How the spirit of Thaipusam has been captured in Malaysian art

Veteran artist Long Thien Shih brings to life an epic Thaipusam night scene in his work called 'Thaipusam, Batu Caves' (pastel sketch, paper, 2010), which shows beautifully lit up kavadis and worshippers congregating at the Sri Subramaniar Swamy Temple in Batu Caves. Photo: Long Thien Shih

The Hindu community today will celebrate Thaipusam, a festival that falls on the full moon day of the Tamil month of 'Thai'.

The festival commemorates the day when Lord Murugan received the 'vel' (lance) from his mother Goddess Parvathi to destroy the evil demon Soorapadman to save humanity.

The pandemic situation in the country has forced those celebrating Thaipusam this year to observe it at home on a moderate scale.

Through the works of the Malaysian artists below, we can revisit the grand festivities surrounding the pre-pandemic Thaipusam years, and also look forward to celebrations resuming next year.

Lee Choon Kooi

Kedah-based artist Lee Choon Kooi, who has been in the northern state's art scene for more than 40 years, pays great attention to the energy of this celebration in his Chinese ink work titled Thaipusam (2015). In Kedah, Thaipusam season traditionally welcomes a flood of devotees to the Sri Subramaniya Swami Devasthanam in Sungei Petani. This year, the Kedah state government cancelled the public holiday for Thaipusam.

Stephen Menon

Stephen Menon's Devotee (watercolour on paper, 2013) offers a portrait of a Hindu devotee carrying a milk-pot on her head in a pilgrimage walk to the Batu Caves temple. It also provides a close-up glimpse of her trance-like state of worship, which Menon vividly recalls as someone being totally immersed in "prayer, penance and perseverance."

Hasnee Abdul Rahman

Hasnee Abdul Rahman's Thaipusam 2 painting from 2009 spotlights young members from a 'urumee melam' folk drum ensemble. These drum groups - playing the 'pambar' (cylindrical drum), 'urumee' (double-headed hourglass-shaped drum) and 'thavil' (barrel-shaped percussion) - usually accompany the kavadi bearers, giving an explosive rhythmic pulse to Thaipusam processions. Hasnee is also one of the contributors in the Sacred Structures Collection, a project dedicated in commissioning and archiving Hindu temple art.

Alex Leong

In his 2020 watercolour painting Thaipusam Celebration, Sri Mahamariamman Temple, Queen Street, Penang-based artist Alex Leong transports viewers to a postcard Thaipusam scene with devotees smashing coconuts on the roads. It is a ritual to symbolise “the breaking of one's ego to reveal purity inside.” The detail in Leong's work, yet again, is undoubtable.

Anurendra Jegadeva

In 2010, Melbourne-based Malaysian artist Anurendra Jegadeva presented an exhibition entitled My God Is My Truck - Heroic Portraiture From The Far Side Of Paradise at Wei-Ling Gallery in KL. Central to this show was this oil on canvas work titled My God Is My Truck, which features a repentant pilgrim, with extreme body piercing and hooks, during Thaipusam. In his artist statement about this 2010 series, Anurendra said, "As an artist, I am interested in depicting moments of truth with equal measure of intensity and tenderness, of hope and despair... these versions of the truth are also perceived through layers of satire that disarm the complex realities I seek to capture."

Tan Chiang Kiong

There is no shortage of great watercolour works from Penang-based painter Tan Chiang Kiong's catalogue. However, this 1985 piece (called Thaipusam) from Tan remains a favourite among art enthusiasts as it paints a perfect bustling Thaipusam spectacle in Penang ... complete with the chanting, drumming, and dancing pilgrims caught in a colourful swirl. Not to forget coconuts being smashed.

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Thaipusam , Art , Malaysia , Paintings , Celebration


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