The Gift of Knowledge

The theme of the inaugural KL Biennale (November 2017 to March 2018), is Belas which can be understood as pengampunan or mercy, compassion, charity, generosity or simply as giving of the self. As a part of this Biennale, I will present an installation, at the Piyadasa Gallery of the University of Malaya, commemorating the person and work of Dr. Durai Raja Singam.  Durai Raja Singam is, in my view, the epitome of belas in the context of Malaysian scholarly work. Operating outside the realm of academia and almost completely beyond the ambit of the publishing industry, he did his research, writing and publishing work with neither acclaim nor financial reward in mind. He funded his publications personally without a notion of profit or even of an idea of a balanced return.

An author who engaged in his craft in the traditional ethos, his work was his vocation, he collated, wrote, designed and published on the life and work of Ananda Coomaraswamy as if it were his karma or sacred duty and a moral obligation to consolidate and disseminate this knowledge for posterity. He worked as a disinterested practitioner of his art, deriving satisfaction from his very materials and from his own efforts. I believe that he did this work with the deep ethical and spiritual understanding that good seeds, carefully planted and well-tended must bear rich fruit. The deepest sense in which this unassuming scholar is the embodiment of belas lies in the fact that he took his greatest delight in others enjoying the fruit of his labour.

In authoring this project I take a 1st person approach as the late Durai Raja Singam was my uncle. I will present my sense of his place in Malaysian culture vis a vis my own cultural activities and engagements and through my personal knowledge and experience of him as a family elder. The exhibition will take the form of a small installation that I will curate with the dual perspective of a familial recipient of his legacy, as well as an artist and theorist who has contributed to the discourses on Southeast Asian art in a manner that reflects this heritage.

Wild West of Political Cash


Former BC Premier Christie Clark ran a political fundraising regime that was described as “the wild west of Canadian political cash” in a New York Times headline. While there may not have been any illegality about financial contributions under this regime its appropriateness and suitability in a genuine and people oriented democracy is clearly in doubt. Also, its implications for corporate influence over the economic affairs of the province are worth reviewing as the Liberals, now in opposition, have joined the new NDP/Green government in the push for change. There are no limits on political donations in B.C. and it is reported in the Globe and Mail that their review of public records found dozens of paid lobbyists actually make large contributions in their own names and not, more transparently, in the names of those of the interests they represent.

One such donor is Byng Giraud, the top in-house lobbyist for and Vice President of Woodfibre LNG. He has apparently given the B.C. Liberals $47,149 in 20 payments, under his own name. Another Woodfibre LNG manager, Marian Ngo, seems to have given the party $28,000, in 14 donations. The Globe and Mail cites Mr Giraud as saying that donating under one’s own name “is common practice,” as the fund-raiser ticket-purchase forms on the Liberal party’s website often had no field to put the company name. The point here is that whatever the ethical complexion of the corporate investor, it the up to our provincial government to set the tone for doing business here, and in no way should provincial economic decision making be as tinged by the colour of money as it appears to have been of late. The new NDP/Green government of British Columbia must deliver on their campaign promises about changing the law in this regard.



sukanto_tanoto_crop2.jpgAccording to Gordon Hoekstra of the Vancouver Sun, following the PETRONAS decision not to build their LNG terminal on LELU Island there are now only three such projects that might still complete –

LNG Canada in Kitimat, an up-to-$40 billion project led by Shell is undergoing a review and cost cutting exercise and the final investment decision on constructing a facility is yet to be made.

• Kitimat LNG, a $3.5-billion joint venture between Chevron and Australian company Woodside, is re-evaluating its project to drive down costs and is also yet to make its final investment decision..

• Woodfibre LNG is a $1.6-billion project near Squamish, owned by Singapore-based Royal Golden Eagle Pte. Ltd.  which is in turn owned by Indonesian billionaire Sukanto Tanoto, has already received a 40 year permit and has made the decision to build their plant but cost cutting exercises are ongoing and construction start dat has not been announced.

