Essay by Ooi Kok Chuen

SYED THAJUDEEN: The Master of Magic Romantic Realism

By Ooi Kok Chuen

The year was 1954, March 4 to be exact. A gangly boy had stepped foot onto Penang soil, in the swampy landing point of the Esplanade, for the first time in his 11 years. The effects of a long humdrum journey by steamship SS Rajula from the port of Madras had not dispelled the saucer-eyed wonder of the completely new and strange world. A fascinating change of view for the impressionable and highly inquisitive boy who had grown up in a tiny village of Alagan Kulam, in the delta basin of the River Vaigai in south-eastern Tamil Nadu, near the temple city of Madurai.

India is an open-air museum of monuments; a citadel of Indian arts, cultures and music harking back centuries; a smorgasbord of gaudy colours and spice-laden cuisine.

Syed Thajudeen was to have his primary and secondary education in the next 12 years in Penang, growing up in the Little India precincts of the waterfront area, the heartbeat and catalyst of an increasingly prospering Penang. Right in the hub of finance, commerce, cultures and religions with a cluster of prominent Chinese kongsi (clan-houses/guilds).

Born in India in 1943, Syed Thajudeen was spared the brutal excesses and deprivations of the Japanese Occupation in Malaya and Singapore as his Penang-born father Shaik Abu Talib had bundled his family back to the safety of India even before the Japanese landed in Penang on December 17, 1941, returning only after the Japanese surrender in 1945.

When a new Indian nation was born, on August 15, 1947, he was only 4, maybe too young to savour the heady triumph after centuries of British rule. Still, it is significant that he was there, never mind that the euphoria was stained by the riots that claimed thousands of lives, because of the creation of Pakistan only a day earlier (August 14, 1947). In 1950, India became a republic with Jawarhalal Nehru as its first Prime Minister.  When Syed Thajudeen returned again to India, it was under the first segment of Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, who ruled with Congress Party from 1966 to 1977.

It was doubly fortuitous that Syed Thajudeen had returned to Malaya in time for the siren shouts of ‘Merdeka’ (Independence) from the British on August 31, 1957. He was here when Malaysia was born, with the amalgamation of Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak, in 1963 albeit with the tensions of Sukarno’s ‘Crush Malaysia’ Confrontation (1960); and later too, with the acrimonious split with Singapore in 1965.

In India, Syed Thajudeen was exposed to spicy ‘curry’ colours with gaudy ‘saree’ contrasts. Later, his artistic blood vein was infused with a more unique blend of golden richly miasmic textures from the Ajanta and Ellora Caves of Maharashtra.

In Malaysia, he found himself overwhelmed by the tropical hues and the humidity of the more equatorial climes; the potpourri and pageantry of multi-religious festivals – of the Malays, Chinese, Indians, Eurasians, Ibans, Bajaus, Kadazans. and the unique hybrid Peranakan of Baba-Nyonya (Chinese mixed with Malays, adopting Malay idiosyncratic ways) and Chittys (Tamils practising Malay customs and speaking Malay).

The  Indian-Muslim offshoots in Penang were an inventive, enterprising and unique lot, assimilating into the local mileau and credited to have invented and popularised the Nasi Kandar, teh-tarik (‘pulled’ tea) and roti canai (unleavened bread).

In Penang, he studied in the afternoon session of the Methodist High School, right up to his Senior Cambridge. In Form 3, he was made secretary of the school’s Art Club, and took part regularly in art competitions organised in the Han Chiang High School across the road, and won several prizes. In 1965, he took part in the first group exhibition at the Penang State Museum and Gallery (PSMG) officiated by Penang’s first Governor Raja Tun Sir Raja Uda Muhammad. When he returned to India to further his studies, the seed of an artist had been planted and it is a passion and a pursuit undiminished.

The PSMG held so many fond memories for him: it was here that he held his first exhibition (1965, when he showed poster-colour works of intricate patterns of the kebaya and batik sarong) and then his first solo in 1975. Now, 40 years later in 2015, he is fittingly honoured with a major Retrospective, in a grand homecoming.

With his proud parents’ blessings, he went to India purportedly to study Medicine but he found the rote-learning uninspiring. He decided to listen to his heart and switched to Fine Art studies, much to the dismay and consternation of his well-meaning parents. His studied at the Government College of Fine Arts (GCFA, formerly Government School of Industrial Arts and in 1962, Government School of Arts and Crafts) in Madras (present-day Chennai) from 1968 to 1973 for his diploma, and 1973-74 for post-diploma in Painting. GCFA is the oldest art institution in India.

Again, Syed Thajudeen was there at a critical time of Indian art Modernism, with the flourishing art movements and protean creative ferment, and where many, many great names from the different schools of art emerged.

Chennai, Kolkatta (Calcutta)/Bengal and Vadodara (Baroda) – these satellite centres etched new directions in the fledgling Indian art movements. India was in the throes of vibrant cultural changes in art, handicraft, dance, drama, music, literature, philosophy, architecture with ancient palaces, mausoleums, museums and temples.

The legends, myths and fables of the Buddhist Jataka tales, the Ramayana epic of Good versus Evil and to a lesser extent, the Mahabharata, all add a rich tapestry of history, narrative, ritual and romance to his canvas.

On returning to Malaysia, he re-focussed on the local mileau and reality, history, legends and myths. He traced back the defining events of the Malacca Sultanate with the arrival of the renegade Hindu prince Parameswara (1344-1414) who lorded over the great maritime empire of Malacca; he re-romanced the mystical legend of Puteri Gunung Ledang and the legendary Hang Tuah.

The Hindu-Islamic influences impinged on each other when in India and back home in Malaysia, he was weaned on a potpourri of multi-culturalism, multi-ethnicism, multi-religiosity, although the State religion is Islam.

He was fascinated with the baju kebaya, with its colourful patterns derived from local vegetation, and the charms and grace of the nubile Malay woman as epitomized by screen sirens such as Saloma and Sarimah.

Like the amorous pantheon Krishna ubiquitous in his more ‘pastoral’ works, Syed Thajudeen is an incorrigible disciple and apostle of Love – love, in all its manifestations, permutations and nuances. Upmost is the unbridled passion and undying Love between a man and a woman, sacred and eternal, lust et al. Then there is also the altruism of paternal and maternal Love, the universal Love of and for humanity, the Love of kinship in the daily dealings with one another with mutual respect and support, and the nationalistic Love of one’s country.


