Tamil Literature in Singapore

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Literature and Society are interrelated. Social, educational, political and intellectual aspects of a society have a great influence on the literature of the society or nation. Literary writers, therefore, should have a better understanding of past history, failures and successes of the present generation and their attitudes and attributes that could contribute to build the future.

Literature could deal with a theme or subject in the form of prose or poetry with an aesthetic value which aims to raise the human race to a higher level. Tamil literature has given the top most importance to the value of virtue and wisdom. Typical examples are Thirukkural and Tholhappiam. This golden thread runs through the Tamil literature all over the years since the Sangam age, more than 2000 years ago. In this regard the Singapore Tamil literature is not an exception.

Modern Singapore is barely 200 years old. The early migrants from several parts of Asia such as China, India and Indonesia and even from the west, who were proud of their rich culture and civilization made tremendous effort to safeguard and promote their culture using the art forms such as music, dance, art and literature during the early days and this effort continues even today.

The Singapore Tamils were no different. With their rich culture and civilization, together with their long literary tradition, they had enthusiastically indulged in literary activities such as writing poems and short stories.

Major changes had taken place in several Asian countries in the past century such as the independence of India and Indonesia and the communist control in China. These events had, directly or indirectly, affected Singapore as the people of Singapore have their roots in the above mentioned countries. Singapore literature has reflected the impact of the above changes on Singapore. The Singapore Tamil literature is not an exception in this regard.

In addition, Singapore Tamil writers had been greatly influenced by the social reform movements in Tamil Nadu against social injustice such as caste system, untouchability and dowry system. Themes based on these Social evils had been vividly depicted in local settings although the impact of these evils among the Tamils in Singapore was minimal.

Until the 19th century most of the literary works in Tamil were poems. This could be one of the reasons why the first Tamil literary attempt in Singapore was a poetical work.

The beginning of the 19th century could be said to be the herald of the history of modern Tamil literature. From this time Tamil literature has been passing through a period of renaissance. The major shift was from poetry to prose writing. The contacts it had with English and English literature had shown new possibilities of development in various literary forms such as novels short stories and plays.

The period of renaissance had been an impact on Singapore Tamil literature. While the local Tamil writers might have followed the style and techniques of their models in Tamil Nadu contents of their work had been local. This trend continues even today.

Tamil literature in Singapore could be generally divided into three categories: Short stories, poems and plays. Although poetry marked the beginning of Tamil literature in Singapore short stories had been in the forefront. Some of the writers wrote both poems and short stories. Currently, considerable number of Tamil writers are concentrating in writing poems, particularly modern poetry. Plays were written for stages and broadcasting. There is no change in this trend even today and the play writers not many.

Some of the local writers have succeeded in portraying very vividly their character in local settings. Most of the works of the Singapore Tamil writers are based on current Social themes. Some of the writings especially the short stories depict the multiracial scenario.

Writing novels in Tamil is in the budding stage in Singapore as only few writers have ventured into this form.

In the past twenty years or so we have had considerable number of new comers from Tamil Nadu who have actively participated in the Singapore Tamil literary activities. While we should appreciate their enthusiasm and involvement in writing prose or poetry we could not deny the fact that there is  room for improvement in the area of content and flavour that is local. It is not easy for them to produce the real Singapore Literature and it will take time.

We have had a glance at the Tamil literature in Singapore. The most important thing we should consider at this point is that what is the status of contemporary Tamil Literature in Singapore and what has to be done to the development of Singapore Tamil literature founded on the life of Singaporeans and the social, economic and political forces that had shaped the life of the people. The writers also should bear in mind the inevitable changes taken place in Singapore in the last 50 years of independence and the ability of the Singaporeans to adjust themselves accordingly and their contributions for the smooth moving of the society and nation. Another point we should take into consideration is that challenges in education, economy, employment and housing we had to cope with.

The writers should also keep in mind that material and spiritual aspects of human life could not be separated if we wish to have a sense of fulfillment in our life. While we understand the well – known saying that ‘man cannot live with bread alone’ at the same time we should not forget the fact that man cannot live without bread also. With this realization the writer would be able to produce their literary work, being poetry or prose, that could be the instrument to have a better understanding of ourselves, our fellows and of this fascinating world we live in.

As society and literature are interrelated the literature plays a significant role in vividly depicting not only the people’s way of life, their cherished values and traditions, but also their failures and successes and their aspirations as well as the problems faced by the society as a whole.

For any literature, while it might have a local content, colour and flavour at the same time should have a universal significance. This is what the people’s poet Bharathiar says in one of his poems:

‘‘திறமான புலமையெனில் வெளிநாட்டார்
அதைவணக்கம் செய்தல் வேண்டும்’’.

As far as Singapore Tamil Literature is concerned we have to ask ourselves a few questions so that we could have a clear picture of the present status of the Tamil literature in Singapore. The answers could give us some idea on what steps should be taken to improve the situation.

First of all, the poets and writers should have to do some soul – searching. The following questions would be helpful to the writers in their soul searching or self – appraisal.

  1. What is the purpose of our writing?
  2. Do we have the correct perspective of the historical background and its impact on the society?
  3. What are the people’s aspirations and problems and the impact of the external forces such as social and economic conditions?
  4. Do we have the correct perception of the future?
  5. What have we achieved from our writings?
  6. Are our writings really helping the readers to have some food for thought?

If we carefully study these questions and the answers we get, we would be able to have some idea about the real situation of the Singapore Tamil literature. The real Singaporean who was involved in the Tamil literary activities who have the real experience in the Singapore life could and should seriously think about this and find solutions to rectify the anomaly if any.

It seems that the major problem we are facing today is that the younger generations of Tamil Singaporeans are indifferent to the area of writing and their involvement in literary task is minimal.

Proficiency in a particular language is important to learn, understand and enjoy the literature in that language. Mother tongue languages have a prominent place in our school curriculum and the purpose of teaching Mother tongue is to help the students to have a better understanding of their own culture and trdition. Equipped with these cultural values they would be responsible citizens with the moral courage to face the reality in life. Any good literature could be a vehicle for us to reach this level.

Our main focus, therefore, should be on the language proficiency of our students. Because the future development of Tamil literature entirely depends on our younger generation.

The local writers, the relevant organisations and the individuals who are interested in Tamil Language and Literature should give some serious thought in order to take necessary steps towards the right direction.

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