These are the remaining possibilities of the 19 LNG export terminals that Christie Clark’s Liberal government were hoping to realize as part of their push for an LNG industry in BC. As British Columbia moves forward under the new NDP/Green coalition government, the relatively small, Woodfibre LNG project is exemplifies the deep concerns about possible environmental scenarios that might emerge as the Provincial and Federal Governments build relationships and make commitments to foreign corporate players.  In a National Observer article published before the project received its approval, Mychaylo Prystupa questioned Sukanto Tanoto’s environmental and business record. In connection with this allegedly poor record, Mychaylo cited the Mayor of Squamish, Patricia Heintzman as saying, “It’s difficult for the community to have trust that this person will not cut corners or be disrespectful to our environment.”

Before scrutinizing our foreign investors credentials, British Columbians would do well to review BC Liberals lobbying and fundraising regime which raised almost $8 million coming from corporations in 2016 alone and has earned our province the reputation of being the Wild West of political finance. The question, in what might be called the post-Liberal/LNG era, is not so much WHO gave HOW MUCH to secure WHAT project, but how quickly the new NDP/Green government will act on the promise to reorder this money/politics infrastructure and move on to a more electorate oriented political economy.







Petronas CEO Tan Sri Dato_ Sahmsul Azhar Abbas and Premier Christy Clark in Malaysia - BC government photoAccording to Chris Hatch in the National Observer the aborted PETRONAS project which would have brought fracked natural gas by pipeline from B.C.’s interior, compressed it into a liquid for export by tankers from Lelu island near Prince Rupert, would have become one of the largest sources of climate pollution in Canada. Specifically, he cites Environment and Climate Change Canada’s assessment describing the Petronas project as becoming “amongst the largest single point sources of greenhouse gas emission in the country.” He also cites the Pembina Institute figures to claim that this project alone would have accounted for “75% to 87% of the emissions allowed under B.C.’s 2050 target.” British Columbians may, indeed, have just dodged a deadly environmental bullet.

Here is a timeline of the BC Liberals  LNG affair with Malaysian Crown Corporation PETRONAS  (via their subsidiary Pacific NorthWest LNG) as reported in the Vancouver Sun –

  • Feb. 19, 2013: Pacific NorthWest LNG submits its project description to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency.
  • April 29, 2013: Japan Petroleum Exploration Co. Ltd. buys a 10 per cent stake in Pacific NorthWest LNG and agrees to buy 10 per cent of the liquefied natural gas produced over at least 20 years, becoming the first secure buyer.
  • Dec. 16, 2013: The National Energy Board grants Pacific NorthWest LNG a licence to export up to 22.2 million tonnes of LNG annually for 25 years. It had applied in July for a licence to export up to 19.68 million tonnes, beginning in 2019.
  • Feb. 28, 2014: Pacific NorthWest LNG submits its environmental impact statement to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency.
  • March 26, 2014: The federal government approves Pacific NorthWest LNG’s export licence.
  • June 11, 2015: In what it calls its final investment decision, Pacific NorthWest LNG announces it will proceed with the project as long as it satisfies two conditions: approval of a project development agreement by the B.C. legislature and clearing the federal environmental assessment review process.
  • July 21, 2015: The B.C. government passes legislation to ratify a project development agreement with Pacific NorthWest LNG.
  • March 21, 2016: The federal government grants the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency more time to review the project.
  • Sept, 27, 2016: The federal government approves the project with 190 conditions, including for the first time a maximum cap on greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Oct. 27, 2016: Two First Nations and an environmental group file separate applications for judicial review in Federal Court to quash approval of the project. A fourth challenge is launched in January 2017.
  • July 25, 2017: Pacific NorthWest LNG says it will not proceed with the project, citing poor market conditions including a prolonged period of low LNG prices.




Tarkovsky Monument 4

tarkovsky listIn this 4th Tarkovsky post I present more of my Messenger conversation with Hugo Moss and follow up with some observations that mark the problem of defining the film media …  while furthering, of course, my tribute to Andrei Tarkovsky.

Hugo: I’ll just finish up by just taking issue with a smaller but important point – your claim that film was only beginning to mature in the 1960’s. Film was reaching extraordinary heights of maturity in visual storytelling by the late 1920’s, something interrupted by the arrival of sound. Although doubtless a technological advancement, sound caused a seismic shock in the way films were being made and stories told in that medium. Something very valuable was lost, almost overnight. You might take the view that by the 60’s film was recovering its maturity, but let’s not forget the extraordinary achievements on both sides of the Atlantic on the eve of sound’s invasion of commercial film. Silent film was this very sophisticated visual storytelling, they’d become so damned creative and subtle and beautiful and poetic.