Roots, Be-Rooted and Re-rooted: Family History and Working Career Highlights

Syed Thajudeen hails from a fairly well-to-do family of business-inclined people. Unlike some South Indian-Muslim birds-of-passage migrants, Syed Thajudeen’s grandfather, Seeni Hassan Hussain, or more popularly known as ‘Thambi Nana,’ had come over to Malaya in 1850 to set up roots for good. He was a contractor of bridges and roads on the Kedah side, as well as shophouses along the main-artery Penang Road. Others like the family of ‘Kapitan Keling’ Cauder Mohudeen had come over earlier in 1770. Those were the days of bullock carts, jinriksha, gharries or hackney carriages and trams, and the roads were unpaved, mostly orange-brown laterite paths. His grandfather lived through the 1867 Penang riots between the Ghee Hin and Hai San.

Penang was the fourth presidency of British India after Madras, Bombay and Calcutta, until Singapore became the capital of the Straits Settlement (SS) in 1832. The SS from 1826-1946 comprised Penang, Singapore and Malacca.

Seeni Hassan Hussein also ran a canteen in the 362-ha Pulau Jerejak, the landing post in 1786 of Sir Francis Light before Light took possession of Penang, some 1.5 nautical miles away. Indian immigrants had to be quarantined there for a week before they were allowed to enter Penang. Pulau Jerejak was a leprosy and tuberculosis hospital in 1930 but became a maximum security prison from 1969-93, leading to it being dubbed the ‘Alcatraz of Malaysia.’

Seeni Hassan Hussein and his son, Shaik Abu Talib also collected rentals from several property premises he built and owned along Penang Road.

The jetty conurbation was a thriving community of various nationalities and races including Chinese (Hokkien, Hakka, Teochew and Hainanese), Malays, Acehnese, Armenians, Burmese (Myanmar), British, Germans, Jews, Indians, Arabs, Thais, Bugis, Ambonese, Javanese, Ceylonese (Sri Lankans), Rawanes, Minangkabaus, Gujeratis, Mandailings, Portuguese and Eurasians.

Sir George Leith (c. 1765-1842), the 1st Lieutenant-Governor (1800-1803) of the then Prince of Wales Island (Penang), wrote: “There is not, probably, any part of the world where, in so small a space, so many different people are assembled together, or so great a variety of languages spoken.”  (It was Sir Leith who  negotiated for an additional 48km strip between the Muda and Krian rivers on the mainland (Province Wellesley).

Syed Thajudeen is the middle of five children with an elder brother and sister, and a younger sister and brother. His brothers are landlords collecting rental from family owned properties.

Successful in business may not be his forte, but the trajectory of his art career path is impressive: Nine solos (1975 to 2010); selection to prestigious exhibitions overseas – Malaysian Art 1965-78, Commonwealth Institute, London, 1978; 2nd Bangladesh Biennale1983;  Contemporary Paintings of Malaysia, Pacific Asia Museum, Pasadena, California,1988; Rupa Malaysia, Brunei Gallery, London, 1998; Malaysian Contemporary Art, National Museum of Art, Beijing, 1999; Guangdong Museum of Art, China, 2004; World Expo in Shanghai, 2010; and the Olympic Games Art Exhibition, London, 2012, and the Special Exhibition of ASEAN-South Korea Commemorative Summit, 2014.

At home, he was selected for major exhibitions such as the 1st Asian Symposium, Workshop and Exhibition on Aesthetics in 1990; Figurative Approaches In Modern Malaysian Art in 1996; 45@45 in 2003; and Between Generations: 50 Years Across Modern Art in Malaysia in 2007.

When he returned in April 1974 on the SS Madras, he got a part-time job at the Mara Institute of Technology (ITM, now Universiti ITM), teaching Textile Design and Figure-drawing four times weekly and for an hour each time, from 1974-76.

The others in the teaching staff then included Dr Choong Kam Kow, Sulaiman Esa, Ahmad Khalid Yusof (1934-97), Redza Piyadasa (1939-2007), Joseph Tan (1941-2001) and his students included Ponirin Amin and Mad Anuar Ismail.

“My role was to guide them, not teach them,” asserted Syed Thajudeen, who stressed anatomy drawings. He advocated model portrait drawing with half-naked male models and fully-clothed female models, but the more conservative administration frowned on this, and his contract was not renewed.

A short spell in advertising, first at Mulberry and then Trang, helped to pay the bills before he was hired permanently at the United Asian Bank as a resident artist. The bank later became the Bank of Commerce, Bumi-Commerce Bank and then CIMB Bank.

He opted for VSS (voluntary separation scheme) in 2001 to become a fulltime artist.


The South Indian Exodus to Penang and Singapore

The Indian Muslims in Penang were a diverse lot – Marikars, Rawthers, Thenkasi, ‘Petai’ (Ramnad and Tanjore), Kerala, Bengali and Gujerati. They settled within the George Town UNESCO world-heritage precinct around the ‘Little India’ enclave of Penang Street, King Street (Street of Boatmen), Queen Street, Market Street (‘Little Madras’) and Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling (Pitt Street) but expanded to a wider area with Chulia Street (‘Gu Kan Tang’ or Street Livestock or Cattle Pen), Leith Street, Church Street, China Street, Beach Street right up even to Chowrasta Market (Klinga Bangsan, or Indian Market).


They worked as port coolies; chandlers, stevedores and lighter owners; clerks and land surveyors; small businesses or petty traders like butchers or poulterers and fish-mongers, and in brick-making foundries. They cleared swamps and built aqueducts, buildings, bridges and roads. Their ‘banks’ were the chettiars (money-lenders) mostly from Ramnad. They later worked in the rubber estates and pepper plantations. The British also brought in opium from India.

The Penang Indian-Muslims introduced teh tarik (credited to the Kadayanallur Muslims), nasir kandar (Ramnad), roti canai, murtabak (pizza filled with minced mutton, onions and eggs fried over hot-metal plates) and freshly-made giling rempah (mixed curry spices paste).

The Malay bangsawan opera was derived from visiting Indian troupes in the 1870’s, while the Boria musical theatre in Penang had its roots in Chennai. The nascent Malay film industry, ‘Melayuwood,’ was a clone of Bollywood with the likes of Chisty, B.S. Rajhans and Chennai-born Tan Sri L. Krishnan.

The early history of the Indian Muslim migrants was well chronicled in the book, The Chulia In Penang: Patronage and Place-Making Around The Kapitan Kling Mosque, 1786-1957, by Khoo Salma Nasution.

“The ‘Chulia’ (Chulier,Chola, Choolia) was the term Europeans used for South Indians, which included  ‘natives of the Coromandel and Malabar Coasts.’ Chulia seafarers and sojourners of South-east Asia in the 18th and early 19th centuries consisted mainly, but not exclusively, of Muslims.” [1]


Indian socio-cultural elements and influences

Syed Thajudeen’s early works betray some ethno-linguistic, Hindu-centric, Tamil-ated (South Indian) moorings, but one from a great civilizational bedrock. They are not monolithic edifications, but are a hybrid coalescences and confrontations of people, cultures and religions; the everyday street cred, the sense-surround of temple architecture with the intricately carved parables in the filigreed gopuram and murals.

