A Humbling Review

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Two days before the Gift of Knowledge Symposium I received an email from renowned Southeast Asian art historian TK Sabapathy, conveying generous and gratifying reflections on my ‘The Gift of Knowledge’ installation, which commemorates the life work of Durai Raja Singam. Below is an edited extract published with his kind permission –

“I visited your exposition … in the Piyadasa Gallery. As a bibliophile I was enthralled…reaching over the divide to other bibliophiles. I attach [a photograph] in which I am ensconced in the installation … I requested that the video image of your conversation be prominently included so as to register myself in moments of history…and possibly, posterity even! … As you know Coomaraswamy is deeply etched in my being, since I encountered him during my second year of undergraduate studies in art history in 1958 – I have written on this, on two occasions. I regret not meeting with your uncle … you may or may not know that I have been video-recorded, musing on Coomaraswamy … The abiding interest in this recording was in his Art of India and Indonesia, especially in Coomaraswamy’s perspectives on Southeast Asia as they appear in this volume. I recall reading it painstaking, painfully, and with immense labour and difficulties during undergraduate years … So, Niranjan, all our paths intersect on account of AKC. I thank you for your installation, for instating Coomaraswamy and your uncle as a transmitter and transformer…… tangibly, requisitely and demandingly in our midst and in our time.”

To contextualize these reflections in terms or Kanaga’s and my own personal and intellectual engagement, I would like to note that I met Mr Sabapathy in 1995 when I went to Singapore for the ASEAN COCI Symposium held at the newly inaugurated Singapore Art Museum. I had been introduced by Redza Piyadasa and was kindly  received by this renowned art historian and his wife Dorine. Before the Symposium Kanaga presented me with some of his publications, one of which was a paper titled ‘Preliminary Observations on Art Historiography in Southeast Asia’, presented at the SEAMEO SPAFA Symposium, “Towards A Southeast Asian Perspective in Art History and Aesthetics”. In this paper he critiqued Coomaraswamy’s overview of the art of India and the Indianized art of Southeast Asia, eliciting and dispelling any notion of a ‘greater India’ in the construction of the history of the art of our region.  I too was reading and applying Coomaraswamy in my writing. During the symposium, of which Kanaga as chair, I presented my own critique of Southeast Asian art historiography, calling for a dual social historical/ metaphysical approach. My thesis was founded on a remix of poststructuralism, the new left and, of course, Ananda Coomarasway.

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