Malaysian Indian Artists 2

In his article on Malaysian Indian artists published in the Penang Monthly, Ooi Kok Chuen writes of J. Anu and myself both being of Sri Lankan Tamil descent. This observation, in the context of the question of Malaysian Indianness, raises two concerns pertaining to blood ties, one intimate and familial and the other, public and communal.

The first is a fact – I am proud to note that Anu and I are not only members of the same community, we are of the same family. Anu’s mother Gana, whom I call Acca, is my cousin, and this relationship is celebrated in an image of the Koboi Balik Lagi series of the Koboi Project.

4 Ikatan Pertiwi
4 Ikatan Pertiwi, Koboi Balik Lagi, https://koboibalikkampung.wixsite.com/baliklagi

The second is a question that underpins Ooi’s own pertinent question – ” WHY ARE THERE so few artists of Indian (including Singhalese) descent in Malaysia?.” It is this – Who is Indian in the Malaysian context? As I have noted in a previous post, Ceylonese Tamils in Malaysia have historically tried to preserve a distinct identity from Malaysian Indians. We have our own organization, the Malaysian Ceylonese Congress (MCC), that has been traditionally aligned to Barisan National. Although the MCC is not a registered political party, it had, until 1981, a senator in the Malaysian parliament’s upper house, the Dewan Negara. However, as Suhaini Aznan notes, Malaysians do not recognize the difference between Indians and Ceylonese and in the 2000 census many Ceylonese were counted as Indians. In this light, MIC seems to have invited the Ceylonese to join up with the Indians but, as Aznan notes the Ceylonese declined. He explains, after Datuk Dr N.K.S. Tharmaseelan, president of the MCC, “every race wanted its own identity to survive.”

It is my own opinion that Malaysian Tamils of Ceylonese origin should, to the extent that the Malaysian Indians will accept us, be absorbed into the category and identity of ‘Indian’. It is not a question of renouncing ones Ceylon Tamil background but, rather, of integrating it into the wider Malaysian Indian mosaic. Regardless of my own identification, however, the question remains, “are Ceylonese Tamils included in the category ‘Malaysian Indian’?” The question of Indianness does not stop here. It is clear from Ooi’s placing ‘including Singhalese’ within parenthesis in his question, that even he feels his placement of this other Ceylonese community within the Indian category is questionable. And then there is the question of the Mamak or Indian Muslims – it is unclear if they would all be equally happy with the highlighting of their belonging to the Indian category, as some might be in the process of transferring their identity into the ‘Malay’ category’.

Returning to the first concern, that of family, artist T. Selvaratnam is related to both Anu and myself, but that is a story for another blog post.

https://penangmonthly.com/article/20432/spotlight-on-indian-malaysian-artists?fbclid=IwAR3CB_s6jMPFH2A8P-4UcFwKXz6oUzjwBn7aRXijHkPNp35Aob8d9iE5Gto

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malaysian_Ceylonese_Congress

https://www.thestar.com.my/opinion/letters/2005/03/27/standing-up-for-the-ceylonese

Malaysian Indian Artists

“WHY ARE THERE so few artists of Indian … descent in Malaysia?” Veteran Malaysian art Journalist Ooi Kok Chuen presents an overview of Malaysian Indian artists in the Penang Monthly which opens by questioning the dearth of Indians in the national canon. He goes on to offer some possible answers that he notes have been ‘bandied about,’ “Economic status, parental / social disapprobation, opportunity, (lack of) role models, patronage, minority syndrome (proportionately smaller population, of only 6.2%), “estranged” Indian-ish themes, and discrimination,” Ooi rightly states no preference amongst these reasons. Nevertheless, while it is difficult to go beyond speculation in this matter, I am glad he has asked the question publically. It is an important one as it points to the undeniable fact that, while a few Malaysian Indians have made significant contributions to the practice and theorization of the visual arts, overall, our numbers are low.

