With the sudden passing of Jagannathan Ramachandran Malaysians and Malaysian Indians in particular have lost a great practitioner of the arts, one who has bridged the traditions and techniques of his Indian legacy with the forms and formats of a modern Malaysian presentation. Jega’s life and work has embodied an exemplary post-traditional focus within the ever widening milieu of Malaysian contemporary art. I have known Jega since the beginning of his entry into the Malaysian mainstream and have written a little about the importance of understanding his approach properly.
In Malaysian modernism there is the official narrative of Islamic spirituality (see my essay “Insyirah Al Sadr: The art of Sulaiman Esa.) and then there are a whole host of other traditions that subsist and coexist, emerging and receding from prominence in the contemporary discourse. Following is an account of a personal encounter with Jega. One could say that, at this time Jega was an Indian artist, who determinedly been practicing Tantric methods of visualization on the periphery of the Malaysian mainstream. I met him after having been on a panel of judges that had selected his ‘Seeking an Answer: The Indian Migration’, 1996, for inclusion in the Phillip Morris Malaysia / ASEAN Art Awards exhibition 1996. We exchanged vanakams (greetings) and addresses, and some time later I received a package in the post containing examples of his work which I had asked for. I was surprised and disturbed by one of the works. It was an idealized portrait of myself in line and verse which seemed to have echoes of lord Shiva Nadaraja. I was embarrassed and considered writing back admonishing him for flattery and the cult of personality. Somehow, I did not write back but was left, nevertheless, pondering this image of myself. I felt there was some truth in the idealization but this made me even more upset as I felt, in contemplating this image, the expansion of my own ego.
Much later, it came my understanding that it was not the artist but the model who had responded inappropriately … I had taken the image personally! In this connection and as a kind of mitigation of my egocentricism, I must ask – which modern person would not have done so, it was after all ‘my’ portrait. I was wrong, of course! Jeganathan had received training in the arts of meditation and Samudrigham from a Himalayan master named Bootha Muni. Samudrigham or Samudrika Shastra is a descriptive art and part of a symbolic system based on the study of bodily features. Jeganathan explained that unlike in the West where physiognomy is defined as physical attributes which may index the individual’s personality, Tantra sees it as the link between man and the cosmic force. Every expression is brought through in the state of meditation and that which is formed in the moment of totalness, in pure slumber, can be nothing but creative impulse of the Maker … and by Maker, the great Maker of all!
Rest in Peace Jega – Om Nama Shivaya!
The above is a modified extract from my paper ‘Sacred Pictures Secular Frames’ published in 1998.
Rajah, N. ‘Sacred Pictures Secular Frames’ in Art Asia Pacific 17, 1998: 67-71.
Rajah, N. “Insyirah Al Sadr: The art of Sulaiman Esa.” in N. Rajah, ed. Insyirah: The Art of Sulaiman Esa from 1980-2000. Kuala Lumpur: Petronas, pp. 31-64, 2001