But in the early days, the Indian settlers were more interested in making a living. Wrote Marco Hsu “The Indians are not as devoted to art as to their religion. The wealthy chettiars (money-lenders) and the hardworking Tamil workers seemed to have replaced their love of art for the love of religion.”[2]

Central to all these is the devotional expressions or deification either to leaders or Gods. His figures are to tell a story, not to be worshipped as idols despite some having legendary status. Not for him the strictures of arabesque or geometry, or the subservience and negation of the self.

He is not so the detached narrator or raconteur, but one involved in the stories he wove often with the ‘Love’ theme, like a self-personification – the puppeteer transformed as the puppets, and the character puppet like an embodiment of the ventriloquist.

The thrust is the greater humanism of love for our spouses, paramours, family, parents, children, relatives and friends and fellow human beings, and the whole ecology of animals – land, sea and sky, and our precious environment under threat from deforestation, pollution, exploitation and plunder.

India was a smorgasbord of a pungent cultural tapestry stretching back thousands of years. It was not something for Syed Thajudeen to be expunged or cauterised, but instead infused into, to value-add to his re-romancing and relocating to Malaysia later, as he caught up on its truncated histories.

Syed Thajudeen’s return to India was also at a time of the efflorescence of the ‘Madras School’ with luminaries like Santhanaraj, Munuswami,  K.M. Adimoolam (drawing and painting), Dr Alphonso Dass, R.B. Bhaskaran, Chandrasekar, Debi Prasad Roy Chowdhury, K.C.S. Paniker, S. Kanniappan (sculptor), S. Dhanapal (sculptor), Kanayi Kunjiraman (sculptor), Palaniapoan, Adhiveerapandian and Michael Ipudayaraj. Some had even taught him.


The Art Institution and Mentor-Teacher Inspirations. Mughal Art Masala

Even on the seven-day trip on the S.S. Rajula back to Chennai for further studies, Syed Thajudeen must have gnawing doubts about his choice of Medicine, his first favourite being to be a film-maker, like Satyajit Ray (1921-92).

From 1967-68, he put up with his pre-university studies on Humanities at the University of Madurai. “The education system was stifling. Reading, memorising and following exactly without any mistake. There was no freedom, no room for creativity,” he recalled.

A closet rebel, Syed Thajudeen subjected himself still to the rigours and regime of the Art discipline, slavishly copying images from frescoes and murals as a rites of learning.

Fortunately, the GCFA was led by visionary pedagogues Robert Fellowes Chisholm (1838-1915) and E.B. Havell (Ernest Binfield Havel, 1861-1934). It was founded by military surgeon Alexander Hunter in 1850 (he only became superintendent in 1855, when he introduced Photography into the curriculum), then at Popham’s Broadway, to train craftsmen, printers and draftsmen. In 1852, it came under the Indian Government’s Department of Public Instruction, and shifted the campus to Poonamallee High Road.

Former principal V. Chandrasekaran revealed: “Hunter re-organised the  curriculum in consultation with the East India House and the Royal Academy of Art in London (formerly School of Design, South Kensington). Soon, the School of Industrial Arts was opened with two departments namely Artistic and Industrial.”

Chisholm took over from Hunter in 1868 but was only confirmed 10 years later. He was known for his expounding the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture.      He was succeeded by Havell, the founder of the India Society in London, and who headed the school from 1884-94. Havell, who wrote the seminal Handbook of Indian Art (1920), believed in the integrated Bauhaus ‘total art’ approach of combining fine and applied arts and architecture. In 1896, he moved to Calcutta where he and Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951) developed the Calcutta School of Art, dubbed the Bengal School, and with a hybrid Persian-Indian Mughal miniatures. He also set up the Indian Society of Oriental Art.

Next was the American William Snelling Hadaway (1872-1941), the principal from 1907-27, who taught book illustration, jewellery and introduced carving and metal design.

In 1929, painter-sculptor Devi Prasad Roy Chowdhury (1899-1975), a student of Abanindranath Tagore, became the first local Indian principal. He was succeeded in 1957 by K.C.S. Paniker (1911-1977), a Fellow of the Lalit Kala Academy.  Other principals included R. Krishna Rao, S. Dhanapal, K.L. Munuswami, A.P. Santhanaraj and C.J. Anthony Doss (1933-2008, known for his portraits).

Roy Chowdhury (sculpture), Paniker (printmaking), Krishna (painting),  Dhanapal (sculpture), Munuswami (painting), A.P. Santhanaraj (painting, sculpture) all cut their artistic teeth at GCFA.

Under Paniker, who studied there in 1936-40 and is known for his metaphysical and abstract paintings, the institution became a college in 1961. He started the Progressive Painters Association in 1944, the Artists’ Handicraft Association in 1963 and the Cholamandal Artists’ Village in Injambakkam, 9km from Chennai, in 1966. The village is hailed one of the ’10 biggest art moments’ in India. As principal, he is noted for having infused Indian mythology into the syllabus.

The GCFA alumni also included Surendranath, Alphonso Aruldoss, P.S. Devanath, K. Ramanujam (all painting), K.M. Adimoolam, Trotsky Marudu, Manohar Natarajan (drawing, painting), R.B. Bhaskaran, M. Ramalingam (drawing, painting, print-making), Chandru, Kanayi Kunjiraman, Kanniappan, G. Selvaraj (all sculpture), C. Dhakshinamoorthy (sculptures, drawing, painting, print-making), RM Palaniappan (printmaking), Radhakrishnan Natesapillai (print-making, painting), and Sivakumar (drawing, painting and acting).

At the GCFA, Syed Thajudeen went through the rigours of the Sadanga ritual, the Six Limbs of Indian Painting, and coming at various times under the tutelage of Krishna Rao, Danapal (sculpture), Anthony Doss, Alphonso Dass (portrait), Santanaraj, Shanmuga Sundaram, Munuswami (contemporary art), Kanniryappam and Mookaya (ceramic).

It was in Madras that he sold his first painting entitled, Dr Faustus, about the fall of Man, written by Christopher Marlowe and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

When he took part in the Malaysia-India exhibition at the defunct Joshua Gallery [3] in October 1994, the India artists included his mentor Alphonso Dass, Laxman Pai, P.N. Choyal, Sunil Das and K. M. Adimoolam, and a similar exhibition was held in July 2010 at the Annexe Gallery, Central Market, Kuala Lumpur.

