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!


Shakti Vel!

Batu Malai (Batu Caves) in Malaysia is an abode of Lord Murugan, and many Hindu visitors to the country generally make it a point to climb the steep 272 steps to the upper limestone cavern to pay obeisance to their Lord at his shrine. A few years ago, some relatives of ours from Sri Lanka, a young couple with a year-old baby, visited my parents in Malaysia, and of course, the Batu Caves was first on their list of places to visit. My parents planned to leave early in the morning to avoid the heat of the day, at least in one direction of the journey. Forgetting about the ritual aspect of the journey, my father brought home packets of nasi lemak (a typical Malaysian meal made with anchovies) for breakfast before setting off. They all paused upon my mother’s concern about eating non-vegetarian food before a pilgrimage but, then went ahead and enjoyed the treat before proceeding to the sacred caves.

​The visitors ascended to the shrine but my parents, who were unable to make the strenuous climb, stayed below. As they waited at the foot of the stairs, my mother chanted the nerisai venpas (closing verses) of the “Thirumuruhaattup-padai” – a hymn, to the glory of Lord Murugan, composed by the poet Nakkirar. The third stanza of the nerisai venpas is a veneration of the sacred weapon of Lord Murugan, his Vel. ‘Sakti Vel’ is the ‘spear of power’ that was bestowed upon Murugan by his mother Parasakti (highest female power). ‘Vel’ is the name, and form, by which the personification of Lord Murugan is abstracted. 

Nakkirar had been the thousandth prisoner to be held in a cave by the Demoness Karkimukhi, with the intention of feasting upon the reaching this number of victims. In desperate prayer to Lord Murugan, Nakkirar composed and sang the verses of the Thirumuruhaattup-padai. When he finished, a miracle occured! The sealed mouth of the cave opened wide and all the prisoners flowed out, escaping with their lives. From that day on, the Thirumruhaattup-padai has been a prayer of great power. It is believed that reciting these verses will instantly bring the Lord’s grace in the form of relief from the sufferings experienced in life.

​When the visitors came down from the caves, the party had a vegetarian meal at the base of the caves and began the drive home. In the midst of heavy afternoon traffic, and under the blazing mid-day sun, my father’s car came to a stop. The engine has stalled and it just refused to start up again. Without the air-conditioner, the interior rapidly became unbearably hot. With the baby crying and with my old parents rapidly weakening in the heat, they all began to panic.

​Lo and Behold! Before the day could take its toll on the vulnerable company, a young man rode up on a motorbike. Stopping on the driver’s side of the car, he asked what the problem was. He happened to be a motor mechanic. First he pushed the car to the side of the road, allowing the impatient Kuala Lumpur drivers to pass. He then got to work under the bonnet and very soon the engine was running and, to great relief, the air-conditioner was on again. As he set off, refusing remuneration of any kind, my father thanked him and asked his name. He replied casually, “Sakti Vel”!  

It was clear to all of them, in that moment at least, that the Lord had just appeared! Having admonished them for knowingly breaking a taboo, He had showed his grace by sending his “Sakti Vel” to their aid! The Thirumuruhaattup padai has worked its miracle!  

“MURUGANUKKU AROHARAH” – Praise be to Murugan!