KL Biennale (II): The Gift of Knowledge

“What's so interesting about Durai Singam? Durai Singam (1904 – 1995) was no ordinary secondary school teacher who once taught in Kuantan. He also became one of the world's most obsessive bibliographers and collectors of memorabilia related to the world prominent philosopher and historian of Indian art, the late Ananda Kentish Muthu Coomaraswamy (1877 – 1947). (…) A selection of his editorial layouts using collage as a compositional technique are on display in this exhibition. This selection provides the viewer with a sense of the hands-on DIY nature of Durai Singam's by turns whimsical, high-minded, and idiosyncratic approach to publishing. In a sense, Durai Singam pursued this work as if it were his karma or sacred duty to disseminate this knowledge for posterity.”
– Snippets from Visual Art Program, Cultural Centre, University of Malaya Facebook page, in a post dated 17th November 2017

Installation snapshot

At the end of these long introductory paragraphs, it is noted that “(t)he late Durai Raja Singam was not only Niranjan Rajah's uncle but also the late art historian/curator/artist Redza Piyadasa's secondary school teacher back in Kuantan. Redza Piyadasa (1939 – 2007) is recognised today as a seminal figure whose contribution in art historical scholarship and creative practice since the late 1960s continues to resonate in the Malaysian and regional art scene. He was also the founder of our Program here at the University of Malaya.” Staged at Piyadasa Gallery no less, ‘The Gift of Knowledge: An Installation Commemorating the Person and Work of Durai Raja Singam (1904 – 1995)’ by Niranjan Rajah, is an amazing display that highlights the dedication and resourcefulness of the human spirit, when a single-minded passion is one’s guiding light in life. 

Snapshots from The World of Coomaraswamy

Stepping into the unlocked gallery and turning on the lights, this visitor is greeted by two pedestal-tables and three old cupboards. One coat rack stands at the far end of the room, while a degree certificate from the University of Jaffna is presented next to it. Walking past framed collages of text and pictures, I noticed the books inside the cupboards as copies of publications exhibited on the pedestals. A wall of old photographs and illustrations portray Durai Singam and a few luminaries, but at this point it remains unclear what is significant about this installation. Flipping the book cover open of the volume titled The World of Coomaraswamy, I see the proclamation “THIS IS A BOOK OF MY OWN DEVISING”; Printed in capitals too a few pages later, “Fifty years of Coomaraswamy for me, the cup is filled in another measure. To beg I am ashamed.” fills three quarters of one sheet. Then it struck me what was on show.

Snapshots from Remembering and Remembering Again and Again

Like self-published zines but belonging to a different magnitude, Durai Singam compiles writings and pictures about Ananda Coomaraswamy, then inserts his own texts and designs to make genuinely interesting reads. It appears that Durai Singam was not an academic scholar, as these books do not attribute any university press (also, his home address is always referenced on the book sleeves), but he funded printing presses in Kuala Lumpur for these publications. The thicker volumes are even printed on art paper, bounded in coloured hard covers, and are effectively limited-edition compilations. In A Study of a Scholar-Colossus, the biographer notes in the postscript of his preface, “No doubt the project will be expensive for a single individual but finance never represents a real difficulty. Finances follow. They dog your footsteps if you represent a real cause.”

Snapshots from A Study of a Scholar-Colossus

Notwithstanding the effusive reverence for his subject matter – Durai Singam assigns the title Kala Yogi to Coomaraswamy – the approach in putting together the materials is methodical and rigorous. Explications of each volume’s intent (Monograph? Collection of Letters? Biography? Bibliography?) is stated clearly in the introductions, followed closely by a table of contents, acknowledgement of his sources, and demarcating section headers. It is Durai Singam’s personal touch, however, that stand out. One quote from a cross-continent correspondence here, one snippet from a poem there. Designing an essay’s border with repeating images of postal stamps. A photograph, an illustration, a musing, plus multiple typefaces, all featured on a single page (to hell with sterile book design!) One hand drawn graph is titled “Comparison of Aesthetical and Metaphysical Publications by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, 1917 – 1947”. 

Snapshots from Ananda K. Coomaraswamy: A Bibliographical Record

‘The Gift of Knowledge’ astonishes with its physical evidence, about what it takes to pursue a vocation in studying and documenting one topic of interest. There is even one heartfelt text I chanced upon, which Durai Singam dedicated to his deceased son, and contributed to the delay in publication for a volume. As one who has written about my personal passion for the past five years, it is deeply moving to read a sentence such as “(t)his work is not meant for a publisher who may judge a work by academic standards or profit. It is a one-man edition, written and typeset with devotion and pleasure.” Leaving the installation, I still did not know Who Is This Coomaraswamy? But I now know who is Durai Raja Singam.

Snapshots from Who Is This Coomaraswamy? 

"No sort of work is a hindrance on the spiritual path. It is the notion 'I am the doer' that is the hindrance. If you get rid of that by enquiring and finding out who is this 'I', then work will be no hindrance since you will be doing it without the ego sense that you are the doer and without any attachment to the fruits of your work. Work will go on even more efficiently than before; but you can always be in your own, natural, permanent state of peace and bliss. Further, one should not worry about whether one should engage in work or give it up. If work is what is ordained for one, one will not escape it, however much one may try. On the other hand, if no work is ordained for one, one will not obtain work however much one wishes to strive for it." 
– Excerpted quote from Ramana Maharshi, as seen in one collaged page (presumably arranged by Durai Raja Singam) in ‘The Gift of Knowledge: An Installation Commemorating the Person and Work of Durai Raja Singam (1904 – 1995)’ by Niranjan Rajah

Snapshots of collaged pages exhibited at 'The Gift of Knowledge' installation