Apart from the Madras School, Bengal School and Baroda School, there also emerged the Santiniketan Movement, a retroactive trend dubbed ‘Contextual Modernism’ or ‘Counter Culture of Modernity’ among the Bengal artists led by Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913 based mainly on Gitanjali (Song Offerings, India Society, 1912). The other group members included Nandalal Bose, Ram Kinker Baij and Benode Behari Mukherjee. It espoused an independent stance from the prevailing Modernism and a shunning away from indigenous historicity.


A Different Malaysia

It was a much different Malaysia that Syed Thajudeen returned to, in April 1974. The euphoria of Independence that must have still stirred in his soul when he left had been stymied by the May 13, 1969 internecine riots. A new socio-political engineering under the New Economy Police was propounded to bridge the economic disparity between the Malays and the non-Malays and with a Malay-centric cultural policy propounded.

Also, a vociferous Abstract movement started challenging the Figurative group of Dato Hoessein Enas’s Angkatan Pelukis SeMalaysia (APS). In 1967, a benchmark GRUP exhibition lined up its linchpin stars namely Ibrahim Hussein (1936-2009, later a ‘Datuk’), Latiff Mohidin, Syed Ahmad Jamal (1929-2011, later a ‘Datuk’), Yeoh Jin Leng, Jolly Koh, Anthony Lau and Cheong Lai-tong.

The year 1974 saw two landmark art events that put the final nail to the Figurative coffin: 1) The ‘Towards A Mystical Reality’ Conceptual Art exhibition featuring Redza Piyadasa (1939-2007) and Sulaiman Esa; and 2) the breakaway Anak Alam group from APS, with the dramatic turn towards a greater spiritual affinity with Nature and the environment, with surrealism overtones.

But Syed Thajudeen persevered and kept up his ‘Figurative’ track, refusing to succumb to ‘self-ethnic cleansing’ and his creation of a mild classic form of Magic Realism enriched by Indian civilizational truths has made him an innovative artistic icon.

When Islamic-themed exhibitions proliferated, Syed Thajudeen never failed to get an invitation which he always reciprocated, like the 1994 Islamic Art exhibition (Galeri Petronas, Kuala Lumpur) and the Man and Spirituality exhibition (National Art Gallery, 1995). Point that he is regarded a ‘Muslim’ artist despite his Indian ‘umbilical cord.’

The rise of fundamental Islam espoused by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeiny in the early 1980’s further mandated against depicting and glorifying human and animal forms, or taswir. Islamic philosopher/scholar Professor Dr Seyyed Hoessein Nasr defined Islamic art as: “Traditional Islamic art embraces every form of the visual and sonoral arts from landscaping to poetry, all reflecting the principles of Islamic revelation and spirituality. It is about highlighting the spiritual and transcendental dimensions, imbuing the concept of divine unity and oneness with God (tauhid), divine beauty (al-jamal) and divine majesty (al-jalal), and a form of rememberance (zikir) and contemplation (fikir) of God’s divine attributes and beautitude.

Syed Thajudeen explains that all holy scriptures exhort the need to live a positive, productive, righteous life, and that whatever we do, we will reap what we sow.

Interestingly, at around the same time in China, a movement was already taking shape that ushered the Figure Revival in the forms of the Romantic Realism of Chen Yi-fei, and the Cynical Realism parodying socio-political events with the movement spearheaded by Yue Min-jun, Zhang Xiao-gang and Wang Guang-yi.

Still, Syed Thajudeen is no slave to fashion and has painstakingly developed his own trademark style and subjects that are nonpariel.

It was not only a changed Malaysia that he had returned to in 1974. He, too, had changed: more matured, better fortified with knowledge, experiences and greater sensitivity. He had also returned with a wife, whom he married in 1971.


Myths, legends and folklore: From Ramayana to Hikayat Sejarah Melayu

Since time immemorial, Man has been fascinated with all kinds of stories – oral, documented or experiential: the simple, heroic, inspirational, starry-eyed, tragic, horrifying, comic, bizarre and even resembling the ‘Baron Munchausen’ types.

Syed Thajudeen mines these rich lodes of compelling fiction/fables, epic poetry and real human endeavours of history into his own tapestries of narration, with subtexts and local relevance to people and time.

Like a movie-maker, Syed Thajudeen is piqued by the ‘love interest’ in any story, which he expands on and embellishes for a more wholesome picture. The ‘Love’ theme is his messianic timbre that resonates throughout his repertoire.

The stories may not have been in texts, testaments or parchments but carved as rocks as in the erotic art of the renowned temples of Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh, or in the rock-cut architecture of the Ajanta and Ellora caves in Maharashtra with the stories drawn from Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism.

He was also drawn by the local folklore and legends, the glory of the Malacca Sultanate, the Malay Annals (Hikayat Sejarah Melayu), the legends of Puteri Gunung Ledang and Mahsuri.

He was commissioned by Shell Malaysia to illustrate six Malaysian fables for its 1990 calendar. The stories included The Fairy Cloak (a Sabah tale of a Murut who married a fairy princess), The Cowherd and The Girl Weaver (a Chinese legend about a love affair between two stars), The Owl That Marries the Moon (an Iban story about a fish eating only a certain kind of fruit) and Mahsuri (the Langkawi legend on a chaste woman executed for trumped up charge of zina).

The life lessons are eternal and are still relevant today, perhaps more so in a digital-tech world of the ubiquitous social media and real-time face-to-face communication even when worlds apart. The old worlds may have disappeared forever, but the core human values like love, compassion, faith, filial piety, honesty and trust remain the same.

Indeed, Syed Thajudeen’s works are imbued with the feel-good spirit, with nary a shadow of worry or even care – even in times of purportedly violent strife. His works are an affirmation of the good self, of togetherness, love and mutual nurture.


Stylisations and Iconography

Style, subject and symbols are mutually supportive and engaging factors in any art. In 50 years, Syed Thajudeen has painstakingly and instinctively developed a distinct vocabulary that is innovative and refreshing in the schematic colours and rich in symbolisms.

Syed Thajudeen is a “women’s man” in his art, and the female/feminine dominance is latent even when the powerful counterpart is the paramour deity Krishna. Women are the symbol of Mother Earth, or shown as playful water nymphs, or as the seductress/temptress, or the more demure village maiden. Sita morphs into Puteri Gunung Ledang and vice versa.

Pretty and vulnerable, a woman in Syed Thajudeen’s artistic parlance is the epitome of sinuous grace and feminine wiles: with hazel eyes like Aishwarya Rai’s cutting across the head profile like a bird shape or just simply marked as a slit; slender hands and fingers; slightly longish and lithe torsos sometimes in the shape of the ‘love’ symbol; elongated limbs reminiscent of the mannered postures of Adrien Jean Le Mayeur de Merpres[4] and Cheong Soo-pieng[5]; long flowing hair tied up in a pony-tail or in a sanggul pinned with a flower; and the piece de resistance – the coquettish puckered lips.

