R Asokan – Looking Back to Move Forward
Looking Back to Move Forward: Reminiscing about the Old Days
As a child, I have always been associated with the Sree Narayana Mission. There are lots of memories and some from back in the 1950s and 1960s, remain etched in my minds even after all these years. I would like to share some memorable moments and events.
Kadhaprasangam (lyrical narrative or story telling performance) is a performing art of Kerala, India. It combines speaking, acting and singing while presenting a story. My late mother, Mrs Sarada Raghavan, was a talented artiste and an exponent of Kathaprasangam. During the 1950s there was a sizeable proportion of Malayalees in the Indian community in Singapore. Many of them were migrants from Kerala and a large number of them were living at the Naval Base and Sembawang area. Kadhaprasangam was popular entertainment amongst them and had a large following. During this time, my mother gave at least two performances to raise funds for the building of Sree Narayana Mission. I remember one was held in Pasir Panjang and the other was in Sembawang. Attendance was by purchase of tickets and the events were well supported by the Malayalees.
Chief Minister David Marshall’s visit to the Sree Narayana Mission, mid 1950’s
During the mid-1950s, the then Chief Minister of Singapore, Mr David Marshall was a guest-of- honour for one of the Guru’s birthday celebrations. I accompanied my father to the event and it was held in an open field. A stage was erected at the edge of the field and chairs were placed in rows for the audience to sit. There was a huge crowd present. I remember seeing four men seated on the stage as a forum was in progress. It was dark, about 7.00 p.m. Chief Minister of Singapore, Mr Marshall Minister arrived. He was brought to the stage, garlanded and invited to speak.
Malayalam Drama, 1960
On 3 December 1960, a Malayalam drama, Puthiya Akasam, Puthiya Bhoomi was staged to raise funds for the Sree Narayana Mission. What was significant about this drama was that for the first time since the founding of the Mission, female roles were played by women. Prior to that, men had always portrayed women roles in the plays put up by the Mission. The pioneering female actresses were Mrs Sarada Raghavan, Mrs Vasanthi Pillai, Mrs Philo Augustine and Miss K Ganga Devi Menon. The drama was well received. Attendance was by sales tickets, which were all sold out. The local Malayalam paper gave a rave review of the drama and praised those ladies who participated in the drama
L to R: Miss K Ganga Devi, Mrs Philo Augustine, Mrs Saradha Raghavan and Mrs Vasanthi Pillai
Flag Day, 1961
In 1961, I was a primary three student at Nee Soon Primary School. The first Flag Day of the Sree Narayana Mission was held in May that year. It was on a Saturday, and in those days Saturday was a school day. However, I did not go to school that day with parental permission. Early morning, my sister and I started the street collection in the Nee Soon area, accompanied by an adult volunteer. There were many other children and adults who participated in the event as well. We carried a tin for the collection of coins and a box hung around our neck containing saffron paper badge with a pin attached to it, bearing the message of the Sree Narayana Guru. It was a tiring day for us, having to walk around, greet people and ask for donations. Some people were very nice but others not so. The officials asked us to stop our collection at about 6.00 p.m. The tins were then taken to the Sree Narayana Mission building for counting by officials and volunteers. The total collection that year was about $8000.
Mr Lee Kuan Yew at the Sree Narayana Mission on 12 September 1965.
I first met the then Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew in March 1963 when I was a primary five student. He visited my school, Nee Soon Primary School and I remembered shaking his hand. I was over the moon with excitement.
Mr Lee Kuan Yew, had visited the Sree Narayana Mission on three occasions. His first visit was in 1963 during the General Elections campaign. The other two visits were in 1965 and 1967. These visits were made during the Onam and Chathayam celebrations at the Sree Narayana Mission respectively. Mr Lee’s visit in 1965 went down the annals of the Mission, as this was the first public engagement the Prime Minister attended after Singapore gained independence on 9 August 1965.
The Sree Narayana Mission celebrated Onam and Chathayam from 6 to 12 September in 1965. The packed programmes included prayers, music, dance, drama and a public forum. The latter was held on the last day, a befitting climax to the whole celebrations. I went with my father on that day and witnessed a huge crowd, mostly Indians, waiting for the arrival of the guest-of-honour, Mr Lee Kuan Yew. He arrived at 11am and was led away to meet members of the Sree Narayana Mission’s Executive Committee before proceeding to the Auditorium. The programme started off with a welcome address by Mr K Devadasa Panniker, the General Secretary, and this was followed by a speech by the President of the Sree Narayana Mission, Mr M K Bhasi. Prime Minister Lee addressed the audience in Malay and in English. Though, I was very young then, I admired his oratory skills. He was very articulate and spoke with deep passion. The audience listened with rapt attention and gave him a great applause.
After his speech Mr Lee presented scholarships, valued at $100 to 10 students and left the Mission at about 12.30 pm.
I had been involved in the activities of the Sree Narayana Mission over the years. I became a member in 1972, and served in the Executive Committee from 1978 to 2002. Sree Narayana Guru’s teachings has had a profound impact on my life. His words,
“Gain freedom through education”
“Gain strength through organisation”
“Gain prosperity through industry”
is still relevant to us in Singapore. It is about acquisition of new skills, teamwork and enterprise, all key factors to the progress of our nation.