Calmness caught in epic colours

loading Syed Thajudeen.

Syed Thajudeen grew up on both sides of the Bay of Bengal. The stories, the sights and the sounds of the region resonate starkly in his paintings.

Syed Thajudeen’s art is forged in the confluences of catalytic changes. When young, he savoured the euphoria of Independence in India (1947) and then in Malaya (1957), and also witnessed the formation of Malaysia (1963). He was fortunate to be spared the excesses of the Japanese Occupation (1941-1945) and the May 13, 1969 internecine racial strife – both times because he was in India. This “sheltered life” perhaps shaped his artistic oeuvre of effusive love and an Arcadian world of harmony, beauty and bliss.

Born in the village of Alagan Kulam in Tamil Nadu, India, in 1943, he spent his early childhood imbibing Indian culture including the epics, dance and drama and the intricate frescoes and carvings on the filigreed gopuram of Indian temples.

In March 1954 he set foot in Penang, the birthplace of his father, Shaik Abu Talib. A third-generation Malaysian, Syed Thajudeen comes from a merchant class – his grandfather, Seeni Hassan Hussain, was a road contractor in Kedah and had a canteen business in the Pulau Jerejak quarantine station in Penang, soon after setting root in Malaya in 1850.

Syed Thajudeen had spent the first 11 years of his life in India and, for the next 12 years, had his education in the Indian- Muslim enclave of Little India near the waterfront under the iconic shadow of Masjid Kapitan Keling.

The spectrum of spicy masala colours he grew up with were suddenly changed and were replaced by the kaleidoscope of tropical colours and multicultural festivities, the riot of food aromas and diverse sounds from the various communities, mainly Malay, Chinese, Indian and Eurasian.

He was fascinated by the baju kebaya worn by the local maidens. He became interested in art and showed a postercolour work of the baju kebaya with its intricate patterns in his first exhibition, a group event, at the Penang State Art Gallery (PSAG) in 1965. Closer to his ethnic heritage, he was introduced to the unique nasi kandar, teh tarik and roti canai.

He returned to India for further studies in 1968. Against his parents’ wishes, he switched from Medicine to Fine Art studies at the Government College of Fine Arts (GCFA, formerly Government School of Industrial Arts/Government School of Arts and Crafts) in Chennai after doing pre-university studies on Humanities. He did his diploma studies from 1968-1973, and post-diploma (Painting) from 1973-1974. Apart from Chennai, other art nerve centres emerged in Kolkata (Calcutta)/Bengal and Vadodara (Baroda).

It was at a critical time of Indian Modernism fronted by standard bearers such as the Bengal/Calcutta School incorporating Persian Mughal miniatures (Abanindranath Tagore), the Madras School (D.P. Roy Chowdhury, Dr Alphonse Dass), the Baroda School and the Santiniketan Movement (Nandalal Bose and Rabindranath Tagore).

The GCFA, then at Poonamalee High Road, had great pedagogues like R.F. Chisholm (1838-1915) and E.B. Havell (1861-1934); and it was in fact India’s first art institution, founded by Alexander Hunter in 1850. It was Chisholm who advocated the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture. Havell, the founder of the India Society in London, wrote the seminal Handbook of Indian Art (1920), incorporating the Bauhaus approach into the arts of India.

The principal then was K.C.S. Paniker (1911-1977), the second local after D.P. Roy Chowdhury, who infused Indian mythology into the curriculum. Paniker was the founder of the Progressive Painters Association (1944), the Artists’ Handicraft Association (1963) and the Cholamandal Artists’ Village in Injambakkam (1966).

Advent of Islam, the Malacca Sultanate series.

Syed Thajudeen was honed in the rigorous Sadanga rudimentary rituals of Indian art. He also became enamoured with the Ramayana epic of Good versus Evil, the Mahabharata, the Rubaiyat quatrains of A Thousand and One Nights and the Buddhist Jataka, Hindu and Jain tales in the Ajanta and Ellora Caves of Maharashtra, from which he has appropriated and adapted the miasmic golden-earth colours as a leitmotif in his canvas with painstaking woollen-puff daubs and Pollockian drips. His mock Ajanta-Ellora palette is infused with an admixture of yellow ochre, burnt sienna, raw umber, moss green, gamboge, alizarin, permanent rose, sap green, olive green and crimson lake.

When he returned in April 1974 on the SS Madras, Malaysia had come under the New Economy Policy, a socio-political engineering attempt to bridge the economic disparity between the Malays and the non-Malays. The temper had also changed after the National Cultural Congress of 1971.

In the art scene, the Abstract movement started challenging the Figurative tradition of Datuk Hoessein Enas’s Angkatan Pelukis SeMalaysia (APS) with exhibitions such as the GRUP “Magnificent 7” (1967), the Conceptual “Towards A Mystical Reality” featuring Redza Piyadasa and Sulaiman Esa, the Anak Alam movement with its spiritual affinity with Nature and its Surrealism bent, and the New Scene Constructivists.