Because of his early exposures, ‘Black Is Beautiful’ as his maidens are all dark-skinned (in black or dark-blue tints) instead of the conventional Caucasian ‘fair-skinned’ beauty of Western fairy-tales and commercial advertisements.This has also to do with the primacy and strategy of location. Asian-First.

His is a creation of the arcadian world where Man and animal and Nature are in harmony – an anachronistic rustic paradise with paeans to fertility and love.

He likes to use the parallel world ‘picture-within-a-picture’ format or the minbar pulpit, with the main action on the window casement or adjoining ones, and the airy front verandah not obvious.

His fascination with the creation of the human race “what we are doing, and where we are going” resulted in his Origin Series, though the thrust is not entirely biological. “Inside the womb, there is darkness. The space is infinite. It’s a journey. into the unknown,” he intoned in March 1997. But beyond the imagery of spermatozoid squiggles or life-churning spirals is the philosophy of transiency and fragility of existence. Life is a process from the spermatozoa to the mother’s womb, development into a baby, dependence on parents’ care and love, education, work, growing old and dying. “We are just nomads,” he once intoned philosophically. One of his ‘Origin Series,’ a six-in-one hexaptych, is in the collection of the Singapore Art Museum.

Even when the caterpillar metamorphosises into a butterfly and has a short 48-day life-span, it has served its purpose: brightening up the space and place and perpetuating the species. That sums up the positivism in Syed Thajudeen’s message.

Besides the deer, he also uses the sacred cow, the shape coined from prehistoric currency. Local motifs and designs especially from the Nusantara textiles tradition are infused into the works. There are flotsams of images like manna from Heaven in the shape of bat emblems or swans on clouds which give the work a surreal fuel and which are somewhat reminiscent of Ismail Latiff’s fantasy realm.

In his Seroja (Lotus, Nelumbium speciosum) Series, he enthuses: “The lotus is something Asian, yet universal. It’s a unifying element of several religions. Very delicate and serene, and related to the continuation of the whole universe.”[6]


Colours of the Wind: Blast from the Past – the Antique Colours of Ajanta and Ellora

One of the most profound impact in his second India sojourn must have been the Ajanta and Ellora Caves, not only the ancient iconography and fables with religious pathos, but perhaps more so, the antique colours, which he concretises over time with an admixture of yellow ochre, burnt sienna, raw umber, moss green, gamboge, alizarin, permanent rose, sap green olive green, and crimson lake.

The Ajanta and Ellora caves, some 100km apart, are both designated Unesco World Heritage Sites (1983) with some of the most spectacular rock-cut architecture dating back to between the 5th and 10thcenturies.

The Ajanta, in the northernmost tip of the Aurangabad district, comprises 29 caves built as a chaitya(shrine or prayer hall with a stupa) or a vihara (monks’ refuge) with (Mahayana) Buddhist sculptures and carved faience of 32 incarnations of the Buddha, delving into the Jataka tales detailing Prince Siddharta’s renunciation of wealthy pleasures and his holy quest towards achieving nirvana.

The Ellora Caves comprises 34 caves carved out on the basalt cliffs of the Charanandri hills, with the rare trinity of Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism.

He first visited Ajanta in 1972, and the place is a mecca for artists from all over including Nandalal Bose (1882-1966), Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951),  William Rothenstein (1872-1945), Lady Christina Herringham (1852-1929) and scholar-art critic Okakura Kakuzo (1862-1913).[7]

To Syed Thajudeen, the cave palette also has a modern affinity to the Colour Theory of Swiss-German modernist artist-poet-philosopher Paul Klee (1879-1940), and the golden sun-bleached veneer of Le Mayeur. But Syed Thajudeen’s strategy of colours is at once spiritual, optical, structural and ornamental with slivers of deft overlaps and a gorgeous textural faience like in Indian fabrics. He modifies the naturalist colours with the splotchy pigments bleeding over defined areas.

His later works capture the spirit of Rasa (essence, juices), moving away from the Ajanta golden-brown hues to one of a tropical kaleidoscope of gorgeous simmers and spongy daubs that somewhat reflect on the protean light and cultural potpourri.


Made In Malaysia: Home where he belongs. Re-Romancing the land

On his return to Malaysian soil, Syed Thajudeen connects with land, culture and people. One of his ‘entry-points’ is the gorgeous baju kebaya and baju Melayu, with the variegated batik patterns and designs of the sarong, the tropical profusion of colours, and the intricate lacework of the blouse. He traced the images of the kebaya-clad women from the paper bags used to wrap sarong fabric.

The kebaya is to Malaysia what Mary Quant’s mini-skirt was to the West in the 1960’s, with the dress defining the hour-glass silhouette of the local lasses. The repertoire comes complete with headdress, shawl or shoulder sash fluttering in the wind, mostly barefoot and at least in one work with red high-heel shoes. All the hundreds of motifs in the dress are not imprinted for convenience but painstakingly and lovingly drawn.

Syed Thajudeen has a special cavalcade of small paintings devoted to this, the ‘Kebaya Series’, which he once dedicated to the late Datin Paduka Endon Mahmood, then wife of the prime minister Datuk Seri (now Tun) Ahmad Abdullah Badawi.

The kain pelikat (sarong) was originally known as palaiyakat, after the Indian place of origin, but has a widely popular outreach and is known by other names such as futah (Arabcountries), phanek (SouthAsia), sampot (Cambodia) longhi (Myanmar), malong/patadyong (thePhilippines), patoong/pakaomah(Thailand)and sarong (Malaysia/Indonesia/Singapore/Brunei). In two works featuring the Victoria Clock Tower and the Penang Hill funicular railway, he clads his ‘heroines’ for the first time in cheong-sam or qipao, a figure-hugging long dress. The other two works related to Penang is an epic-scale Kapitan Keling Mosque and the Kek Lok Si Temple.


Love and Faith

Love is the elixir of human existence and makes the world go round. It is the axis of everything that has a heartbeat and that moves, propelling action and reaction and sometimes, no action at all because of a melancholic hesitation to act in order not to harm or disturb the object of the love.

The German social scientist Erich Fromm avers: “Love is the only sane and satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence.”

Central to this philosophical premise is his belief that the world’s problems of conflicts and environmental degradation with global warming et al could not be resolved save for the return to humanism, compassion and love. Love for oneself; love for one’s spouse and family; love for one’s parents, siblings and relatives; love for friends and acquaintances and people one meets in daily life; love for fellow human beings who are less fortunate; love for the country; love for Nature and one’s immediate environment; love for animals and all living things; and perhaps most important of all, love for God, in his case, for Allah.

