Singapore exhibition traces the culture-rich Malayalee journey in the island nation

People from the southern Indian states form a significant slice of Singapore society, and a new exhibition puts the spotlight on Malayalees, their immigration, culture, and contribution to the island nation.

Models presenting the new Kerala kasavu sari collection, crafted by designer Kavita Thulasidas. Photo courtesy: Indian Heritage Centre

Ente Veedu, My Home: Malayalees in Singapore is the latest special exhibition at the Indian Heritage Centre (IHC), having opened on November 25, 2023, and scheduled to run till September 14, 2024.

Left to right: Edwin Tong, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth & Second Minister for Law, lighting up the nilavilakku to officially launch the exhibition, with Chang Hwee Nee, Chief Executive Officer, National Heritage Board, and R Rajaram, Chairman, IHC Advisory Board. Photo courtesy: Indian Heritage Centre

Exploring the diasporic concept of home through the eyes of the Malayalee community in Singapore, the exhibition is co-created with the community and is the first-ever to focus exclusively on Malayalee heritage, culture, and identity. It traces the journey of the Malayalees from their ancestral roots and migration to Singapore, to their settlement and contributions to the nation, and reflects on the community’s evolving notions of home and identity.

In a media release, Maria Bhavani Dass, General Manager, IHC, said, “Ente Veedu means ‘my home’ in Malayalam. By co-creating this exhibition with the community, we invite all to hear their stories, and explore notions of home and identity from the Malayalee community’s perspective. We hope that visitors to the exhibition will come away with a deeper appreciation of this rich and vibrant culture.”

Liviniyah P, Assistant Curator, Indian Heritage Centre, explaining the significance of the elephant caparison to Minister Edwin Tong, with former IHC Advisory Board member Dr Ma Swan Hoo. Photo courtesy: Indian Heritage Centre

Originating from the South Indian state of Kerala, the Malayalees form the second largest sub-group within Singapore’s Indian population. The community itself is diverse and has been a melting pot of cultures and faiths for centuries, comprising Hindus, Muslims, Syrian Christians, Roman Catholics, and more.

In the 19th century, the Malayalees’ search of better job opportunities outside of their homeland eventually led to them playing a vital role in Singapore’s development. Their contributions span diverse sectors such as healthcare, community and social services, politics, defence, and law.

Liviniyah P, Assistant Curator, IHC, said, “In this exhibition, we celebrate the invaluable contributions of the Malayalee community to the rich tapestry of Singapore’s history. It has been a joy working with the many individuals and groups of the Malayalee community who helped put this exhibition together.”

Nagapadam Mala (necklace), adorned with snake motif, is among the exhibits. Photo courtesy: Indian Heritage Centre

Dr Anitha Devi Pillai, Guest Curator and Senior Lecturer, Applied Linguist, National Institute of Education/Nanyang Technological University, said, “Malayalee culture is diverse, with a myriad of influences and constituent parts that contribute to its richness. This is much like Singapore’s own multiculturalism. As a researcher, being able to see two decades of my research on the community come alive in an exhibition is a dream come true.”

A costume box for Kathakali, the famed classical dance form of Kerala. Photo courtesy: Indian Heritage Centre

Featuring more than 200 artefacts from the National Collection, institutions such as the National Library Board, National Museum of Singapore, and Singapore Press Holdings, as well as the Malayalee community, the exhibition has four distinct zones:

● From Kerala to Singapore: This zone explores the origins and roots of the Singapore Malayalees through star artefacts that would have been used in the Malayalees’ home state of Kerala, such as a decorative elephant caparison, or nettipattam, with intricate designs and vibrant multi-coloured thread work. The nettipattam is used to adorn the head of an elephant during community and temple festivals in Kerala. This artefact is on public display for the first time.

● Ente Singapore: My Singapore: This zone uncovers the contributions of the Malayalees as they settled in Singapore; the spaces they lived, worked and played in; and the art forms and languages that they brought with them from Kerala and continued to practise as they evolved from Keralites to Singapore Malayalees. A highlight artefact of this zone is the only pair of Malayalam palm leaf manuscripts in the IHC collection, which shows the importance of their mother tongue as a unifying factor in a linguistically diverse community in a new land.

● In a Malayalee Home: This zone celebrates the depth and breadth of Malayalee customs and traditions by exploring this intimate space and the personal items it houses. Artefacts such as a traditional doorway of a Syrian Christian house illustrate the importance of religious beliefs and customs in this religiously diverse community. This doorway is on public display for the first time.

● Malayalees in Singapore: The final zone features a display of black-and-white and sepia-toned photographs, chronicling the lives of Malayalee pioneers across the 19th and 20th centuries. A video installation, titled Being Malayalee: Voices of the Future, has been produced in collaboration with youth wings of the Singapore Malayalee Association, Singapore Kairalee Kala Nilayam, Sree Narayana Mission, and Naval Base Kerala Library.