Syed Thajudeen’s artworks feel like urbane frescoes mobilizing ancient legends in the most creative fashion for the present youth. Born in 1943, in a native named Alengakulam in Rameshwaram, Tamil Nadu, Thajudeen shared about his artistic and legendary journey. Weaving narratives that are concealed in our ancient manuscripts, his oeuvre compels us to learn the spiritual context of painted stories. I spoke to Syed Thajudeen on the phone to learn about his academics, ancestral migration and symbiotic relation to Indian and Malay art and culture.
AA: You are based in Malaysia but graduated from Madras School of art.
ST: My grandfather travelled to Penang island, now known as Malaysia, in the 1859s. That time, a lot of people travelled to south-east Asian nations for livelihood and trade. He undertook contracts of constructing bridges, buildings and many others. Later he met a muslin Gujarati lady and got married. And, when World War II was about to happen, he shifted to Alengakulam with our family. I was born in 1943 and lived there for 10 years. My father enrolled me in a Tamil school and in 1954 we shifted to Penang again. At that time, Malaysia was under British rule. And Britishers gave a lot of importance to art and culture. That is why in school, they would share some stories and ask us to draw them. The selected ones would be displayed on the board. This initiated my interest in drawing and painting.
When I moved to secondary school, I became the secretary of an art club. We had inter-school competitions and I had won many awards. And in 1965, Penang Museum Art Gallery opened. In their inauguration ceremony, they had invited many artists to participate and exhibit their works. Fortunately, I was part of the same programme.
During the British rule in Malaysia, the school teachers would share some stories and ask us to draw them. The selected ones would be displayed on the board. This initiated my interest in drawing and painting.
AA: How and when did you encounter Indian art?
ST: I studied history in Madurai and that is how I got to know, learned and became extremely interested in Indian art. The depth of Indian literature, Indian art and aesthetic is magnetic and appealing to me.
My father wished that I pursue medicine, engineering and such courses. He was correct, in his way, because he thought about future scope and all. The teenage and young age is revolutionary and ambitious. However, upon seeing my determination to choose art, he agreed and sent me to India. Thus, I joined the Madras School of Art.
At Madras school, the fine art course duration was six years. The first two years was an integrated course and they taught all the subjects like sculpture, paintings, photography, etc. Depending on our marks in this certificate course, they would enrol us in a specific stream for the next three years. I got selected in Painting because I had done well in the same. So in the school, morning 9 am to 1 pm we were made to practise figure drawing, portraits, etc and later we had to study old masters in the library. Tamil literature is one of the renowned and ancient ones. It also comprises the regional translation of Mahabharata and Ramayana, among many other literary works. Reading these books helped me to develop my philosophy. That is why I believe artists are a little more knowledgeable than laymen.
During school, we travelled across the entire India. And while I was in the fourth year we travelled to Aurangabad in Maharashtra. Seeing Ajanta caves, I was overwhelmed and realised my deeper interests and style. I was struggling to arrive at my personal style already. From then on my language of art transformed. Ajanta caves construction began in 200 BC and many developments happened until 200 AD. If you have ever visited Ajanta, you will observe the figures are so stylised. Witnessing the beautiful Ajanta wall paintings, I realised what I needed and wanted to do. Really, the culture of India is so civilised and intricate.
After coming back from Aurangabad I arranged nine canvases of average size. In college, I sincerely practised. Among nine, in the three panels I composed Ravana abducting Sita, the other three panels, I showed the exile and Hanuman sharing the ring to Sita and also consoling her about the situation. And the last three panels, I presented the burning of Lanka by Hanuman. It was my masterpiece at that time in college.
AA: You also taught at Institut Teknologi MARA. How was your experience there?
ST: In 1974, I arrived at Kuala Lumpur, capital of Malaysia because I got appointed as a part-time lecturer at Institut Teknologi MARA. There, all other colleagues were trained from American and European universities. They believed that everything western was of primary importance and orientalist was secondary. However, most students loved the colours I painted in. We have a rich culture of literature and music. And because we have been ruled and brainwashed by colonialists, we have been made to believe that their culture was superior. And in Indian culture, the epics describe gods but they are not based on one religion. They are our living traditions. Whereas, Shakespeare plays are totally different and there is no particular comparison. We possess a warm culture. And Indians are spread all over the world. We have to be proud of our culture.
Thajudeen withdraws excerpted stories from Indian epics, Mahabharata and Ramayana, as well as Malay culture. His large murals amaze the viewer by a lyrical sensibility, frescoes-like appearance and intense earthiness. What is more moving is recurring forms of female figures! Striving to establish a feminine relationship in the fabric of affection and compassion, the paintings and murals are a representation of his respect to the gender and its eternal significance in societal upbringing.
AA: Could you also talk about the Indian-Malay culture in your paintings?
ST: When I came to Malaysia, I was confused about what I should do. So, I studied Malay history, 14th to 17th century, and how Malay-kings ruled here. Malacca is the oldest culture and was ruled by a Hindu King. However, the king converted to Islam as he married a Muslim princess and eventually the citizens also have to convert. That is how it is an Islamic country.
Alibaba and Sindabad stories reflect the culture. Since long I have been painting all legendary stories. That's how I contribute. It is a one-man story. My paintings are documentation of Malay sultanate. I depict women in Kapayas (tight fitted garment) and Kerungs (loose-fitted)
Because of the absence of perspectives, I also got appealed by Indian miniatures. And I loved the beautiful figures of women with decorative dresses and ornamentation. Radha- Krishna Leela was especially my favourite. I try to render in the same style but I am merging the two cultures in my paintings. I have done a lot of paintings on love, spirituality and origin of the creation. I practice with respect to subjects, and legends of royal and mythological identities.
Syed Thajudeen's variety of depictions deepen within our conscience to uproot the unnecessary negatives. The fluidity brings us closer to the lightness of our being. That is how I perceive his paintings, elaborated with expressive and variegated style.