Going in to Burning Man equipped with my ‘Cowboys and Indians’ boots. One of the unspoken ironies of living in the Americas for Indians of the great subcontinental diaspora is the coincidence of signifieds for the generalizing signifier ‘Indian’. I remember arriving in Vancouver to find that I was referred to as an ‘East’ Indian. I wondered if it was a reference to the historical East India Company that managed that far end of the British empire while this end was being run by the Hudson Bay Company. Yes … its always been a corporate universe … but that is another story! No quite simple I believe that I am ‘East’ Indian in ‘North ‘America’ to to distinguish me from the other Indian – the ‘native Indian’ or as I know them from a childhood of \Cowboys and Indians’ play, the Red Indian’. Indeed, living in the Americas is living with both the nominal and significant consequences of the original hubris and error of Columbus and his ilk.
For the Cowboys and Indians performance at burning Man I shall present an antique terracotta icon of the infant Krishna. The icon was is a ritual object that would in its time have been used in domestic worship. It presents the infant Krishna bearing fruits. In his right hand, he bears a small purple fruit, perhaps a navel pazham or jambul fruit (Syzygium cumini) which is linked metaphorically to the Lord’s dark skin. In the crook of his left arm he holds a large ripe mango. This terracotta indexes the metaphoric equivalence of the Mango and the Jambul as attributes or representations or indeed flavors of the Lord Krishna.
In the myth of Krishna and the fruit seller, an old hawker woman selflessly satisfies the god’s desire for her ripe produce, even though he seems to offer her practically nothing in return. In folk representations of this allegory of desire (kama) and devotion (bakthi), as exemplified in the terracotta icon described above, the sublime mango often stands, metonymically, for the cornucopia of fruit in the old woman’s basket, which in turn represents the desires and delectations of the material life. This kama is redolent, or indeed ripe, with soteriological promise in that it can be transmuted into the bakthi of a selfless offering to the Lord.
The mango also appears in some versions of the Mahabaratha where, the now mature and more worldly, Lord Krishna miraculously materializes a ripe mango from a seed, while the fruit is out of season and then, turns it to ashes, thereby revealing both the illusory nature of reality (maya) and the complexities that underlie the idea of truth (satyam) itself. There are also variations of this mango of truth narrative in which, the mango is replaced by the jambul fruit (Syzygium cumini). A case in point is the Jambul-Upakhyan which is a contemporary expression of the Marathi folk tradition developed by the renowned folk story-teller and performer Shahir Vitthal Umap. Here the jambul which stains the tongue demonstrates the ubiquity of outward falsifications of inner truths.
The Mango of Truth Performance will be carried out twice during the Burning Man event, once at camp and once on the playa. At the heart of this performance is the presentation of an antique terracotta icon for Lord Krishna and the gifting of mangos at the end of each performance. The performance will take place beneath the Pazham Neeyappa (You art the Fruit) banner of SUPERSTAR Rajinikanth. The Krishna icon will be shown to the audience along with a ripe mango. The Koboi will narrate the meaning of the mango within Hindu worldview, in terms of the Hindu concept of knowledge, and in terms of ideas of love and truth. The narrative will be centered on the exploits of Lord Krishna. These ideas and allegories will lead to a reflections on the ‘image’ (Superstars, cowboy, etc.) and on the nature ’truth’ (false news, post-truth, etc.) in our contemporary reality. Jane Frankish will read poems from her Jane And The Library Monkeys Blog on a Megaphone. Tara Rajah will play short improvisations of Joe Ely’s Indian Cowboy on the cello and Durga Rajah will photograph the performances for future Koboi Project editions.
Reuters reports that PETRONAS profits have quadrupled (from RM 1.68 billion to 7.06 billion) because of higher oil prices and improved margins and as a result the amount paid to the Malaysian Government will rise from the previously committed RM 13 billion to 16 billion. The announcement of increased payments is timely for the Malaysian Government they have announced massive infrastructure projects in the run-up to the general election that must be called by mid-2018. PETRONAS recently cancelled its massive investment plans in British Columbian LNG industry and Reuters quotes PETRONAS CEO as saying that the corporation is “finalizing our strategy on how to monetize our North American gas assets. All options are being looked at.” It is of note that PETRONAS has absorbed other major losses in its world-wide LNG investments for instance the Australian Gladstone LNG Project For those involved with PETRONAS and its subsidiaries in Canada, it is surely of significance that this fortune 500 company is in fact a Crown corporation, potentially subject as much to global market forces as to domestic political imperatives.
According to Erin Ellis of the Observer a federal research scientist with the Geological Survey of Canada has claimed that his research proves that the largest earthquake ever detected in British Columbia’s northeastern shale gas region was caused by the fracking activities of PETRONAS subsidiary, Progress Energy Inc. This was a 4.6 magnitude quake that took place in the northern Montney Play of British Columbia in August 2015. The study analyzed the seismic activity its connection with fluid injection hydraulic fracturing being deployed in the region. Spatial and temporal correlation of seismic activity with the fluid injection in the region appears to have revealed that these events are better correlated with hydraulic fracturing than other types of injection. In other words the earthquake that was felt at the surface of the earth near the town of Fort St. John, was the direct result of liquids being pumped into underground rock formations under high pressure to extract natural gas.
The Koboi and family are off to Burning Man festival 2017 in Black Rock City, Nevada. This year’s theme for projects at Burning Man is Radical Ritual, and I propose to present a special edition of Cowboys and Indians. In keeping with the theme, this work will exemplify how, even traditional rituals are constantly being revivified and radicalized. This presentation consists of two images – Pazham Neeyappa and Indian Cowboy, as well as the Mango of Truth performance which will be carried out at the [The Camp with No Name] on the Black Rock City Playa.
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.