In reflecting on my engagement with the art of Jeganathan Ramachandran, I clearly recall including his paintings in the exhibition I curated for the Balai Seni Lukis Negara in 2002 titled Bara Hati Bahang Jiwa. The exhibition was premised on the need to reconsider the established narrative on Expressionism in Malaysian art from the perspective of a post-colonial recovery. Skirting the pitfalls of essentialism and nationalism, I pitched the reconfiguration in terms of ethnic, ethnographic, regional and national considerations. I identified the underpinnings of a Malay approach to ‘expressionism’ and presented the representative artists this within a boarder national overview, placing the dominant Malay idiom within the wider pool of contemporary Malaysian expressions.
While my thesis was couched in the aesthetic and emotional proclivities of the Malays, I included Chinese and Indians artists even though they disrupted my neat Nusantara schematization which emphasized indigenous psychology and culture (amok, latah, adat and adab). I decided that I would try negotiate the essentially Malay aesthetics of my curatorial theme with the overarching multiethnic realities of the nation. The Indian and Chinese artists did not fit in neatly within my theme and, In this regard, I must acknowledge that, as a whole, Bara Hati Bahang Jiwa was somewhat unresolved, perhaps it was unresolvable by definition … as unresolvable as the idea of the Malaysian nation itself!
Given that I was going to include an Indian artist in the mix, regardless of the goodness of fit, I needed to identify an artist whose work exemplified and encapsulated contemporary Malaysian Indian expression on its own terms … Who would it be? ….. Jeganathan Ramachandran had been making his presence felt in the contemporary scene since the mid 1990’s, with his powerful figurative paintings. Having studied sculpture, woodcarving and painting from a traditional perspective, Jeganathan had been developing a direct and personal mode of expression that was nevertheless steeped in traditional Indian philosophy, psychology and science. I saw in his work the complete Malaysian Indian expression – religious, spiritual, mythical, metaphysical and, most importantly, social.
In a note sent to me in the course of our communication after the ASEAN Art Awards 1996 Jega had said, “I have always believed that art is not just a decorative medium but a powerful tool of expression and the deeper I looked within the Indian art context I saw the vast symbolic expressions that exist within the ‘rigid style’… Then I started painting in a narrative form much like the old times. Nearly every painting of mine had a story and every symbol I applied, new and old, further enhanced the story. During this time my involvement in spiritualism introduced me to many wondrous expressions and their visual impressions upon my mind took on new shapes and I started depicting them in my paintings.” Just as the Malay artists I had selected seemed to carry their particular traditions and psyche into the contemporary idiom of ‘Expressionism, Jega brought forth a deeply Indian expressiveness.
I included 4 of Jega’s works in Bara Hati Bahang Jiwa – ‘Invocation’ (2001) and ‘1 Tree = 40 Life Forms’ (2001) reflect this quest for a spiritual expression, with different degrees of reference to aspects of lived experience. ‘The House Slave’ (2001) is a response to the suffering of a friend in an abusive situation and a reflection on the plight of women caught within Indian social norms. Pictured above is the most expansive of the 4 works, both in scale and in thematic. It is titled ‘Fallout in the Garden of Life’ (1998). The artist has said “Kali is nature and she is fighting everything unnatural which has created imbalance on earth and all the people in the boat- like thing, that Noah’s Ark (my version). My belief is that nature will always protect those who are natural and the five hands represent the five elements (pancha butham). And notice the tree, that’s where it all starts.”
Rest in Peace Jega – Kali Kali Mahakali!
The above is a modified extract from my essay ‘Expression and Expressionism in Contemporary Malaysian Art’ published in 2002.
Rajah, Bara Hati Bahang Jiwa: Expression and Expressionism in Contemporary Malaysian Art, Kuala Lumpur: Balai Seni Lukis Negara, 2002.