An Intimate Interview with Cultural Medallion Recipient HARESH SHARMA

How was your childhood like?
Did you experience a typical Indian upbringing?
Actually, it was very Singaporean.I was the fourth child and the youngest. I was given away to a Malay Nanny who raised me for the first few years of my life. When we moved to Joo Chiat when I was about six years old, that was when I realised my family. Prior to that I was always hanging around with my nannny.

My recollection of childhood was basically speaking Malay to Malay kids and speaking English. I never spoke any Indian languages because we spoke Malay at home. It was a very Kampung experience.
 

What were your childhood ambitions? I am quite certain you did not aspire to be a playwright when you were a kid,right?
 
No No. I did quite well in school Back in the 70s, there was no good school or bad school perse. There were just all kinds of children in a school.  Being strong academically, I was given other responsibilities. I was a prefect.  The leadership roles that were given to me to when I was young became part of personality. 

At Home, it was different. I was the youngest. So, I was not the leader. I was the designated errand boy because I was the youngest. Plust, at home, we were not that expressive. As an Asian family, we did do things together. But, I definitely felt more free at school. I was able to express myself. I wrote and took part in dramas.

Was that how your journey with theatre begin?

It was not that I wanted to be involved in theatre. I just like different ways of expressing myself, through writing and performing. I was in the band as well.
This carried on to secondary school. In fact, I did not even do any drama in college. 

You seemed like you had an innate interest in writing?

Yes, the affinity for writing was always there. Literature was always my favourite subject. I loved writing English compositions. It allowed me to invent things and to create my own world. Whenever there was anything to do with writing, I would take part. I loved to read as well.

Any favourite authors when you were young?

None actually, My parents used to buy these books about the Mahabharata and about the Gods and Goddesses. They were styled like comics telling you about each particular God etc. It was fun and it was not difficult. When you get older and you think about the Mahabharata, it becomes very complex. Those book were simple. I grew up reading alot  of that.
 

How did your journey with the Arts form then?
It was by chance. When I was in the army, during the second year, I had a 8-5 posting. It was a dream posting. [Ed Note: Still is...] I did not have to stay in. I could book out everyday. But I got bored and I started to look for things to do. I started to teach to at WISE  (worker's improvement through secondary education) class. I used to teach English twice a week. It was during that time that I chanced upon an advert for an audition. It was held in some school in Balestier. I went by myself. I don't remember what I did. But, I got a part.

It was alot of work. I had rehearsals after camp which ended close to midnight. I had to get up at 6 for camp the next day. But, it was really a lot of fun. I managed to meet other people in the industry and I went for another audition and secured another role.

This continued even after NS when I enrolled into NUS to read English Language when i was introduced to Alvin Tan.

Just to side-track abit, did your family approve of your choice of education?
Well, there was an expectation for me to be doctor when I was in secondary school. I was told to do science etc. Plus, I had really bad handwriting and my family took it as a sign that I was meant to be a doctor. But I entered the Arts stream in Temasek JC because I did not perform well enough to enter the Science stream. The Plan B to be a lawyer surfaced  since I could talk and express.

Again, it was a blessing in disguise that I did not do well enough to make it Law School. By that time, my family was just happy that they have one child who made it to University.

So, back to theatre, what impact did Alvin Tan have in your journey?
 
I started getting involved in the TNS style of theatre, where we meet, improvise, help each other out and do our own research.

What was the exact point in time in your journey that you had a self realisation that Haresh Sharma can write plays?

It was a short play competition during my NUS time. I did not even win the top prize. I got the merit prize.I was very happy. it was the first time writing a play.Then when I wrote "Lanterns Never Go Out", which was one of my first plays with TNS and it was staged as a lunchtime performance. I was still a young person in the theatre scene. There were other people in the industry who complimented my writing. That was the strongest point of affirmation. It was then I decided that, this is my journey.
 
A snapshot from the play in 1989

After graduation, did your journey with the Arts face any hurdles ?

Again, my family wanted me to get a respectable job. But I went with TNS full-time after graduation. I was having a full-time job with a half-month salary. I decided to supplement my income by giving tuition etc. It was not glamourous to say the least. I did get a bit of flak from the family.

That slowly changed when the articles on media appeared. The recognition appeased my family in way.The nagging reduced. They slowly realised that I was really into it and I was working hard. Plus, I always ensure that I could sustain myself and never sought financial help from them since my NS days.

Generally, they are now pleased with what I am doing. They may not come for all my plays. But I do understand that it may not be for them. I do alert them for some. For example, when we staged Gitanjali [I feel the Earth move] last year, I invited my father to watch. He was very happy with it. He will always ask for the flyers for my upcoming works and he will ask if this is for him.
 
Receiving the Cultural Medallion in 2015

Moving forward. Let's talk about your Cultural Medallion. How was that?
Umm.. Its real. When you have been in theatre long enough, you know alot of senior people who have received the cultural medallion. The calibre, the standard etc.When one day, I was told I was getting it, I was like " Me? Why Now?" I thought that status is for someone who has attained a certain position.

Well, I am not saying that I do not deserve it. I just think it meant  something more in the past.But,  Its definitely a real and a good recognition. The most important thing is that you are given an opportunity to develop a work or do research with the grant.

Is there more pressure after that?
I don't think so. I don't walk differently. I don't enter a room differently. I definitely do not have any air about it. My mind is not even on it. I am just thinking about my next work.

Do you think there is lack of Indian entering the Arts  ?
It does feel like there has been less. But when you take the Arts scene, you have the contemporary arts and the traditional arts. If you the former, where my expertise is, we have groups like Ravindran Drama Group for example.

They have been around for many years. But they are at the same kind of size that they were many years ago. It is very difficult to grow because it is very niche. When you want to grow, you need support from audience, corporate sponsors and other areas as well. But it is difficult when you are as niche as them. Your limited reach can be a obstacle.

There is also the issue of being recognised in the mainstream media. There are these different levels of struggles. The concept of Indian is also problematic. Is it limited to Singapore born ? The various classifications does result in people falling through the cracks. 

Last Question, if theatre did not exist, what would you be doing?

I have always been interested in writing. Perhaps working in a magazine.
 

Haresh Sharma's next production will be held next month in the Esplanade Theatre Studio. Read on to learn more about  GHOST WRITER.

Are you living a life to fulfill someone else's purpose?

Helmed by Cultural Medallion recipients Alvin Tan and Haresh Sharma of The Necessary Stage, Ghost Writer offers a glimpse into the lives of characters intertwined by blood and ties that bind-and suffocate. 

A young dancer who has undergone traditional training feels dislocated within her artistic practice in her home country. A new expatriate wife detached from her immediate reality draws inspiration from the writings of strangers past and present, and tries to reinvent herself. A teacher seeks to save a school that she had inherited, but finds her quest leaves her more lonely than ever.

A meditative interdisciplinary production that charts the collisions of people seeking to alter their destinies, Ghost Writer grapples with the question of how independent our lives can be. Are we existing based on other people's terms, or can we transcend tradition and memory to rewrite our own stories?

 

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