This is something that gave me pause during my years of intense involvement in the Malaysian scene from 1996 to 2002. I gave my support and encouragement to individual artists with a sense of communal allegiance whenever the opportunity came my way, but my own concerns during that period were national and international, and while intra-national questions of race and communalism formed the framework of my practice, I was not community oriented. I often wonder if I could have engaged more actively with my community in those years in terms of promoting and developing the arts.

This personal reflection and recollection, triggered by Ooi’s question, leads to a more fundamental question that lies at the heart of my Malaysian identity. Am I an Indian first or a Malaysian first? An Indian Malaysian or a Malaysian Indian! Of course, an analogous question arises for the other races of our multiethnic nation. Such pondering has even been turned into political capital. Malaysia’s present Prime Minister is reported to have said, back in 2010, “I am a Malay first, I want to say that … But being Malay does not mean that you are not Malaysian.” While the country struggles with the horrors of the recent covid-19 crisis atop an ongoing and now long running political one, the foundations of the nation are being shaken. Will the old Malaysia, whose founding social contract is premised on communalism, survive this crisis in its present form? Will we regress to a more ethnocentric paradigm, or will we emerge from this national trauma with a reformed and refined national agreement? These questions might seem far from the world of Malaysian art but this is where the stream of thoughts that flowed that follows from Ooi’s innocent, perhaps not so innocent question, has brought me – WHY ARE THERE so few artists of Indian … descent in Malaysia?”

https://penangmonthly.com/article/20432/spotlight-on-indian-malaysian-artists?fbclid=IwAR3CB_s6jMPFH2A8P-4UcFwKXz6oUzjwBn7aRXijHkPNp35Aob8d9iE5Gto

https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2020/03/01/asia-pacific/politics-diplomacy-asia-pacific/muhyiddin-yassin-malaysia/

RIP Jeganathan Ramachandran 2

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.

Reference:
Rajah, Bara Hati Bahang Jiwa: Expression and Expressionism in Contemporary Malaysian Art, Kuala Lumpur: Balai Seni Lukis Negara, 2002.

Image: http://www.sgm.org.my/en/?cur=page/page&id=154&title=Why_Art?_A_Public_Lecture_by_Zanita_Anuar

Potentiality and Prediction 2

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.”[3] 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‘.

Pity the Stateless Children

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!

Image: https://www.unhcr.org/ending-statelessness-in-malaysia.html

https://malaysia.news.yahoo.com/stateless-children-still-denied-access-015100401.html

https://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/nation/2021/01/21/mic-puts-heat-on-kedah-mb-over-cancelled-thaipusam-holiday/

It’s Time to be Clear 2

So what is Fascism? In The Anatomy of Fascism, Robert Paxton defines fascism as “a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.”

While there is no doubt that Donald Trump and by implication the Republican Party have been flirting with White Supremacy, and thereby bringing the USA within the ambit of Paxton’s definition, as a Malaysian Tamil who has lived in the UK, I can not but think of the analogous forces that have given us Brexit, Ketuanan Melayu and Hindutva.

Further, as an immigrant to Canada and as a resident of British Columbia, I struggle to disentangle my new, welcoming and multicultural home from its White Supremacist provenance, and I wonder about the future.

http://libcom.org/files/Robert%20O.%20Paxton-The%20Anatomy%20of%20Fascism%20%20-Knopf%20(2004).pdf

https://www.mtholyoke.edu/courses/rschwart/hist151/Paxton_Fascism/Paxton%20Anatomy%20of%20Fascism%20Chap8.pdf

It’s Time to be Clear 1

Yesterday’s disturbing events at the United States capitol should give pause to democracies all over the word. Any nation that tolerates its mainstream politicians invoking and deploying extremist sentiments in their political agendas are, in my opinion, courting a similar eventuality. Communal and sectarian sentiments are present in society but they are generally innocuous unless they are exploited and exacerbated by politicians. When extremism is amplified to such an extent that it purports to usurp democracy, fascism must surely lie around the corner.

