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Friday, 19 July 2013


Meeting old friend, Niranjan Rajah after a lapse of about thirteen years is certainly the highlight of my past few weeks. Meeting his grown-ups daughters Tara and Durga, who were babies during our time at UNIMAS (Universiti Malaysia Sarawak), was also a pleasant and sweet experience. Too bad, Niranajan's wife Jane couldn't join due to work commitment back in Canada. 

Professionally, collaborations between Niranjan and I have been articulated by Roopesh Sitharan. He wrote rather extensively about our works in "Relocations", a book published in conjunction with our two-man show he curated in Singapore, as a partner-exhibition during the ISEA 2007 (International Society of Electronic Arts). Of course, Roopesh was sometimes labelled as our 'stooge' even though the whole intention behind the show was to claim 'Malaysia' presence in ISEA, and to grab the opportunity to do so while it was organized very close to Malaysia (in Singapore). 

My reconciliation with Niranjan was intertwined with talk and seminar, not to mention, many series of informal chatting in restaurants, hotels, cars and even by the streets (of George Town). When he reached Penang after I came back from Bandung, it was already 2.30 am. Yet, we went on our 'sembang session' until 6.00 am, perhaps to repay our thirteen years lapse. We were having our own mini seminar all the time, joined by Roopesh. We even debated on few issues on the streets of George Town, while enjoying old-school 'ice kepal'.

At Vistana Hotel, Penang, mini seminar till

In Penang, Niranjan managed to drop by at Kebun Rupa, my hiding place now after 'retiring' from administrative duties as the Director of the Muzium & Galeri Tuanku Fauziah (MGTF) USM. "So, you gave up directorship and offering at the Balai for this? I can see why." Cliche it may sound, but yes, we all need to guard our creative liberty.
In George Town, Niranjan (and Roopesh) could see for themselves many interesting changes (ya, that catchy tag 'ubah' that is fast becoming Penang's answer to '1 Malaysia'). Of course, I can write a long-winded thesis on our discussion on confluences of many forces that are shaping George Town and Penang. For creative people and social scientists interested in cultural studies and visual culture, George Town is a perfect subject. 

At Kebun Rupa USM.
The timing of the visit was also perfect. They came during a 2 days heritage celebration and closure of George Town festival. Niranjan even tasted the 'best' Balik Pulau durian that cost a whopping RM60 a fruit. 

A cowboy with a durian.
We went to see J.Anu's show at Narrel's China House. Niranjan and Roopesh were visibly excited (perhaps proud too) to see Anu's works. Anu is Niranjan's cousin, ya, small world. Yet, being critical thinkers, and in the midst of complimenting Anu's painterly skills, compositional acumen and conceptual flair, they also commented on Anu's decision to dance with the language of the art market (churning out paintings, instead of simply deploying digital technology to focus on the collage approach and inter-textual semiotics). The commentaries even went on while we were walking by the streets as Roopesh reminded me of the 'paradox' of deploying 'strategic ethnic essentialism' by non-Malay artists in Malaysia.It would be marvelous if Anu was also there to hit them back and put more spices to our street seminar.

Unlisted street seminar and performance at Armenian Street by two retired rockers, during the recent George Town Festival Penang.
Niranjan was obviously impressed by Narrel's China House, other than the fact that the place was mentioned (or listed) in almost every page of the George Town Festival pamphlet. We also took a peek at Seksan's impressive Sekeping Victoria plus other interesting galleries and sites around the heritage enclave of George Town. Of course, we talked about the George Town Festival, and the seemingly absence of a clear conceptual underpinning or theme to bind all the exciting 'happenings'. Roopesh seemed to be a bit perplexed with all the hoo-haas. I told him to just shut his freaking mind and enjoy the festivity (which I guess he did).  Supposed to be a festival for 'rakyat' remember, not a seminar wokay!

We even stumbled upon Liew Kungyu who was busy fulfilling his duty as the Artistic Director of the George Town Heritage Day Celebration. It was a cosmic synchronicity at work.  He was busy wrapping some walls, windows and trees with patchwork cloths, reminding us of his "Cadangan-cadangan" series he exhibited at the Petronas Gallery years ago. I thou,ght, like his amazing photo collage works he would wrap the whole heritage streets and buildings with those patchworks, including KOMTAR. Could have been stunning. Perhaps even attract more people to come and spend their money in Penang, other than taking memorable pictures.

Meeting Kungyu at Armenian street Penang without appointment
Both Roopesh and Niranjan drove to Ipoh for another talk at Khizanat, thanks to Nur Hanim Khairuddin. I was too tired to follow. Niranjan stayed a night in Ipoh, went to Paiman's house the next day. Paiman drove him (and his daughters) back to Penang. They stayed at Cathay Hotel, a charming old school hotel that still retains some of the eccentric glory of Penang's past. 

