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Theatre

S. Varathan

Actor, director, writer, producer and scholar who played an active role in the development and documentation of the local Tamil drama scene.

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Published: 12 Oct 2016


Time taken : ~10mins

Whenever my productions or plays end and I hear the audience clapping, I am the happiest man at that moment. But still, an artist's work is not easy; we have to sacrifice many things. In the end, only the claps make you happy.

Arts Observed interview.

Born on 22 Feb 1934, S. Varathan, distinguished actor, director, writer, producer and scholar, was a Cultural Medallion recipient in 1984. Co-founder of the Rational Drama Troupe, and founder of the Singapore Indian Artistes' Association, he has played an active role in the development and documentation of the local Tamil drama scene.

S. Varathan was born in Singapore in 1934 and two years later, moved to South India with his family. There, he received his primary and secondary school education. Here he was also inspired by the code of conduct advocated by the DMK (Dravidan Munaitra Kalagam) political party. The values of duty, dignity and discipline would feature prominently in his later career as an artist.

After he received his GCE O level certification—becoming Tamil Nadu's top Tamil language student in the process—he returned to Singapore in 1953. He found work as an administrative clerk in a shipping firm, but spent much of his time attending performances by theatre groups from India. Many of these featured a nationalistic commitment to the Tamil language and social messages which convinced him of the power of drama to address social ills such as the inequalities of caste in Singapore too.

In 1955 he co-founded the Rational Drama Troupe with his friend, T. Rajan, and they went on to stage 14 productions before a lack of money forced the dissolution of the group in 1966. He then focused on writing and acting in radio plays.

In 1971, with the assistance of his friend Ram Narayanasamy, he initiated the Singapore Indian Artistes' Association (SIAA) with the aim of getting all Indian artists under one organisational banner. The SIAA would stage several plays throughout the '70s and the '80s. Varathan incorporated new artistic elements with each successive play, as it was his aim to involve as many Indian artists as possible, from writers to musicians to production crew.

From 1989 Varathan has tirelessly researched the history of the development of Tamil theatre in Singapore. He compiled his experiences in dramatic circles and the experiences of other Tamil theatre practitioners. The fruits of this scholarship have been his valuable books, also available in English translation, documenting the scene’s history. These include Memories Never Fade (1990), Personalities of Tamil Drama in Singapore (1991), and, with S. Hamid, Development of Tamil drama in Singapore (2008).

From the early 1990s, Varathan has not only been mentor to a younger generation of the SIAA, but also played an important role in helping Singapore Indian artistes gain their due recognition through the organising of various award ceremonies.

In 1983, 1984 and 1985, he received the Best Director award at the Drama Festival. In 1984, he received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to theatre.

Timeline

1934

Born in Singapore.

1936

Moved with family to South India.

1953

Returned to Singapore.

1955

Founding member, Rational Drama Troupe.

1971

Founder, Singapore Indian Artistes' Association (SIAA).

1983 to 1985

Received Best Director Award at Ministry of Culture Drama Festival for three years running.

1984

Received Cultural Medallion for contributions to theatre.

1990

Published Memories Never Fade.

1991

Published Personalities of Tamil Drama in Singapore.

2008

Published Development of Tamil Drama in Singapore with S. Hamid.


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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