Telinga Keling (1999)

Telinga Keling, Silver Halide Print, Niranjan Rajah, 1999. Permanent Collection of the National Visual Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur

Telinga Keling (1999) is in the collection of the National Visual Art Gallery in KL. It is currently on display again in a selection from the collection. ‘Keling’ is a today taken as a derogatory term for ‘Indian’ although, from its etymology, it is clear that this was not always so. The items obscuring my ears in the image are Malay sweets which are colloquially referred to as ‘Telinga Keling’ (Indian Ears). More formally and publicly, given our multi-racial Malaysian society, these cakes are referred to as called ‘penyaram’ or ‘denderam’. Ironically, this Telinga Keling sweet is quite likely to be of Indian origin. My mother used to make something that tastes exactly the same that we call it ‘athirasam’

The idea of the piece is that I can engage the Malay viewers regarding this juncture of ‘sweetness’ and ‘derision’ while excluding the others, who would likely be unfamiliar with its colloquial name. Of course, there’ll be some Indians who know, particularly those from Kelantan where the sweet is prevalent, but empirically speaking, during the opening of its inaugural exhibition in Kuala Lumpur, the Indians had no idea and kept asking, ‘Why did you insult yourself in this work? ’, The Malays, however, smiled and nodded in acknowledgement.

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Thank You Dr. M

While I am completely behind Tun Dr. Mahathir in terms the honourable etymology of the term Keling, I have personally felt it used against me in the derogatory fashion. This apology  from Tun should have come as soon as the Tun was put on notice, instead of his initial and rather archaic defense of his use of the term. Indeed, the history of the term since the 1960’s makes it clear that some if not most Indians would take offence. I stress that in-spite of my commentary, I am not offended. I have even used the term candidly in my own works – Telinga Keling, Taubat Keling, with even more Keling works to come! So thanks Dr M … No hard feelings!