They came to work the land over a hundred years ago. Today, they contribute, in many other ways, to the land that has become their home.
LIFE was no bed of roses for the Telugu immigrants who had left Andhra Pradesh, India, for Malaya in the late 19th and early 20th century. Even before daybreak, the labourers would already be hard at work in the rubber and coconut plantations owned by the British.
It was a long way to sail from home, but flood, famine and unemployment had spurred many to seek opportunities in faraway lands.
“The first Telugus arrived in Penang and settled in Bagan Datoh, Perak. Today, they are scattered all across the country (mostly in Johor, Kedah, Negeri Sembilan, Pahang and Selangor) but the community in Bagan Datoh is still going strong. In fact, we consider it a Telugu heritage area!” says Dr Achaiah Kumar Rao, president of the Telugu Association of Malaysia, a non-profit NGO representing about 500,000 members in the country.
Five generations down the road, it is no longer common for the Telugus to work as plantation workers.
“Hardly anyone is doing what their forefathers did in the past. Today, they might be professionals, teachers or businessmen, or working in the corporate sector.”
Despite changes in lifestyle due to modernisation, the Telugu community in Malaysia takes pride in preserving its heritage, adds Dr Achaiah, 49.
“I feel very proud in leading a community that maintains its cultural values and holds them in high regard. Telugus are known to be very thrifty people and we emphasise respecting our elders.”
Like any other ethnic group, they have their own language, rituals and traditions. Kuchipudi, a fine amalgamation of dance, gestures, speech and song, and Burrakatha, a folk dance that combines story telling with music, both originated from Andhra Pradesh and are still practised by the Telugus here.
“There are wedding ceremonies, ornaments, food and musical instruments that are unique to the community. The women tie their saris in a specific way. We have our own poets, composers and dancers. We have Chiratalu, a stick play accompanied by songs that are specifically composed for it.
“In India, some traditions are disappearing because of modernisation but we are very proud that in Malaysia, we are able to preserve our roots so well.”
In conjunction with the community’s 150 years of history in the country, the association is organising a one-day Telugu cultural and heritage expo on Friday. There will be an array of events and cultural programmes, including a photo exhibition, dance and song performances by local and foreign artistes, movie screenings and food sampling.
“Outside India, this just might be the biggest celebration of its kind,” Dr Achaiah says. “We’ve never had it on such a grand scale and we have spent the whole year preparing for it.”
One of the highlights of the day is a 30-booth exhibition that will walk visitors through the the community’s history in Malaysia. Photographs, videos, sketches, replicas, glass paintings and wooden toys, among other things, will be on display.
The association has been around since 1955 and its priority has always been education.
“Our founders emphasised that and we still focus on this area. Over the last five years we have taught over 3,000 people to read and write Telugu. This is a big achievement for such a small community,” Dr Achaiah says.
For eight years running, they have been organising an annual “moral camp” for children and youths aged between eight and 16.
“Up to 400 people sign up each year for the three-week camp. We teach participants basic Telugu and introduce them to traditional games and art forms. It’s open to everyone. Sometimes we even have foreign students come over on exchange programmes to join the camp.” The association plans to establish a foundation to promote and preserve the Telugu culture and language, and take care of the community’s education needs.
Also in the pipeline is a cultural centre and museum in Rawang, Selangor, that will double as a research base for Telugu scholars.
“The heritage celebration marks the 150 years since the Telugus set foot in the country but we are also celebrating the diversity that unites Malaysians,” Dr Achaiah says.
“We fully support our PM’s concept of 1Malaysia. After all this time in the country, we don’t belong to India – we belong to Malaysia and our heritage is part and parcel of its heritage.”
‘150 Years Celebration of Malaysian Telugu Heritage’ will be held at the Putrajaya International Convention Centre on Oct 8, from 9.30am. Visit www.telugumas.org for more information or call Sathiah Sudakaran at 012-221 6109.