Photographer Nirmala Karuppiah's 'conversational' tribute to late father


  • Arts
  • Wednesday, 17 Oct 2018

Nirmala says this exhibition is a full circle moment for her as she pays tribute to her late father. Photo: The Star/Azlina Abdullah

American author Jimmy Neil Smith once said: “there isn’t a stronger connection between people than storytelling.”

This cannot be more true in the relationship Nirmala Karuppiah shared with her late father RTD Warrant Officer 1 P. Karuppiah.

Nirmala, a full-time photographer, says she always looked forward to weekends when she was a young girl.

She remembers it was all about father-daughter bonding on the weekends. Her father, when he was home, would take her around Kuala Lumpur and told her intriguing and fascinating tales.

“That was the most exciting part of my childhood,” the 46-year-old reminisces in an interview in Petaling Jaya.

As a military man, Karuppiah, who died last year (due to complications caused by Parkinson’s disease), had a wealth of stories to leave his daughter in wide-eyed awe.

He could pull stories from out of the hat, with more than a few colourful and exciting adventures from his days in the army and the air force.

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Peace Be With You (gelatin silver print on paper, 2000).

He also served during the Malayan Emergency and was part Malaysia's first UN peacekeeping mission to the Republic of the Congo in 1960. He even met world leaders, including a notorious one like Ugandan president Idi Amin in the 1970s.

“All these stories were planted in me from that young age. He was a great storyteller,” says Nirmala, who was born in Kuantan, and grew up mostly in KL.

Today, these stories are the inspiration for Nirmala’s latest solo photography exhibition called My Papa, The Storyteller, which is showing at Kamaria Gallery in Petaling Jaya till Nov 4.

The show, featuring 21 black and white photographs, is a labour of love for Nirmala.

Some of her photos date back to nearly two decades ago, and each picture is accompanied by personal anecdotes by Nirmala, presented in the form of conversations between a father and a daughter.

This exhibition, which is overwhelmingly personal and heartwarming, is a departure from Nirmala's usual shows.

Her previous exhibitions - Fluid Lucidity (2006), Capturing Twilight (2010) and Sanubari: Portraits In Motion (2015) - have focused broadly on documenting traditional dance culture, mainly the South Indian classical discipline Odissi, right to Cantonese opera and Main Puteri, a Malay cultural performance.

Nirmala's Black Magic Women On Kechak Dance (gelatin silver print on paper, 2000).
Nirmala's Time Will Tell (gelatin silver print on paper, 1998).

Nirmala, a British-trained photographer, with a masters from the University of Wolverhampton, knew that her dad would be a big part of this new exhibition.

When she was looking through her father’s old black and white photographs from his military days after his death, she knew she had to do something with these photographs.

“And then it hit me - he was a storyteller!” recalls Nirmala, who went on to write down the conversations she shared with her father.

Later, she dug out her old old negatives of unpublished works, combed through them one by one, and finally picked those that best represented the "conversational pieces" written.

Nirmala says this exhibition is a full circle moment for her as she pays tribute to her late father. Photo: The Star/Azlina Abdullah
Nirmala says this exhibition is a full circle moment for her as she pays tribute to her late father. Photo: The Star/Azlina Abdullah

For instance, one of the more humorous conversations recounts the talk Nirmala had with her father as she was getting ready to leave for the airport for a trip to Bali. She tries to stop her father from saying anything about lost spirits, something he frequently warned Nirmala about, and he instead warns her about the practice of black magic in Bali.

In a playful manner, Nirmala starts singing Santana’s Black Magic Woman to him. This candid dialogue is accompanied by a monochromatic photograph featuring female Kecak dancers in a performance.

In calling the exhibition “a pure tribute to my father”, Nirmala feels everything has come full circle.

During the five years leading up to his death, Nirmala abandoned her photography, isolated herself from the world and dedicated all her time to care for her ailing father.

“I gave my time to him and I don’t have any regrets. So this exhibition is like an escape from that, to help me overcome so many things after his passing,” says Nirmala.

“When I was putting up my work the other day in the gallery, it was actually on his birthday. I felt his presence there. And I felt so complete.”.


My Papa, The Storyteller is on at Kamaria Gallery, 6, Jalan 16/7, Petaling Jaya, Selangor till Nov 4. By appointment only. Call 03-4021 1092. More info: www.sutrafoundation.org.my.

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Nirmala's Thinking Of Congo (gelatin silver print on paper, 2011).


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