Arumugam brings African culture to Brooklyn

Written by Keah Watkins on . Posted in Features

Vaneshran Arumugam, a South African actor and social activist, arrived at St. Francis College for this semester to teach students about South African culture.

aru copyTwo years ago in England, Arumugam met SFC's English Professor Gregory Tague, who was attending a piece he presented about theatre and the arts.

Tague thought it would be interesting for Arumugam to come to SFC. The pair discovered Fulbright Scholarship was the best and most generous way to do so.

The Fulbright Scholarship is a way to "increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries" and gives those with academic merit and leadership potential the opportunity to learn and spread their knowledge throughout the United States.

Arumugam is not only teaching drama at SFC but he is a guest lecturer for many classes and is hosting a number of events.

His prominence in South African theatre is growing and he's been able to work alongside prominent actors such as Sir Derek Jacobi, Alice Krige and John Kani. But the "big names" alone don't faze him.

"Big names aren't a big deal unless they make a big impact," Arumugam said.

"But more times than not, they do make a big impact. Personal relationships form opinion on how impressions work, " he added.

Arumugam explains that meeting someone with more experience than yourself can help your professional and personal relationships grow.

He said, "My relationship with Dame Janet Suzman is a friendship that I endured after work and is one of my closest friends in the world, have a kindred pursuit and interest, and the relationship will propel itself."
And by making a name for himself, he is able to help others.

Arumugam is a founding member of the Turning Point Foundation. The foundation is a way to connect with social issues through the arts.

The foundation was formed around a film project called StringCaesar. StringCaesar is about Julius Caesar's life leading up to his ruling of Rome.

The film crew spent 5 months in Pollsmoor Prison, where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated, training the inmates on story telling techniques, vocal exercises, yoga, acting and improv.

In the film, the inmates were the bulk of the cast. StringCaesar went on to be featured in the Berlin Independent Film Festival.

"The intention [of the foundation] is to bring stories of those without a voice to society's attention," Arumugam said.

"Whether it be inmates, the underprivileged and so on, via the arts, to get their stories out," he added. The foundation has also helped rehabilitate former inmates and help them find jobs. Arumugam is also a big social activist for women and children.

His interest in this specific problem stems from his personal experience with domestic violence. Arumugam grew up with a young mother - who had him at the age of 16- and domestic violence was ever present in his life.

In his late teens he began getting involved by volunteering at the causes his mother was involved in.

"I didn't look for a cause to get involved in, it was just natural to get caught up in it," he said. And with his fame, he's come to realize he can help out even more.

"In South Africa, with my accumulation of fame, I realize my opinions had some weight to them and I began making a conscious effort to give information about women abuse and domestic violence." Arumugam said.

"As an artist, you have the power to tell a story and have it bring out and activate others' story telling abilities." South Africa is much like the United States and the United Kingdom when it comes to multiple ethnicities being together under one nation.

"My heritage is Indian, but the past five generations of my family have lived in Africa," he explains. He goes on to explain that you cannot make assumptions about what people identify with in South Africa. Someone who can be assumed to be French and has a common French name could strongly identify with being African.

"It seems necessary to claim who you are. I chose African." There is a sense of pride about being Africa among those who choose to identify as such.

The first school event he will be hosting is a Black History Month event.It is a roundtable discussion on "Race and South African Theater, Past and Present."

The Event will be held Thursday, Feb. 28 from 11:10 – 12:20 in Room 6214.Tague NEW

During the event, he will be joined by Dr. Jacqueline Castledine, a historian, and Dr. Megan Lewis, a South African theatre, performance and film scholar.

The discussion will be built upon audience questions to guide the event and take the audience a part of South Africa they may not have known.

South Africa isn't the most popular country, but lately South Africans have been putting themselves into the public eye.

Actors such as Charlize Theron, models Candice Swanepoel and athlete Chad le Clos are getting South Africa more attention. The past World Cup being hosted in South Africa, most of the world is becoming more aware of the country. 

"There is a certain freedom and presence in the world news," Arumugam said, describing South Africa's rising fame.

"Sports get the more attention much more paints what South Africa is as a country. [South African recognition] has been happening but their needs to be more audience awareness. They need to dig a little deeper and become more aware and see the cultural value of South African arts and culture."

And that's what Arumugam has set out to do.

He came here set to teach a drama course as well as a South African literature course. Unfortunately, not enough people signed up for the literature class and it was dropped.
But that doesn't stop him from teaching students about South African Literature. He has infused some of the literature into his drama class.

He said, "The class is getting a good response from the students and they seem to be loving it."
"I'm sharing part of south African with those who haven't encounters it or South Africa before."

As a Fulbright Scholar, part of his mission here in the United States is to help Americans become more aware of different cultures in the world and he's more than happy to share everything he knows with everyone who is curious.

"I feel very welcomed and very honored [to be here at St. Francis College]. Even though I had to leave my 12 year old daughter back in South Africa and put my home-based work on hold, the timing and attitude is great and this opportunity is very worthwhile.I'm positive about that this time will bring and what it will mean. I will be putting on productions and giving lectures but I will also be learning from professors and meeting students. It's learning for me as well and I'm looking forward to getting to meet people and sharing what I know. I welcome any interest coming from students and staff alike. I feel at home and this is a supportive place for me. Career wise, it's a privilege."


PHOTO CREDIT: Kenneth Brown 

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