Family accounts and oral historical sources have informed us that Tamil women have been in Singapore from the second half of the 19th century. As labour, as convicts, as wives, and as entrepreneurs Tamil women were diverse in the walks of life they occupied in Singapore. Alamayloo Pillay arrived from Mauritius with her father Sabapathy Pillai in the second half of the 19th century and in 1890, she married Koona Vayloo Pillay. Madam Ponnammal was a private financier with operations at Rochor in the late 19th century. These are but two names of Tamil women who were 19th century personas in Singapore. What of the others who remain anonymous? This section serves as a reminder of the stories of many Tamil women that remain obscure, waiting to be discovered.
Heart in Hand – a marriage of identities
Hand painted on wood
2019, Commissioned by Indian Heritage Centre
The story of the female Tamil migrant is often shrouded in anonymity. Little is known of the life of early Tamil migrants to Singapore and Malaya; the narrative remains predominantly male. In response to this gender-imbalance in details of the past, Anurendra Jegadeva explores the journey of a contemporary diasporic Tamil girl. Using the thali, a symbol of the matrimonial bond, Anurendra explores a female migrant’s ideas of culture and place. With his daughter as the central figure for the thali shaped altar, Heart in Hand juxtaposes her very Western oriented values against her ethno-cultural background inherited from her grandmother, the Original Migrant. The work begins to convey the disconnect, even indifference felt by the children of migrants as they assimilate and negotiate their way through the same issues of identity and place, albeit twice removed, that was experienced by their grandparent, the Original Migrant.
Anurendra Jegadeva is an artist of diasporic Tamil roots whose works have always revolved around issues of migration and the movement of people. At the heart of his work is the Indian condition in Malaysia which has been embroiled in issues of place and identity for more than two centuries now. Furthermore, his family’s subsequent moves to and fro between Malaysia and Australia—over the last two decades, informed by broader global and domestic developments, have truly sealed the content of his artistic practise.
The central panel of this altar presents Anurendra’s daughter, as if a deity, at the core of the painting. Like a home altar, rather than a hierarchy of gods and goddesses, the work is cluttered with the paraphernalia of the migrant. Cooking implements, a famous migrant ship, auspicious birds and ancestral portraits embellished by Victorian picture frames and ornate picture frames are set against a colour scheme of gold and cream symbolic of the marriage veshti. The six wings of the altar, inspired by a Thali (part of the IHC Collection), are hinged, three a-side, to the main panel. Embellished on back and front, each wing contains miniature floating paintings that add to the narrative of contradiction. From popular culture to idyllic landscapes, these embellishments place actors MGR and Padmini in a face-off with Pulp Fiction’s Vinnie and Jules; of luscious and bountiful Kinabalu at odds with the alien red of Uluru. A 19th century Tamil migrant family (adapted from archival photos in the National Museum of Singapore collection) is presented in contrast with the contemporaneous mood… the ‘softness’ of the portrait of Anurendra’s daughter. The central box within these hinged wings, on either side of the central panel, house light-boxes with reproductions of Migrant Letters, works that incorporate vintage letters from migrants in their compositions. On the top of the panel, is a gopuram or temple tower-like crown for the altar, that also huses another lightbox depicting an electric guitar-playing Saraswati, the goddess of learning. To enhance these contradictions are stylised portraits of Western icons the Queen and the King, Elvis on either side of the central deity. For Anurendra, Heart in Hand is a kind of culmination of his migrant narratives series addressing issues of assimilation, gender, contribution and always place.