Niranjan: Hugo I agree … I would even argue for 2 different mediums – one a visual medium, the other a multimedia in the vein of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk. I believe that silent films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu, even Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc can’t be easily translated into sound cinema. I’d venture to say that it would be easier to make paintings of these silent films than to make sound films of them.

Hugo: Yes, it’s a tragedy that film didn’t just split into two currents in ’29/’30 and the silent film just cut right off … So wonderful what was going on, quite as elevated as the heights of painting, I would argue, and it just died, within a couple of years, except of course for Chaplin, famously, but as an industry/artform it ended abruptly!

Indeed, silent cinema was much closer to the traditional theatrical arts – think of abinaya in Bharatanatyam and even of mime in the Western theatre tradition … I think we are on the brink of a discussion about the differences between the representational modalities of mimeses and digesis as they were developed in the film medium … and perhaps we are  also broaching another conversation on multi-media … but these are other stories … What I want to do here is to develop the conversation in terms of Andrei Tarkovsky’s view of cinema and to attenuate my own hyperbole regarding his place within what I have argued  is the quintessential medium of the  20th century.  Here is Tarkovsky’s carefully considered list of 10 best films that he made at the request of film critic Leonid Kozlov. Yes, Hugo my hero suffers from the same tendency to define and sweep clear contradictions … but bear with us momentarily … for the sake of developing the conversation about silent vs sound film. Here is the list of Tarkovsy’s 10 films –

  1. Diary of a Country Priest(Robert Bresson, 1951)
  2. Winter Light(Ingmar Bergman, 1963)
  3. Nazarin (Luis Buñuel, 1959)
  4. Wild Strawberries (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)
  5. City Lights (Charlie Chaplin, 1931)
  6. Ugetsu Monogatari (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953)
  7. Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954)
  8. Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966)
  9. Mouchette (Robert Bresson, 1967)
  10. Woman of the Dunes(Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1964)

Kozlov remembers, “He took my proposition very seriously and for a few minutes sat deep in thought with his head bent over a piece of paper … Then he began to write down a list of directors’ names — Buñuel, Mizoguchi, Bergman, Bresson, Kurosawa, Antonioni, Vigo. One more, Dreyer, followed after a pause. Next he made a list of films and put them carefully in a numbered order. The list, it seemed, was ready, but suddenly and unexpectedly Tarkovsky added another title – City Lights … With the exception of City Lights … it does not contain a single silent film or any from the 30s or 40s. The reason for this is simply that Tarkovsky saw the cinema’s first 50 years as a prelude to what he considered to be real film-making.” This list and Kozlov’s explanation of Tarkovsky’s rational for it, explains the sweeping action of Tarkovsky’s ‘broom’, and derivatively, my own!

Tarkovsky and I both seem to have presented silent cinema as a stage in the development of a more complex multimedia or Gesamtkunstwerk. You have taken exception to this view and, in retrospect, I stand with you … Tarkovsky’s own uncertainty (his list is clearly not a clean sweep) seems to be reflected in his last-minute inclusion of Chaplin’s City Lights in his top 10! And then there is this citation from the master, “If one absolutely needs to compare me to someone, it should be Dovzhenko. He was the first director for whom the problem of atmosphere was particularly important.” Indeed, Dovzhenko’s Earth was a touchstone for Tarkovsky and if I had to choose one (sweeping) characteristic with which to tag Trakovsky’s oeuvre I would pick ‘atmosphere’, which I believe is same the term I would use to characterize silent cinema! In this characterization, you have both my acknowledgment of the greatness of the films of the silent era and also of the problem of my assertion that film is a single medium, made in the course of my claiming that it is the singular medium of the 20th century.


Delight in the Divine Maya


Delight at the end of an intense session with my dear friends and fellow travellers Khatijah Sanusi,  Sulaiman Esa and Azizan Paiman who caught this moment so well. Sulaiman and I picked up and continued an important conversation that we had put on hold a decade and a half ago, when I curated his solo Insyrah at the Galeri PETRONAS . Our discussion brought together, the great aesthetician and metaphysician Ananda Coomaraswamy, his devoted biographer, editor and bibliographer Durai Raja Singam and visionary artist, theorist and administrator Ismail Zain. We traversed the topics of traditional art and contemporary practice in terms of our common interest – the Sophia Perennis.

