Spotlight on Indian Malaysian Artists

By Ooi Kok Chuen

August 2021 PENANG PALETTE
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WHY ARE THERE so few artists of Indian (including Singhalese) descent in Malaysia?

Some possible factors one finds bandied about are: 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.

Indian creatives, however, are heavily concentrated in the performing arts – in dance, theatre and music (mostly classical traditional). You can’t find Indians in art groups like Thursday Art Group and Utara, while there is “token” representation in groups such as Wednesday Art Group (Sivam Selvaratnam and fellow Textile Art pioneer Grace Selvanayagam), Selangor Art Society (T. Selvaratnam and Dawson), Malaysian Watercolour Society (Lingam Johnson) and Angkatan Pelukis SeMalaysia (Nirmala Dutt Shanmughalingam or Nim, only in night classes). T. Selvaratnam (1920-2008) studied under N.N. Nambiar, a stranded artist from India during the war years of 1942-1945.

Sivarajah Natarajan's (left) Crossing Zebra & Semar (2013) and Beauty and the Beast III (2013). Both works from his ground-breaking Ahimsa series.

In the early years, hoay kuan (association halls) and foreign cultural venues doubled as exhibition showcases. It was only from 1959 that the National Art Gallery started the National Open, which even then had pre-selection based on merit, standards and expectations.

Indian artists were few and far between in the 1960s: T. Karan (woodcuts), Michael Muthu (tempera, sculpture), M. Rajagopal (Penang Art Teachers Circle), M. Krishnamoorthy, and the Madras-trained K. Krishnan (returned 1972). There was also a deaf-and-dumb, N. Nagalingam, a cowherd who tended cattle at night. Like Krishnan, Syed Thajudeen Shaik Abu Talib (b. Alagankulam, Chennai, 1943), a third-generation Indian Muslim, was trained in Madras (post-diploma 1974), but has gained much more prominence, being accorded a Retrospective by the Penang State Art Gallery in 2015.

A montage of artist-musician and Vaastu master R. Jeganathan.

For inspirations from India, there were only two majors. The first was the Art of India exhibition in 1959 comprising paintings (including miniature) and sculptures, featuring Jamini Roy (1887-1972), the Hungarian-born Amrita Sher Gil (1913-1941) and Nandala Bose (1882-1966), among others. Then in December 1979, some 90 works by 25 artists including M.F. Husain (1917-2011), Jayapala Paniker (1937-2003), Ram Kumar (b. 1924), the Paris-trained Jogen Chowdhury (b.1939), were shown at Loke House, KL. Visiting artists such as Farokh Contractor (Baroda Group) and Dilip Kumar Dasgupta were hosted as solos here.(b. 1939), were shown at Loke House, KL. Visiting artists such as Farokh Contractor (Baroda Group) and Dilip Kumar Dasgupta were hosted as solos here.

In the 1970s, artists of Indian origin got more visible, with the likes of Nim (1941-2016), Sivam (1937-2014) and the New York-based Dolly Unithan (1940-2018). Nim and Sivam shared the same birthday.

Eric Peris. At the heart of the Menora ritual performance.

Penang-born Nim, a strident human rights and environmental activist, first became prominent when her work, Statement I, won joint 1st Prize in the Man and His World exhibition in 1973. She also collected industrial detritus from Damansara and dumped them at the entrance of the National Art Gallery.

Sivam, who studied Textile Art at the University of Manchester (1965-69) and did her Master’s at the University of London (1984), headed the Art Elective in the Singapore National Junior College in 1979. Unlike most others who sacrificed their art career to bring up their families, Sivam, who married in 1962, was strongly supported by her husband Dr. V. Selvaratnam.

Kota Bharu-born Dolly, an Indian-Muslim, first cut her teeth at Hornsey (1975), then Pratt (New York) and the École Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Nancy, France. She featured in the 1990 Venice Biennale and held her retrospective, Reflections, at the Westbeth Gallery in New York in September 2012.

Clockwise (from top) - Nirmala Dutt Shanmughalingam, Sivam Selvaratnam, T. Selvaratnam and Renee Kraal.

Renee Kraal (1945-2018), who studied painting (Central Saint Martins 1965-70), batik painting (under Anthony Sum, 1977-79) and pottery (Campden, 1970), combined the healing properties of chakras in her repertoire. She featured in the 1995 Rimbun Dahan residency with Malaysia-born Australian Enid Ratnam Keese.

