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Towards a Malayan Indian sonic geography: Sound and social relations in colonial Singapore

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 September 2015

Abstract

From the mid-1920s, Indian music scenes developed in Singapore that were not just about the construction of regional and religious forms of Indian diasporic belonging. Drawing upon European, Chinese and Malay influences (musical and otherwise), and performing in contexts that were uncommon in India, Singaporean Indian musicians contributed to non-Indian musics, while incorporating non-Indian influences into Indian genres. Such musical–communal interactions functioned in colonial Singapore to locate the island as a hub for the constitution of a ‘Malayan Indian sonic geography’. By encouraging links between various Indian and other communities throughout the peninsula via radio, films, recordings, touring networks, and performances at hotels and amusement parks, music became a means for Indian communication and integration in colonial Malaya — a sonic geography that would be significantly transformed, though not eliminated, after Singapore and Malaysia parted ways in 1965.

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Research Article
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Copyright © The National University of Singapore 2015 

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References

1 Singapore Free Press, 18 June 1960, p. 7.

2 It is possible that Sinco Combrados performed Latin American pop tunes sung in Spanish. Interview, Christina Edmunds, Oral History Centre, Accession No. 003022, Singapore National Archives.

3 In other words, English language popular music was not the only stream of Singaporean music to attract performers from multiple ethnic groups.

4 Harper, Tim, ‘Globalism and the pursuit of authenticity: The making of a diasporic public sphere in Singapore’, Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia 12, 2 (1997): 262CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid. Thankfully, the last decade has witnessed a boom in the study of communal sociability in colonial Southeast Asia. See, for instance, Michael Laffan, Islamic nationhood and colonial Indonesia: The umma below the winds (London: Routledge, 2003); Wong Yunn Chii and Tan Kar Lin, ‘Emergence of a cosmopolitan space for culture and consumption: The New World amusement park–Singapore (1923–70) in the inter-war years’, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 5, 2 (2004): 281; Sugata Bose, A hundred horizons: The Indian Ocean in the age of global empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009); Lewis, Su Lin, ‘Cosmopolitanism and the modern girl: A cross-cultural discourse in 1930s Penang’, Modern Asian Studies 43, 6 (2009): 1385–419CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Ronit Ricci, Islam translated: Literature, conversion, and the Arabic cosmopolis of South and Southeast Asia (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).

7 Elsewhere, I consider the communal tensions that have arisen in postcolonial Singapore due to the banning of music in the Hindu festival Thaipusam, as well as the erasure of Indian material history and the increased tendency to associate Singaporean Indian culture with the ‘Little India’ neighbourhood rather than the many other spaces Indian musicians historically traversed (see Jim Sykes, ‘Sound studies, religion and public space: Tamil music and the ethical life in Singapore’, forthcoming). I touch on caste and gender in this article, but further research will need to document how these issues — as well as the Japanese Occupation during the Second World War — hampered, rather than simply contributed to, the sonic geography I describe here. See Rajesh Rai, Indians in Singapore, 1819–1945: Diaspora in the colonial port city (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014); Brenda Yeoh, Contesting space in colonial Singapore: Power relations in the urban built environment (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2003); Chong, Terence, ‘Manufacturing authenticity: The cultural production of national identities in Singapore’, Modern Asian Studies 45, 4 (2011): 877–97CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Vasu, Norman, ‘Governance through difference in Singapore’, Asian Survey 52, 4 (2012): 734–53Google Scholar; and Lee, Tong Soon, ‘Technology and the production of Islamic space: The call to prayer in Singapore’, Ethnomusicology 43, 1 (1999): 86100CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 See Sandhu, Kernial Singh, ‘Some aspects of Indian settlement in Singapore, 1819–1969’, Journal of Southeast Asian History 10, 2 (1969): 193201CrossRefGoogle Scholar; K.S. Sandhu, Indians in Malaya: Some aspects of their immigration and settlement (1786–1957) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969); Sinappah Arasaratnam, Indians in Malaysia and Singapore (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970); Sharon Siddique and Nirmala Purushotam, Singapore's Little India: Past, present, and future (Singapore: ISEAS, 1982). Under the Raffles Plan of 1822, South Indian labourers were given a neighbourhood at the upper part of the Singapore River, Chulia Kampong (which no longer exists); Raffles divided ‘the southern central core of the city (the zone of mercantile trade) into various racial quarters’ (Bharzana Begam Nafizath, ‘The making of a place: History, community and identity of Little India’ (B.A. thesis, National University of Singapore [NUS], 1996/97, p. 3), with Chinatown for the Chinese, Kampong Glam for the Malays, and Chulia Street for the Indians. By the early twentieth century, five areas had significant Indian populations: Chulia Street and Market Street, on the western side of the central business district, home to ‘South Indian Chettiars and Muslim Tamil traders, financiers, money-changers, petty shopkeepers and boatmen as well as manual labourers’ (Tracie Yeo Chieh Sze, ‘Socioscapes in a global city: Singapore's Little India’, [B.A. thesis, NUS, 1998/99], p. 61); the High Street area and its Sindhi, Gujarati and Sikh merchants; the Arab Street region, farther to the east of the Singapore River, which housed Muslim textile and jewellery merchants; Tanjong Pagar, where Telegus, Malayalees, and Tamils worked at the Keppel Harbour dockyards and railways; and Serangoon Road (today's Little India district), occupied mainly by Tamil labourers.

