My 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’.
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.