The Koboi Balik Kampung (2013) Readymade from the permanent collection of the National Visual Art Gallery in KL is currently on display at the gallery. This item was a residual artifact from a performance at the Aliran Semasa symposium held at the gallery in 2013. This performance marked my Malaysian homecoming after ten years away in Western Canada.
I appeared at the event wearing a brand-new Rockmount Western shirt with tags intact. As the symposium began, my mother the late Sathiavathy Deva Rajah was invited on stage, to give me a traditional Indian/ Hindu blessing by placing chanthanam (sandalwood paste) and kunggumum (red turmeric powder) on my forehead. Then, facing the audience, I remove the shirt, draped it on a pre-installed hanger at the back of the stage and my mother consecrated it with the same chanthanam and kunggumum. The shirt was left hanging for the duration of the symposium and then presented to the gallery.
A version of the Performance was repeated in an intervention when the item was on show for the first time as a selection from the collection of the National Visual Art Gallery in 2018. My Mother and I were stopped from renewing the markings on the shirt by a curator and a conservator from the gallery. We debated notions of completion of an art work, ownership of an artwork, the artist’s rights to modify an artwork, the extensive conservational bureaucracy that encompases a work of art in a National collection and the effects of all of these on the state of an art work (is it active or is it inert, alive or dead!). Mother and I proceed with the portion of our ritual that did not interfere with what is now the property of the gallery. The image above was captured by my daughter Durga Rajah during this performance.
Telinga Keling (1999) is in the collection of the National Visual Art Gallery in KL. It is currently on display again in a selection from the collection. ‘Keling’ is a today taken as a derogatory term for ‘Indian’ although, from its etymology, it is clear that this was not always so. The items obscuring my ears in the image are Malay sweets which are colloquially referred to as ‘Telinga Keling’ (Indian Ears). More formally and publicly, given our multi-racial Malaysian society, these cakes are referred to as called ‘penyaram’ or ‘denderam’. Ironically, this Telinga Keling sweet is quite likely to be of Indian origin. My mother used to make something that tastes exactly the same that we call it ‘athirasam’
The idea of the piece is that I can engage the Malay viewers regarding this juncture of ‘sweetness’ and ‘derision’ while excluding the others, who would likely be unfamiliar with its colloquial name. Of course, there’ll be some Indians who know, particularly those from Kelantan where the sweet is prevalent, but empirically speaking, during the opening of its inaugural exhibition in Kuala Lumpur, the Indians had no idea and kept asking, ‘Why did you insult yourself in this work? ’, The Malays, however, smiled and nodded in acknowledgement.
In the course of developing my Kaza Nunteng Porta series of the Koboi Project, I have acquired a small ( 17cm tall) Icon of St. Francis Xavier. It is a polychromed wood carving believed to be of the early 20th Century from Goa. According the reputable seller, Church Antiques, it came from the collection of the previous Bishop of London (the Rt Revd Richard Chartres KCVO). The hands are missing. This seems quite common in these wooden figures of St. Francis whose hands are delicate, sometimes carved separately and attached, and easily broken off. It is notable however that the missing hands of the figure echo a deeply symbolic aspect of the Saint’s hagiography.
St. Xavier, who was one of the founders of the Jesuit Order in 1943, spent the last 15 years of his life as a missionary in Asia. He died in China 1552 and his body was moved to St. Paul’s Church in Malacca where it was buried for 9 months. When it was disinterred to be moved to a permanent tomb in Goa in 1614 the corpse had not decayed. It was deemed divinely incorrupt by the Catholic Church and his arm, which is said to have baptized 100,000 people in Asia, was removed and placed in a silver reliquary in Rome. According to Stephen Young, it is said that when a statue of St. Francis was erected in front of the ruins of St. Paul’s Church in 1952, a large tree branch is said to have fallen on it, breaking off its right arm.
The magnificent Rajini Sir seems unable to avoid being the embodiment of mythology. Recently, he has been equated to the Trojan Horse from the Odyssey, suggesting that his appealing Dravidian cinematic persona may be packed with a BJP / Arya Samaj political intent, waiting to be let in past the Dravidian gates of Tamil Nadu governance. Now, with his own Mahabaratha reference in the context of the Modi government’s move to revoke Article 370, he has been equated to Abhimanyu the warrior son of Arjuna. In an open letter to Rajinikanth Arun Ram, Resident Editor, of the The Times of India, Tamil Nadu, writes, ” I am happy that you have found your Krishna and Arjuna in Amit Shah and Narendra Modi, though you are not sure who is who. That’s fine, as long you realise that you are the Abhimanyu the BJP badly needs in Tamil Nadu.”
