M K Bhasi with the book, ‘From Kerala to Singapore: Voices from the Singapore Malayalee Community’

With the recent influx of Malayalee migrants, there are now more Malayalee organizations across Singapore and they collectively organize several events every year. These Malayalees come together because of their desire to hear Malayalam spoken and used in as many platforms as possible.

The love for the language is something they have in common with their pioneers who were early migrants from Kerala to Singapore.

In the early years, Singapore was a hotbed for literary discussions amongst well-known writers such as Njekkad, N C Kattel and M K Menon to name a few.

One Malayalam poet who had the privilege to benefit and participate in these discussions, is Mr. M K Bhasi.

I interviewed him for a recently completed research project tracing the lives of Singapore Malayalees from 1900 to 2016. He stood out amongst the interviewees as a well-published and well-decorated Malayalam poet in Singapore

During the course of researching for my book, I found old photographs of him amongst prolific Malayalam writers of yesteryears as well as recent photographs of him, with Mr. Sathian Pookkuttath (author and editor of Ithalukal), Mr. Rajeshkumar Gopalkrishnan (editor of Pravasi Express) and amongst Malayalam writers who arrived in Singapore in the last 20 years.

His early years in Kerala

Mr. M K Bhasi belongs to an era of Singapore Malayalee writers who were not only conversant in Malayalam but also possessed a high level of proficiency in the language. His ‘Malayalam journey’ did not begin in Singapore. It had its roots in Varkala, Kerala where he was born in 1930.

It was in Kerala that he was first recognized as a Malayalam poet.

He won his first award-winning Malayalam poem in his early teens. He was barely 14 years old when he brought home his first award for a poem he wrote for the school’s jubilee celebrations.

Subsequently, his next poem was published in Malayala Rajyam, a magazine in Kollam, Kerala. With a growing audience and increasing appreciation for his poetry, the young Mr. M K Bhasi later wrote for Prasanna Keralam (Bright Kerala), an Indian weekly publication, on a regular basis.

He continued to write poems and articles throughout his college days and in the later years even after he became a Chemistry teacher.

Many of his essays were also published in Kaumudi (a Malayalam weekly magazine) but for some reason unbeknownst to him, they did not publish his poems.  That is until he won the first prize in a poetry competition organized by Kaumudi in 1952.

Ironically, the award-wining poem ‘Shakuntala’ was one of the many ‘forgotten poems’ in the young teacher’s possession. He had written ‘Shakuntala’ and left it in the drawers of his desk in his classroom. Upon hearing about the competition, he had hurriedly finished it, mailed it off and conveniently forgotten about it. His students broke the news to him that he had won the poetry competition.

From Kerala to Singapore

Seated from left: Gopalakrishnan, M K Bhasi, E A Habib Mohammad, GP Njekkad (wearing a garland), M K Sodar, Unidentified, Unidentified
Standing second row from left: N C Kattel, Krishnan Vasu, Salim, Raghavan Pillai, K K Vachiyoor
Standing third row, from left: Robert, V M Sainuddin, Amanullah.

In 1953, armed with newly attained teaching qualifications, Mr. M K Bhasi arrived in Singapore to join several other graduate Malayalee teachers who had made the move before him.

While the young graduate had poetry within him, he did not know much about the larger Malayalee community in Singapore nor if there were opportunities for him to publish his work.

As fate would have it, Singapore was the home of the only Malayalam daily newspaper outside of Kerala – Kerala Bhandu.

His friends from his village in Kerala recognized him as the young award-winning poet from Kerala. It was through one of these friends, N C Kattel, that he first learnt of the existence of the newspaper where he met several like-minded members of the Malayalee community such as V P Abdullah, G P Njekkad and K S Pillai who shared his love for the Malayalam language.

For a man who thrived on wordplay, the lure of being part of the only Malayalam daily outside of Kerala must have been too much to bear. He even had his own weekly column known as ‘Under the Rubber Tree’, which was, renamed ‘Nirangal Nizhalukal’ (Colours and Shadows) in the later years.

His identity as a newspaper columnist was a well-kept secret for the next thirty years as he wrote under the pen name, Shaaji. In 1988, he became the chief editor of Malaysia Malayali. That was the new name of Kerala Bandhu. Despite all the work he did at the newspaper, his role was a voluntary one and one for which he did not receive any payment.

By then, the highly acclaimed poet from Kerala had won 13 literary awards for his poetry from Kerala, New Delhi, Bangalore, USA and Singapore. He was also the Vice-Principal of First Toa Payoh Secondary School. As a rule of thumb, civil servants in Singapore were not allowed to take on an additional job or be paid wages by another organization without prior clearance.

It did not matter to Mr. M K Bhasi. He did not expect to be paid for doing something he loved.

Thank you for the Memories

By M K Bhasi

Thank you for the memories
that float as sweet incense
filling this atmosphere around me.

Thank you for the new dawn
that breaks over the distant horizon
when the morning stars fade and disappear.

Thank you for the evergreen woods
that hum the sweet melody
heard somewhere but long forgotten.

Thank you for this path,
long and winding
where shadows are still dancing.

Thank you, let me say finally,
to all those who passed this way
before me, thank you.

Awards won by M K Bhasi for his Poetry

  Year Title of Poem Name of Award Awarding Authority Country
1 1952 Shakuntala Kaumudi Award Writers’ co-operative Society & Kaumudi weekly Kerala
2 1995 Ahalya Kavi Samajam Award Kerala Kavi Samajam Kerala
3 1997 Hues and shadows Editor’s Choice Award International Library of Poetry USA
4 1997 The Paper Boats International Poet of Merit Award International
Society of Poets
5 1997 Ajanta Kala Nilayam Award Singapore Kairalee Kala  Nilayam Singapore
6 1998 Ithile Nadmnavar Gayathri Award
Gayathri Society New Delhi
7 2001 Yaatra Editor’s Choice Award International Library of Poetry USA
8 2002 Why did you come? Editor’s Choice Award USA International Library of Poetry USA
9 2002 On the Seashore The International Poet of Merit Award International Library of Poetry USA
10 2004 N.A. Guru Vandanam Award 2004

(For overall contribution to Malayalam poetry)

Ithalukal online magazine Singapore
11 2004 N.A. Guru Dakshina Award

(For overall contribution to Malayalam poetry)

Malayalee Literary Forum Singapore
12 2008 N.A. Nataka Vedi Award 2008
(For overall contribution to Malayalam poetry)
Drama Society, Singapore
13 2014 N.A. Pravasi Express Literary Award

(For overall contribution to Malayalam poetry)

Pravasi Express Singapore


About the Author & the Article

This article is part of a series focusing on Singapore Malayalee Writers entitled, ‘For the love of the language: Malayalee Writers and Malayalam Writing in Singapore’ by Dr Anitha Devi Pillai (National Institute of Education, NTU).

The data for this paper is drawn from her research project and book: ‘From Kerala to Singapore: Voices from the Singapore Malayalee Community”, for which she was the Principal Investigator and first author of the book.

The book contains narratives of Mr. M. K. Bhasi, Mr. Gopalakrishnan and the sons of Mr. N C Kattel (N C Prakash)  and Mr. Njekkad (Chandran Nair).

More information on the book can be found at this link : https://www.facebook.com/SingaporeMalayaleeStory/.

Readers can purchase ‘From Kerala to Singapore: Voices from the Singapore Malayalee Community’ from Singapore Indian Association at $40.00 where part of the proceeds will be donated to the Singapore Indian Association Welfare Fund. Please do call them at 6291 2556 to reserve a copy of the book.

The book can also be purchased from Kinokuniya and Times Bookstores at $48.15.