A Humbling Review


Two days before the Gift of Knowledge Symposium I received an email from renowned Southeast Asian art historian TK Sabapathy, conveying generous and gratifying reflections on my ‘The Gift of Knowledge’ installation, which commemorates the life work of Durai Raja Singam. Below is an edited extract published with his kind permission –

“I visited your exposition … in the Piyadasa Gallery. As a bibliophile I was enthralled…reaching over the divide to other bibliophiles. I attach [a photograph] in which I am ensconced in the installation … I requested that the video image of your conversation be prominently included so as to register myself in moments of history…and possibly, posterity even! … As you know Coomaraswamy is deeply etched in my being, since I encountered him during my second year of undergraduate studies in art history in 1958 – I have written on this, on two occasions. I regret not meeting with your uncle … you may or may not know that I have been video-recorded, musing on Coomaraswamy … The abiding interest in this recording was in his Art of India and Indonesia, especially in Coomaraswamy’s perspectives on Southeast Asia as they appear in this volume. I recall reading it painstaking, painfully, and with immense labour and difficulties during undergraduate years … So, Niranjan, all our paths intersect on account of AKC. I thank you for your installation, for instating Coomaraswamy and your uncle as a transmitter and transformer…… tangibly, requisitely and demandingly in our midst and in our time.”

To contextualize these reflections in terms or Kanaga’s and my own personal and intellectual engagement, I would like to note that I met Mr Sabapathy in 1995 when I went to Singapore for the ASEAN COCI Symposium held at the newly inaugurated Singapore Art Museum. I had been introduced by Redza Piyadasa and was kindly  received by this renowned art historian and his wife Dorine. Before the Symposium Kanaga presented me with some of his publications, one of which was a paper titled ‘Preliminary Observations on Art Historiography in Southeast Asia’, presented at the SEAMEO SPAFA Symposium, “Towards A Southeast Asian Perspective in Art History and Aesthetics”. In this paper he critiqued Coomaraswamy’s overview of the art of India and the Indianized art of Southeast Asia, eliciting and dispelling any notion of a ‘greater India’ in the construction of the history of the art of our region.  I too was reading and applying Coomaraswamy in my writing. During the symposium, of which Kanaga as chair, I presented my own critique of Southeast Asian art historiography, calling for a dual social historical/ metaphysical approach. My thesis was founded on a remix of poststructuralism, the new left and, of course, Ananda Coomarasway.

Sathiavathy Deva Rajah

29314262_10156147022193232_1854508514102214656_o (1)On the 17th March 2018 I presented at the dialogue session of my Gift of Knowledge Installation at the Piyasasa Gallery. I also did a casual gallery tour with members of the audience and in the above photograph I am accompanying my mother Sathiavathy Deva Rajah as we look for acknowledgments of her contribution to the work of my uncle Durai Raja Singam whose life work is the subject of the exhibition. My mother was uncle’s favorite proof reader and language editor as she was mine in my UNIMAS days. As such she has contributed to seminal works such as Durai Raja Singam’s pioneering annotated bibliography of Ananda Coomaraswamy, Hasnul Jamal Saidon’s and my own 1st Electronic Art Show catalogue and to my essays in Insyirah: lukisan Sulaiman Esa dari 1980 hingga 2000 and Bara Hati, Bahang Jiwa.

Thanks Ma!

Image: https://www.facebook.com/dayang.kartini/posts/10156147022858232

Post Traditional Praxis 5

Event: Tradition as a Measure of the Contemporary Dialogue Session /
Speakers: Dr. Simon Soon, Niranjan Rajah and Audience! /
Date: 17th March 2018 (Saturday) /
Time:  2 pm to 4.30 pm /
Venue: Seminar Room 1 and Piyadasa Gallery, Cultural Centre, University of Malaya /

This Dialog Session is presented as a part of –
The Gift of Knowledge: An Installation Commemorating the Person and Work of Durai Raja Singam (1904-1995)
by Niranjan Rajah as part of ALAMI BELAS – KL BIENNALE 2017

The strength of traditional values and the revival of theocentric approaches to social issues makes it incumbent upon contemporary artists and theorists who practice in the modernist and postmodernist idioms to engage reflectively with traditional values in art. Conversely, it seems imperative that traditionalists reflect on the impact of the resurgent traditional mores in contemporary life, and that they do not develop their worldviews in isolation from modernity and from one another.

In post-traditional situations like ours, where diverse religious orders have survived both the singularity of modernism and the relativity of postmodernism, we are required to be attentive to art that goes beyond both the chronological and stylistic modes of art history and wholesale adoption of critical theory. We may need to unpack and explore the depth, the meanings of tradition and not sit satisfied within the aura of its superficial significations. With the historical and bibliographical researches of Durai Raja Singam as a point of departure, our afternoon speakers will explore what his practice means for both contemporary art and the writing of art history in Malaysia today.

