Shanthini Venugopal, with son Hari and cat (All pics
courtesy of Shanthini Venugopal)SINGER, actor, director and teacher Shanthini Venugopal has been in the Malaysian theatre industry for nearly three decades, having worked with various theatre companies since 1981. She is a pioneer member of The Instant Cafe Theatre Company. She has starred in films, including Hollywood blockbuster Anna and the King (1999), and can also be heard on radio and in TV commercials doing voiceovers and jingles.
In 2000, Shanthini formed her own theatre company, The Jumping JellyBeans (JJB), which specialises in productions for children. JJB has performed in Malaysia, England, Denmark and Australia, and has participated in international children’s theatre festivals in Iran, Singapore, India and Germany.
Shanthini shares her theatre training with Multimedia University and international schools. She also works with students with learning disabilities. In 2005, JJB’s work with children with special needs was awarded the Cameronian Arts Award for Best Community Arts Project.
In 2009, Shanthini helped to set up the Fusion Academy of Performing Arts Malaysia, a joint venture with fellow performer and director Sabira Shaik, and Ben Douglas, founder of Fusion UK. Shanthini serves as co-director of the academy, which trains young people aged four to 18 in dance, singing and drama.
In this interview with The Nut Graph on 27 Feb 2010, Shanthini talks about her growing-up years living in government quarters; her “fond” memories of 13 May 1969; and why she doesn’t have a problem with her identity.
TNG: Where were you born and where did you grow up?
Shanthini’s sister Sukania in Port Dickson, with their
father in the background
Shanthini Venugopal: I was born in KL General Hospital in 1958. We grew up in government quarters on Jalan Shahbandar, Kampung Pandan, since my dad was in the police force. That’s where my sister Suki (Sukania) and I grew up until 1970. We then moved to another government quarters in that area because my dad qualified to move into a double-storey [residence]. Finally, we moved into our own place in OUG (Overseas Union Garden) in 1972, and we’ve been living there since.
Can you trace your ancestry?
My ancestors are Malayalee from Kerala in India. Both my paternal and maternal grandfathers came here for work, settled, and had families in Perak. My parents are first-generation-born in Malaya.
My paternal grandfather was born in Trivandrum in 1901, and he came here in 1921. He was clerk of works in the engineering department in the Royal Air Force. He went back to India in 1928 to get married, and then came back here with his bride. They had seven children and settled in Ipoh. He passed away in 1975 after a long illness.
Shanthini’s first time meeting her grandmother in 1983
My maternal grandfather was from Aranakulam. Here, he was a superintendant working for Esso. He got married in India as well, and they, too, had a family of seven. He passed away in 1952. When my parents got married, my grandmother took all their children except my mum and youngest uncle back to India. The first time I met my ammuma (mother’s mother) was when I was 25.
Both my grandfathers were friends since the 1940s, hence my mum and dad were already family friends before they got married. My parents wed in Ipoh in 1954, and by then my father was working in the police force, so they moved to KL.
What are some of your strongest memories growing up?
Shanthini in Port Dickson, 1970
The best part of growing up in Kampung Pandan was that there were many children in the neighbourhood whose parents were also in the government service. Every evening at four o’clock, all the kids would come out and play together. We would play police and thief, chopping (a game involving whacking someone with a ball), marbles, rounders, “gounda goundi” (a game involving sticks), hide and seek in the longkang — you name it, we played it!
I went to Kampung Pandan Girls (Primary) School, and for my secondary education, I went to Convent Peel Road. Most of the kids also went to those schools, since they were close to the neighbourhood. It was a multiracial neighbourhood, and boys and girls would mix together.
Houses in those days didn’t have any fences, so it was just one big field. During 13 May 1969, I remember, the kampung nearby brought vegetables for all the families in the area. Our neighbours, who were of different races, used to take turns congregating in one another’s homes. All the grown-ups were always busy discussing the political goings-on, and we kids would try to eavesdrop. This period was a great time for us children because for us, it meant Merdeka — no school! (laughs)
As a family, we always took holidays to Port Dickson. Dad used to get the police bungalows — they were huge! — and we would have so much fun: eating nasi lemak made by the makcik at the bungalow, playing all day at the beach, all of us just relaxing and spending some great family time together. Suki and I used to pretend that these houses were haunted … we used to make up ghost stories and scare each other at night! We made this trip at least once a year from 1965 until about 1974.
My mum, Nalini Venugopal, was the first Indian [Malaysian] female singer to appear on Malaysian television and radio. When I was six years old, she was singing on a TV show, and I remember my sister and I being on this show doing the Twist to Ardavaralam (Let’s Dance), a song she sang.
Nalini Venugopal with Master Sivadas’s troupe
Mum used to take us with her for most of her shows. Back then, the radio programmes were taped live at Radio Malaya, which is now the Federal Building near Bukit Aman. I remember going for so many of these recordings — my mum would sing in an Indian [Malaysian] variety show, Kalapadam, and we’d be in the audience. She also used to sing in the dance troupe for both Master Gopal Shetty and Master VK Sivadas, who later became the founders of the Temple of Fine Arts.
What aspects of your identity do you struggle with?
Really, I don’t have any problems with my identity; other people might have a problem with my identity, but I certainly don’t! I was born here, I have every right to be here, and I will fight to stay here. Because where do you want me to go? Sure, I have family in India, but I have no connections: I did not grow up there, I don’t know their values and their way of life. So people can call me anything they want — pendatang, keling … I am who I am; they should be the ones to get their identities sorted out!
What do you hope for the future of Malaysia?
Shanthini’s father receiving the Pingat
Pangkuan Negara from the King in 1971 for
merit service in the police forceWe can’t turn back time, nor should we, even if we could. That said, during my time, it was wonderful. In school, there was no such thing as, “Oh, you cannot bring pork, you cannot bring beef…” If you went to somebody’s open house, they would just say, “Okay, this side is beef, this side is pork, this side is chicken.” There was no hassle, none of this “we have to be sensitive” nonsense.
This word, “sensitive”, is actually very, very annoying because it is being used for every single bloody thing these days! Everyone is being too guarded now; everyone’s afraid we’re going to say something that’s going to offend somebody.
We Malaysians are generally non-offensive people. So where all this comes from has to do with politics and power! It is the politicians who have divided the people. They are always implementing policies to make this divide grow deeper and deeper. There will come a time when it [will be] hard to cover this drain they’re digging.
And that is what is scary. I don’t want that to be the Malaysia my son grows up in.
Fusion Academy will be running musical theatre workshops facilitated by UK performers Dylan Turner and Marissa Dunlop from 15-20 March 2010 in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur. For more information, visit the Fusion Academy website.
Read other Found in Malaysia interviews