Art enthusiast Prof Dr Krishna Gopal Rampal celebrates 10 years of collecting Hindu temple art with an expansive exhibition.
When questioned recently what the direction of his art collection was, Prof Dr Krishna Gopal Rampal was prompted to reconsider why he collected art.
“I told my friend I was collecting representations of Malaysian art. Then he pointed out that if that was my goal, I might as well go to Balai Seni (National Visual Arts Gallery),” says Prof Krishna, 63, with a wry laugh at a recent interview during the launch of the Sacred Structures: 10 Years of Temples exhibition at the Museum of Asian Art, Universiti Malaya in Kuala Lumpur.
Realising he needed a theme to tie his collection together, Prof Krishna began to collect and commision paintings of Hindu temples around Malaysia and Singapore. His collection gradually expanded through the years and it now includes temples in South-East Asia.
This Sacred Structures: 10 Years of Temples exhibition, which is showing till Sept 5, is the result of Prof Krishna’s dedication in commissioning and collecting Hindu temple art.
Alongside his wife Kamla, Prof Krishna began actively collecting art in 1991. Both husband and wife are well known in the art circles here and some of their collection featured at the Malaysian Art Friends 2: Selected Works From 10 Collectors at National Visual Arts Gallery in Kuala Lumpur in April.
Outside art collecting, Prof Krishna is the dean at the Perdana University Graduate School of Medicine in Selangor. He joined Perdana University in February 2011 after 28 years at the Department of Community Health, Faculty of Medicine, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.
For Prof Krishna, this particular Hindu temple-based collection, or labour of love, began in 2004. Now almost a decade later, he is in possession of one of the country’s most extensive collections of Hindu temples, with almost 300 works by 14 Malaysian artists including Chong Hon Fatt, Kelvin Chap, Stephen Menon, Peter Liew, Tham Siew Inn, Soh Chee Hui, Lee Weng Fatt, Victor Chin, Hasnee Abdul Rahman, Lai Loong Sung, Maamor Jantan, Jeganathan Ramachandram, Pheh It Hao and Long Thien Shih.
He has had three exhibitions of his collection of paintings of Hindu temples, the first at the Badan Warisan Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur in 2007, the second at the Penang State Art Gallery in 2011 and the third at the Indian Cultural Centre in CapSquare, Kuala Lumpur in 2012.
Though many collectors treat art as commodity; buying and selling paintings like a stockbroker trades shares, Prof Krishna says he had made it a point never to sell pieces from his temple series as it was his passion. “My advice is collect what you like. If you collect for investment, over years you might not like what you end up with,” he warns young collectors looking to start their art trove.
To commemorate the collection’s completion, Krishna put 130 pieces from his collection on public display at the Museum of Asian Art. Almost poetically, the final temple added to the collection is the Sri Shakti temple in Bukit Rotan, Selangor. Like Krishna’s project, work on the Sri Shakti temple started 10 years ago and was just completed.
Prof Krishna admits that the journey had been an education for him in the architecture of Hindu temples and the tales behind them. This exhibition has attracted art enthusiasts, students and also history buffs interested in this particular side of art mixed with history. However, Prof Krishna was not the only one unfamiliar with the structures when they were being drawn. In an unusual twist, nine of the first 10 artists involved in this project were Chinese artists.
In a 2007 interview with The Star, artist Lee Weng Fatt was quoted as saying, “I don’t feel estranged or awkward when I’m in a temple; rather, I feel like it is a part of me.”
For Lee, each structure, sculpture and drawing in a temple tells a story. Such understanding from the various artists involvbed has made this collection a multi-racial project.
“When choosing the artists to paint the temples, I didn’t take into account their race or religious beliefs. I wanted those who had a reputation for drawing architecture and heritage buildings,” reveals Prof Krishna, adding that many Indian artists at that time prefered to do figurative works, while he prefered a more architectural approach.
Prof Krishna insists that the final approach to painting the temples ultimately rested with the artists.
“I only picked which temples were to be painted and the size of the paintings, which I wanted to be in A3,” he says.
During a walk through the Sacred Structures exhibition, which spanned two floors, a fair number of paintings which went beyond the required size format met the eye.
As we found out, Prof Krishna relaxed the size constraints and asked the artists to explore using larger canvases. The evolution of the collection and the artists involved are shown in this exhibition currated by local artist Stephen Menon.
To cover the various Hindu temples nationwide, Prof Krishna comissioned artists from their respective states to paint the famous temples around them. Malacca artist Tham Siew Inn was picked to paint the historic city’s temples, while Penang-based artists (Peter Liew, Chong Hon Fatt) delivered the temples from their island state. Since most of the artists were Klang Valley-based, Prof Krishna also made a point of travelling with the artists to temples around the region.
“The artists and myself would travel out of town to find the more obscure temples. For example, one of the paintings of the Sleeping Shiva was based on a small temple in Negeri Sembilan. I found out about it through my barber who came from Rantau,” recalls Krishna. He says the experience of finding these hidden temples meant each painting had its own unique story.
The collection had since grown to include works by four more artists plus temples in neighbouring countries including Thailand, Singapore, Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia.
Prof Krishna reveals the collection skips over a few countries – Brunei, Laos and the Philippines. “Most people go into temples, pray and leave. If people took a moment’s pause, they would notice there’s so much more to take in,” says Prof Krishna. He hopes that by opening his collection to the public, it would inspire people to pause an appreciate the architecture of these sacred structures.
Sacred Structures: 10 Years of Temples exhibition is on till Sept 5 at the Museum of Asian Art on Jalan Ilmu, Universiti Malaya, Kuala Lumpur. Museum open 9am-5pm on weekdays, Saturday by appointment. Closed on Sundays. Call 03-7967 3805/3936/3849 for any enquiries.