Literature moving into obscurity

June 15, 2014

Literature moving into obscurity

by Bhavani Krishna Iyer*

E Literature

I HAVE vivid recollections of receiving brickbats from family members and friends when I made the announcement one eventful day that I was planning to pursue a doctoral degree in English Literature.

Many thought that such a degree would not earn me a living and yet others thought literature was out of vogue. I would say both these groups were neither completely right nor wrong, but the point is I have no regrets having pursued my passion.

It was uphill all the way getting material, and my search to support my thesis often ended in futility. I remember scouring bookshops in India where the assistants would send me to the deepest, darkest and most obscure corners in the shop to look for books related to literature. I often felt small but never any less important.

IT and engineering references were hot sellers and the bookshop owners used to tell me that literature books don’t sell because there was no demand.

There is also this common complaint that studying literature will not be of any use for a working adult unless one is teaching the subject. Not forgetting the acidulous remark we get that literature will not teach anyone how to make a sandwich or build a bridge, hence, why bother?

A course mate said she was almost coaxed into doing something “more marketable” when she was about to embark on the PhD. Such were the harsh realities when all things related to science and technology appeared to have elevated status at work and outside work, due to their perceived importance.

English writersWhen I stood in front of my boss years ago, asking for time off to attend classes, I was not surprised that he asked “how is it going to be of any benefit to you and the company.” I simply said, “I will be a better person to say the least, and of course as an employee, I will have a more enlightened view of my surrounding, the environment and the people around me.

“People with a literature background have better written and other communication skills and it has been widely accepted that understanding complex ideas and theories and doing research come easy,” I explained. He did not say anything further.

The zeal for literature is very much a personal preference, either you like it or you don’t and for those who are consumed in it for reasons other than academic, they will know the many-pronged benefits. I am a staunch believer that the interest can be developed.

Exposure to literature keeps one afloat in a conversation about the life and times of people which would appeal to just about anyone. Additionally, one’s vocabulary increases by reading literature and last but not least, literature serves as momentary escapism from the harsh realities of life. It serves to de-stress people who are overcome by the stress of modern living. People who read literary works will know the power and pleasure of using the language with all its quirks.

Personally, I think, literature adorns one with the ability to appreciate the enriching array of human characters and experiences.”But literature is difficult,” is often the lament from many, but let me tell you it need not be so if you get into the groove of it and start with the right material.

The Ministry of Education has incorporated a component called Language Arts in its English Language syllabus where pupils from Year 1 study rhymes, short stories and others to “activate pupils’ imagination and interest”.

I am told by a friend who is a teacher trainer that the English language teachers are exposed to teaching literature in the classrooms, in a small way from the way I see it but this is a good move and I hope we get this going without high-handed interference.

Having said that we seem to be in transition most times from quick-fixes in as far as learning English is concerned and perhaps a revolutionary policy in teaching and learning English might be just the answer to arrest the decay.

*The writer was a language teacher and now teaches part-time in public universities, apart from having a full-time job. Comments:

Favourites from the Zain Azahari Collection

December 5, 2013

Favourites from the Zain Azahari Collection @ The Edge Galerie

MY COMMENT: This is the first time I feature art on this blog. HavingKamsiah and Din2 been to the Opening Day of this excellent art exhibition at the Edge Gallery in Mont Kiara with my wife, Dr. Kamsiah, I cannot not resist posting this review (

Apart from the fact that Zain Azhari is my friend and golfing mate, and  I have  the highest regard for the many fine human qualities of this septuagenarian, I felt this review reflects exactly how I felt as I saw the paintings on display.

I have seen some of them before at Zain’s home and office, but not collectively ina  single place. In my view, it is a sample of the finest art collection by an individual in Malaysia.Thanks, The Edge Gallery and Zain for making it possible for members of the public to see them.

Zain is passionate about everything he does from his legal work, music, golf, reading, and art. He is an amazing man. –Din Merican

Favorites from Zain Azahari Collection

Pastoral, sensual, vigorous – these common descriptions surmise the prominent art collection of Zain Azahari, where a selection of 38 pieces are displayed at this exhibition. Large works by Ibrahim Hussein and Hendra Gunawan greet the visitor with titillating intent, where Fauvist colours and sinuous contours excite primitive human senses. Flanking both sides of the lobby, Latiff Mohidin and Anuar Rashid arouse the spiritual with abstract illustrations of great control and harmonious beauty, easily subjugating works by young artists hung in the same area.

Ramlan Abdullah’s aluminium sculpture also blends into the gallery’s medieval design, as the contemporary takes a back seat to master artists belonging to the Modern era. Earth and human form an unbreakable bond in these works, implying the collector as one whom possess deep faith and a resilient outlook of life.

Zain No 1Kampung truths: Jalaini Abu Hassan – Di Murahkan Rezeki, Di Berkatkan Hati (2011)

This philosophy is clearly specified in Jalaini Abu Hassan’s meditative ‘Di Murahkan Rezeki, Di Berkatkan Hati’, a minimal juxtaposition of objects (by Jai’s standards) beautifully rendered, where words elucidate Malay sayings and its connotations. When utilised correctly, writing creates additional dimensions on a canvas, Mangu Putra’s picture of utter despair being a good example. Academic painting typify depictions of toil and hard work, contrasting with the creative expressions of Mount Merapi by Affandi and Srihadi Soedarsono.

