The following is extracted and translated from a post titled AL-KESAH KOBOI BALIK KAMPUNG (28th MArch 2018) on Kebun JiwasHalus’ Blog – Yesterday we went to Merlimau, Melaka. Our guide was Azizan Paiman. The mission was a photo-shoot for the latest Koboi Balik Kampung series by Niranjan Rajah. Niranjan’s Koboi series plays on the problematics of a cosmopolitan identity in the context of contemporary trans-national mobility. Niranjan has taken the photo-conceptual Koboi Project everywhere, the Singapore Biennale, the Burning Man Festival and the KL Biennale. For the photo-shoot in Merlimau, Niranjan continued his discourse, this time with ‘me’ and ‘Melaka traditional house’ as ‘texts’ in his image. The traditional Melaka house refers to my teacher Ismail Zain’s digital collage dot matrix print entitled ‘Al-Kesah’ (1988). This work remains one of Ismail Zain’s most enduring intellectual legacies. “Al-Kesah” features a traditional Malay house as the backdrop for JR Ewing’s family photo (from the popular TV series of the early 80’s, Dallas). Pak Mail touches on the ‘modernization’ of the village landscape – in the context of globalization (or globa-lu-kasi, globalisasau, also gooblelibasi) connecting the impact of mass media and internationalist architecture in a semiotic and inter-textual play.
Hasnul asked me – Whats the term you use for my role in your photo bro? Am reflecting on koboi for my blog now.
I sent hasnul a hasty answer that is included in his post, and now take the opportunity to correct and elaborate on my reply – The Image (which is yet to be finalized and is not the one above) is being developed around the Tamil term valayan katti, which means pengikat dawai or person who ties wire. This is a term which, according to the ostentatiously named author Sheikh Moinudeen Chisti Syed Abdul Kadir (is this a pen name for some other person of mischievous intent?), was “invented by Tamil estate workers but which became widely used by most Tamils including Indian Muslims to describe Malays”. In his rather informative , if controversial, posting about Malaysian Mamak or Indian Muslim identity the suspiciously illusive Sheikh Moinudeen explains, “…’valayan‘ means wire. ‘Katti‘ means to tie something. So ‘valayan katti means ‘a person who ties a wire’”. He continues, “In the early days of the rubber industry, the British tried to get the Malays to tap the rubber trees. However the native Malays had problems tapping the rubber tree in the proper manner and ended up injuring the tree, reducing the output of rubber. The British had better luck getting the trees properly tapped with the Tamils from India. Malays were then delegated the simpler job of using wire (valayan) to tie (katti) the little latex cups to the rubber tree. Hence the name valayan katti“. While this etymology is corroborated in various other online sources this term and its origins needs further confirmation.
Regardless of my doubts about the veracity of this reading of the term … it allows me to continue the approach I developed in my Telinga Keling (2000) in which I attempt to deconstruct and even to reconstruct a derogatory term that speaks to the depths of our national psyche. You (Hasnul) as a Malay are nominally the valayan-katti in my image. Then again, in electronic art days at UNIMAS, we were both Valayan Katti – your wire carried the electronic video signal and mine, the new internet data. This brings me to the Ismail Zain reference of this image. You are his student and in a sense his heir … and me too … indirectly … Indeed, I think I can claim to be the valayan katti of Malaysian Internet art. Bringing this allegorical play into the present … despite a decade and a half of separation, given your Gemabelas and my Anugraham, we are somehow still connected or WIRED … working independently yet synchronously with tradition, compassion, physics and metaphysics. Indeed, now our network is metaphysical.