Malaysia’s world-class humanist photographer Eric Peris (b. 1939) also had his artist parents to thank for, in his chosen path: pioneer artist O. Don Peris (1893-1975) was a Johor royal artist, and taught painting to his wife, Eileen Peris (1916-2011). Eric made his debut in the 1982 solo, Through Thai Windows and Doorways, and over the last two decades, held solos at the Sutra Gallery.

In this group, one prominent person is Redza Piyadasa (1939- 2007), also an art-historian, best known for his Conceptual Art, and his 1974 “Towards A Mystical Reality” exhibition with Sulaiman Esa. He was also a recipient of the Prince Claus Award (1998).

Eric Peris. Three images from his most celebrated Autumn Series.

In the last decade, Indian artists or wannabes had three artists-organisers to thank: Sivarajah Natarajan, or Siva, (b. 1967) through the Sutra Foundation (he’s also the technical director) and gallery; R (Ramachandram) Jeganathan or Jega (1962-2021); and Stephen Menon (b. 1972).

Siva, a Malaysian Institute of Art alumni (1992), curated “Little India” in 2002, featuring Jega, Stephen, photographer Nirmala Karuppiah and himself. In 2010 ( June 30-July 11), he curated an all-Indian exhibition called Winds of Desire at the Annexe Gallery in Central Market, KL. It featured himself, S. Chanthiran, V. Chanthiran, Eric Peris, Indumathi Krishnan, Dr. V. Krishnan, Nirmala Karuppiah, Syed Thajudeen, Sivam, Stephen and the Nice-based Michel Anthony. Both times, collector Ambassador Dato’ N. Parameswaran officiated. Sutra also hosted solos for visiting artists, like that of the eminent painter-sculptorprintmaker- poet Satish Gupta (Zen Whispers, November 2018).

It was at Sutra Gallery that Jega staged his breakthrough solo, Vaastu: Windows To Time (2004), the year he turned fulltime. In 2009, Jega formed the Symbols Art Club dedicated to exposing Indian artists, with the first exhibition called Caves On Canvas, followed by Voices of Nature in 2011, involving 19 artists, at the Alliance Française in KL.

J. Anu’s installation, Ma-Na-Va-Reh: Love, Loss and Pre-Nuptials in the Age of the Great Debate, is shown in the Art Stage Singapore in 2014. Ma-Na-Va-Reh is a wedding dais or throne, and it is a tribute of sorts to his grandmother, who was a Hindu wedding planner.

In the early 1980s, Jega studied traditional Indian painting (Tanjore art), granite sculpture, woodcarving and Indian classical music (veena) in Chennai, India. His art combined visuals (light and illumination), sounds and the natural sciences like Vaastu, in a brand aptly labelled “Mystical Realism” by artist-curator-writer J. Anu (b. 1965). His other major solo, Human Watching, was held at Galeri Petronas in 2009. His brand was zealously pursued by his band of students in a “school” of Jega-nauts, the main ones being Jayashree Ramasamy and Mohana Kumara Velu a.k.a. Mona KV, who was even given a solo in Bali; his daughter, Dhakshini, long domiciled in India, however, somehow seems impervious to his style.

Stephen, who graduated from the Kuala Lumpur College of Art (1993), had consistently promoted Indian artists, notably under Art Voice Gallery, which held its 3rd anniversary show on July 8-August 8, 2021. It featured Eric Peris, Syed Thajudeen, SK Prakash, Sanker Ganesh, Poojitha Menon, Parames Mcneill, George Daniel, Bhanu Achan, Visithra Manikam, Shalini Maniam, Moly, Gerard Mohan, Reena Kochar, Tulika Prakash, Sahana Narayana, Roovaa Lijuan, Mohamed Shamim, Manggai, Elanggo, Sangeetha Murugiah, Thineswari, Shailly Gupta, Raj, Dhakshini, Shalini Yogi, Christine Das, Vasanthi Naidu, Mary Ann, Sandru and himself.

The Selangor Art Society 1956. This picture was taken after the annual dinner. T. Selvaratnam is seated on the right, while Dawson is seated on the left.

Wildlife conservation artist Christine “EleGirl” Das (b. 1966) said Indian upbringing stipulates prestigious professions, but since her grandfather was an artist, her parents even encouraged her to take up Graphic Design at the Sain Academy of Art (1988). Her accolades were vindication: VIMA’s Conservation Artist; The Malaysian Women’s Weekly Great Women (2016); Harper’s Bazaar’s 20 Global Extraordinary Women in Art; and Marie Claire: Woman of Style and Substance (2013).

