RIP Jeganathan Ramachandran 3

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!

Image: https://www.afkcollection.com/gallery/artist/jeganathan-ramachandram

Koboi Balik Kampung 2

1 MUDIK PULANG Koboi Balik Kampung Series, 12 Chromogenic Printed in a Limited Edition of 9, Niranjan Rajah, 2015

​I will be presenting my Koboi Balik Kampung series of the Koboi Project at Percha Art Space in Lumut over the Christmas and New Year period. The show, titled Dari Pusat Tasek, will open on 25th Dec and run for 2 weeks. Koboi Balik Kampung presents a very personal perspective on the complexities of contemporary Malaysian art and society. It explores the notion of returning home from the diaspora, but also interrogates this idea in terms of the complex relationship between nationality and ethnicity. It was conceived in the course of my visit to Malaysia for Aliran Semasa {RearView Forward}, a series of events curated by Roopesh Sitharan in June and July, 2013. The images were gleaned from my activities in Kuala Lumpur and its surroundings. The titles delve deep into the Malay idioms and expressions. The series was mainly shot by my daughter Durga Rajah who was my constant companion on this trip.

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

Koboi Balik Kampung (2013)

Koboi Balik Kampung, Readymade Rockmount Western Shirt, 2013. Permanent Collection of the National Visual Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur. (The image above is from an installation and performance at the National Visual Art Gallery in 2018).

The Koboi Balik Kampung (2013) Readymade from the permanent collection of the National Visual Art Gallery in KL is currently on display at the gallery. This item was a residual artifact from a performance at the Aliran Semasa symposium held at the gallery in 2013. This performance marked my Malaysian homecoming after ten years away in Western Canada.

I appeared at the event wearing a brand-new Rockmount Western shirt with tags intact. As the symposium began, my mother the late Sathiavathy Deva Rajah was invited on stage, to give me a traditional Indian/ Hindu blessing by placing chanthanam (sandalwood paste) and kunggumum (red turmeric powder) on my forehead. Then, facing the audience, I remove the shirt, draped it on a pre-installed hanger at the back of the stage and my mother consecrated it with the same chanthanam and kunggumum. The shirt was left hanging for the duration of the symposium and then presented to the gallery.

A version of the Performance was repeated in an intervention when the item was on show for the first time as a selection from the collection of the National Visual Art Gallery in 2018. My Mother and I were stopped from renewing the markings on the shirt by a curator and a conservator from the gallery. We debated notions of completion of an art work, ownership of an artwork, the artist’s rights to modify an artwork, the extensive conservational bureaucracy that encompases a work of art in a National collection and the effects of all of these on the state of an art work (is it active or is it inert, alive or dead!). Mother and I proceed with the portion of our ritual that did not interfere with what is now the property of the gallery. The image above was captured by my daughter Durga Rajah during this performance.