According to Frithjof Schuon, the Sophia Perennis is knowledge of the total Truth defined in terms of the will to Good and the love of Beauty. The Sophia Perennis addresses, in the language of symbols, questions of the Divine Principle and of its universal Manifestation as the Good and as Beauty. It concerns itself with what one might call God and the way in which he presents himself in the ‘limited degrees and modes’ that constitute ‘the mystery of the Divine Mâyâ… ‘

Tarkovsky Monument 3

Hugo: Well…that’s wonderful, Niranjan, now you do give us the chance to agree with you (or otherwise), and I’m pleased to fully embrace what you write about the nature and purpose of art in your Second and Third Criteria, and respect your renewed heartfelt claim for Tarkovsky. However I’d have to question a lot of what you write in the First Criteria, starting with your new sweeping statement (much harder to forgive) that all art mediums were decadent by the end of the 19th century.

So this is how Hugo Moss’ begins his reply to my justification for my claim that Andrei Tarkovsky was the greatest artist of the 20th Century, in any medium…. in Tarkovsky Monument and Tarkovsky Monument 2 I had cited and expanded on  Ingmar Bergman’s  statement that Andrei Tarkovsky was the greatest auteur in the film medium, “Suddenly, I found myself standing at the door of a room the keys of which had, until then, never been given to me. It was a room I had always wanted to enter and where he was moving freely and fully at ease. I felt encouraged and stimulated: someone was expressing what I had always wanted to say without knowing how. Tarkovsky is for me the greatest, the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream”. I had taken Bergman’s judgment on Tarkovsky as the basis of my own and estimation of him in the world of film and augmented it with the controversial premise that film was the medium of the century and that therefore, and by definition Tarkovsky was well … the Greatest of all his contemporaries! Here is an extract from Hugos’s very seriously considered reply to my sweeping but, I believe, still defensible thesis!  Hugo continues …

Hugo: Even if I accept your unusual use of the word “decadent”, you’re still asking me to consider as “redolent” the work of folk who were producing some pretty extraordinary and groundbreaking stuff (as defined by your Second and Third Criteria), well into the 20th century, using several means of expression other than film. Then your sweep continues with an attempt at laying down the law: “Any artist not practicing his art in the film medium misses (…) the right to be considered the greatest artist of this time.” You’re certainly tidying up the floor nicely here, but it seems to me that in doing so your broom inadvertently knocks over quite a lot of important other stuff, no?

Hugo is right,  indeed, I am tidying up, but in my imagination and intent, it is with a benign broom … one that separates in order to aggrandize Tarkovsky without besmirching the great masters of the other, well … I stand by it … ‘redolent’ arts …. Yes, while I am willing to withdraw my apparently failed attempt at using ‘decadent’ in an objective rather than in a pejorative manner, I stand by my use of ‘redolent’ to characterize the maturity of the other arts  vis a vis film in the 20th Century….  (More on this in Tarkovsky Monument 4)

Hugo: Although I think I see what you’re getting at, I agree neither with the claim itself nor with the attempt at establishing such a litmus test for greatness. Academia spends a lot of its time in this sort of activity, but inevitably ends up making extraordinary over-simplifications about this very great, beautiful and complex world. What is being achieved by heaving Tarkovsky (or anyone else) onto a pedestal based on such a narrow idea? It seems to be to be a supremely Ahrimanic exercise, whereas I feel we artists should be seeking to keep things flowing. I love hearing/reading about your passion for Tarkovsky and others without having to place them on anything or even anywhere in particular. They continue to move through time as we all do. Your love for and the inspiration you’ve gained from artists like Tarkovsky are far more important to me than anything Mount Olympus can provide. No, let us leave these attempts at fixing things in stone to others and keep the flow going.

Again, Hugo is right, but like the good Stalker that he is, it is my dear friend who set the trap that led me deeper into the mire … by asking for the justification that I had instinctively eschewed in my first post on Tarkovsky … Indeed, while my idolatry of Tarkovsky’s greatness was Mazdan in intent, Ahriman may have been lurking within – hyperbole limits movement, and can not be elaborated upon without begetting more inertia! I acknowledged this to Hugo on Messenger thus “Statements or comparisons of the greatness of others are not useful … other than as subjective symbols of the self … perhaps!”

Hugo: Perhaps! and I perfectly empathize with the love/inspiration which fuels them.