9 See Paul Wheatley, The Golden Khersonese: Studies in the historical geography of the Malay Peninsula before AD 1500 (Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press, 1961); Helen Fujimoto, The South Indian Muslim community and the evolution of the Jawi Peranakan in Penang up to 1948 (Tokyo: ILCCA, Tokyo Gaikokugo Daigaku, 1989).

10 Amrith, Sunil, ‘Tamil diasporas across the Bay of Bengal’, American Historical Review 114, 3 (2009): 549CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See John D. Kelly, A politics of virtue: Hinduism, sexuality, and countercolonial discourse in Fiji (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991); Marina Carter, Servants, sirdars and settlers: Indians in Mauritius, 1834–74 (Delhi; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995); Madhavi Kale, Fragments of empire: Capital, slavery, and Indian indentured labor in the British Caribbean (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997).

11 Lawrence Babb, ‘Walking on flowers in Singapore: A Hindu festival cycle’ (Sociology Working Paper no. 27, University of Singapore, 1974); Lawrence Babb, ‘Thaipusam in Singapore: Religious individualism in a hierarchical culture’ (Sociology Working Paper no. 49, Dept of Sociology, University of Singapore, 1976).

12 Gopal Das, ‘The Kaliamman Temple, Serangoon Road, Singapore: A study of the economic and social position of an Indian temple’ (1958); D. Govindasamy, ‘Social change and the caste system: Intergenerational attitudes towards caste practices of the Brahmin community in Singapore’ (1975); S. Manokara, ‘A study of change in two Hindu temples in Singapore’ (1978/79).

13 Some recent work includes Sunil Amrith, Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The furies of nature and the fortunes of migrants (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013); Vineeta Sinha, A new god in the diaspora? Muneeswaran worship in contemporary Singapore (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2006); V. Sinha, Religion–state encounters in Hindu domains: From the Straits Settlements to Singapore (Dordrecht: Springer, 2011); Torsten Tschacher, ‘Witnessing fun: Tamil-speaking Muslims and the imagination of ritual in colonial Southeast Asia’, in Ritual, caste, and religion in colonial South India, ed. Michael Bergunder, Heiko Frese and Ulrike Schröder (Halle: Verlag der Franckeschen Stiftungen, 2010), pp. 189–218.

14 Ricci, Ronit, ‘Citing as a site: Translation and circulation in Muslim South and Southeast Asia’, Modern Asian Studies 46, 2 (2012): 331–53CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

15 The study of Indian music-making in Singapore is still in its nascent period. See Shobha Vadrevu and Audrey Perera, ‘Indian music in Singapore: From diaspora to local identity’ (Singapore: National Library Board, 2010); Eugene Dairianathan and Phan Ming Yen, A narrative history of music in Singapore 1819 to the present (Singapore: National Arts Council, 2002). For a broader purview that dovetails with my perspective here, see Eugene Dairianathan, ‘Cultural dependence in question: An exploration of musical practices of South Indian film in Singapore’, Festschrift (2005): 174–92; and Loretta Marie Perera and Audrey Perera, ‘Music in Singapore: From the 1920s to the 2000s’ (Singapore: National Library Board, 2010).

16 John Solomon, ‘The decline of pan-Indian identity and the development of Tamil cultural separatism in Singapore, 1856–1965’, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, n.s. 35, 2 (Apr. 2012): 257; Arasaratnam, Indians in Malaysia and Singapore.

17 See Indra Rani Lavan Iswaran, Celebrating 100 years: The Singapore Ceylon Tamils’ Association, founded 1910 (Singapore: Ceylon Tamils’ Association, 2010).

18 Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 3 Mar. 1925, p. 12.

