Although we have communicated over the Internet quite recently, the last time I saw Jega in person was about 20 years ago! I remember visiting his place with my wife, Jane. We had a great conversation about art, religion and culture. Jega told us about his time in India, inspiring stories about learning from masters of traditional arts and sciences as well as demoralizing tales about Indian attitudes and customs around caste. We spoke on the metaphysical understanding of the world from an Indian perspective and also of the social conditions and the position of Indians in Malaysia.
We spoke of the extrinsic oppressions experienced by Indians in the Malaysian political equation and of the detriments that are inherent within the community. It is in this light that I want to highlight the work pictured above titled ‘The House Slave’ (2001) that was included in Bara Hati Bahang Jiwa. This image was painted in response to the suffering experienced by an Indian woman, a friend of Jega’s, who was caught in an abusive domestic situation. It serves as a symbolic reflection on the plight of women caught in the patriarchal failings of Malaysian Indian society. Many Malaysian Indian women suffer a threefold oppression – those of race, class (or caste) and gender. It is as revealing of Jega’s broad and polyvalent practice, as it is of the sacred ontology that, while he operated within the sacred Shiva/ Shakti tradition, his art was most progressive in its representations of gender in secular society.
On a more mystical or uncanny note, I recall how he quietly did reading of Jane’s face (Samudrigham) during our visit, and then, suddenly came out with a statement that she was a very healing person. There was some literal truth in this observation as, while it had been a long time before, Jane had worked as a nurse but we did not take this to be what he meant. As I had felt before, when I received the portrait of me he had made using the same interpretive technique, I felt uncomfortable. While I live within deeply metaphysical sense of reality, and while I am critical of the narrow-minded scientism that dominates the contemporary scientific world-view, I look at all sacred, magical and mystical knowledge as interpretations of signs and symbols patent or latent in creation. I rarely take such propositions as “Jane is a healer” to be intrinsically or literally true. Still, as the years have gone by since our last meeting, and as I have continued to live my life with Jane, I can not deny that there was truth in Jega’s vision. Indeed, I no longer question the reality of what he saw and read at that moment!.
Rest in Peace Jega. Long may your spirit resonate!
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.
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
With love from Tara, Durga and Me … looking forward to the next time we are all together!
Jane Frankish Blogs at https://janefrankish.wordpress.com/
In his exposition on Fate, Foresight, and Free-will, Ananda Coomaraswamy states that “No event can be thought of as taking place apart from a logically antecedent and actually imminent possibility of its taking place.” He distinguishes this anticipatory view from a retrospective one thus, “whatever does not happen was not really a possibility, but only ignorantly conceived to have been so.” Coomaraswamy shows how both the potential and the uncertainty of an event, exist or appear to exist only up to the point of its occurrence, at which moment the potential is extinguished and all the alternative possibilities are all shown to have been impossible all along.
The passage above is an extract from my essay ‘Towards A Post-Traditional Gnoseology of Potentiality and Prediction: Preliminaries‘ is published in Oliver Hockenhull’s marvelous ‘A House Made of Dawn: The Sublime Horizon of the Digital Arts as the Concluding Formation of the Information Civilization (2021),’ which “marries science fiction stories with non-fiction essays and with video interventions regarding developments in digital art, computer, communication and network technologies.”
The Image that graces my essay is taken from Y. B Yeats’ ‘Michael Robartes and the Dancer‘.
My Essay ‘Towards A Post-Traditional Gnoseology of Potentiality and Prediction: Preliminaries‘ is published in Oliver Hockenhull’s marvelous ‘A House Made of Dawn: The Sublime Horizon of the Digital Arts as the Concluding Formation of the Information Civilization (2021).’ This which “marries science fiction stories with non-fiction essays and with video interventions regarding developments in digital art, computer, communication and network technologies.” The Image that graces my essay is taken from Y. B Yeats’ ‘Michael Robartes and the Dancer‘. It is a representation of a pair of interpenetrating cones, “the narrow end of each cone being in the center of the broad end of the other.” Its geometry encapsulates humanity’s passage in time and eternity. It is also, I suggest, the shape of a reconciliation between traditional and contemporary approaches to reality.
I make this post in the wake of the recent policy reversal by the Malaysian government that requires adopted stateless children to the present of a passport in order to register for schooling. The specific issue of adopted children, cogent though it is in itself, brings forth the more general and much more important question of the state’s moral obligation to provide education to all children, stateless or otherwise, who live within its borders.
