Thursday, September 14, 2017

Atomic Consciousness & my unpretentious friend Raj

He messaged me via Facebook, saying he would appreciate a few words from me to include in the catalog for his upcoming solo exhibition, Atomic Consciousness.

“Raj,” I said, “I haven’t been involved in the arts scene for a very long time, I’m totally out of touch.”

He was insistent, saying it was precisely why he wanted me - not someone with an academic background - to write about his work as a visionary artist. In fact, Raj showed up at my doorstep a few weeks later, clutching his portfolio. I had other guests at the time and everyone gasped when they saw the mindboggling detail and psychedelic quality of his artwork.

I looked through his exquisite pieces, marveling at the man’s sheer patience and stamina, not to mention his technical skill. But what could I say about his vision that wasn’t already being said – and far more eloquently so - by his own outstanding handiwork, every piece a collectible? Can words enhance their impact on the beholder? Do his glorious visual expressions require verbal elaboration?

Before leaving, Raj handed me a printed flyer from an earlier exhibition titled The Pulse of Creation in which he had given voice to what inspires and motivates him to create art. I doubt I can do better than to quote and paraphrase the artist here:

Thangarajoo Kanniah in April 2017
The line that divides also unites. Lines portray both division and unity in the universe. Physical lines divide space into form and structure. Imaginary lines connect ideas and thought. My work is the subconscious manifestation of the mystery of the creative force. In essence it reflects and harmonizes the tangible and the intangible. The paintings are in reality a spiritual journey within the conscious and unconscious realm of form and space.

There you have it - the artist has perfectly articulated the conceptual basis of his own life’s work. All that remains for me to do is to embellish his statement a little with a few anecdotes and flashbacks; and perhaps some personal commentary on Thangarajoo’s unique situation in the context of the Malaysian sociocultural milieu.

I don’t remember exactly when I first met the young Thangarajoo Kanniah. It would have been in the mid-1970s when a friend introduced me to the legendary Latiff Mohidin at Anak Alam – a pioneer artists’ collective located in what is now known as Taman Budaya. Raj, as he prefers to be called, would have been a mere teenager then, happy to be part of a cultural ferment he could already sense would someday be spoken of in reverent – and most certainly nostalgic – terms.

As the token Indian of the group, Raj made it a point to immerse himself fully in whatever activities were happening at Anak Alam – and there were poetry readings, intimate stagings of experimental plays, junk sculpture projects, even community cookouts. Many of the artists and performers associated with Anak Alam later went on to carve distinguished careers for themselves – and Latiff Mohidin himself deservedly achieved iconic status as a painter of international renown, as well as a poet and a translator into Malay of classic works like the Tao Te Ching.

To my mind there is absolutely no reason why Thangarajoo Kanniah should not have attained equal stature with many of the other Anak Alam luminaries – nationally as well as internationally – judging by the quality and prolixity of his artistic output. However, in the art world (as in almost every field of endeavor) a competitive, pushy ego seems to be a prerequisite for substantive commercial success – and Raj is one whose temperament is averse to aggressive self-promotion.

Another massive obstacle would have been the unwholesome trend in the 1970s towards an institutionalized ethnocentric nationalism (in recent years worsened by divisive faux religiosity) which would have effectively made someone like Raj a permanent outsider in the arts patronage stakes.

Instead of simply giving up and doing something more lucrative, Raj just kept soldiering on. In 1984, Raj had a transcendental near-death experience when he slipped and fell down a waterfall in Templer’s Park and found himself trapped underwater for what seemed like an eternity. According to Raj, his soul involuntarily left his physical form and he became a conscious part of the entire reality spectrum. Somehow he found himself back in his body - he can’t recall whether the water pushed him out or if somebody pulled him to safety – but he was never again the same person. From that point on, the bulk of his artistic output became a conscious exploration of the interface between the physical and metaphysical dimensions, between mind and spirit.

Encountering his work in the digital age where fractal motifs proliferate, some may be tempted to compare Raj’s numinous imagery with the hallucinatory work of Alex Grey - who famously taught himself anatomical drawing while preparing cadavers for dissection in the anatomy department at Harvard Medical School (please note that Alex Grey bears no relation to the popular TV series, Grey’s Anatomy). When I asked if he had seen some of Alex Grey’s entheogenic visions, Raj was quick to point out that his externalized innervisions are not the product of consciousness-changing drugs, but they emanate spontaneously from the core of his own cellular (and soulular) being.

Well, here he is, some four decades down the line from those heady Anak Alam days, still the token Indian consumed with a mystical passion to reveal the sacred in all things through his consummate art.

Antares Maitreya
Magick River
Kuala Kubu Bharu

13 May 2017

Catch Atomic Consciousness when it opens at
Bangunan Muzium Belia
on 21 September 2017!
The exhibition will be on for two months.