Friday 17 October 2014

Theatre veteran, poet and sculptor awarded Cultural Medallion 2014

By Lisabel Ting, The Straits Times, 16 Oct 2014

A TRIO of veteran artists, from the fields of English-language theatre, sculpture and Tamil poetry, will receive the Cultural Medallion today.

They are founder and artistic director of The Necessary Stage Alvin Tan, 51; sculptor Chong Fah Cheong, 68; and poet and writer KTM Iqbal, 74.

They will be conferred the nation's highest cultural award by President Tony Tan Keng Yam at a ceremony at the Istana in the evening.

The award was instituted 35 years ago to recognise committed individuals who have contributed greatly to the arts here. To date, it has been presented to 115 artists, including the three recipients this year. Recipients are each eligible for a $80,000 grant, which can be used to fund artistic endeavours over their lifetime.

Mr Tan has been at the helm of The Necessary Stage since 1987, and has directed over 70 productions for the company. He is also a council member of the National Arts Council, and part of the Singapore50 Committee planning the nation's 50th anniversary celebrations next year.

When asked about the award, the typically modest Mr Tan spoke about other people instead of himself.

The director, known for socially conscious plays created with other collaborators, said: "I was really pleased - it's a recognition of the practice, and the body of work... And we're also able to then talk more about how our collaborators work with us, and there are more opportunities for multiple narratives to be out there, about our method."

Mr Chong, who now lives in Canada, is acknowledged as one of the pioneer sculptors here. His works include First Generation (2000), the iconic bronze sculpture of five boys jumping into the Singapore River near The Fullerton Hotel Singapore.

He says of the award: "I knew it was something that would be timely... Although I'm not here most of the time, I've always had a presence here, and I come back to continue work."

Mr Iqbal was "delighted" to receive the award, which he called "an incredible honour". It recognised achievements such as his seven collections of poetry and his more than 200 children's songs written for Radio Singapore's programmes in the 1970s and 1980s. Several of his poems are also included in Tamil texts for Singapore schools.

At tonight's ceremony, five Young Artist Awards will also be given out, recognising those aged 35 and below who have shown promise and artistic excellence. Recipients can apply for study or project grants of up to $20,000.

The recipients this year are: composer Chen Zhangyi, 30; theatre practitioner Ian Loy, 34; film-maker Jow Zhi Wei, 31; dance artist Lee Mun Wai, 32; and theatre actor Siti Khalijah Zainal, 29.

A theatre director, sculptor and poet each have been awarded Singapore’s highest cultural honour. Life! profiles this year’s Cultural Medallion recipients

From Shakespeare to finding a Singaporean voice onstage
By Corrie Tan, The Straits Times, 16 Oct 2014

In an interview about his own achievements, Alvin Tan speaks overwhelmingly little about himself.

The 51-year-old founder and artistic director of one of Singapore's most critically acclaimed theatre companies is characteristically modest, constantly nudging the spotlight onto his collaborators instead.

He tells Life!: "I won't take all the compliments. I think there were a lot of very calculated steps taken to start The Necessary Stage. It was being in the right place, at the right time."

Born out of a group of university friends in 1987, The Necessary Stage has since presented more than 100 original plays. It is known for its grittily realistic portrayals of Singapore and for wrestling with social issues head on - from political detention (Gemuk Girls, 2009) to paedophilia (Fundamentally Happy, 2006). Both clinched Production of the Year at the Life! Theatre Awards.

Even as Singapore theatre began to professionalise in the 1980s, directors often lacked confidence in taking on home-grown work and shaping it for the stage. Which is exactly what Tan decided to do. He says: "For me, it was because I was very envious, reading Shakespeare, to see all that and finding we didn't have a Singapore equivalent."

In 1992, he quit teaching literature at Raffles Institution to become a full-time theatre practitioner.

The Necessary Stage has become well known for its highly collaborative process of theatre-making, where original plays are created based on deep research, intensive improvisations and input from the creative team.