19 Straits Times, 21 Sept. 1927, p. 8.

20 Vadrevu and Perera, ‘Indian music in Singapore’, p. 3; Suresh Kumar. ‘Singapore Indian Association, 1923–1941’ (B.A. thesis, NUS, 1994/1995), p. 1.

21 Paul Abisheganaden, Notes across the years: Anecdotes from a musical life (Singapore: Unipress, Centre for the Arts, NUS, 2005), p. 35. Vadrevu and Audrey, ‘Indian music’, p. 3.

22 The Indian, Kuala Lumpur, 18 Jan. 1936.

23 Straits Times, 23 Sept. 1986, p. 11. These orchestras were merged in 1950 and renamed the Ramakrishna Sangeetha Sabha. It is unclear when that orchestra disbanded, but it appears to have split by the mid-1980s, when it was replaced by the Singapore Indian Orchestra and Choir, an organisation with the unique mission to blend Indian musics with Chinese, Malay and European musics.

24 Mangal Chotta Singh, An elementary guide to Indian music and harmonium playing (Singapore: Nanyo Printing Office, 1936).

25 Straits Times, 28 Sept. 1986, p. 10.

26 Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 24 Mar. 1936, p. 6.

27 Straits Times, 9 Jan. 1937, p. 12.

28 Vadrevu and Perera, ‘Indian music’, p. 4.

29 Ibid.

30 Ibid, p. 5.

31 Ibid.

32 Straits Times, 1 Nov. 1985, p. 19.

33 Straits Times, 15 Nov. 1985, p. 8. On the Wikipedia article ‘List of patriotic Singaporean songs’, ‘Munneru Valiba’ is the only Tamil song listed (though there it is listed as a Tamil folk tune, rather than as being written by Ramalingam). I ran across a Singaporean Chinese musician performing this Indian tune, with obvious Singaporean patriotic overtones: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6YoqmpNhUlQ.

34 Straits Times, 15 Nov. 1985, p. 8.

35 Straits Times, 2 Nov. 1951, p. 5.

36 Straits Times, 15 Nov. 1985, p. 8.

37 Loretta Marie Perera and Audrey Perera, ‘Yasotha Somasundram: Breaking boundaries’ (Singapore: National Library Board, 2010), p. 3. Available at http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/music/Media/PDFs/Article/54f7953b-61cb-4bb8-b04b-f26363b3f45c.pdf (last accessed 10 July 2015).

38 Ibid. Yasotha was co-leader of the Indian orchestra of the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation when she put out a record on the German Sonotone label in the mid-1980s. Straits Times, 12 Oct. 1984, p. 4.

39 Straits Times, 25 Aug. 1978, p. 15.

40 Ibid.

42 Ibid.

43 Singapore Free Press, 24 Dec. 1960, p. 7.

46 Ibid.

47 Among Santha Bhaskar's awards include a Natya Rani (Queen of Dance) Award in 1975 from the Singapore Indian Film and Dramatic Society, a Kala Ratna Award from the Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society, and a Cultural Medallion from the Singapore government in 1990.

48 Straits Times, 2 Oct. 1951, p. 5.

49 Straits Times, 24 Oct. 1955, p. 5.

50 Straits Times, 20 Jan. 1957, p. 8.

51 Straits Times, 28 Feb. 1964, p. 8.

52 Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 9 Dec. 1940, p. 7.

53 Straits Times, 24 July 1951, p. 4.

54 Seva Singh Gandharab, Early Sikh pioneers of Singapore (self-published, 1986), p. 11.

55 Other Sikh musical talent Gandharab mentions include ‘a group of Shabad (hymn) singers from the village of Mallian, all brothers and cousins’, who were popular in the 1920s and 1930s. Ibid.

56 Iswaran, Celebrating 100 years, p. 40.

57 Abisheganaden, Notes across the years, p. 3.

58 Weekly Sun, 8 Nov. 1913, p. 4. Goans and Eurasians made contributions to popular musics in Singapore I consider below.

59 Sunil Amrith, ‘Tamil diasporas across the Bay of Bengal’, p. 549.

60 Ibid.

61 Ibid. See also Sunil Amrith, ‘Indians overseas? Governing Tamil migration to Malaya, 1870–1941’, Past and Present 208 (Aug. 2010): 231–61.

62 Beng, Tan Sooi, ‘From popular to “traditional” theater: The dynamics of change in bangsawan of Malaysia’, Ethnomusicology 33, 2 (1989): 229–74Google Scholar.

