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!
The terracotta pictured above, was installed at the Singapore Art Museum as a part of my work for the Singapore Biennale2016/17. This icon represents the Puranic myth in which Lord Ganesha wins a miraculous mango in a competition with his brother Lord Murugan by recognizing that his parents Lord Shiva and Mother Parvathy were not just a part of his universe but that in fact they were the whole of it. In my work, this terracotta opens up a highly liminal space between sacred icon, museum artifact and contemporary art work.
In this, the 2nd of a series of posts at the nexus of ‘Murugan’ and ‘Rajinikanth’ I share a very particular version of the Mango of Enlightenment (Nyana Pazham) myth, which is mine by matrilineal descent …. Once, as Lord Shiva, Mother Parvathy and their children Ganesha and Muruga were enjoying a moment of family bliss in their heavenly abode, the Sage Narada paid them a visit. Holding a mango in his hand, Naradha said, “Lord this mango is sweeter than amirtham (divine elixir) it is for you, but it must be not be divided.” Shiva decided to offer it to just one of his sons by way of a challenge, “The mango goes to the one who is the first to circumnavigate the world.”
Knowing that he that must win this challenge, the sprightly Murugan bestrode his glorious peacock and set off around the world. Contemplating his own ponderous gait and his most modest vehicle, the mouse, Ganesha posed his father and mother a question, “Ammai, Appan, is it not true that parents are, for a child, the world?” “Yes”, his glowing parents replied in unison. Ganesha continued, “Is it not also true that the whole universe (Prakriti) is but a manifestation of your Lordly selves (Shiva/Shakti)?” “Well, yes of course!” – the only possible reply! Ganesha slowly circumambulated Shiva and Parvathy, his father and mother, his world – the world, and sure enough, he won the mango.
When Murugan came flying back, expecting to win, he saw Ganesha with the prize. Stunned and feeling cheated, he became enraged. He pierced his brothers generous belly with his Vel (this part of the story seems to be a particularity of my grandmother’s version) and abandoned his Heavenly abode. Discarding all his celestial accoutrements, he journeyed South, to stand alone on Mount Palani in a meager loin cloth. To this day, he stands there and is hailed as Palani Aandi (Mendicant of Palani), a form of the Lord that is dear to the hearts of the Shivites of South India and the diaspora.