I brought them to see Fauzan at his posh house in an elite area in Bayan Baru. It was a kind of a sweet finale, a reunion of 3 people (Niranjan, Fauzan and me) who used to work very closely together in many memorable projects at UNIMAS in the 1990s.

My wife gave Niranjan (actually to his wife Jane) her dragon motif batik as a farewell gift. I send him and his two daughters off at Perangin Mall for their last day shopping before they took a night train back to KL.

Green dragon for Jane back in Vancouver.
Chatting with Niranjan has always been a different kind than a normal chat. With him, my neural pathways would be 100 times active, my brain alert, and my feelings guarded, yet never intimidated. In fact, I always feel a sense of intellectual liberation whenever I had a chat with him. Plus, I always feel secure enough to share my prejudices, biases, sentiment and feeling openly with him. With him, one has to be well-versed with ample case examples, ready with theories and mostly, plain common senses that do not insult human intelligence (and dignity too). Working with him is another story, since, for some people, he can be very intimidating with his intellectual probing, eyes for details and hyper-perfection. He talks a lot too. Well, nobody is perfect. 

In the midst of our talks during his short sojourn, there were  fresh insights, some sparks of hope despite some of the gloomy readings of current situations, some optimism, and above all, acknowledgement of the importance of making and respecting choices. Of course, we had some disagreements, but all were treated with mutual respect, tolerance and reflexivity.      

Our recent reconciliation and chatting, were strongly marked by what has happened in Malaysian political, economic, social and cultural fronts for the past ten years, especially recently. In fact, Niranjan's paper, to my surprise, didn't take off from an ontological and spiritual trajectory that I thought he would be leaning towards, but on the lingering issues of diasporic identity.

Such fore-fronting of 'everyday-defined' identities (to borrow from Prof. Shamsul Amri), including the notions of diaspora, multiplicity, multi-culturality and multi-layering (of histories), hybridity, heterogeneity, of becoming or constant arriving, was rather prevalent in the contemporary Malaysian art practice in the 1990s. 

Taking off from sociological and cultural studies frameworks, they became amongst the most pronounced stances of many non-Malay young emerging Malaysian artists then. Most of the fore-fronting came through international expositions, biennales and triennales. Their works have been taken as a form of 'anti-essentialist' contestation against what is commonly assumed as the dominant master-narrrative of 'State-defined' fixed national identity, centered on the Malay-Islamic culture or what Piyadasa termed as 'Malay Proclivity'. Yet, even within the Malay ethnic community (or proclivity), a singular and fixed notion of cultural identity cannot be easily applied. It was even problematized through urbanization, the influences of global pop and youth cultures (as explicated in one of Dr. Wan Zawawi's paper published in Finland if I'm not mistaken), subscriptions of global media products and rampant consumerism.  

Despite the ambiguity or pores (small holes) surrounding the actual implementation of the so-called State-defined notion of national identity, such fore-fronting of diaspora has been taken as highly instrumental in deconstructing  any monolithic, homogenizing, neutralizing, fixed and for many, discriminating notion of collective national identity.  

The convenient binary or easy categorization between official and 'alternative' (or 'Malay/bumiputera' and 'Non-Malay'/Pendatang) have been favored as the central and by-default framework in discoursing about cultural identity and ethnic relation in Malaysia then (and even until now). 'Alternative' readings of cultural identities have been favored as critical strategies and efforts to contest the dominant reading. Yet, few would argue that sometimes the contestations yield more 'essentialist' posture, albeit in other forms. Nonetheless, some shcolars suggest that they are instrumental in complementing and enriching the notions of national identity beyond the dominant State-prescription.  

Can we return to a 'blank canvas'? On a 'blank canvas', two searching souls, looking for 'it'. What is 'it'?
Niranjan and I used to have a series of long talks on this matter back in the 90s.  For example, he used to probe me hard with his question on "Ketuanan Melayu" which he translated (as by many others) as "Malay Supremacy". I jokingly asked him whether he was referring to 'ketuanan' or 'ketahanan' or 'ketuhanan', while sharing with him my reading of it. 

Whilst acknowledging the sentiments surrounding the interpretations and usage of such term by Malays and non-Malays, I told him that I look at it historically as a response to a deep colonial scar and resent. I believe that it was initially a call to reclaim 'ownership' of 'Tanah Melayu' from the colonial British rule then. The 'colonized' (or 'stolen') land had to be given back to its 'owners' or 'tuan punya tanah', thus the term 'ketuanan'.  

How the semiotic behind 'ownership of land' (ketuanan) has changed or morphed into 'racial supremacy' is beyond me. Perhaps, the question of how the term has been exploited, transformed, used, confused, fused and abused politically has been probed into and discoursed by many social and political scientists through their essays and books. I'm not an expert. I don't want to be one.

Similar fate happened to the beautiful, yet deadly and enigmatic 'keris' or traditional Malay dagger, and even the word "keling' which was originally in reference to a place - Kalingga in India, never a racially degrading term then.