Illustrations of human feet seem to captivate the collector, who own a couple of high-priced watercolour masterpieces by Chang Fee Ming. Among the elegant dancing figures shown, including Latiff’s curious ‘Bird Dance’ sculpture, a menacing ‘Barong’ by Popo Iskandar emerges proudly from the shadows.

Zain No.2Crimson tide: Latiff Mohidin – Malam Merah (1968)

Zain’s collection boasts many works by the renown Latiff, none more significant than ‘Malam Merah’. Lively strokes of purple, yellow, and white, provide an inherent energy to the amalgamated Pago-pago, as a single horizontal line allows the sun / moon to set. The remaining areas are painted crimson red, while darker brush strokes sketch movement that augments the powerful picture. Cheong Soo Pieng’s tender ‘Mother & Child’ follows in the Nanyang tradition, which the pioneer artist updates via a rare oil painting.

Zain No. 4Why brown? Ibrahim Hussein – Farewell to New York (1969)
Previously unseen to the public is Ib’s ‘Farewell to New York’, a witty nude done in his characteristic Pop manner, where the curious usage of brown as its background has me polishing my chin while pondering the rationale. More sensuality is exhibited in Anthony Lau’s ‘Exstacy’, a wooden pair of smooth forms that recall natural contours, its overt tension depicted in the horizontal gap.
Zain No. 5Gliding sarongs: Dzulkifli Buyong – Four Friends (1964)
Hung low to provide viewer clarity, many works from this collection are museum-worthy, with the occasional odd gem standing out beyond Nusantara motives. Dzulkifli Buyong’s quirky ‘Four Friends’ “captures that single moment that is the birth of our Malaysian Modern art movement”, as described by curator Anurendra Jegadeva. Simple pastel colours, gliding sarongs, lily buds in the air, and innocent human gestures – I will not be surprised if the artist was in fact drawing 4 versions of his self.

Moving from flying figures to floating heads, Agus Suwage’s brilliant red fields pay tribute to artistic influences in an unconventional manner, the depiction like a tinted collage filtered through a computer program. Singling out figurative subjects is Ahmad Zakii Anwar’s contemporary approach, the huge portrait of a hippopotamus beckoning the viewer to come closer and swat flies, while the logical me clamour to inject meaning into a successful aesthetic.

Despite having a shorter tradition in picture making, the Malaysian works hold their own when compared to the diversity displayed in the Indonesian paintings. Among the many natural landscapes, a hazy wetland and a vertically-stretched Batu Caves signify personal importance, the former a nostalgic memory and the latter being Zain’s first collected artwork (a wedding gift!). Zain’s stories and passion are expounded and repeated across few essays in the catalogue, inspiring all who appreciate art.

Zain No.3From Kahli, Van Gogh, Bueys, Sudjojono, Freud to Hiroshige: Agus Sugawie– Agus SuwagePemandangan Dunia Wi (Earthly Landscape) (2011)

Having amassed 400 works over the past 50 years, Zain Azahari’s collection is a testament of one’s relentless pursuit of art on one’s personal terms. Not a luxury item, never an asset type, consistent in vision, absorbing one’s soul and intellect. I may not share Zain’s taste in art, but I do share a similar passion, which makes him my Art Collector idol for years to come.

Malaysia under Prime Minister Najib: Only SLOGANS

August 25, 2013

Malaysia under Prime Minister Najib: Only SLOGANS





photo 5

Malaysia-Endless Possibilities



Happy Birthday Malaysia

August 25, 2013

MY COMMENT: Mr Hussin, I would like to support your idea that we should beDM latest positive about this “Endless Possibilities” campaign and regard it as an effort to brand our nation. 1Malaysia was a brand too, although it is not an original idea.

In the 1980s when I was with Sime Darby in Singapore, the Government there had a national day theme song, One People, One Nation, One Singapore and went on to create a united Singapore. Israel too had a similar campaign and now they have this EP concept. Don’t forget Altantuya’s Mongolia. What has become of Najib’s 1Malaysia? It is a sham. We are today very divided along lines of race and religion.

Both Tun Mahathir and Tun Abdullah had their share of slogans. Slogans are meaningless. Hiding behind slogans, Tun Mahathir, for example, destroyed the civil service, subdued the  Judiciary, humiliated our Rulers, and weakened other institutions of governance. He created an all powerful Executive Branch and subjugated our Parliament. So, you cannot blame Malaysians for being cynical.

I for one would like to see this government get down to managing our economy, fighting rampant corruption and crime, and stopping those who use race and religion for political ends. Let us in stead celebrate our rich diversity; let us recognise the contributions and sacrifices of all Malaysians, irrespective of race, religion and creed, and  let us galvanise our creativity and talent to build a truly united nation. To achieve this goal, we need an enlightened and responsible leadership. That is what is lacking today. Slogans won’t help.–Din Merican

Malaysia Branded with Endless Possibilities

by Rahman Hussin

Malaysia-- Endless PossibilitiesAs the world becomes more globalised, countries need to develop a clear brand proposition to communicate national identities abroad.

Nation branding is becoming increasingly important as countries compete for a share of the world’s consumers, tourists, exports, investors and the ever important talents.

