The Fires of Elangovan

December 23, 2018

Elangovan, Alamak! 1The following is my foreword to Elangovan’s latest collection of plays, Alamak! (Zero Degree Publishing, 2018), pp. 9-14.

Singular and complete, the name Elangovan becomes declarative; it becomes timeless. The name speaks of itself as both its own lineage and its own centre. As a writer’s name, it embodies the imagination’s absolute authority to be. The word, which means young king in Tamil, also hints at epochal renewal.

Elangovan the writer is the original enfant terrible in Singapore’s literary world. He began in poetry in the late 1970s, publishing two controversial Tamil collections Vizhichannalkalin Pinnalirunthu (Behind Windows of Eyes) in 1979 and Mounavatham (Silent Annihilation) in 1984 and the bilingual Transcreations (1988) in 1988. Then, as fate would have it, he made a sharp turn into theatre, where he has endeavoured ever since.

The power of Elangovan’s uniformly provocative works was well-understood by the close of the last millennium. He was conferred the prestigious Southeast Asian Writers Award or the SEA Write Award in 1997. Yet, today, Elangovan remains outside the main vein of media and artistic attention as well as academic study. The fault of such neglect lies almost squarely on Singapore’s intellectual climate.

That scholarship betrays an embedded political milieu is nowhere clearer than in the downplaying of Elangovan’s importance. His critics’ shrewd, nervous treatment has led to a general, inadequate assessment of his legacy. His critical vigour is muffled as much as his person is feared – but Elangovan himself gives no grounds to be approached any other way. The writer’s voice burns with so much inexhaustible rage that his writings seem to continue into each other.

Elangovan’s own theatre group founded on 1 August 1991 is called Agni Koothu, meaning theatre of fire. The fire is a central trope for all of what and how this writer explores. His fire is not in the nature of carnal desire or spiritual enlightenment. It is firstly more a ruinous, iconoclastic fire, one that knows no bounds to what it can take on in tireless, blunt wit. Secondly, it is a liberating and holy fire that sets free the mind from taboos to admit awkward realities.

Art for Elangovan goes in the direction of these two fires, utilising their processes. What it eventually restores as pure is no less than the right enjoyed by children and sages to name things as they are, to call a spade a spade. Such plain-speaking, done without fear, makes it inevitable that the real and psychic wrath of social strictures be faced. After all, the good gained from letting our inquisitive minds be herded away has been a broad sense of comfort and stability. Getting to the truth therefore needs not just a commitment to rethinking but, more fundamentally, self-destruction.

Elangovan’s pyrophilic art, his burning to the core through dramatic confrontation, embraces such a mission. His theatre is not so much a crucible for social change as a furnace enabling personal challenge and unease. Its method of insistent crudeness erodes layers of falsehood, distortion, and concealment we have somehow learnt to live with. The outcome is not revolutionary in the political sense as it in no way demands or anticipates a better future. No utopian blueprint exists here. Rather, we get a quasi-religious quality of working through life against entrenched illusions, for which theatre becomes a ritualistic space.

As the experience Agni Koothu offers is too often Singaporean, it is tempting but inaccurate to say that Elangovan would have been more justly recognised in another society. The bare truth is, there would be no Elangovan without the Singapore he obsessively analyses and dismantles. This assertion rings truer of him than of any other living Singaporean playwright today. The matter is not just about his typical settings and themes; it also involves his type of language, manner of criticism, humour, and underlying psyche.

In fact, one can find few better literary surveys of Singaporean life outside of Elangovan’s plays. His drama helpfully manages its emotions in a more systematic way than his charged verse, providing explanations for concepts and societal traits before leaping to tear them apart. His own remarkable memory ensures that each of such plays paints a surreal but familiar, panoramic social portrait. Each deftly invokes community myths and aspects of an omnipresent, Kafkaesque bureaucracy. Each displays an unparalleled understanding of Singapore’s linguistic fabric, from English, Tamil, Malay, and Mandarin to Chinese dialects and Singlish.

Moreover, Elangovan’s storytelling style curiously allows little logical progression, appearing often repetitive if not random. Scenes and acts may feel like they can be performed out of order with no significant impact. Some works move in such a circular fashion that what is experienced nervously resembles layering more than development. So a simple and humorous scenario gradually attains the effect of horror, becoming theatrically intense and discomforting like a Werner Herzog film.

All this is compounded by how Elangovan himself shows no interest in reining in his works’ transgressiveness. Singapore’s official OB or out-of-bounds markers – that is, state-maintained boundaries for public discourse – are crossed continuously. Race, religion, and politics are broached in potentially explosive degrees. It even sometimes feels like a good number of his characters are racists, their subconscious being, by some sad twist of art, freed to speak aloud. Such manifesting of deep-seated prejudices forces the audience into a difficult corner to do battle with their own awareness of self.

In this sense, Elangovan’s theatre belongs more decisively in the absurdist tradition rather than a social-realist one. Form for him is always as central as focus. The best way to approach the artistic offence that defines Agni Koothu is to welcome its performances in terms of psychic automatism, acts without moral, social, or logical deliberations that can then challenge what we know. Abundant sarcasm, profanity, slapstick, and wordplay generating an abstract, nonsensical quality are aspects of a survivalist mechanism at work within a powerfully out-of-sync universe.

Elangovan’s plays become, in this context, attempts to rediscover the language of innocence and to renew one’s primordial pact with existence. The pursuit is clear to me in the current happy collection bringing together four of his plays from the last decade alone: Alamak!, Oh!, Meow!, and Godse. This volume continues an important effort to make texts from the writer’s vast and ranging oeuvre available to a wide readership via a commercial publisher. His three notoriously banned plays – Talaq, Smegma, and Stoma – were published as The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly by Math Paper Press just in 2014.

Both Alamak! and Oh! here read like Voltairean contes philosophiques or philosophical tales such as Zadig (1747), Micromégas (1752), and Candide (1759). These similarly survey immense social worlds to draw out general truths by means of varied empirical investigations. In Alamak!, the governing narrative device is time travel while, in Oh!, it is the magic show. Alamak! uses myth and history as embodied by Sang Nila Utama, the thirteenth-century Srivijayan prince and founder of Singapore, to critique modern myths of identity binding the disenfranchised to the powers that be. Oh! differently uses the curious idea of a magician going mad to expose the relationship between power and our complicity in the shape of dominant reality.

By contrast, Meow! is a single, continuous act with Beckettian anti-heroes, a suddenly rich, working-class Malay couple on a carousel-like journey, and their mysterious cat. The psychologically intense play unfolds a drama of contesting class values and tensions within urban desires and consumerist culture. Godse is an exception in an otherwise localised volume. Its supernatural twist has the great Indian nationalist leader Mahatma Gandhi meet his assassinator Nathuram Godse in a limbo called Trishanku’s heaven. The startling encounter allows for questions on the pursuit of truth through violence and peace to be faced bluntly and radically.

These shocking plays are as diverse as they are ultimately comparable. They throw open the doors in the house of what we know about everything: ourselves, society, and life in general. They overturn the tables on which we have bargained away values, principles, and ideals for the sake of common normality, and they make us revisit the familiar with alien eyes. Theatre comes alive in a most ancient way on Elangovan’s stage; it takes up the extraordinary work of turning the self into a horrific mystery to be exorcised.

Gwee Li Sui

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