On Being Malaysian Tamil 7

So what makes Prabhakaran and the LTTE meaningful, beyond their obvious significance to the Ceylon Tamils of Malaysia, to the wider group of Malaysian Tamils. Is it that the Tigers said NO to abject racial discrimination and marginalization? Is it because they fought as Tamil nationalists and triumphed against incredible odds. Is it because they carved an autonomous Tamil domain out of the Sinhala state? Is it because they did this, ultimately, without the patronage of colonial or neo-colonial masters? Is it because they created a short but impactful ‘Elam‘ era in modern history? Whatever it is that is so appealing, it all ended with their defeat in 2009

So why do some Indian Tamils and Diaspora Tamils still have such a passion for the after-image of a long vanished LTTE, when the Sri Lankan Tamils have themselves moved on and are looking for new political solutions to the desperate situation for Tamils in Sri Lanka. The one word answer is Maanam. Or in Bahasa Melayu … Maruah. Yes, pride or dignity or that great Asian tradition of giving or saving ‘face.’ That’s what, and perhaps, this is all, the LTTE and their leader Prabhakaran mean to the global Tamil diaspora today. This Maanam is connected with many complex issues issues that were central to the lost Elam regime – issues of caste abolishment, Dravidianism, socialism, feminism and ethno-nationalism. Some of these issues are powerful currency in the vibrant and emotional political theatre of the Tamil motherland, Tamil Nadu. Charismatic figures like Senthamizhan Semaan, whose party Naam Tamilar Katchi plays on deeply ethnocentric themes, exploit and revivify the symbolism of the defunct LTTE. This brings us to the Malaysian connection. Malaysian Tamils of Indian origin seem to have invested in LTTE symbols as a means to uplift their Maanam in the face of Malaysian communalism. The Indians are without doubt amongst the losers in the Malaysian social arrangement. It is in this light that I, from the perspective of a Jaffna Tamil, see the wider Malaysian Indian communities’ passionate and heartfelt engagement with symbols and the cause of Elam.

Tomorrow, on 29 december, the High Court in Kuala Lumpur will give its decision on whether to allow the bail application of Gadek state assemblyman, G Saminathan, one of the 12 detainees charged with LTTE involvement and detained under the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012. The LTTE has was defined as a terrorist outfit under Malaysia law in 2014. It is reasonable to understand this definition as applying to participants in the organization before its demise who are still at large. In fact, there have been a few arrests of such alleged LTTE members in Malaysia before and after 2014. If it can not be shown that the LTTE terrorist organization continues to exist or that it is presently being revived, those caught in possession of LTTE symbols, those caught in acts of LTTE commemoration, and those caught in the act of distributing LTTE symbols can not not rightly be deemed to be engaging with terror related activities. They are more appropriately seen as being engaged in the remembrance of symbols associated with a historical organization that has been associated with terrorism. Such actors are more appropriately understood as being involved with the myth of the LTTE, the dream of Thamil Elam and the quest for Maanam at home, not a mission of terrorism.

Please visit On Being a Malaysian Tamil 6

On Being Malaysian Tamil 6

Despite my origins in Jaffna, I am far removed from the Tamils of Sri Lanka in my lived identity. I am a Malaysian first and, as a Malaysian, my ethnic identification is with the wider group of Malaysian Indians. Historically Ceylonese Tamils have tried to preserve a distinct identity as Malaysians and officially we are not classified as Indians. Nevertheless, I believe that it is appropriate and meaningful that, to the extent that the Indians will accept us, Ceylon Tamils should join Indian Tamils and be absorbed into the identity of ‘Malaysian Indian’. I do not renounce my Jaffna background. Rather, I feel it should be integrated into the wider Malaysian Indian mosaic. With my recent immigration to British Columbia, I am even further removed from my Sri Lankan Tamil identity.