Much ado has been said at the recent unveiling and leaked national campaign undertaken by PM Najib’s Administration, “Endless Possibilities”. Meme, jokes and ridiculed follow suit since then with many taking it to social media to air their grievances that the campaign was another sloganeering effort with no real substance.But is it without substance? Is the act of ridiculing justified?

“Endless Possibilities” or EP for short is a nation branding campaign aimed at not only attracting tourism but also expanding the Malaysian brand into various sectors including business, culture, lifestyle and sports.

In short, nation branding is an effort to infuse the values that we Malaysians take pride in and expanding them into other facets of the country to ultimately create an edge in the global arena.

While not arguing about whether the slogan and tagline used in this campaign is a result of masterful word wizardry, I would like to invite everyone to take a step back.

I believe that more important than finding the answer is to ask the right question. Thus, I pose this to the esteemed readers of this website, instead of arguing and asking about who has first dips on the slogan, shouldn’t we instead focus on finding ways to galvanise Malaysians to partake in this national effort to create a Malaysia brand.

The Future Brand Country Brand Index (CBI) report 2012-2013 puts Malaysia at the 36th place in terms of country brand rankings and the same report also listed Malaysia amongst the future 15 nations that will be tomorrow’s leading country brands.

By my account, I think it’s timely that we embark on this nation branding effort today. No country has done this before you say? In the same report, our neighbour down south is amongst the 25 top country brands in the world, together with the likes of Sweden, Denmark and The United Kingdom. Not only that, it has also won praises in its leaders single minded effort to undertake nation branding effort.

Now that we have established that other nations are doing it too, shouldn’t we instead find ways to contribute to “Endless Possibilities”?

While I am suggesting that we support EP, I am also against supporting in blind faith.Moving forward, as a concern citizen of this country, I am pushing for greater transparency in our nation branding effort.

Details such as cost and benefit analysis must be made available. On top of that, any engagement and discourse to explain EP must be undertaken and it has to be as inclusive as possible. Let us not feel that we have been excluded in the roll out of this nation’s branding campaign.

Let’s go beyond the slogan, rhetoric and the divisive politics that has reared its ugly head post GE 13.EP’s essence is reflected in the drive towards achievement against all odds, backed by belief that we have what it takes to get there.

Looking back, this country has demonstrated time and again, our ability to emerge resilient after financial, political and health crisis. We’ve learnt and matured from our prior challenges and are now well on our way to realise Vision 2020.

I urged the good people of this country to hold back just a little until the official launch of the nation’s branding exercise, “Endless Possibilities” and suspend our judgment. After all, aren’t we all a courteous lot who pride ourselves in our ability and intellect to make sound judgment after deducing all the fact?

Until the facts are out there, any analysis and induction of the campaign remains a hypothesis, a guess at best. Again, until all the facts are out there, the best we all can come up with are “endless” guesses.

* Rahman Hussin reads The Malaysian Insider.

In search of the Sacrosanct

January 20, 2013

In search of the Sacrosanct

by Sarah NH

Taman Nurani — Islamic Impressions In Malaysian Contemporary Art at Galeri Petronas elucidates the artists’ ceaseless pursuit of the divine, writes Sarah NH Vogeler

IT is always a vivifying experience visiting Galeri Petronas, far from the madding crowd, in another universe with no sales personnel and pitches.Just art. Plenty of it. Bliss.

Syed Ahmad Jamal's legacy

Its latest engagement: A voluminous 57 works, beginning from the 1970s, highlighting compelling pieces in the collections of Galeri Petronas, The National Visual Art Gallery and several private collectors.

These have been classed under four themes: Abstract Works: Manifestations Of Spirituality; Landscapes: Reflections Of God’s Greatness;  Cultural And Traditional Motifs: The Continuation Of Tradition Into Contemporary Art; and, Calligraphy: Transformation In Contemporary Art.

Guest curator Professor Dr Muliyadi Mahamood explains: “Taman Nurani aspires to contemplate the development of form and content of works with an Islamic motif in Contemporary Malaysian Art; to put forward works pervaded with an Islamic inspiration as a reflection of the artists’ commitment in visualising the spiritual element of art, and to analyse the impact of related aspects on the development of contemporary Islamic art in Malaysia.”

Within the ambience of contemporary Malaysian art, Abstract Works: Manifestations Of Spirituality showcases restrained and methodical works with abstract ministrations based on geometrics, contours and motifs, and the more revealing and impulsive caresses of an organic persuasion; both styles equally cogent, as seen in Dr Sulaiman Esa’s Nurani (1983) and Ke Arah Tauhid (1983).

One of the most salient artists exploring Islamic issues in the context of contemporary art in Malaysia, Sulaiman’s investigations represent the acme of the Tawhid concept. He emphasises: “Through Islamic art, a Muslim artist strives to integrate his religious belief/life with his creative/artistic one.”

This complex approach is also evident in Langit Dan Bumi I and III (1998 and 2000Syed Ahmad Jamal2 respectively) by Malaysia’s National Art Laureate, the late Datuk Syed Ahmad Jamal (right), whose 1978 Rupa dan Jiwa exhibition held in Universiti Malaya became an impetus to re-examine the artistic characteristics of Malay art.

