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?”

Hey QT Dont Fuck with Bruce Lee 4

In response to an earlier post in this series which referred to Bruce Lee’s ‘Lost Interview’, my friend, veteran Malaysian journalist and art writer Ooi Kok Chuen commented, “Bruce Lee is much misunderstood after all these years where he is seen as a supreme martial arts fighter. … his cult brand of Chinese martial art is more than stunning physical manoeuvres. It’s a philosophy, a discipline of the highest order, and on top of it all, a way of life.” Indeed, this philosophy/discipline was embodied in what I would call a post-traditional fighting system that Bruce called Jeet Kune Do. The Jeet Kune Do system seems to acknowledge the plurality of traditional forms while unifying then in a praxis.

In the interview Bruce Lee explains this praxis in terms of the relationships between martial arts, acting and life, “… all types of knowledge mean self-knowledge … [my students] want to learn to express themselves through some movement, be it anger, be it determination or whatsoever … to show … in combative form, the art of expressing the human body … it might sound too philosophical, but its unacting acting, or acting unacting. I mean, here is the natural instinct, and here is control. You are to combine the two in harmony … The ideal is unnatural naturalness or natural unnaturalness … ultimately, martial art means honestly expressing yourself … You have to keep your reflexes, so that when you want it, it’s there! When you want to move, you are moving. And when you move, you are determined to move …”

Another friend Hugo Moss, co-founder of Michael Chekhov Brasil responded to the same post by noting that Bruce lee’s praxis echoes that of Michael Chekhov (1891-1955), a Russian actor, director and teacher whose approach to actor training, rehearsal and performance continues to inspire artists around the world. Hugo notes that Chekhov posits the same “polarity of being in controlling and releasing yourself 100% free in the moment. It’s the creative process of meaningfully living ‘the tangible/material world’, ‘the cosmos/possible’ and ‘oneself’ in equal measure/harmony. yes there’s a polarity … In the creative act there is part of it which is a “doing” in the traditional sense, but then there is a “getting out of the way” and allowing the creative moment to flow … [and] that flow [is] this threefold consciousness – ‘Material World’ + ‘Cosmos & Imagination & the possible’ + ‘Self’, [with] our gesture unifying the first two.”

In the light of the profundity of Bruce Lee’s contribution, Tarantino’s project seems frivolous at best and at worst, a folie.