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,

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.

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?”

RIP Jeganathan Ramachandran 1

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.

Reference :
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