“We have lost that human touch in this age of fast-food and fast sex. There is no time for love. God gives us this feeling of love which is reflected in, and conveyed through, women,” he had told me (Interview, Syed Thajudeen’s Tribute To Women, New Straits Times, March 18, 1997).

Today, the younger set texted their love instead of showering their belle with flowers; and even talak (notice of divorce) has been known to be sent via the curt SMS.

Love figures high in Syed Thajudeen’s painting repertoire, with an obsessive, effusive passion. The feelings pervade every pore of pigment of his canvases, and is one of the most important principles and themes in Syed Thajudeen’s repertoire, manifesting in amorous gestures of the protagonists (man and woman) with enough erotic overtones not to descend into saucy Kamasutra, Vatsyayana’s 4thCentury tome on love and sexuality, or the more ribald Japanese ukiyo-e (‘Floating World’).

Thus, his steadfast adherence to figurative art.

The women in his canvas whom he dubbed his “heroines” are decked with all the hallmarks of femininity – the puckered lips, coquettish eyes, the lithe body shape enhanced by the kebaya and baju kurung, the revelation of skin with the plunging v-shaped neckline and exposed feet, the see-through gossamer blouse, the neatly-tied pony tail or sanggul (hair tied in a bun).

The titles are simple and self-explanatory: The Kiss, The Embrace, The Joy of Being Together, Declaration of Love, Endearing Thoughts, Waiting for the Lover,  Longing, Love Letter; Message of Love(preening the hair); Longing For Love (all dolled up and tarrying at the verandah, maybe waiting for a suitor to walk past); Meeting of the Eyes (courtship via the window sills of neighbours).

Like the Malay ditty, Ayo Mama, everything starts from the eye.

Dari mana datangnya lintah,

      Darilah sawah turun kepadi,

      Dari mana datangnya cinta,

      Darilah mata turun kehati

The cycle of joy-of-togetherness in union, separation and reunion is the litmus test of relationships. Like in old-fashioned movies, love-making is shown in an oblique way. The bird acts as a confidante and a messenger of love when lovers are separated by distance or circumstances. Sometimes, however, it is more crude, like a randy bull with an erect genital or mounting a cow in copulation

On his canvas, even fishes kiss (prohibited still in Bollywood celluloid pulp). While the ubiquitous banana fronds can be taken as a phallic assertion, the orientation of the frisking deer like those he must have seen in the holy Deer Park in Sarnath, is never in doubt.

Although love has been his perpetual dalliance, it was only in 2002, that he unveiled it as a central theme in the exhibition, ‘Seroja’ (Lotus, symbolizing water and beauty, and the triumph over adversity), with oil paintings and ink drawings, at Sutra Gallery which also hosted his 2004 solo, ‘Love and its Many Splendoured Images.’ His next solos, ‘Cinta Tercipta’ (And There is Love.), were held at the National Art Gallery (2006) and Pelita Hati Fine Art (2007). His last solo, ‘Paintings On Love’, was held at the KL Lifestyle Art Space, Kuala Lumpur, in 2010, which also produced a special eponymous catalogue.

His ink paintings are devoted exclusively to the love theme, with some inspired by the Rubaiyat quatrains of A Thousand and One Nights, the magnum opus of Persian philosopher, astronomer, mathematician, poet Omar Khayyam (1048-1131).

Love is also in the spiritual realm with the sublimity of spirit, in praise of God, the Tauhid supplication. Ka’aba (92cm x 92cm, 2011) evokes a blissful communion with the Almighty, while Moon Over Ramadan (127cm x 127cm) is a triumph of faith and abstinence, and Holy Book (61cm x 61cm, 2004) is about the Qur’anic ilm (knowledge) with a pious woman reading in a domed cubicle and receding colour spheres.

Syed Thajudeen also believes in using his art for direct good purpose: He donated works to help raise fund for the New Straits Times’ Art Aid for Mentally Handicapped Children in 1993, and the Art Friends for Haiyan (typhoon) Charity of the Philippines in 2013.


Identity and Nationalism

The shouts of Merdeka have stirred his patriotic spirit: the heroic flourish, the grand march-past and flag-waving jingoism – a great momentous portent.

On Merdeka day on August 31, 1957, Syed Thajudeen remembers his father taking him to the Esplanade which was a fairyland of buntings, fabricated arches, garlands of coloured light-bulbs, and flowers, especially images of the bunga raya (hibiscus, the national flower). Fireworks were let out. Gaiety and merriment were everywhere. Malays, Chinese, Indians, Eurasians and the other races celebrated the first symbolic blush of Independence. He was only 14, and it filled him with great pride, joy and mission.

Since 1960, he was to create a total of 10 works, so far, on the ‘Merdeka’ theme to celebrate this beatific moment. Works like Merdeka (244cm x 305cm, 2007), Jalur Gemilang (127cm x 127cm, 2002) and Negara Ku.


The Epics: A Sense for the Big Picture

Syed Thajudeen is a man of the big occasion, the Big Picture, who finds moral and historical truths from the rushes of the great epics like the nine-panelled Ramayana; the Mahabharata incorporating the Bhagavad Gita; the Malacca Sultanate; and Malay folklores like Puteri Gunung Ledang.

His stories are about the parallel worlds between God and Man, with the gods manifested in human forms for affinity and identification. They are about how ancient fables and homilies relate to, and transcend, contemporary life; a yearning for and recourse to, core traditional values that still drive the spirit and purpose of mankind, the ecstasy and eternal truth of life, and how the world revolves around it and willy-nilly, how it revolves the world.

These monumental pictorial narratives are truly his masterpieces not only because of the extraordinarily large formats but also the theme and subject. But unlike the frescoes of violent battles and strife like in Angkor Wat in Siem Reap in Cambodia, Syed Thajudeen opts for a romanticised version of the epics he adopted, filtering out and ignoring the less savoury and violent aspects.

A painting epic is also like a grand film still, if not moving at least spectacular. His first epic was Ramayana (72cm x 453cm, 1972, National Visual Arts Gallery collection) painted when he was still a student. It was first featured in the Dewan Sastera magazine in January 1975.

It details the brazen ‘Abduction of Sita’, the consort of Rama, the avatar of the Hindu God Vishnu, and the lascivious desires of the Lanka ogre, Ravana (Rawana). Sita, who is also the avatar of Lakshmi, stands as the paragon of feminine virtue and purity, but in the story she is the helpless maiden in distress and is shown in stoic anticipation of her rescue. The mythical bird, Jentayu, tries to stop Ravana but is mortally wounded but manages to inform Rama before its demise. Rama scours the forbidding Nigiri Mountains but to no avail.