63 Munerram, 4 Feb. 1932, p. 7.

64 The Indian, 28 Dec. 1935.

65 ‘Hear the greatest poetess Srimati Sarojini Naidu impressively eloquently rendering her own the following compositions … Words fail to describe her wonderful voice’, Munerram, 18 Feb. 1932, p. 4.

66 The 18 Jan. 1936 issue of The Indian contains ads for Tamil talkies, musical instruments and life insurance, with articles on ‘The sway of Indian influence in the East’ (subheadings: ‘Days of India's glory recalled’ and ‘Hindu culture in Malaya and Indo-China’), the plight of Indian labourers on plantations, current affairs in India, and a column called ‘Random notes from Singapore’.

67 Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 16 Nov. 1937, p. 3. The article does not mention whether this group arrived to stay or were beginning or continuing a tour, but musical visits to Singapore were typically the culmination or launching pad for more performances.

68 Straits Times, 14 May 1935, p. 13.

69 Straits Times, 8 Oct. 1935, p. 17.

70 Straits Times, 3 June 1956, p. 4.

71 Straits Times, 28 Feb. 1961, p. 5.

72 Straits Times, 27 May 1951, p. 9.

73 Straits Times, 24 Aug. 1952, p. 11.

74 Singapore Free Press, 5 Aug. 1959, p. 5.

75 Straits Times, 21 Apr. 1953, p. 7.

76 Straits Times, 14 May 1982, p. 2.

77 Straits Times, 21 Dec. 1960, p. 11. Andrew Weintraub gives us a glimpse of a different sort of touring network when he discusses how an Indonesian dangdut singer, Sinar Kemala, from Surabaya in Java, worked as a freelance artist in the 1950s, wearing Indian clothes and imitating the vocals and dance styles of Indian film songs, touring in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. Andrew Weintraub, Dangdut stories: A social and musical history of Indonesia's most popular music (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 60.

78 It is important to stress that such events could be rife with controversy about appropriate worship and display factionalism as much as unity.

79 Ravindra K. Jain, South Indians on the plantation frontier in Malaya (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970).

80 Ibid.

81 ‘Chinese, Malay, Indian, Other’ are the four main categories of the Singapore census.

82 Straits Times, 21 Sept. 1933, p. 13.

83 Drew O. McDaniel, Broadcasting in the Malay world: Radio, television, and video in Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore (Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1994), p. 43.

84 Straits Times, 19 May 1939, p. 15. Out of around 5,000 listeners, the BMBC argued only 200 were Indians. See also Straits Times, 6 Apr. 1939, p. 10.

85 Straits Times, 19 May 1939, p. 15.

86 Straits Times, 23 Mar. 1939, p. 15.

87 Straits Times, 6 Mar. 1939, p. 15. Singaporean Indians at this time could not rely on stations in India and Ceylon. As one writer put it, ‘It is a well-known fact … that it is impossible to get good reception from the Indian stations in the early hours of the evening — between 6 and 8 p.m. — unless the listener possesses an up-to-date and extraordinarily powerful set.’

88 Straits Times, 6 Apr. 1939, p. 10.

89 Straits Times, 19 May 1939, p. 15. The situation had changed drastically by 1960, when Radio Singapore announced it would broadcast a variety programme throughout Thaipusam day, from 6:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., noting that, ‘there will be music and talks including Indian music for Hindu listeners at 10:15 a.m’, Straits Times, 11 Feb. 1960, p. 4.

90 Straits Times, 27 Mar. 1939, p. 15. The writer goes on to say he has ‘purchased dozens of H.M.V., Columbia, Hutchins and other records of Indian music as a result of broadcasting by the Penang and K.L. stations’ and would be happy to lend the B.M.B.C. his records.

91 Straits Times, 18 Mar. 1939, p. 10.

92 Straits Times, 11 Mar. 1948, p. 6.

93 Straits Times, 10 July 1954, p. 12.

94 Ibid.

95 Straits Times, 25 Mar. 1955, p. 6.

96 Straits Times, 7 Sept. 1963, p. 8.

97 Dairianathan and Phan, ‘A narrative history of music in Singapore 1819 to the present’, p. 230. Hindustani songs had currency among Malays due to the popularity of bangsawan theatre in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the impact of Bollywood, and the Hindustani-influenced music of the early Malay film industry, where Indian directors sometimes ‘just translated Indian scripts into Malay, the result being that the films had all the Indian nuances, cultural idiosyncracies and mannerisms, and very little that was truly Malay’. Interview with John Lent, in ibid., p. 231.