I ask the following questions, as an Indian and as a Malaysian –
First I ask, in the context if the statelessness of many Indians in our country, how can any person of Indian identity, holding Malaysian citizenship, fight for equality for themselves, without first embracing the fundamental struggle of our fellows who were brought to British Malaya as indentured laborers in the colonial political economy and then abandoned as the nation achieved independence? Do Indian Malaysians not have to fight for a parity of citizenship amongst out own people before we have the moral standing to question the injustices purportedly meted out to us in a Malaysia dominated by Malays who have, no doubt set their own postcolonial colonial reclamations and interests above all else in the nation.
According to the current UNHCR website ” the Malaysian Indian Community has faced challenges related to identity documentation and confirmation of Malaysian citizenship for many years” and in the estimation of Malaysian NGO, the Development of Human Resources in Rural Areas (DHRRA), there were 12,400 established stateless persons residing in West Malaysia as of the end of December 2017. The UNHCR notes that the documentation problems faced by stateless communities that might best be addressed by the Malaysian government at a policy level. (As an aside, the Pakatan Harapan GE 14 election campaign seems to have been hollow and hypocritical, if not downright dishonest in this its claims and promises on this matter)
Secondly, acknowledging that by no measure is the Indian community the only one facing the curse of statelessness, I ask, can any Malaysian meaningfully strive for anything else of moral worth in our nation, while accepting this denial of access to education to innocent children who are caught within its boarders, trapped in the administrative limbo of statelessness? Shame on Malaysian Indians when we cry louder about a lost Thaipusam holiday! Shame on all of us Malaysians who accept this situation!
Batu Malai (Batu Caves) in Malaysia is an abode of Lord Murugan, and many Hindu visitors to the country generally make it a point to climb the steep 272 steps to the upper limestone cavern to pay obeisance to their Lord at his shrine. A few years ago, some relatives of ours from Sri Lanka, a young couple with a year-old baby, visited my parents in Malaysia, and of course, the Batu Caves was first on their list of places to visit. My parents planned to leave early in the morning to avoid the heat of the day, at least in one direction of the journey. Forgetting about the ritual aspect of the journey, my father brought home packets of nasi lemak (a typical Malaysian meal made with anchovies) for breakfast before setting off. They all paused upon my mother’s concern about eating non-vegetarian food before a pilgrimage but, then went ahead and enjoyed the treat before proceeding to the sacred caves.
The visitors ascended to the shrine but my parents, who were unable to make the strenuous climb, stayed below. As they waited at the foot of the stairs, my mother chanted the nerisai venpas (closing verses) of the “Thirumuruhaattup-padai” – a hymn, to the glory of Lord Murugan, composed by the poet Nakkirar. The third stanza of the nerisai venpas is a veneration of the sacred weapon of Lord Murugan, his Vel. ‘Sakti Vel’ is the ‘spear of power’ that was bestowed upon Murugan by his mother Parasakti (highest female power). ‘Vel’ is the name, and form, by which the personification of Lord Murugan is abstracted.
Nakkirar had been the thousandth prisoner to be held in a cave by the Demoness Karkimukhi, with the intention of feasting upon the reaching this number of victims. In desperate prayer to Lord Murugan, Nakkirar composed and sang the verses of the Thirumuruhaattup-padai. When he finished, a miracle occured! The sealed mouth of the cave opened wide and all the prisoners flowed out, escaping with their lives. From that day on, the Thirumruhaattup-padai has been a prayer of great power. It is believed that reciting these verses will instantly bring the Lord’s grace in the form of relief from the sufferings experienced in life.
When the visitors came down from the caves, the party had a vegetarian meal at the base of the caves and began the drive home. In the midst of heavy afternoon traffic, and under the blazing mid-day sun, my father’s car came to a stop. The engine has stalled and it just refused to start up again. Without the air-conditioner, the interior rapidly became unbearably hot. With the baby crying and with my old parents rapidly weakening in the heat, they all began to panic.
Lo and Behold! Before the day could take its toll on the vulnerable company, a young man rode up on a motorbike. Stopping on the driver’s side of the car, he asked what the problem was. He happened to be a motor mechanic. First he pushed the car to the side of the road, allowing the impatient Kuala Lumpur drivers to pass. He then got to work under the bonnet and very soon the engine was running and, to great relief, the air-conditioner was on again. As he set off, refusing remuneration of any kind, my father thanked him and asked his name. He replied casually, “Sakti Vel”!
It was clear to all of them, in that moment at least, that the Lord had just appeared! Having admonished them for knowingly breaking a taboo, He had showed his grace by sending his “Sakti Vel” to their aid! The Thirumuruhaattup padai has worked its miracle!
“MURUGANUKKU AROHARAH” – Praise be to Murugan!