Next is the episode of ‘Hanuman Visits Sita’ where the faithful ‘Monkey God’ manages to locate Sita in captivity in a secret garden hideout in Lanka, and hands her Rama’s ring to reassure her of Rama’s love and anxiety over her disappearance.

In the last episode, ‘Hanuman Burns Lanka,’ the immortal goes on the rampage with his elongated tail set on fire by Ravana’s underlings, using it as a ‘fiery’ weapon to lash and annihilate Lankapuri. In the final conflict between Rama and Rawana, the demon is subdued and imprisoned under a mountain, and Rama and Sita live happily ever after.

The Ramayana work reveals a more raw style of iconography. The figures look simian and primitive, and are less refined, set against a vegetal backdrop with an unusual veneer of algae-green and tawny-brown. This was a time when he used a panoply of semi-abstract cell-like pictorial system, and his colours were much darker, even sinister.

Next comes his Malacca Sultanate Series starting with The Beginning (Galeri Petronas collection, Kuala Lumpur). The original perished in a fire at the Bank Bumiputra building in Kuala Lumpur in 1976, and Syed Thajudeen decided to paint another, slightly modified and improved with the Srivijayan prince Parameswara seated and ensconced, instead of previously standing. Parameswara had fled a Majapahit naval invasion of Singapore, where he had reigned from between 1389-1398. When he arrived at the Bertam River (Malacca River) near the Pokok Melaka (phyllanthus emblica), he was inspired to set up his stronghold there when he saw a tiny mousedeer (pelanduk) chasing away a snarling hunting dog.

Also in the repertoire is the triptych, The Royal Barge (2005, 183cm x 450cm, 2005), showing him enjoying the opulent trappings of royalty as befitting a kingdom that prosperous.

The Advent of Islam (1982), is how Islam was promulgated to the Acheh Princess by the Arab traders.

Syed Thajudeen has always been fascinated with the rigours and rituals of Indian dance – the rhythm and poise of the dancing apsaras, the colourful costumes and body accessories with the jhumka earrings, bracelets and anklets in syncopated synch with the music. He expressed his love for it in two major works, the triptych Springmood 1 (183cm x 450cm, 2007) and the diptych Springmood 1I(230cm x 305cm, 2007), both celebrating the Odissi (sometimes known as Orissi), reputedly the oldest of the eight surviving dance forms in India.

In a triptych, Lightness of Being (the title probably taken from Milan Kundera’s novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but which was originally titled Joyful Ride, 138cm x 176cm, 1999), it has a woman apparently under water numbed in  deafening silence, dominating the whole canvas in Chagall-like[8] levitation. The woman is shown with her hair defying gravity, surrounded by fishes, a symbol of prosperity and harmony with marine life. Such independent human flotsam as a form of freedom is popular among Malaysian artists, with similar theme used in the works of Lee Kian Seng, Latif Maulan, Eng Hwee Chu and Shia Yih Yiing.

In India, exposures to Art, Architecture, Dance, Drama and Music were the norm in daily life, and Syed Thajudeen brings his love of music to a crescendo in      Irama Dan Lagu (183cm x 381cm, 1995), using gorgeous women musicians to strike a choral flourish, while playing traditional Malay musical instruments like the serunai, gedombak, rebab, kompang and gamelan. The composition is reminiscent of Chen Yi-fei (1946-2005) in his famous depiction of porcelain-skinned beauties as lady musicians. Individually, the woman musician also bears a graceful correlation with the lady musician sculptures of Thailand’s pioneer sculptor Khien Yimsiri (1922-1971).

Not all are about the grand narratives. The Fishermen (183cm x 381cm, 1995) extols the lot of the fishermen, happily catching fish at sea in a long boat, belying their fortitude and courage. It recalls Khalil Ibrahim’s eternal paean in to the tardy breed of fishermen of the East Coast.

Syed Thajudeen’s latest masterpiece is the Kapitan Keling Mosque (244cm x 457cm, 2015), a triumph of draughtsmanship with his usual colour spectrum. It was painted specially for his Retrospective as a tribute to Penang and its pioneering Chulia community.

The mosque, with its quaint domes, minarets and chhatris, was the first to have captivated and enraptured Syed Thajudeen on his first day in Penang the first time. “My father took me to the mosque for evening Magrib prayers. I was awestruck by the beauty of the monument, with its magnificent chandelier lighting up the prayer hall. What a blissful feeling!”

It is the oldest and one of the most iconic landmarks in Penang, its history intricately intertwined with the economic struggles of the Muslim community around the heritage enclave. It stood as the State Mosque until a modern edifice was built in Jalan Masjid Negeri (Greenlane) in 1980 to replace it, but its pre-eminence has never diminished. It was first acknowledged in the local map in 1798, when it was just attap-roofed and doubled as a burial ground for the Sepoy, Havildar, Jemadar Muslim troops of the East India Company.

It was built in 1801 by ‘Kapitan Keling’ Cauder Mohuddeen, a Marakkayar shipowner-merchant and the founder of the Merican Clan in Penang, on a 7-ha piece of land, and renovated in the 1910’s in a British Mughal Revival style with Mughal domes and turrets with the addition of a large minaret and a madrasah. Another renovation in 1930 saw the ceiling of the main prayer hall heightened twice, the ventilation improved with horseshoe arches in the interior aisles. In 2003, a covered walkway and a women’s ablution area were built and the recurring drainage problems rectified.

     The believers consist of Hadhrami Arabs, Malays and Indonesians (mainly Shafi’i), as well as North Indians (mainly Hanafi) and South Indians (both Hanafi and Shafi’I). At the Kapitan Kling Mosque, the imam leads prayers and the speaker (khatib) delivers sermons (khutbah) in both Malay and Tamil, reflecting a mixed-language congregation.[9]


The area is remarkable for the harmonious co-existence of the major houses of worships: The Kapitan Keling Mosque with the adjacent Acheen Street Mosque, the Taoist Kwan Im Teng Temple, the Sri Maha Mariamman Hindu Temple, the (Catholic) Church of the Assumption and the St George’s (Anglican) Church.


The Making of an Epic: Puteri Gunung Ledang

Syed Thajudeen has his own unique way of priming his canvas, a concept and weltanschauung remarkable for its simplicity and profoundity, and the Painted that is unique in iconography.

Much of the textural richness of his canvas comes from initial laborious daubs of woolen-puffs and streaky Pollock-like dripping lines from a fixed roulette of differently-coloured paints, overlapping and bleeding naturally, with judicious matchings, even sometimes juxtaposing two contrasting colours without the ‘jumping eyes’ syndrome. Yes, Syed Thajudeen is a consummate colourist with his own unique palette.