98 Interview conducted by Eugene Dairianathan with Mohd. Rafee, Feb. 2004, in Dairianathan and Phan, ‘A narrative history of music in Singapore’, p. 230. Dairianathan asserts that Hindi songs were preferred at Indian Muslim weddings, though it is clear there was intermixture among bands, as a Tamil singer (for instance) could guest on a Tamil song when performed by a band that specialised in Hindustani music. Ibid.

99 Radio playlist, Straits Times, 20 Sept. 1941, p. 9.

100 Radio playlist, Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advisor, 25 Mar. 1941, p. 9.

101 These included the New World (est. 1923), the Great World, and the Happy World, all modelled after Shanghai's successful Great World and New World ‘not just for their names, but also through their nearness, cultural connections and cosmopolitanism’. The New World was founded by Straits Chinese brothers, the Ongs, who eventually went into joint venture with the entrepreneurial Shaw Brothers, transferring ownership completely to the Shaws in 1938. Wong and Tan, ‘Emergence of a cosmopolitan space’: 280, 281.

102 Ibid.: 280.

103 Ibid.

104 Dairianathan and Phan, A narrative history of music in Singapore, pp. 205–6.

105 Straits Times, 22 May 1951, p. 7.

106 Dairianathan and Phan, A narrative history of music in Singapore, p. 207. Paul G. Pakirnathan, ‘The Tamil festival in Penang: Tamil cultural identity and development’, p. 3, paper presented at The Penang Story International Conference 2002, City Bayview Hotel, Penang, 18–21 Apr. 2002.

107 Singapore Free Press, 1 Aug. 1952, p. 3.

108 Ibid.

109 Ibid.

110 Ibid.

111 Abisheganaden, Notes across the years, p. 4. Abisheganaden remarks that after the Goan D'Souza brothers secured a contract to book the Pavilion, it led to ‘an exodus from state and “railway” bands in various parts of India’, who were attracted to Singapore to avoid having to rely on the patronage of rajas or Indian heads of state (ibid., p. 6).

112 The station ZH1 relayed live music performances from dances at the Raffles Hotel and the Waterloo Street bandstand, while ZHL relayed dance music from the Great World on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the New World on Saturdays, light music from the Adelphi Hotel on Tuesdays and Sundays, the Sea View Hotel on Sundays, and recitals from Wesley Church on Sundays. Chua Ai Lin, ‘Modernity, popular culture and urban life: Anglophone Asians in colonial Singapore, 1920–1940’ (Ph.D. thesis, St. John's College, University of Cambridge, 2007), p. 221. It is unclear how many Indian musicians took part in these performances, but undoubtedly Goans (and others) made appearances.

113 Abisheganaden, Notes across the years, pp. 5–6. The earliest Indian films were often reproductions of Indian dramas of the sort performed by groups of mixed ethnicity in the bangsawan theatre; thus the plots and, perhaps, style of Indian films would not have been foreign to non-Indian audiences.

114 Chua, ‘Modernity, popular culture and urban Life’, p. 361.

115 Straits Times, 23 Aug. 1951, p. 5.

116 Straits Times, 10 Nov. 1955, p. 10.

117 Ibid.

119 Straits Times, 10 Aug. 1967, p. 8.

120 Singapore Free Press, 17 June 1961, p. 7.

121 Abisheganaden, Notes across the years, pp. 9–10.

122 Dairianathan, ‘Cultural dependence in question’: 175–6.

123 Ibid. In English language newspapers, though, ‘Indian music party’ referred to a group of Indians playing any kind of Indian music, usually at a social gathering held for a special occasion or visiting dignitary.

124 See Naresh Fernandes, Taj Mahal foxtrot: The story of Bombay's jazz age (New Delhi: Lustre/Roli Books, 2011).

125 Mohd. Rafee cited in Dairianathan, ‘Cultural dependence in question’, p. 184.

126 Ibid., p. 179.

127 Chandinjiraat and Sangam Boys were two groups who ‘were Malays, Indian Muslims or their wives were Malay or some were Urdu speaking Muslims … these groups wrote the lyrics in Romanised Hindustani words’; S. Sivan, quoted in Dairianathan, ‘Cultural dependence in question’: 183.

128 Joel Kahn, Other Malays: Nationalism and cosmopolitanism in the modern Malay world (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2006).

129 Christina Edmunds, Oral History Centre, Accession No. 003022, Singapore National Archives.

130 Ibid., Dairianathan, ‘Cultural dependence in question’: 180.

131 Straits Times, 2 May 1963, p. 5.

132 Ibid.

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