Editorial staff, Tamil Murasu.
Writer, director and producer, stage drama Bhavani.
Editor, Indian Movie News. Later became senior editor.
Writer, director and producer, stage drama Edukkatha Padam.
Writer, director and producer, stage drama Kabuka.
Honorary secretary, Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society.
Editor and publisher, Malaysia Malar magazine.
Writer, director and producer, stage drama Marma Maligai.
Writer, director and producer, stage drama Nadanthavarai Sari.
Writer, director and producer, stage drama Panjali Sabatham.
Writer, director and producer, stage drama Vinveli Veeran.
Received the Kalai Arasu award, Tamil Murasu.
Writer, television dramas Vaazkai Padam and Pasa Thirai for Malaysian television.
Founder, Indian Arts Centre (later known as Tamil Cyber Society).
President, Indian Arts Centre.
Writer, director and producer, stage drama En Anbeh.
Writer, 13-episode radio drama Mohini, Radio Singapore.
Editor and publisher, Vel magazine.
Writer, 13-episode radio drama Sathangkai Oli, Radio Singapore.
Writer, television drama Singapore Nite for Malaysian television.
Writer, director and producer, stage drama Sulal.
Writer, 13-episode radio drama Mariyathu Ullam, Radio Singapore.
Writer, 13-episode radio drama Ushh… Pesathey!, Radio Singapore.
Writer, 13-episode radio drama En Anbeh, Radio Singapore.
Writer, television drama Nizhal, TV Singapore.
Scriptwriter, Ninaivellam Neeyae (All Thoughts of You).
Writer, 13-episode radio drama, Ennai Viddu Vidu.
Writer, television drama Nadukattil Oru Kural, TV Singapore.
Writer, television drama Ninaivellam Neeyeh, TV Singapore.
Member, Indian Arts Centre.
Amali Tumali presented at the Singapore Drama Festival by the Indian Arts Centre.
Published Tamil Nattil Eddu Nadkal (Eight Days in Tamil Nadu).
Social and Cultural Secretary, Singapore Indian Association.
Aval Oru Menagai (The Virtuous Menagai) and Ninaivellam Neeyae (All Thoughts of You) presented at the Singapore Drama Festival by the Indian Arts Centre.
Published Ammali Thoomali.
Member, Jurong Town Indian Cultural Society.
Mappillai Vantharu presented at the Singapore Drama Festival.
Published Fascinating Days in Sri Lanka.
Anantham Intru Aarambam presented at the Singapore Drama Festival.
Ellam Nanmaikkeh presented at the Singapore Drama Festival.
Published Sri Lanka Cultural Conference.
Kalyanam Oru Kalkattu (Marriage is a Bond) presented at the Singapore Drama Festival by the Indian Arts Centre.
Editor and publisher, Alai Osai magazine.
Received Kala Ratna (Gem of the Arts) Award, Tamil Nadu Parthasarathy International Academy, Chennai, India.
Conferred honorary Doctorate of Literature by Dianara University, Italy.
Kalyanam Oru Kalkattu (Marriage is a Bond) adapted into a television drama for Singapore Broadcasting Corporation.
Received the Nadaka Chemmal award, All India Tamil Writers Association, Chennai, India.
Published novel Iniyavaleh.
Presented ten-day programme Singapore Nite throughout Malaysia.
Named Southeast Asia’s Best Writer by the VGP Academy, Chennai, India.
Published Our Mission to Seychelles.
Published Sumatra - A Paradise!
President, Hong Kah Zone 1 RC Indian Activities Group, Singapore.
Published Kalyanam Oru Kalkattu (Marriage is a Trial).
Writer, television drama Pasa Valai.
Writer, television drama Ullasa Payanam.
Published Kumbakonam Festival.
Published Glory of Kanchi.
Published Wonderful Europe & the Glory of Egypt.
Published Sarma’s Stage Experience.
Managing editor, Singai Chudar magazine.
Received Guardian of Arts award, Singapore Indian Artists Association.