Following a seminar held in Institut Teknologi Mara’s School of Art and Design (now the Faculty of Art and Design, Universiti Teknologi Mara) in 1979, Muliyadi observed that a significant number of Malaysian artists attempted to constitute a kinship between traditional and contemporary forms of art, including through the visualisation of an Islamic inspiration, giving birth to exhibitions such as Malaysian Islamic Art: Traditional And Contemporary Art (Festival Istiqlal, Jakarta, 1991), Islamic Identity In Malaysian Art: Achievements and Challenges (National Art Gallery, 1992) and The Malay World Exhibition (National Art Gallery — Galeriwan, 1999).

The expression and revelation of spirituality immortalising the artists’ sentiment and insight is perceptible in Abdul Latiff Mohidin’s visually-arresting Gita Summer II (2005) and Voyage I & II (2005), Mohd Sanip Lasman’s The Grace (1990), Siti Zainon Ismail’s Kubah Hijau Jingga (1994), Khalil Ibrahim’s After Figure (1990), Sharifah Fatimah Syed Zubir’s Illusion (1983) and Two Figures (1988), and Roskang Jailani’s Nature XIV (2002).

And one’s tracks are halted by the sight of Ramlan Abdullah’s larger-than-life Unity In Diversity (2012), a steel construct which dismisses the conviction of an alpha and omega; there is no beginning or end, only the infinite.

In Landscapes: Reflections Of God’s Greatness, Abdul Latiff Mohidin’s Teluk Kumbar-I (2005), Yusof Ghani’s Rimba Terjun (2000), Pasir Mas (2000) and Batu Laut (2000), Ilse Noor’s Kebun Mimpi (1982) and Taman Impian (1989) all lean towards the four stages of the creative process of Islamic art as indicated by Professor Dr D’zul Haimi Md Zain in his book, Seni Islam (2007); imitation of nature, conception, stylisation and abstraction.

These artists’ portrayal of nature spurns naturalism, depicting its exquisite complexion in a more conformed manner. Raja Zahabuddin Raja Yaacob’s Keagungan Tuhan (1991), Haron Mokhtar’s Nostalgia Masjid Jamek, Kuala Lumpur (1989) and Mohd Azlan Mohd Amin’s Amalan Mulia II (1992) channels the intimation of Islam through Man’s profound reverence to God.

Professor Dr Zakaria Ali stated in Seni Dan Seniman (1989) that art must be refined, useful, cohesive, balanced and significant.In Taman Nurani, the cultural and traditional motifs utilised, although florid, are also powerful as attributes of the Malay culture which is rooted in Islam.

These artists are driven by their devotional and cultural environment, as well as the search for a national identity, as seen in Hashim Hassan’s Deir Yassin Dikenang (1987), Khatijah Sanusi’s Warisan II (1994), Mastura Abdul Rahman’s Interior No 29 (1987), Sharifah Fatimah Syed Zubir’s Garden of the Heart II (2004), Awang Damit Ahmad’s Essence of Culture III (1991), Ruzaika Omar Basaree’s Siri Dungun (1981), Fatimah Chik’s Unity In Harmony (1996) and Nizar Kamal Ariffin’s Pohon Beringin (2001).

Some of the more prominent Malaysian artists who use or are inspired by calligraphy in their art include Syed Ahmad Jamal, Ahmad Khalid Yusof, Omar Basaree and Omar Rahmad.

Taman Nurani beckons the world with Omar Basaree’s gold emblazoned Iqra (1969) alongside Ahmad Khalid Yusof’s Dimensi (1992), Nizar Kamal Ariffin’s Khat Muhammad (2006), Omar Rahmad’s Kalimah Syahadah (1984), Husin Hourmain’s Menanti Senja (2010), and Harun Abdullah Combees’ Allah Muhammad (1994). Calligraphy mirrors the artists’ reference to the Holy Quran, the decisive beacon for Muslims.

We have come a long way since Universiti Malaya’s 1975-endeavoured Pameran Seni Khat (initiated by Syed Ahmad Jamal).  From then to Taman Nurani, we have witnessed a momentous and eloquent progression in Malaysian Islamic contemporary art, which Muliyadi hinted at the possibility of an extended world tour — London, Paris, New York perhaps?

As Professor Dr Zakaria Ali, the Harvard alumni-artist-scholar-extraordinaire succinctly summarises, a remounting of Taman Nurani is pivotal to gain international recognition, for fear of becoming insular otherwise. And as evidenced in the works, these Malaysian artists are of world calibre.

They bring to mind the lyrics of an M.Nasir song, of a soul which seeks:

Hanya kepadamu kekasih
Aku tinggalkan
Jawapan yang belum kutemukan
Yang bakal aku nantikan
Bila malam menjemputku lena beradu

Syed Ahmad Jamal's legacy 2

It is the collective and lingering response from Taman Nurani; one of contemplation, of longing, in search of the sacrosanct.

Remembering Azah Aziz

July 17, 2012

Karim Raslan on Azah Aziz: Gentle Advocate of Malay Identity

Puan Azah had a deep knowledge and passion for Malay culture. She understood the importance of maintaining a strong connection with our polyglot and cosmopolitan inheritance — tracing the strands of cultural influences from the Middle East, Indonesia, India and China.–Karim Raslan

LAST week, Malaysia lost a living treasure when the much-loved and highly-respected writer, activist and Malay culture doyenne, Azah Aziz passed away.