Another Penang-born, Esther Reutens (b. 1952), who held her solo, Organic Origins (at a2 Gallery) in July 2008, also followed in the footsteps of her art-teacher father, G.S. Reutens.

Melaka-born artist-singer Karen Nunis Blackstone’s father, Larry d’ Vincent a.k.a. Larry Nunis, described as a Kerouactype character, was also an artist-musician. Of Portuguese / Singhalese / Chinese descent, she spent 16 years in Japan and is now based in Singapore. Her first solo was in December 1989.

K (Kanniah) Thangarajoo (b. 1957), the odd one out in the all-Malay Anak Alam commune coterie, hit pay dirt when he won the coveted Major Award in the Bakat Muda Sezaman in 1984.

Those with high international profiles are Simryn Gill (b. 1959), J. Anu (b. 1965), Niranjan Rajah (b. 1969) and Rajinder Singh.

Simryn Gill was born in Singapore, grew up in Port Dickson, and resides in Australia, which she represented at the Venice Biennale in 2013. In October 2001, she held a solo at Galeri Petronas called Dalam. Her other representations were in the Documenta in Kassel in 2007 and 2012, Istanbul Biennale (1997), the Asia-Pacific Triennial in Brisbane (1999) and the Berlin Biennale in 2001.

Dublin-based Rajinder Singh’s work, Untitled (Magical Being, 2018), made up of fabric, brass rods and found object, is collected by the Irish Museum of Modern Art. The Arts Council had also acquired two of his works, Border Tours and “Point at a passing migrant bird with a raised locked arm and an open palm”.

J. Anu and Niranjan (b. 1969) are both of Sri Lankan Tamil descent and both studied Law and Art. Anu did his MFA at Monash in 2002 (Foundation in Art and Design, Oxford Polytechnic) while Niranjan did his MFA at Goldsmiths (and BSc Economics at the University of London). Anu’s LLB (Hons) was at the University of London, while Niranjan’s postgraduate diploma was at the University of Westminster. Anu had worked as a journalist as well as senior curator (Galeri Petronas), while Niranjan is a professor in the school of interactive arts and technology at the Simon Fraser University in Surrey, Canada.

“My market is limited by the fact that I am an Indian, simply because so much in this country runs along racial lines,” said J. Anu in an interview with a Singapore publication.

Syed Thajudeen and his magnum opus, Puteri Gunung Ledang (2012, 6ft x 30ft).

Most of his solos are at Wei-Ling Contemporary, including Sacred Altars, documenting his 30-year journey. His main showings were at the Venice Biennale and Singapore Art Stage. A self-styled “Koboi”, Niranjan is a photo-conceptualist, theorist and performance artist and is regarded one of the twin grandfathers (with Hasnul J. Saidon) of e-art in Malaysia. He took part in the 2016 Singapore Biennale.

A later e-artist and theorist, Roopesh Sitharan, is known for his new-media solo, Fermentation.

Also trained in Law is S.C. Shekar, a newspaper photojournalist (1980s) and docu-photographer. He is best known for his exhibition and eponymous 330-page book, Grit & Grace – The Grandeur of Monochrome Malaysia. Little is known about Ram Singh, noted for his 1969 work which had the Malaysian flag dyed in black and turned upside down.

“Koboi” Niranjan Rajah is an academician and theorist and photo-conceptual and performance artist. Telinga Keling (1999, silver halide print, National Art Gallery collection) actually refers to a type of kuih called Kuih Peneram, but conjures up conflicting emotions of the word, Keling, which is derived from the ancient kingdom of Kalinga in India. In the 20th century, however, it lapsed into a derogatory slur against Indians.

Other Indian artists include Sugu Kingham (former lecturer, Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang), Sam Karuna (batik), Krishnan Karuppiah (ballpen) and Pius Eugene (poster design). Promisingly, more Indian artists keep stepping up to the plate, like in the Jega Homage exhibition, such as Santhi Maniam, Angela Natashia Joseph and Helena Williams.

Ooi Kok Chuen

art-writer and journalist, is the author of MAHSURI: A Legend Reborn (Ooi Peeps Publishing), an adult contemporary fantasy “movel” (a novel conceived as a mock movie) spun from a local legend.