In what was once known as the Straits Settlements, and is now modern-day Malaysia and Singapore, Malayali immigrants had to fight hard to assert their linguistic identity at times. They were often clubbed together with a numerically superior Tamil community, partly on account of a large number of Malayalis having a more than rudimentary understanding of conversational Tamil.
While those who migrated to Singapore in the colonial era were initially happy to hear songs and broadcasts on the radio in Tamil, the demand grew for specific Malayalam programmes by the late 1930s. In December 1940, an anonymous reader of The Straits Times who went by the name “South Indian Listener” wrote to the paper’s editor asking for Malayalam songs to be played on the local radio station.
“The Singapore station at present broadcasts a programme of South Indian music from Singapore, beginning at 6:20 pm,” the reader wrote. “This is gramophone records. Although a majority of these songs are Tamil, a good number of them are Telugu. One never hears a Malayalam song, in spite of the fact that Malayalam is one of the three most important languages of South India and there is a considerable amount of listeners among this community.”
This reader went on to add that Tamil and Malayalam were “akin” and that Malayalam records were often played in Tamil homes.
Four months after this letter was written, Singapore got its first Malayalam broadcast, with a 30-minute programme being aired from 10 to 10.30 pm every Wednesday. This must have brought an immense amount of joy to the Malayali community on the island, many of whom had moved there to work in the Singapore Naval Base.
One such Malayali moved to work in what was at that time called the China Station base in 1926. Poravankara Narayanan Nair, who started writing articles for Malayalam newspapers from the time he was 15, became a literary giant among the Singaporean Malayali community.
Records indicate that he was secretary of the Kerala Library of the Naval Base. Even as he worked at the Base, Nair continued to write articles, research papers and books in Malayalam.
In a June 1961, article, The Singapore Free Press highlighted his contribution to the promotion of Malayalam. “Mr Nair is a regular contributor to Malayalam publications in Malaya, and recently completed a series of 51 articles in a popular daily,” the paper wrote.
At that time, Nair was working on a book that studied the impact of immigrant languages on the evolution of Malayan culture. (This writer has not been able to find that book in online searches.)
Nair was also known for his poetry and acting in plays. The Singapore Free Press article mentioned Nair’s role as a farmer in a drama titled “Puthiya Akasham, Puthiya Bhoomi (New Sky, New Earth).”
The Malayali drama scene was vibrant in Singapore at that time, and Nair played a huge role in bringing artists from Kerala. In 1964, the Naval Base staged “Ezhu Ratrikal (Seven Nights),” which according to news clippings was adjudged the “best Malayalam drama of the year” in India.
Of course, Nair didn’t dedicate his entire time to the Malayalam language and culture, and was also known for his role as a trade union leader on the island. He passed away at the age of 80 in 1987.
Like many Malayalis who moved to Singapore in the colonial era, Nair’s family chose to stay back in the city. His sons who were born and raised on the island became public figures. Poravankara Narayanan Nair Sivaji, better known as P N Sivaji was the manager of the Singapore football team, while his brother P N Balji is a well-known journalist and editor who has been active for more than four decades.
The Malayali story in Singapore is often overlooked, but the community, given its relatively small size (believed to be less than 30,000), has played a disproportionate role in the economic, social and cultural life of the city-state. To their credit, the older generations, comprising people like Nair, did a remarkable job of preserving Malayali culture.
(Ajay Kamalakaran is a multilingual writer, primarily based in Mumbai)