Born in Singapore in 1928 and raised in Johor Baru, her mother was Azizah Jaafar, sister of UMNO’s founding father and Johor Mentri Besar, Datuk Onn Jaafar.

Azah Aziz was a great beauty with a wonderfully serene, gracious and generous manner. And despite her informality, she was always immaculately dressed in Malay baju, generally a baju kurung cekak musang.

She was to leave an enduring impression on everyone she met. Indeed there’s a portrait of her, painted by the celebrated Indonesian artist Basoeki Abdullah, hanging in Jakarta’s Istana Negara.

As a member of one of the country’s most distinguished (and politicised) dynasties, Puan Azah grew up amidst the turmoil of war and the struggle for independence, experiencing at first-hand the protests against the Malayan Union as well as the founding of UMNO.

She married the famous academic Ungku Aziz (a fellow Johorean) at an early age.However, starting a family (her daughter is of course Bank Negara Governor, Tan Sri Zeti Aziz) didn’t mean that she withdrew from public life.

Having lived through the full onslaught of Malay nationalism and exposed to developmental economics (courtesy of her husband), she became a crusading journalist, something that was to keep her occupied for 20 years.

Puan Azah had a deep knowledge of and passion for Malay culture. She understood the importance of maintaining a strong connection with our polyglot and cosmopolitan inheritance — tracing the strands of cultural influences from the Middle East, Indonesia, India and China.

I can still remember meeting her nearly 15 years ago at a time when I was researching historical details about Malay dress from the 1930s and 1940s. Her knowledge was encyclopaedic. Her passion and enthusiasm were infectious.

Surrounded by her books and her textiles, she was to leave an indelible impression on me … here was a lady who really knew where she came from — who had an unshakeable sense of her world whilst always remaining open-minded and questioning.

As we talked that afternoon and she explained the subtle differences between Perak, Johor and Kedah in terms of dress, I began to understand something fundamental about Puan Azah’s approach to Malay culture.

She believed that the brilliance at the heart of Malayness lay in the mix, the combination and juxtaposition of influences which was why she deplored the modern tendency towards baju kurung’s with both the tunic and the skirt made from the same material.

She adored and indeed respected the Malay ability to adapt and adopt — to turn the foreign (and here we were discussing clothes but really it could be applied to anything) — whether it was brocade, silk or satin into something quintessentially Malay.

Indeed, for Puan Azah, clothes were a foil to explore the richness and diversity of a world (from pantun to syair) that was being smothered by crass vulgarity and conservatism.

She fought to preserve the simplicity and the beauty, publishing books, pamphlets, magazines and countless articles.

She wanted us to know ourselves and our past, realising as she explained in one of her essays: “Without a past, there is no future. It’s a question of where we’re from and where we’re going: dari mana, ke mana.”

Puan Azah’s interests ranged widely.On the one hand, she was a passionate spokesman for women’s rights — campaigning for equal pay. Whilst there’s still much to be done in terms of gender rights, she was very much a pioneer.

At a time when our public life is so divisive and nasty and when those purporting to speak for the Malay community are so shrill and ugly, it’s important to remember icons such as Puan Azah Aziz.

Quiet, elegant and yet fiercely determined, she was really one of the most powerful and persuasive advocates for Malay identity we have ever seen.

Cartooning in Malaysia: A Tragicomedy

June 29, 2012

Cartooning in Malaysia: A Tragicomedy

by Mariam

Instead of demanding for the restoration of their right to freedom of expression, these professionals are allowing themselves to be used as a propaganda tool by Najib.

The latest group of professionals to fall prey to Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak’s charm offensive are the cartoonists. If this thought is not depressing enough, UMNO appears to have politicised everything from hawkers to households, and car tyres to cartoons.

The event ‘You, PM and Cartoons: Cartoon and Animation Exhibition 2012’ had been billed as the largest gathering of cartoonists and animators, but conspicuous by his absence was Malaysia’s greatest and most well-known political cartoonist, Zunar (above).

In the past few months, Najib has preyed on FELDA settlers, petty traders and taxi drivers. He has rained goodies on them, given them cash handouts and made promises, which he probably does not intend to keep.

Last weekend, the Central Market played host to cartoonists and animation artists in the cartoon and animation exhibition. It was a joint effort by the Konsortium Cartoonist at Work (CAW) and Kelab Putera 1Malaysia (KP1M). Posters and banners for the event included the ‘1Malaysia’ logo.

UMNO Youth Exco, Sohaimi Shahadan and President Kelab Putera 1Malaysia, Abdul Azeez Abdul Rahim (of the Somalia Fiasco) are believed to be the two main people behind the scenes.

Sohaimi is alleged to have instigated the cow-head scandal in front of the Selangor State secretariat, he was behind the harassment of Ambiga after BERSIH 3.0 and he is also implicated in the IMPad scandal.

Observers have asked why the cartoonists are allowing themselves to be used as a propaganda tool by Najib. They appear to be seduced by awards, inclusion in the Malaysia Book of Records and offers of cash, when they should instead, demand that their rights and freedom of expression are restored.

Abdul Azeez claimed that the event was to acknowledge the work of cartoon and animation artists. “Not many people realise that cartoonists and animators play a very important role in the entertainment we enjoy every day.”