Received Kala Ratna Award, Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society.
Received Best Cultural and Literary Achievement Award, Singapore Tamil Language and Cultural Society.
Received Lifetime Achievement Award for Tamil Literature, Chennai Kalai Magal Foundation, Chennai, India.
Published Tamil Culture: Beyond Horizon.
Vice President, Tamil Cyber Society.
Received 1st Prize for the Best Published Book in Singapore, Association of Singapore Tamil Writers.
Received the Thamizhavel Award by the Association of Singapore Tamil Writers for his work in Tamil theatre.
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S. S. Sarma (second row, 7th from right) with the Mystery House Drama Group at the Jubilee Restaurant, Singapore. 1964.
2 / 27
S. S. Sarma (standing) giving a thank-you speech after receiving the Kalai Arasu (Artistic Excellence) award from Tamil Murasu's founder and editor G. Sarangapani (seated 2nd from right). 1966.
3 / 27
Photo collage of S. S. Sarma's plays. From top: En Anbe, Panchali Sabadam and Vinveli Veeran.
4 / 27
Photo collage of S. S. Sarma's plays. Top two photos: The cast of mystery play Kabuka. Third from top: Audience at Kabuka at the Victoria Theatre. 24 May 1962. Bottom photo: A scene from comedy play Film Shooting in Singapore with S. S. Sarma (2nd from right) acting as a film director. Staged at the Victoria Theatre. 8 Dec 1962.
5 / 27
Top: A scene from mystery play Kabuka, written and directed by S. S. Sarma. Middle right: Tamil Murasu founder and editor giving a speech on SS Sarma's plays with local themes. Bottom left: S. S. Sarma's daughters Shanthi and Jayanthi, who were choreographers for his dramas. Bottom right: A scene from S. S. Sarma comedy play Wedding is A Trap!.
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Top: S. S. Sarma (right) with wife Vasanthi and children Shanthi, Jayanthi and Anand after a dance performance in Sri Lanka. 1980. Bottom: S. S. Sarma (in sunglasses) with other delegates at the 5th International Tamil Research conference in Madurai, India. He presented a research paper on Singapore's Tamil Dramas. Jan 1981.
7 / 27
S. S. Sarma (3rd from right) with his cultural troupe which includes actress and dancer Madhavi Krishnan (in sunglasses) in Ipoh, at one of their stops during a performance tour around Malaysia. 1970.
8 / 27
S. S. Sarma welcoming the audience at the production of comedy play Amali Tumali for the National Drama Festival at the Victoria Theatre. 2 Oct 1979.
11 / 27
S. S. Sarma's certificate of appreciation for organising and presenting Singapore Nite in Malaysia from then-Minister for Works and Public Utilities of Malaysia Datuk S. Samy Velu. 1980.
12 / 27
Writen and directed by S. S. Sarma, thriller Mystery House (Marma Maligai) was staged at the Victoria Theatre. 20-21 May 1964.
14 / 27
English poster for S. S. Sarma's En Anbey (My Darling), presented at the Victoria Theatre. 1969.
16 / 27
Written and directed by S. S. Sarma, comedy satire Kalyanam Oru Kalkattu (Marriage is A Trial) was staged at the Ministry of Culture's National Drama Festival. 30 Nov 1986.
17 / 27
Poster for Deepavali Night, presented by S. S. Sarma's Indian Arts Centre at Victoria Theatre. 1970.
20 / 27
Poster for S. S. Sarma's Here Comes the Bridegroom for the Drama Festival 1982, presented by Indian Arts Centre at the Drama Centre. 1982.
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Poster for Joy Begins Today for the Drama Festival 1984, performed at the Drama Centre. 1984.
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Poster for S. S. Sarma's Joy Begins Today, presented at the Drama Centre by Indian Arts Centre for the Singapore Drama Festival. 1984.
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Poster for S. S. Sarma's All For Good, presented at the Drama Centre by Indian Arts Centre for the Singapore Drama Festival. 1985.
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.