Abhimanyu is the son of Pandava champion Arjuna and nephew of the Lord Krishna himself. At the tender age of 16 he was the most powerful, and perhaps vainglorious, of warriors. But despite wreaking havoc on the Kauravas in the battlefield he is killed and his role in the plot of the Mahabaratha seems to be much more as a catalyst of victory than as a victor. You see, his father Arjuna is ambivalent about using his powers to destroy the enemy. The Kauravas are after all the cousins of the Pandavas! With the killing of his beloved son, however, Arjuna is personally afflicted and is open to the martial wiles of the masterful Lord Krshna.
Abhimanyu was a dispensable element in the plot of the Mahabharata. I hope Rajini Sir will avoid the pitfalls of personifying such figures from Indo Aryan mythology as the dissembling Trojan Horse and the tragic Abhimanyu, on the political battlefield of Dravida Nadu.
After a meeting of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet, Home Minister Amit Shah announced the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution ending the special status and relative autonomy for Jammu and Kashmir and the division of the territory into two. While his friend and fellow traveller in movie stardom and in politics, Kamal Haasan has criticized this BJP policy as an assault on democracy, Rajinikanth has, sadly, approved. Taking the spiritual allegory of the Mahabharata, quite literal, to the contemporary battlefield, the fledgling politician is reported to have said that Modi and Amit Shah were like Krishna and Arjuna.
In my own view, this is an epic political fail for Thalaiva. I was, from some of his earlier pronouncements on religious and cast politics, envisioning a more humanistic and inclusive application of the traditional Hindu ethos in contemporary Indian Politics. Indeed Rajinikanth should be wary that he does not become a ‘wooden’ politician, particularly in the sense of becoming the Trojan horse that secrets BJP’s RSS/Arya Samaj saffron remix into the black atheist heart of the Dravida polity. Such an autocratic gesture from this second term Hindutva government bodes ill for the diversity that has characterized Indian politics since independence in 1947.
As far as Thalaiva’s entry into Tamil Nadu politics is concerned, I had hopes that Thalaiva would usher in a fresh spiritually motivated universalism to the tired atheist and ethnocentric Dravidianism that has shaped the modern state. I regret to note that, as his star glows with an increasingly saffron hue, my hope of Thalaiva becoming an exemplary post-traditional politician is fast reducing to just another fan-boy’s fantasy! Come on La … Thalaiva!!!
This is a view of the Afonso de Albuquerque park a from the Presidential Palace, no less! This image is from a book on the Belem Palace by Jose Antonio Saraiva that was presented to me by … well the Palace! … Oh all right! by a kind lady at the Palace bookshop with whom I had had a great conversation about the Koboi Project. It really made my day, and more than made up for being turfed out of the Park and banned from performing there by the Palace guards! In fact, this perspective shows how much the park is an integral part of landscape architecture of the palace grounds. And also how much my flag and megaphone would have been in the awareness of the security personnel, the staff and maybe even the occupants of the palace over the last year. I got away with performing right there by the monument a few times in July 1998 and in June this year before I was told that I had to seek official permission through my embassy as I was within the security perimeter of the palace.
Did you know that the Portuguese still occupy Malacca! The Girls from Sara Frederica Santa Maria’s Troupe de Santa Maria hold the open air stage after their their sound check at Encore Melaka (5-7July 2019).
Did you know that the Portuguese still occupy Malacca! The Boys from Sara Frederica Santa Maria’s Troupe de Santa Maria hold the open air stage after their their sound check at Encore Melaka (5-7July 2019).
A terrific discovery for the Koboi Project – a photograph from the 3rd October, 1902 inauguration of the monument to Afonso de Albuquerque, the second governor of Portuguese India, in the D. Fernando Square, Belem. (renamed for Afonso de Albuquerque following the republican revolution of 1910) This square is located in front of 18th-century Belém Royal Palace. The delight of this image of the preparations for the arrival of King D. Carlos and the Royal Family for the ceremony is that it is shot from the same point of view as the images of the Kaza Nunteng Porta series highlighting the ‘The fall of Malacca’ relief. The other 3 three reliefs represent the ‘The Delivery of the keys of Goa,’ ‘The Reception of the Ambassador of the King of Narcinga’ and ‘The defeat of the army of the king of Hormuz.’