Awards and Prize Money

It was reported that the event had scored a milestone in the Malaysia Book of Records as the largest gathering of cartoonists and animators. This was disputed by various people who allege that of the 356 supposed cartoonists, only 50 were actual cartoonists whereas the rest were those who had just signed up to participate in the event.

Najib praised the work of cartoonists and presented awards and prize money to them, because they ‘helped strengthen racial unity’, but he said that “provocative and inciteful work, which could lead to disunity and discord must be avoided”.

Around RM300,000 had been allocated via KP1M, for the formation of Yayasan Kartunis 1Malaysia; however, the details of this organisation are unspecified.

He said, “Cartoonists and animators have an important role in development and progress. Humour in the jokes must insert messages on solidarity, cooperation, tolerance and togetherness to uphold the 1Malaysia philosophy,” and he urged them to “translate and communicate all government policies in a light and relaxed way easily understood by society”.

Najib has taken the unprecedented step of banning the use of caricatures in the forthcoming GE-13. Zunar’s depiction of corruption, excesses by the self-styled “First Lady” Rosmah Mansor, the murder of Mongolian model Altantuya, the Scorpene scandal and the corruption of the judiciary, make stimulating reading.

Sources close to Zunar said: “He refuses to be a part of this programme because it is a political programme, not a cartooning programme. He feels that cartoonists are being used by political leaders for their own agendas.

“The exhibition is not organised by the Cartoonist Association, but an association headed by two UMNO leaders – Abdul Azeez Abdul Rahim (Kelab Putra UMNO) and Suhaimi Shadan (UMNO Youth’s Economic Bureau Chief).”

Beholden to UMNO

When contacted, Zunar confirmed that he objects to being made a propaganda tool and has rejected the award and prize money. Zunar, whose cartoons have courted controversy, says “Lift the ban on my books, drop the charges against me, stop the threats against my vendors and printers. If you present me with an award and prize money of RM10,000 but still enforce the ban on freedom of expression, then what is the point of the award?”

He criticised the selection procedure whereby politicians decide who receives the awards. He said that it would have been more appropriate to have a selection committee of lecturers in the cartooning field, other cartoonists and writers in the creative world.

Awards were given to 10 other cartoonists and animators including Mior Sariman Mior Hassan for the Revolutionary Cartoons category, Jaafar Taib (Cartoonist with dedication); Hassan Abd Muthalib (Father of Malaysian Animations); Lim Kok Wing (for Innovative Artwork) and Reggie Lee (Community Cartoonist-above).

Zunar claimed that with the award and prize money as sweeteners, cartoonists are beholden to UMNO and will refrain from criticising the government: “Why do the cartoonists not demand their rights and the freedom of expression?

“Does this mean that by binding the cartoonists’ hands and feet with law and rules, he can gain support from the cartoonists? Cartoons should be encouraged to flourish so they can evolve and thrive with freedom to create. It must not to be used to support government policies”.

Zunar said that the Prime Minister should learn to accept humour as positive criticism of his policies and work. He described ‘1Malaysia as a symbol of corruption and said that Najib has detained cartoonists who are critical, banned their books and restricted their freedom, using acts such as the Printing Presses and Publications Act and the Sedition Act.

Zunar said: “My award would have been Kartunis Berminda Kritis – The Critical Cartoonist. I disagree, because everyone should learn to be critical. Are they trying to say that others do not know how to be critical? Why can’t the authorities acknowledge the content of my cartoons?”

He condemns the way UMNO believes that a trophy, prize money, a photograph with Najib and a listing in the Malaysia Book of Records, are sufficient to placate Malaysians. Zunar said: “What is more fitting than an award is to give cartoonists their rights and restore the freedom to be creative.”

Mariam Mokhtar is a FMT contributor

Rabrindranath Tagore: Asia’s Renaissance Man

June 1, 2012

Celebrating the Life of Rabindranath Tagore, Asia’s Renaissance Man

by Aditya Chakrabotty (04-09-12)

The great Bengali thinker Rabindranath Tagore, born 150 years ago, was a passionate political author. Sadly, literary writers today seem to have no time for politics

The past sometimes shames us. At least, visitors this weekend to Dartington Hall in the south Devon town of Totnes must have come away feeling taunted by history. Because while the festival they attended was celebrating the life of Rabindranath Tagore, the great Bengali artist and thinker born 150 years ago, it also cast a shard of light on a gaping, and usually unremarked upon, hole in today’s culture.

You glimpsed it every time a musician performed one of Tagore’s songs urging fellow Indians not to give up their struggle against British rule, and you confronted it directly in discussions of the poet’s political and social campaigning. Because what his legacy draws attention to is a creature so rare in today’s culture as to be semi-endangered: the political author.

Even the most casual acquaintance with Tagore’s work cannot escape his politics. His novels attacked the oppression of women; his essays warned about environmental degradation; he argued with Gandhi about what an independent India should look like; and he delivered lectures in America on the evils of nationalism (“at $700 per scold”, as one newspaper sniped). Nor was the poet all talk: a believer in educational reform, he established a school, then a university in the Bengali countryside. They have grown vastly since, although students reportedly still take their lessons sat under trees. Even the venue for this weekend’s festival, Dartington Hall, was a 500-year old wreck – until a couple of western Tagoreans bought it and, at his urging, transformed it into a centre for learning and agricultural work and to reinvigorate an impoverished rural community.