There will be two presentations followed by a dialogue with the audience. The presentations are –

“Durai Raja Singam as a pioneering proponent of Ananda Coomaraswamy – Traditional worldviews and implications for our national sense of being”
by Niranjan Rajah, Assistant Professor, School of Interactive Arts and Technology, Simon Fraser University, British Columbia, Canada.


“Who Is This Coomaraswamy? Durai Singam and the Impossibility of Not Writing”
by Simon Soon, Senior Lecturer, Visual Art Program, Cultural Centre, University of Malaya.

A tour of the exhibition currently on view at Piyadasa Gallery will be conducted by Niranjan Rajah after the talk at around 4PM. Refreshments will be served.


Post Traditional Praxis 3

Event: Tradition as a Measure of the Contemporary Dialog Session
Speakers: Dr. Simon Soon, Niranjan Rajah and audience!
Date: 17th March 2018
Time:  2 pm to 4.30 pm
Venue: Piyadasa Gallery/ Cultural Centre, Universiti Malaya

Theme: Centered on the lifework of work of Dr. Durai Raja Singam, the session will go on to explore the place of tradition in contemporary Malaysian art and life. Is Art a way of Life? I quote the following from the cover of Durai Raja Singam’s ‘Letters of Ananda Coomaraswamy Vol 5’, 1976 (self published) ” As I wake up each morning I transcribe a letter and as I retire to bed, I copy out another. These are SUBLIME LEAVES I read in the evening of my life”.
Image: https://artklitique.blogspot.ca/2017/12/kl-biennale-ii-gift-of-knowledge.html

Post Traditional Praxis

whoisthisI am happy to announce the  Tradition as a Measure of the Contemporary: Towards a Post Traditional Praxis in Malaysian Art Dialog Session which will take place on 17th March 2018 from 2pm to 4.30 pm at the Piyadasa Gallery/ Cultural Centre , Universiti Malaya. This Dialog Session is a part of the external programme of ALAMI BELAS – KL BIENNALE 2017, Bali Seni Visual Negara. This dialogue is a part of my installation at the Piyadasa Gallery titled The Gift of Knowledge  Installation Commemorating the Person and Work of Durai Raja Singam (1904-1995). It will explore the historical and bibliographical researches of Durai Raja Singam who is a pioneering  biographer and bibliographer of the great art historian and metaphysician Ananda Coomaraswamy. He was a serious amateur historian and a researcher who operated outside of the privileged circle of academic institutions. Indeed, Durai Raja Singam is an exemplar of cosmopolitanism in 20th century Malaysian intellectual life. Taking the work of Durai Raja Singam as point of departure, this session will investigate tradition might be a meaningful measure of the contemporary in Malaysian Art. The dialogue will explore the rapprochement of our diverse traditional world views,  their relevance in contemporary moment and their significance for our national sense of being.

Image: https://artklitique.blogspot.ca/2017/12/kl-biennale-ii-gift-of-knowledge.html




Gift of Knowledge Reviewed


Extract from a review by Art KL-itique of my installation at the KL Biennale  –

…  ‘The Gift of Knowledge: An Installation Commemorating the Person and Work of Durai Raja Singam (1904 – 1995)’ by Niranjan Rajah, is an amazing display that highlights the dedication and resourcefulness of the human spirit, when a single-minded passion is one’s guiding light in life.

Stepping into the unlocked gallery and turning on the lights, this visitor is greeted by two pedestal-tables and three old cupboards. One coat rack stands at the far end of the room, while a degree certificate from the University of Jaffna is presented next to it. Walking past framed collages of text and pictures, I noticed the books inside the cupboards as copies of publications exhibited on the pedestals. A wall of old photographs and illustrations portray Durai Singam and a few luminaries, but at this point it remains unclear what is significant about this installation. Flipping the book cover open of the volume titled The World of Coomaraswamy, I see the proclamation “THIS IS A BOOK OF MY OWN DEVISING”; Printed in capitals too a few pages later, “Fifty years of Coomaraswamy for me, the cup is filled in another measure. To beg I am ashamed.” fills three quarters of one sheet. Then it struck me what was on show …

Full Review at –

Durai Raja Singam

fb_img_15109859470251353543407.jpgMy installation for the KL Biennale 2017 at the Piyadasa Gallery, Universiti Malaya is titled The Gift of Knowledge. It commemorates the scholarly work of Durai Raja Singam which centered on disseminating the writings of esteemed art historian and metaphysician Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy. This installation is also a way to mark my personal debt to Durai Raja Singam who was my periappa, my uncle. His generous yet insistant presentation of Coomarswamy and his ideas played a significant role in shaping my own worldview and my sense of the place of art in the order of things.