This is where Tan receives the warmest of accolades - from playwright Haresh Sharma, 49, his closest collaborator and twin driving force of The Necesary Stage. Sharma says: "Alvin has a way of erasing his presence; he directs such that the actors shine, the play reads well and the design is clean. His works don't scream out loud: Look at me, I am the director, look how good I am!

"If anything, he is the opposite - he likes being behind the scenes, whether as a director or as an activist, always allowing others to shine in the spotlight."

Tan has become a key figure also because of his strong stances in advocacy, arts education and mentorship. Award-winning directors Chong Tze Chien and Natalie Hennedige all count him as an essential mentor.

Under his charge, The Necessary Stage has been tireless in its efforts to nurture audiences and practitioners, whether through its Theatre For Youth and Community initiative, or its Triangle Project where donors buy tickets for beneficiaries to the company's productions. This year, Tan spearheaded The Orange Playground, an experimental programme for practitioners.

Internationally, The Necessary Stage has staged its works in at least 20 cities, from Seoul to Sziget (in Hungary) and worked with many foreign counterparts.

It became the first theatre group to have a play selected as an O and N-level literature text. That was in 2006 for Off Centre (1990), a gut-wrenching play about how mental health issues affect two characters and their families. When the play was first staged, government funding had been withdrawn after Sharma refused to soften his portrayal of mental illness.

Tan counts the recognition for Off Centre as one of the high points of his career: "I thought it was going to happen after my lifetime."

He adds: "That was why I started The Necessary Stage - because I was reading Shakespeare footnotes in order to understand it. I was hoping in my heart of hearts that one day, others would have to read our footnotes.

"The cultural confidence grew. But it's not just one work - it's years of work."

Not all was rosy. In 1994, the group narrowly avoided closing down after this newspaper reported that Tan and Sharma had attended workshops on forum theatre and drama therapy in New York conducted by theatre practitioner Augusto Boal, a Brazilian Marxist. The implication was that the group was using theatre as a political tool. Eventually, according to Tan, the authorities told The Necessary Stage's board of directors: "Your guys are clean. They're not Marxists, they're idealists."

The group has weathered this, as well as a period of no funding for forum theatre, an interactive form of theatre for social change, which they pioneered here.

Tan says: "I ask myself all the time - if you don't see change in your lifetime, would you still do the work?

"In the past, I used to feel guilty that a work wouldn't effect social change or impact policy. But then I thought, no, it doesn't have to be one work. Because it's not one work that changed me. It's an accumulation of works and people you meet."

Making sculptures out of wood
By Huang Lijie Arts Correspondent, The Straits Times, 16 Oct 2014

The Cultural Medallion award may have been given to him, but sculptor Chong Fah Cheong regards it as more than a personal accolade.

The 68-year-old says: "The award is given to me personally but it's not a personal right, it's about celebrating with the art community of Singapore.

"Countries are often centuries-old before they start to recognise anything but Singapore is in a hurry to get there and it's a good thing because in any society, the heroes are in fact made so that there are role models to emulate."

A largely self-taught artist, he was himself moulded into a sculptor at the nudging of the late Brother Joseph McNally, founder of Lasalle College of the Arts.

Chong has a bachelor's degree in social science from the then University of Singapore and a diploma in curriculum studies in art and design from the City of Birmingham Polytechnic in the United Kingdom.

He was an art teacher at St Patrick's School in the 1970s when Brother McNally, an accomplished artist, was the principal. Summoned by Brother McNally to make use of wood from trees felled on campus, he made his first sculptures out of wood.

His sculptures are on display in public spaces islandwide, among them a bronze piece of boys jumping into the Singapore River, which is popular with shutterbugs, and a large-scale sculpture of a maternal figure hugging a child, which stands in Toa Payoh Town Centre.

His works are also in the national collection of art and will be on show at the National Gallery Singapore when the museum opens next year.