Nobel Laureate Tagore was an Exceptional Talent

The first Asian recipient of a Nobel prize for literature, Tagore was an exceptional figure – but he was not alone. Another Bengali, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, won huge success for his stories criticising India’s caste and class system; while Mulk Raj Anand published novels titled Untouchable and Coolie. As for Tagore’s western contemporaries, they were just as engaged with their politics and society. Spanish civil-war combatant Orwell is the most striking example, but there was also Spender, Auden and Pound.

Look for their equivalents in England or America now, and you’ll be disappointed. Some politically committed authors immediately come to mind, such as Dave Eggers – for his novels on Sudanese refugees and post-Katrina New Orleans, and his establishment of children’s reading groups – but the paucity of their number reinforces how few there are. India is subject to a similar lack: Arundhati Roy (left) is the stand-out example of the author-turned-activist, but the fact that she has not written a novel after 1997′s The God of Small Things suggests that she has traded fiction for campaigning.

Indeed, readers wanting fiction that offers up political or social commentary are hardly drowning in paperbacks. Plenty of authors can slip in cute references to the internet or the other stuff of everyday life. But what’s striking about the novels that address themselves directly to society is how the authors often fail to sustain them as full-blooded fiction. Joshua Ferris’ novel of office life, Then We Came to the End, and Gary Shteyngart’s satire on consumerist America, Super Sad True Love Story, are both superb depictions of social landscapes for the first 100 pages or so. But in both cases it’s as if delving into so much reality has tuckered out the authors and they have run out of energy to deliver an actual plot.

What I’m complaining about here is not just the lack of options on the three-for-two table. This is a time when, from the environment to the economy to the hollowing-out of so many public institutions, there are many big crises that need addressing – and not just by the desiccated imaginations of frontbench MPs or in 800-word columns. At the point when we need people of all disciplines and none to offer their say, the artists are missing. In the 1920s and 30s, Tagore helped place the perimeter on what would be possible in an independent India. In Britain or America or India today, our social boundaries are defined by the market and ever more diffident politicians.

Of course there are exceptions. In Scotland, James Robertson and Pat Kane and other artists do address themselves to national concerns. And in English theatre, such as the Tricycle or the National, audiences can still see openly political work. But English and American novels are particularly gutless.

Some of this is down to how economics and politics have been cordoned off from the rest of society: as stuff best left to the experts and the careerists. But literature too has been professionalised, so that authors now go from their creative-writing MAs to their novels to their relentless promotional work. Contemporary literary writers, it sometimes seems to me, are so tightly wedged behind their Apples that they have no time for politics. Unless you count signing the odd letter to the broadsheets as a political activity.

Yet the desire for a more imaginative politics hasn’t gone away, as is clear from the Occupy movements or the student sit-ins, or the numbers that turn out on a Sunday morning in Totnes to listen to a talk about Tagore’s activism.

In one of his most celebrated poems in Gitanjali, Tagore called for a country: “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high/…Where the world has not been broken up into fragments/ By narrow domestic walls … Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way/ Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit.” That warning against the comfort of small thinking remains relevant today.

My Friend Vincent: His Life and Art

October 21, 2011
Books of The Times

My Friend Vincent: The Persona and the Palette

by Michiko Kukutani


The Life

By Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith

Illustrated. 953 pages. Random House. $40.

He had “a sun in his head and a thunderstorm in his heart”: these words used to describe the French painter Eugène Delacroix were memorized by Vincent van Gogh and could just as easily have been applied to van Gogh himself.

From his turbulent emotional life, filled with loneliness and despair, there sprang — in a single, incandescent decade — a profusion of dazzling, vibrant paintings that fulfilled his ambition to create art that might provide consolation for the bereaved, redemption for the desperate. Images that would “say something comforting as music is comforting — something of the eternal” : phosphorescent stars cartwheeling through a nighttime sky in the yellow moonlight; a clutch of radiant irises blooming in a lush garden lit by the Mediterranean sun; a flock of crows winging their way across a golden expanse of wheat fields under a stormy sky.

In their magisterial new biography, “Van Gogh: The Life,” Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith provide a guided tour through the personal world and the work of that Dutch painter, shining a bright light on the evolution of his art while articulating what is sure to be a controversial theory of his death at the age of 37.

Whereas suicide by gun has long since become part of the myth of the tortured artist that cloaks van Gogh, Mr. Naifeh and Mr. Smith note that there are issues with that hypothesis — like the angle of the shot, the disappearance of the gun and other evidence, and the long hike that the wounded van Gogh would have had to make to return to his lodgings. Instead they propose an intriguing alternate theory, rumors of which were first heard by the art historian John Rewald in the 1930s during a visit to Auvers, the small French town where van Gogh died.

As Mr. Naifeh and Mr. Smith tell it, a rowdy teenager named René Secrétan, who liked to dress up in a cowboy costume he’d bought after seeing Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, was probably the source of the gun (sold or lent to him by the local innkeeper). Secrétan and his friends used to bully the eccentric van Gogh, and the authors suggest that there was some sort of encounter between the painter and the boys on the day of the shooting. “Once the gun in René’s rucksack was produced,” they write, “anything could have happened — intentional or accidental — between a reckless teenager with fantasies of the Wild West, an inebriated artist who knew nothing about guns, and an antiquated pistol with a tendency to malfunction.”