This installation presents select items of his furniture, personal effects, print layout/artwork, photographs, and most significantly, his publications. It is accompanied by a candid and clarifying video conversation with  his son, my cousin Jawaharal Jai Singam, that sets Durai Raja Singam’s legacy within familial, communal, national and international narratives. This installation presents Durai Raja Singam holistically, as a man with a mission within a very specific social, historical and sclolarly milieu – that of Asia in a time of transition from a colonianlist paradigm to a nationalist one. Through his life and works we can glimple the the complex emergence and interplay of modern Jaffna Tamil, Indian, Malaysian and Asian identies in the post-colonial era.  As Simon Soon of Universiti Malaya notes, Durai Raja Singam is an important figure in many different contexts – cultural history, diasporic imagination, 20th century transnational networks, Malaysian cosmopolitsnism, post-colonial forms of knowledge, the reconciliation between modernity and spirituality as well as non-mainstream approaches history.

My installation sits liminally at the boundary of art work, curatorship, family memorial and scholarship. It is the recognition of the passion of a man, his sense of duty and his belief that knowledge was a common property that belonged to all. Above all, and in keeping with the belas theme of the KL Biennal, it is the celebration of the charity and compassion of a man and of his ‘gift of knowledge’.

Image: https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=2423733217850959&id=2082567601967524  

The Gift of Knowledge


Here is an in-progress shot taken of my installation at the Piyadasa Gallery, Universiti Malaya before the show opened on 1st November 2017.  The Gift of Knowledge is an Installation commemorating the life’s work of Durai Raja Singam (1904-1995).It is an installation of furniture, personal items, print layout/artwork, photographs and publications from the collection of Jawaharlal Jai Singam. The installation is accompanied by  a video contextualizing the exhibit. The late Dr. Durai Raja Singam was a Malaysian scholar, historian, biographer and bibliographer of high international regard who collated, wrote, designed and published books on various topics. At the centre of this large body of work was his pioneering contribution to Ananda Coomaraswamy scholarship. Durai Raja Singam was Coomaraswamy’s most dedicated biographer and his earliest comprehensive bibliographer.

Alami Belas KL Biennale

I am proud to announce my participation in Alami Belas the inaugural KL Biennale 2017. My work is titled The Gift of Knowledge: An Installation Commemorating the Person and Work of Durai Raja Singam (1904-1995).  This installation will be on view at the Piyadasa Gallery, Universiti Malaya from 1 Nov 2017 – 31 March 2018.

The life and work Durai Raja Singam is the epitome of belas (charity/compassion) in the context of Malaysian scholarly work. Operating outside the realm of academia, he did his work with neither acclaim nor financial reward in mind. He funded his publications himself with no notion of profit. He collated, wrote, designed and published books on various topics, particularly on the life and work of Ananda Coomaraswamy. He pursued this work as if it were his karma (sacred duty) to disseminate this knowledge for posterity. The late Durai Raja Singam was my uncle and, in this installation, I present his place in Malaysian cultural discourse through the dual perspective of a familial recipient of his legacy and a Malaysian artist theorist and curator who has contributed to the study of Southeast Asian art. The exhibit takes the form of an installation of select items of his furniture, personal effects, print layout/artwork, photographs and publications. His books are presented in an accessible manner so that visitors are able to read them. There is also a video interview with his son Jawaharlal Jai Singam. This installation celebrates Durai Raja Singam as Malaysian scholar, historian, biographer and bibliographer of high international regard who operated with humility outside of the privileged precincts of the ivory tower.

The Gift of Knowledge

The theme of the inaugural KL Biennale (November 2017 to March 2018), is Belas which can be understood as pengampunan or mercy, compassion, charity, generosity or simply as giving of the self. As a part of this Biennale, I will present an installation, at the Piyadasa Gallery of the University of Malaya, commemorating the person and work of Dr. Durai Raja Singam.  Durai Raja Singam is, in my view, the epitome of belas in the context of Malaysian scholarly work. Operating outside the realm of academia and almost completely beyond the ambit of the publishing industry, he did his research, writing and publishing work with neither acclaim nor financial reward in mind. He funded his publications personally without a notion of profit or even of an idea of a balanced return.

An author who engaged in his craft in the traditional ethos, his work was his vocation, he collated, wrote, designed and published on the life and work of Ananda Coomaraswamy as if it were his karma or sacred duty and a moral obligation to consolidate and disseminate this knowledge for posterity. He worked as a disinterested practitioner of his art, deriving satisfaction from his very materials and from his own efforts. I believe that he did this work with the deep ethical and spiritual understanding that good seeds, carefully planted and well-tended must bear rich fruit. The deepest sense in which this unassuming scholar is the embodiment of belas lies in the fact that he took his greatest delight in others enjoying the fruit of his labour.

In authoring this project I take a 1st person approach as the late Durai Raja Singam was my uncle. I will present my sense of his place in Malaysian culture vis a vis my own cultural activities and engagements and through my personal knowledge and experience of him as a family elder. The exhibition will take the form of a small installation that I will curate with the dual perspective of a familial recipient of his legacy, as well as an artist and theorist who has contributed to the discourses on Southeast Asian art in a manner that reflects this heritage.