The LTTE fought a vicious war for a Tamil homeland. They exchanged terror for terror with the Sri Lankan state actors and proxies,. They valiantly fought the mighty Indian army. They even set up and ran up a de facto state but in the end they seemed to have pitted themselves against the whole world. They were utterly defeated and now the ordinary Tamil people are picking up the pieces after an alleged genocide, under the demeaning conditions of a Sinhala occupation. Although I have relatives (my mother’s family) who were directly impacted by this war, I have generally lived my own life beyond the reach of the emotions raised by this communal tragedy. Nevertheless, I have followed the situation and when I reflect upon it closely, I feel the pain of my kith and kin!

Meanwhile the ongoing Malaysian LTTE fiasco seems quite perverse and unrelated to the Sri Lankan Tamil realities. So, I wonder, what does the LTTE signify in the Malaysian political scenario? Indian Tamils in Malaysia are mainly descendants of indentured labourers brought over to work in the rubber estates. Their fellows worked on tea estates in Sri Lanka. I must note, not without a sense of shame, that the Ceylon Tamils have set themselves apart from the estate Indians in Malaysia. In Sri Lanka we let the estate Indians down over the issue of citizenship in the early post-independence decades. Nevertheless, the Elam struggle has been a potent signifier and catalyst of a cogent Tamil identity within Dravidian politics of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Tamil ethno-nationalists, have hoisted the Elam flag as their own. Their sense of Dravidian pride was invested in the Elam struggle and, one could say that with the LTTE destroyed, they have stolen its fire for their own political engines.

Now, in Malaysia the Indians are a minority. One that is caught within the discriminations of a postcolonial communalism. They are diminished in political agency vis a vis the Malay majority and even the Chinese minority. They have been, in the last decades seeking catalysts for a vigorous political mobilization. For instance, the Hindraf agitation centred around Hindu identity and temple demolition. Perhaps the symbols of the LTTE play a similar moral boosting and formenting role in Malaysian Indian politics. The ethos of the LTTE may have had its origins in a just cause in Sri Lanka but its xtreme violence is disproportionate to the situation faced by Indians in Malaysia.

With regard to the 12 Malaysian Indians recently arrested and charged with terrorism related offences, while their allegedly excessive engagement with LTTE symbols might reasonably raise the government’s concern, there has as yet been no charge that clearly suggests a resurgent global LTTE. Nor is there any sign in the charges of a Malaysian based LTTE organization being set up. The possession of LTTE paraphernalia, the promotion of the defunkt LTTE cause on social media and the commemoration of dead LTTE heroes do not, in my view, suggest anything more than an entanglement with Tamil pride, Tamil sorrow and Tamil myth. The suggestion by the PDRM (police) of massive financial movements, which might by indicative of an imminent LTTE revival has not been actualized by way a related charge against even one of the 12 detainees. ,,, More in On Being a Malaysian Tamil 7

On Being Malaysian Tamil 3

There are many separatist organizations fighting battles for sovereignty in our world of nation states. While the methods many of these groups use include acts of terror, whether or not a given group is a terrorist organization in a given jurisdiction, at a given time, is simply a matter of legal definition. In Malaysia, possibly due to the combination of the pro Elam sentiments of Malaysian Tamils and the complexity of our communal politics, the LTTE was not so designated during the course of the Elam conflict which ended in 2009. It was only in 2014 that Malaysia finally designated the LTTE a terrorist organization. Technically speaking, regardless of emotional, political or moral considerations, this designation can not be disputed. There is, however, one very pertinent question that can be asked – Does this terrorist organization – the LTTE, even exist!

The Tamil separatist struggle ended with the decimation and the dissolution of the LTTE. The utter destruction of this organization was confirmed in a European Court of Justice ruling that stated that the LTTE should be removed from the EU’s terrorism list as there was no evidence of a risk of attacks after its military defeat in 2009. In this light, the cases of the 12 Malaysian Indians, charged with supporting the LTTE, might turn an ontological question – can it ‘be’ a crime to support a criminal organization that has ceased to ‘be’? … beginning to look like a Monty Python Norwegian Blue! … the Dead Parrot sketch no? … more in On being a Malaysian Tamil 4