His peers include sculptors Iskandar Jalil, Han Sai Por and Chng Seok Tin, all of whom are Cultural Medallion recipients.

Asked if his recognition is overdue, he would only say: "I imagine that if I continued in Singapore, I would've been more anxious about it because of how life goes on here, you feel you have to get on with it."

He moved with his wife, son and daughter to Merritt in British Columbia in 1989 in part because the children were not doing well in Chinese classes in school and also because he wanted a slower pace of life.

He and his family, however, have retained their Singapore citizenship and he continues to hold exhibitions and take on commissions for work here.

He says: "People always ask me if I'm still Singaporean. I tell them I'm a true porcelain-green and Peranakan-pink Singaporean." He was born the 12th of 13 children to a doctor and a housewife, both Peranakans.

As for how his art relates to Singapore, he says he merely allows who he is, which includes being a Singaporean, to come through in his work. This is evident in his choice of Malay titles for some of his sculptures and references to his Catholic upbringing here in certain works.

He acknowledges though that his years in Canada have allowed him "to stand and stare". This in turn, has influence his practice. "I see my works as poetry in form. The textures, surfaces and material are inspired by my surroundings and what I observe," he says.

He hopes to polish his skills as a sculptor by using the award grant of $80,000 to learn new ways of handling stone. He says resolutely: "I want to do something to improve myself."

Writing Tamil poetry on the bus
By Huang Lijie, The Straits Times, 16 Oct 2014

His affection for poetry is clear from the way he speaks about the literary art form.

Tamil poet KTM Iqbal, 74, says: "My first love is poetry. We have been together for 60 years. I never imagined this would bring me the Cultural Medallion award."

The comment leaves his eyes pink and moist. He purses his lips for seconds to compose himself.

The father of five sons turns poignant again at the mention of his wife of 48 years, Aisha Beevi. She was the first person he recited his poems to after he penned them. She died of cancer in 2010 at the age of 66.

He says: "She is very neutral in her feedback. Sometimes she will tell me, 'You better don't send this out' and sometimes she will say, 'Nobody can write like this', which is an over-statement, but it comes from her heart."

The mostly self-taught poet received little formal education until his early 20s.

The eldest of four children, he lost his mother and three brothers at a young age to cholera in his birthplace, Kadayanallur, in South India. In 1951, at the age of 11, he emigrated to Singapore with his labourer father. He had two years of elementary education before starting work as an office boy in an audit firm.

He knew enough Tamil to read and write in the language and eager to learn, turned to books and newspapers at Indian community libraries. It was the now- defunct Tamil newspaper Malaya Nanban that introduced him to the simple but evocative compositions of Tamil poet Mathithasan. The poet's vivid depiction of people and values in society inspired the young Iqbal to start penning poems.

He signed up for a poetry-writing workshop to learn the basics of Venpa, a form of classical Tamil poetry. The class was held by the Tamil Murasu newspaper in conjunction with a poetry contest that it ran regularly. His submissions to the contest were frequently published.

He says: "I would sit on the streets in the evening to write or an idea might come when I was on the bus."

He wrote through marriage and fatherhood, through night classes for his Senior Cambridge exam and his work as a bank executive for share registration.

His prolific writing covers everything from social issues to everyday experiences and includes seven collections of poetry, contributions of poems, essays and short stories to magazines and newspapers, as well as the lyrics to more than 200 children's songs for Radio Singapore programmes in the 1970s and 1980s. His Tamil poems are studied in schools here and some of them have appeared in MRT stations and trains as part of efforts to bring the arts closer to the community.

While the retired bank executive continues to pen poems, he hopes to dedicate his energy, as well as the grant from the Cultural Medallion award, to put together an edited collection of his best Tamil poems and an English translation of it.

He says of the award: "The money once spent is gone. But to have the nation recognise your contribution is great and it will encourage people to keep writing poetry."

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