Syed Thajudeen mined the local milieu and reality, history, legends and myths like the Malacca Sultanate, the legends of Puteri Gunung Ledang and Mahsuri and the Malay Annals (Hikayat Sejarah Melayu).

He worked part-time at the Mara Institute of Technology (ITM, now Universiti ITM), teaching Textile Design and Figure-drawing from 1974-1976 before a short spell in advertising. He had his first of nine solos at the PSAG in 1975. Then, he became a “resident artist” with the United Asian Bank (later Bank of Commerce, Bumi-Commerce Bank and CIMB Bank) before opting out to become a fulltime artist in 2001.

Syed Thajudeen is the master of the monumental epics – in subject, narration and scale. His first was the nine-panel Ramayana (72cm x 453cm, 1972, National Visual Arts Gallery collection) encompassing the “Abduction of Sita”, “Hanuman Visits Sita” and “Hanuman Burns Lanka(puri)”, and noted for its raw iconography and simian configurations.

In his Malacca Sultanate Series, he repainted The Beginning, which had been lost in a 1976 fire. It shows Srivijayan prince Parameswara’s encounter with the pelanduk (mousedeer) which fought off a pack of snarling dogs. The other panels included The Royal Barge and The Advent of Islam.

Irama Dan Lagu (183cm x 381cm, 1995) is reminiscent of China’s Chen Yi-fei (1946- 2005) and Thailand’s pioneer sculptor, Khien Yimsiri (1922-1971).

The Eternal Love Between Hang Tuah and Puteri Gunung Ledang (183cm x 762cm, 2013) explores the theme of unrequited love.

Love is an allencompassing element on his canvas, the elixir of existence and heartbeat of enterprise or destruction. His canvas enshrines five types of love – coquettish play of paramours with enduring passion; that of the sublime Tauhid supplication with Allah; that of the mother and child; an affinity with animals and Nature in poetic empathy; and that of the love of country on which he had done 10 works on the jingoistic Merdeka theme.

In the Origin Series, he strikes on embryonic womb-like creations, playing on infinite space, the unknown and the miraculous. A hexaptych is in the collection of the Singapore Art Museum.

His ink paintings are based on Persian poet Omar Khayyam’s A Thousand and One Nights. His motifs include the sacred cow, the lotus, the phallic banana fronds and the randy bull and the frisky deer.

Women, whom he dubbed his “heroines”, figure prominently in his works – for their innate beauty as a nubile nymph or a Mother-Earth figure. His figures are all in black skin tones, and he is known for his trademark repertoire of hazel slit eyes, slender hands and fingers, slightly elongated torsos and limbs, puckered lips and long hair tied up in a ponytail or in a sanggul (bun).

Penang Beauty – Kek Lok Si Temple.

Another favourite is of the dancing apsaras syncopating the Orissi and decked in colourful costumes and glittering accessories (like jhumka earrings) as exemplified by the triptych Springmood 1 (183cm x 450cm, 2007) and the diptych Springmood II (230cm x 305cm, 2007).

He also likes to play on a picture-withina- picture parallel world sometimes in flat perspective. Among his commissions was the 1990 Shell Malaysia calendar of six Malaysian fables.

Though his works are infused with Indian-tinged references in terms of historicity, myths and tradition, he has been regularly invited to major Islamicthemed exhibitions. Most imposing is his latest Kapitan Keling Mosque (244cm x 457cm, 2015) with the quaint topography of domes, minarets and chhatris.

His growing stature and identity are such that he has been invited for prestigious international exhibitions such as the Malaysian Art 1965-1978, Commonwealth Institute, London (1978); the Contemporary Paintings of Malaysia, Pacific Asia Museum, Pasadena, California (1988); Rupa Malaysia, Brunei Gallery, London (1998); Malaysian Contemporary Art in Beijing (1999) and Guangzhou (2004); and the World Expo in Shanghai (2010).

In his lush romanticised tapestries, antiseptic without the blemishes of rancour, Syed Thajudeen excels at extolling the core human values of love, compassion, faith, trust, fidelity and filial piety.

“My paintings act like a tranquiliser shielding the world from (inherent) tensions,” he oft intones.

Forty years after his first solo at the PSAG, Syed Thajudeen – artist, philosopher, poet and magician – has returned with a grand flourish with a Retrospect.

The Syed Thajudeen Retrospective runs at the Penang State Art Gallery from November 2 to December 31, 2015.

ERRATA: In the October issue under the headline Loving the art and the artist, it was erroneously mentioned that Tan Gaik Hoon and Lee Sin Bee were a couple. Tan Gaik Hoon was married to fellow artist Lee Weng Fatt, her senior by five years at the KL College of Art. The writer wishes to convey his deepest apologies for the embarrassment caused.

Ooi Kok Chuen has written 88 books and catalogues on art. He is a recipient of the Australian Cultural Award 1991 and Goethe-Institut Fellowship 1989, and a two-time National Art Gallery Art-Writer of the Year (2003, 2008).

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