A Casket Boy's Tale

By Pritam Singh Sekhon

It was 1952. I was ten. A kampung lad. A "free range" kid.

Suddenly I was in the company of a range of people of different ethnicities, ages, backgrounds from near and far. Very far - as far as the fabled England. I was hearing the language of Shakespeare for the first time - in a range of accents, being brought alive as something real and tangible. (My reading at that stage was limited to Level 4 of the "A L Bright" readers during reading sessions in Primary 2 (today's Year 4)) - supplemented by simplified editions of classics borrowed from the British Council library. It made me get hold of Saran's copy of the complete works and read through it all - and experienced the shock of being able to actually follow the stories through even though at a superficial level.

I was hearing music, classical music on decent sound systems for the first time. I was hearing English spoken by BBC trained Radio Malaya staff - seeing and hearing how they shaped their speech, their tonalities, the pausation, stress and emphasis they used to enhance their communication, to add colour to their speech. I was doing all this unwittingly.

At the time it was simply magic.

I was among a bunch of people who simply got along as friends who supported one another. There was respect and warmth among them, undemanded and unforced. There was an unspoken assumption that they were exceptional people - because they were "VI" people. I was welcomed and included as one of them - which was very heart-warming. Something of the magic of enhanced being that emerges in the throes of a production got into my bones. It has stayed there for the rest of my life.

Every one of that bunch of people went on to do exceptional things - however varied the individual outcomes.

At home, in Kg Kerinci, I am in awe of big brother Saran and his mate, Shankar whose friendship is akin to brotherhood. They are often around and I have been easily persuaded to join the gang that involves such friendship. Occasionally we are also visited by the teen-aged Ananda Krishnan whose vibrant personality was bursting out of his skin even back then!

Now, looking back I can see how all of us remain "unfinished" works to the very last post. Lately (2017) I have been in email conversation with Shankar. The puddles of shared memory and values awaken joy and sadness in equal measure.

My memory of the time is all bound up with the feel of things at the time. The War has ended a mere seven years before. Grown-ups around me still speak of stuff that happened during the Occupation. (Today we know that phenomenon as a form of collective trauma.) One war has ended but another one is still going on. The country is in the throes of the Emergency, so the gloom of war still hangs in the air. At night one can hear the distant, muffled boom of bombs going off somewhere. At night many areas are still under curfew even though KL is now a "White" area (as opposed to "Black" areas still under stringent military and paramilitary control).

Cycling, "under bar", waggling along, rarely holding a straight line, to rehearsals at night along roads overhung with rain trees, the street lighting dull and yellowish, swallowed by the vegetation. Half the time worried that the bicycle lamp will fail and I may be pulled up by a "bakul" - our derisive nickname for the cops, after the kind of headgear they used to wear.

Then arriving at rehearsals at the British Council - in the single storey building in the valley below its current location. Brighter lights, ceiling fans keeping the mosquitoes at bay. Wide sliding doors like the old KL General Hospital ward buildings. The group of actors and production people gathered loosely in the acting space in the middle. All talking in soft voices, a sense of comfortable companionship. Then watching the rehearsals in progress. The lines, the moves, the blocking, the articulation of particular speeches. The repetition.

The thing that slowly impresses itself is that everybody there is older than me, yet I am spoken with as one of them. Not as a kid. They all converse in English, at ease with it. At home we converse in Punjabi and English, breaking into bazaar Malay if any non-speaker of those languages happens to be present. But here English is not only spoken, it is being brought to life, as a way to experience things, through the rehearsal process.

I am not aware that this is happening at the time.

Gradually individuals come into focus, Zain Azraai as Gratiano, Teng Bin as Bassanio, Shankar as Antonio, Jeyaratnam as Portia, my brothers - Saran as Shylock, Isher as one of the magnificoes. Ananda Krishnan, who, alarmingly, faints during the dress rehearsal. And my casket-bearing mates, gentle, self-effacing Choong Looi and Arunasalam (Arul) with his pealing, infectious laughter - he becomes Chairman of the Society years later, in his senior year.

I am not as aware of the teachers among them though I note the affection and respect with which everyone relates with them. But the director makes a strong impression. At first the director is a guy called Mr Davidson. He has an approach which appears to reach some kind of stage at which there is a faltering, things have become mechanical, as if he has faded in some way.

Then, one evening, we arrive and there is a new director. Mr Michael Smee. He hits the scene like a blazing meteor! We have switched from an academic/intellectual feel for the play into an actor's feel for the thing. It hits something in everybody. There is magic in how he is bringing the printed words to life, transforming the actors into characters who have dealings with one another, some of which are between the lines. This idea, that there is stuff exchanged between the lines, that can be expressed in many, many ways on stage - is what brings this production into the kind of roaring life that flows across the footlights and brings the audience into the lives of the characters night after night.

Michael Smee's name has stayed in neon in my memory since then. His approach to drama informs mine in the years to come.

As the performance dates approach some of the rehearsals are held at the VI, in what everyone refers to as The Refectory. It is the first time I have been in the place. I am the only one not already of the school, unfamiliar with its geography.

We encounter the stage director, Satish Chand Bhandari here. He is familiar to me, a family friend. Everyone speaks of him with a kind of hushed respect. I have no idea what his role is. Am told that everyone has to obey his commands instantly, once we are in the KL Town Hall where the performances will be. His role is critical to the flow of the whole thing.

My role in this production is minuscule. I thank my stars that I have no lines to say. But I still can stuff up things by not concentrating, or by concentrating too hard and becoming jittery.

By now we have all become familiar with one another - rather like family. I am on the fringes of the group but feel enclosed in the camaraderie that enfolds everyone.

We arrive at the Town Hall. It is very dark inside. The sets are up. The painted scenes of Venice transport us away from gloomy, war-overhung KL, to another place, another time. It warms us in ways beyond words.

I experience my first backstage environment. The rules are enunciated, about silence, about stepping softly, not running. Seeing my co-actors in costume and make-up for the first time. Not recognising some of them. There are three storeys behind the stage, with change rooms and make-up rooms. Below the stage is storage.

The change rooms look out on to the courtyards behind the law courts and KL Municipal offices. It is dusk, music for the play is being rehearsed. It floats up to where we underlings are, on the third floor backstage. The evening fades into dusk, into the gloaming, into night, swallows flying silhouetted against the fading light as they glide home to their nests in the eaves of those buildings. The smell and taste of grease paint. The air conditioning taking the edge off the heat of the stage lighting.

Then the performances. The exhilaration of success. The high after high.

Then the end. Family friends collect me from the stage party. I am ripped away from the magical world I have inhabited so briefly. Back to primary school and my motley classmates.

In a few months, my brother, Saran will leave on a Colombo Plan scholarship for Brisbane.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

From the V.I. Archives

Pritam Singh became a Victorian in 1955. Following the footsteps of his brothers, Saran and Isher, who helmed the Society of Drama in 1953 and 1956, respectively, he in turn became Chairman of the Society in 1960.

No longer star struck, Pritam (right) on stage
in the V.I. production of James Bridie's
Jonah and the Whale (1961)

The Society of Drama, September 1952
Seated l. to r.: Dhanwant Singh, Khoo Teng Bin, Lee Pheng Tatt , Lim Yew Chong, Mr J N Davis (HM), Miss Khong Swee Tin,
Mrs J. Devadason, Satish Chand Bhandari, Zain Azraai, Mohd. Dahlan, Ronald Stork, Saran Singh.

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Created on April 12, 2017
Last update on April 19, 2017

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