Such 'deconstructive' (or for some, 'contesting' force) has even targeted the national anthem, national flag and the King and Queen, all of which are supposed to represent the 'daulat' of 'rakyat', not just a group of people. I refer to such semiotic riots as 'bahana dekonstruksi kekal' or the fallacy of permanent deconstruction which doesn't yield any pragmatic action and sustainable solution, what more if they are propelled with 'hate' energy.

Negara ku
I remember that Niranjan and I took a rather cosmological, ontological and spiritual trajectory in our approach towards new media technology, perhaps after exhausting our minds with the conundrums of identity politics and and ethnic relations.  

Other than 'ketuanan' and 'ketahanan', Niranjan and I used to talk about shared South East Asian's cross-cultural or trans-cultural heritage, especially when it comes to cosmology. That is where the 'ketuhanan' came in, the spiritual and binding side of humanity. 

My chance meeting with Niranjan's parents few weeks before he came back was one example of an unveiling moment that cuts across whatever form of ethnic signification and identification. It was as if the cosmic wisdom has planned the meeting and whispered to us to see beyond forms. 

So much love I felt when Appa and Amma held my hand and hugged me repeatedly, with watery eyes, reminiscing the times when I used to worked with their son Niranjan at UNIMAS, when amma used to proofread our essays (ya, those who read our 1st. Electronic Art Show essays, should thank her for her proofreading). Appa looked at me like looking at his own son and said, "You introduced my son to electronic art", I reached out and kissed his hand. Couldn't ask for a better day.  

I would like to think that Niranjan's seminal "Telinga Keling" (TK) was partly the result of such talks and conundrums, perhaps it was Niranjan's own "Kdek!Kdek!Ong!" predicament. 

"TK" returning the 'gaze' back to its audience during the recent "Aliran Semasa" seminar.
Niranjan's essay for Roopesh's solo show "Fermentation", especially his reading of Malay reflex through the semiotic of 'anak-ayam teleng' (a form of 'keris' head) should be read by more. In articulating Roopesh's series of video art, he gave his frank, direct and open revelation as well as critique of several predicament surrounding the living reality and experience of being a Malaysian Indian. The essay should be a must-read along with for examples, the seminal novels and short stories of K.S Maniam's (like "Haunting the Tiger"). No, I'm not an expert of literature, but I was forced to read K.S Maniam's when I got involved with the "Skin Trilogy" multi-disciplinary production, directed by one of Malaysia's respected theater sifus, the late Krishen Jit.

Perhaps, Niranjan's most important legacy are his essays, especially on the internet or online technology. He wrote and presented many papers mostly outside Malaysia, all of which should be re-collected, consolidated and printed to become a substantial reading material and reference on new media art and technology in Malaysia and beyond. 

His recent presentation during the "Aliran Semasa" seminar at the NVAG is even more frank and 'right-to-your-face' not unlike his bulging eyes in his TK. Yes, some would argue that it was rather another form of essentialist posing, while others would apply the term 'strategic essentialism' as means to contest dominating discourse on ethnicity. 

After a long thirteen years, I thought that Niranjan was over such issue.  Apparently he was not. Nonetheless, this is not surprising if we look within the context of our current post-election national climate. Of course I can go on and on writing about my chatting on this matter with Niranjan. Probably not in this entry, perhaps later.

As one grows older, what was previously seem so big and important begins to be pushed into the background noise, while what was previously and conveniently sidelined begins to loom bigger.  One begins to 'see the light' instead of the 'projected images'.

One example is certainly a life-long friendship, as attested by the meeting and re-conciliation of my friendship with Niranjan. Also, the presence of both Appa and Amma (Niranjan's parents), plus my own situation related to my parents now. True friendship or 'connectivity', unlike what we are normally experiencing through the social media, is not up for bargain, or even 'intellectual discourse'.  

Niranjan and his daughters have gone back to Vancouver, Canada, back to the loving embrace of his wife. I don't know when he is coming back. I would certainly miss real-live chattering and arguing with  him (not email, not fb wokay!). But, the friendship stays forever. Ya, sounds cliche, sentimental and lame, but the time will come to each of us when all the noises that we used to pay so much attention to before, will eventually dispersed to unveil to us our true 'light'. 

We are living and moving into the age of post-information, of hyper-connectivity. As information travels with the speed of light, or in the form of light itself, we are moving into the 'age of light' beyond the noises of forms. When our local mind is hyper-connected with each other in a natural frequency, hopefully we will enter the age of higher consciousness (higher light).

Nobody is perfect, but everyone of us is a completion of 'the others'. For all that Niranjan has done and contributed to the Malaysian art scene, I offer my salute and deepest respect. For all that he has given to me personally (good or bad), I offer him my doa.     


  1. l wish you would use plain and ordinary english to convey your'frequencies'.THAT WOULD BE A MASTERCLASS IN EASY COMPREHENSION.