But the theme or the narrated is what makes his paintings tick.

His triptych, Eternal Love Between Hang Tuah and Puteri Gunung Ledang (183cm x 762cm, 2013) is given a ‘love-springs-eternal Romeo and Juliet’ treatment, taking up the version of the 2004 Saw Teong Hin-directed film starring Tiara Jacqueline and M. Nasir, who are caught in the lecherous design of Sultan Mahmud of Malacca.

The gulf or chasm of their unrequited love is subtly shown by the space between the protagonists, Hang Tuah on the left surrounded by ferocious protective tigers as befitting his warrior status, and Puteri Gunung Ledang with all the insignias of femininity on the right accompanied by a menagerie of tiny but quick-witted deer.

An ornate Taming Sari, the magical keris, is tucked in Hang Tuah’s waist-belt. But brave as he is, Hang Tuah is a functionary like the Japanese samurai with a Code of Bushido, with his overweening allegiance to State and Sultan, reneging his own desire and love for the princess. True to form, actually, as he on the Sultan’s orders, killed his own friend Hang Jebat, who stood up for him when the Sultan ordered Tuah to be killed.



Syed Thajudeen makes no pretence that the world he chose for his canvas, even the fantasy ones, is one antiseptised, lavishly romanticised, hunky-dory, sugar and spice and everything nice. He prefers to see the manna-dripping goodness of things, the humanism and positivism in the epic tales rather than the gory eternal battles between Good and Evil. He is a dream merchant and weaver of Love, the Sultan of Love on canvas in his fervent belief that Love, not force, not intimidation, not even Art (the art of love maybe), conquers all and is the elixir of life.

His believes in seeing past today’s fractious, fragmented world to one of utopia of happy co-existence, the joie de vivre, among Man – of various ethnic origins, persuasions, sexuality, races and religion; Nature (his environment) and the fauna – birds, animals and undersea creatures.

He conceded as much: “My paintings act like a tranquiliser shielding the world from (inherent) tensions.”

He celebrates Man, through his figurations, for all his good attributes and achievements and in all its glory, for the culture and songs, ingenuity and wit – with the blessings of the Almighty. The popular fables and folklores, myths and legends are perpetual cautionary tales, entry-points and parallel-world truths about leading a fulfilling life for the good of humanity, if not for oneself.

Like some kind of divine road-map, his artistic development is planned and fortuitous, with his being at places at the right time during happenings – national independence, cusp of changes, artistic and the alchemy of cultures.  He is one with a purpose, mission and vision, accepting that painting is a lonesome laborious pursuit. He works by series, and when gainfully employed, he painted on weekends and during holidays, sacrificing his leisure time.

He imbibes, and sees, Tradition and Change – the tensions and mutual efficacy.

He has a fine eye for detail, with a ponderous finicky work habit to match, not only in the technical renditions but also the overall composition, resolution and appreciation.

Romantic as he may seem, he’s not the starry-eyed acolyte imbibing like a sponge, but one with an independent, even stubborn spirit, with a vision of a New World after absorbing, filtering, digesting, assimilating and capturing the essence of the moment in an image crucible.

The Woman is sacrosanct in his repertoire, emanating energy and her body is nothing sexual but one imbued with aesthetic values if a little sensual.

His workplace and his art is him. Meticulous, finicky, neat, tidy, clean and orderly – like the way he dresses. Never a dirty brush or muddy paint waters. Even his beard is well coiffured.

In colours and lines, he has shown his forte. He understands colours and light, like Paul Klee[10], with the golden hued/gold-leafed tapestry of Gustave Klimt[11] and whiffs of the surrealism of Chagall. His strong languid lines can best be summed up by Klee too: “A drawing is simply a line going for a walk. A line is a dot that went for a walk.”

He is more than just a raconteur of ancient legends and myths, of God and Man.

The ‘Indian art-and-culture condition’ of his early years forms a rich bedrock of heritage in adding nuances and multihued dimensions to his repertoire, one unique for its blend of Indian-Muslim underpinnings and richly added with dollops of Malaysian flavours.

Yet, there is always some mystery, even mystical stub at the tip of the tongue, for the tension and curiosity. “You must not reveal everything. You must cover something to arouse curiosity,” he told me once in 1988

In his art and life, Syed Thajudeen is more than an artist, poet and philosopher. He is a magician.



[1]  Salma Nasution, Khoo,“ The Chulia in Penang: Patronage and Place-Making Around the Kapitan Kling Mosque, 1786-1957”, Areca Books, 2014, pg 7

[2] Marco Hsu a.k.a Ma Ge,  A Brief History of Malayan Art (translated by Lai Chee Kien, 1999):

[3] Joshua Gallery was owned by Joshua S.Paul

[4] Adrien Jean Le Mayeur de Merpres  (9 February 1880 – 31 May 1958) was a Belgian painter from Brussels who lived the last part of his life in Bali.

[5] Cheong Soo Pieng was a Singaporean artist who was a pioneer of the Nanyang art style, and a driving force to the development of Modernism in visual art in the early 20th-century Singapore. He was also known for his signature depiction of Southeast Asian indigenous tribal people with elongated limbs and torso, almond-shaped faces and eyes in his paintings.

[6] Ooi Kok Chuen, “ An Artist’s Story, New Straits Times, August 17, 2002

[7] 1) Nandalal Bose was one of the pioneers of modern Indian art and a key figure of Contextual Modernism. A pupil of Abanindranath Tagore, Bose was known for his “Indian style” of painting. He became the principal of Kala Bhavan, Santiniketan in 1922.

2) Abanindranath Tagore was the principal artist and creator of ‘Indian Society of Oriental Art’ and the first major exponent of swadeshi values in Indian art

3) Sir William Rothenstein was an English painter, printmaker, draughtsman and writer on art. He is best known for his work as a war artist in both world wars and as a portrait artist

4) Lady Christina Herringham was a British artist, copyist, and art patron. She is noted for her part in establishing the National Art Collections Fund in 1903 to help preserve Britain’s artistic heritage.

[8] Marc Zakharovich Chagall was a Russian-French artist. Art critic Robert Hughes referred to Chagall as “the quintessential Jewish artist of the twentieth century

[9] Salma, Nasution, Khoo, “The Chulia In Penang, Patronage and Place-Making Around the Kapitan Kling Mosque, 1786-1957”, Areca Books, 2014, pg 21

[10] Paul Klee was a Swiss-German painter. His highly individual style was influenced by movements in art that included expressionism, cubism, and surrealism. (1879-1940)

[11] Gustav Klimt was an Austrian symbolist painter and one of the most prominent members of the Vienna Secession movement. Klimt is noted for his paintings, murals, sketches, and other objects d’art (1862-1918)