The deeply unhappy van Gogh, the authors argue not altogether convincingly, “welcomed death,” and Secrétan may have provided him “the escape that he longed for but was unable or unwilling to bring upon himself, after a lifetime spent disavowing suicide as ‘moral cowardice.’ ”

There is no hard evidence for this theory, and it is laid out, discreetly, in an appendix to this biography. Which is as it should be, since the real reason to read this book has nothing to do with speculation about van Gogh’s death, but with the voluminous chronicle it provides of his life and art, and the alchemy between them. The overall portrait of van Gogh that emerges from this book will be familiar to readers of earlier biographies — most notably David Sweetman’s succinct 1990 study — but it is fleshed out with details as myriad as the brushstrokes in one of his late paintings.

Whereas the authors’ 1989 biography of Jackson Pollock, which inexplicably won the Pulitzer Prize, used reductive Freudianism to try to explain his art, this volume does its best to avoid drawing simplistic connections between van Gogh’s galvanic work and his emotional difficulties. (The authors seem to agree that his sometimes unusual behavior was caused by a form of epilepsy, much as one of van Gogh’s doctors concluded.) Instead, Mr. Smith and Mr. Naifeh diligently examine the development of his ideas, his techniques, his startling ability to inhale lessons from other painters and transform their innovations into his own.

In writing this book (and providing a companion Web site with notes), the authors drew heavily on archival material and scholarship at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and most notably from a new edition of van Gogh’s letters, which was 15 years in the making and published in 2009. Like earlier biographers, their ability to persuasively depict van Gogh’s inner life is hugely dependent on these remarkable letters — letters that not only chronicle his manic ups and downs, his creative process and his complex relationship with his beloved brother Theo, but that also attest to his immense literary gifts and his iron-willed determination to learn and grow as an artist.

Drawing upon these letters and van Gogh’s drawings and paintings, Mr. Naifeh and Mr. Smith provide a minutely annotated map of the intellectual underpinnings of his philosophy and art. Though he could be erratic and difficult, though he suffered breakdowns and depressions, van Gogh was far from the madman of myth. His sensibility and art were shaped by his avid reading of writers like Dickens, Shakespeare, George Eliot and Zola, just as his admiration for a succession of painters and the ever-growing museum of images in his head informed his evolving vision and techniques as a painter.

Van Gogh’s early, somber paintings of peasants were inspired, partly, by Millet, and aspired, the authors say, “to celebrate not just the peasants’ oneness with nature” but also “their stolid resignation in the face of crushing labor.” His later paintings with an electric palette owed a debt to the Impressionists, whom Theo had urged on him for years in the hopes that Vincent would paint more landscapes and use more color to produce more saleable canvases.

Van Gogh would also learn from the pointillism of Seurat, the primitive simplicity of Japanese prints, the Symbolists’ embrace of dreamlike imagery. Mr. Smith and Mr. Naifeh nimbly trace van Gogh’s peregrinations, and they evoke the intense atmosphere of creative ferment in Paris during the 1880s. They dissect how van Gogh’s restless, obsessive and highly contrarian intellect hungrily assimilated and transformed disparate philosophies, iconography, even brushwork, and how he moved from explorations of the play of light on surfaces to more intense excavations of his own psyche, from simple descriptions of reality toward a more expressionistic style that would remake the world as a mirror of his own “fanatic heart.”

Along the way we are given insights into how van Gogh’s gymnastic use of color reflected his ever-changing moods: the piercing yellow of a vase of sunflowers saluting the sun that suffused his life in Arles; the serenity of a new palette of violet, lavender and lilac that crept into his paintings while he was at the Asylum of St. Paul in St. Rémy; the stormy blues and ominous clouds, suggesting a threatening view of nature, conjured on the late canvas “Wheat Field With Crows.”

What Mr. Naifeh and Mr. Smith capture so powerfully is van Gogh’s extraordinary will to learn, to persevere against the odds, to keep painting when early teachers disparaged his work, when a natural facility seemed to elude him, when his canvases failed to sell. There was a similar tenacity in his heartbreaking efforts to fill the emotional void in his life: ostracized by his bourgeois family, which regarded him as an unstable rebel; stymied in his efforts to pursue his religious impulses and become a preacher; rejected or manipulated by the women he longed for; shunned and mocked by neighbors as crazy; undermined by a competitive Paul Gauguin, with whom he had hoped to forge an artistic fraternity.

The one sustaining bond in van Gogh’s life was with Theo, an art dealer, who provided emotional, creative and financial support. The authors of this book convey the love and exasperation Theo felt for his needy, demanding brother and how fearful Vincent was of losing Theo’s devotion. And they trace the arc of the brothers’ intense, conflicted relationship over the years, ending with Vincent’s death in July 1890 and Theo’s death only six months later.

Vincent van Gogh’s lifelong yearning for emotional connection, of course, would finally, and most lastingly, be realized in his art. “What I draw, I see clearly,” he wrote as he was beginning to find his vocation. In drawing, he went on, “I can talk with enthusiasm. I have found a voice.”

A version of this review appeared in print on October 21, 2011, on page C23 of the New York edition with the headline: The Persona And the Palette.