Malaysian Indian artists are a common sight in Malaysia, or are they? What is it like for a Malaysian Indian artist to make art in Malaysia?
Are they represented enough in our local art scenes and are their voices being heard?
In this poignant collection of narratives, three Malaysian artists—Vesha, Arjun, and Anju—offer us a compelling glimpse into the challenges faced by Malaysian Indian artists in their pursuit of representation and authentic storytelling within the realms of screen and theatre.
Each voice resonates with a shared frustration, yet provides a unique perspective on their experiences.
Veshalini Naidu is a non-binary multidisciplinary artist who is exploring the world of poetry, visual arts and theatre in Malaysia.
Growing up, Vesha had the privilege of being enrolled in various activities including piano, taekwondo, debate, drama and public speaking.
Vesha however, gravitated towards drama as a vessel for self-discovery.
Being exposed to all those activities made the journey into art a slightly smoother one.
In 2016, Vesha auditioned for the Theatre 4 Young People at KLPAC. After being accepted, they became a part of the Still Taming- an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew.
“T4YP gave me visibility and I will always be grateful,” Vesha said.
The experience brought Vesha to Singapore and Russia. Vesha consequently starred in “Malaysia Throws Herself A Birthday Party” and “To Which My Brother Laughed” in 2019.
Beyond the silver linings however, Vesha revealed that they had also encountered unpleasant confrontations that challenged their expression, mainly due to their ethnic identity.
Indian characters in local productions are usually type casted into comical roles and played up harmful stereotypes.
“I cannot recall performances where more than a handful of Indians were in the main cast,” Vesha reveals.
“Even with Indians there, we are expected to speak only english and morph ourselves into another identity. Rarely are we encouraged to tap into our Indian-ness.”
Vesha recalls a play where Indians were beaten up by gangsters and disgusting derogatory slurs were used.
“I avoided seeing the show because racist remarks were hurled for art or ‘education.”
“Very rarely are struggles brought up. You almost never see stories about colorism, brutality or income inequality. These are supposedly too controversial,” Vesha said.
These types of stories may be uncomfortable for an audience, but for many Malaysian Indians, it’s part of their everyday life.
Vesha believes that it is not enough to merely have an Indian cast member for representation, it’s important to actually listen and include Indian stories.
“Representation is an Indian writer being in the room and being heard. Not just given a role for the sake of fulfilling the diversity quota,” they say.
For actor, writer and director, Arjun Thanaraju, joining theatre was a journey of self-discovery.
“Humans can be multiple things at once. I’m involved in film and theatre while pursuing postgraduate studies in neuroscience. We should not box ourselves in,” said Arjun.
Arjun’s exposure to theatre commenced during his time with the St John’s Institution Drama Team, where he was introduced to the captivating world of stage performance. It was under the mentorship of his drama teacher, Miss Ellina Ros, that Arjun’s passion for the arts flourished.
Through his participation in numerous competitions guided by Miss Ellina, Arjun not only honed his acting skills but also gained invaluable insights into the realm of performing arts. These experiences provided him with a broader perspective on his artistic calling, fueling his determination to pursue a career in the field.
“I am very privileged to have Miss Ellina because many do not, especially students in underprivileged communities outside the Klang Valley,” Arjun revealed.
Arjun then wrote “Arranged” for Short+Sweet which bagged the Audience Choice Award in 2018. Later he acted in Pohlithik, which discussed student activism in Malaysia.
His first full length play, Amma Chellam, is a depiction of a relationship between an Indian mother and her son, based on his own relationship with his mum.
“A play on authentic Indian experiences is something rarely seen and I wanted to bring that to light.
“I’m not saying non-Indians cannot tell Indian stories, but there is a lack of opportunity for Indians to tell our own stories. We need Indian creatives in important positions to have a voice of our own,” he said.
Based on his own experience in the local film industry, Arjun knew too well how easily Indian representation was overlooked or misunderstood.
“Being an Indian artist in Malaysia can be exhausting. It’s easy to feel invisible sometimes,” he said.
He shared that oftentimes, he was only called for roles during the Deepavali or Merdeka festive seasons.
“We’re often token characters simply thrown into the mix.”
Despite this, Arjun has also had positive experiences, such as when he was involved in the production of Mentega Terbang.
Despite courting controversy for its allegedly liberal depictions of the Muslim religion, Arjun felt that the independent local film had done right by the Indian community by ensuring that the Indian character was fleshed out by authentic Indian voices.
“There was no fabrication to make stories more “comfortable”.
Arjun was also offered one of the main roles since he knew the character well. The movie, he said, became a vessel for his voice.
Anjali Venugopal, a.k.a Anju’s acting journey started out in a small neighbourhood in Kota Kinabalu and eventually reached the metropolitan, indie art scenes of Kuala Lumpur.
Being part of a family who embraced and cultivated artistic endeavours, Anju thrived across disciplines and became involved in producing visual arts, film, theatre, dance and drama.
Anju’s repertoire includes participating in KLPAC’s Theatre 4 Young People, and being part of “To Which My Brother Laughed” in 2019 and “FAMILY” in 2017.
“A lot of Indian characters lack real life queer and non-binary stories. Indian struggles are so layered and what is usually portrayed is a skewed section. One Indian character cannot encompass a whole community,” said Anju.
Anju felt that if Indian artists want to be heard, they usually had to create their own spaces. This was necessary to avoid stereotypes and the dilution of stories.
Anju added that in the present scene, Indian characters or roles usually went to the same, small pool of talents over and over.
“It would be nice for a bigger pool of talents to be given a chance and have a voice too,” they said.
All images supplied by Veshalini Naidu, Arjun Thanaraju & Anjali Venugopal.