Sunday August 19, 2012
Thou art woman
By LOUISA LIM
After battling scepticism and stereotyping for close to 50 years, a veteran artist’s efforts finally pay off.
I READ that the Indonesians see painting as a spiritual act,” says Sivam Selvaratnam, at her studio in Damansara Heights, Kuala Lumpur. “They always say a prayer before they begin.”
While the 75-year-old artist does not subscribe to the same belief, she admits there is an unknown force that propels her each time she takes to the easel.
“It’s very much a spontaneous thing for me. I derive bliss from it,” she says.
Sivam’s freewheeling techniques have resulted in over a hundred vivid abstracts both large and small. Her best images, which depict immense and impersonal forms in a riot of colours, are currently on show in an exhibition titled Rapt In Maya at Universiti Malaya, KL.
Even more compelling than the paintings, however, is the painter herself, who was draped in a pretty saffron-and-olive sari on the day of this interview.
It’s an unconventional choice of attire for someone known for her diverse and modern art works, some of which are in the permanent collections of the National Art Gallery, Universiti Malaya, Bank Negara and the United States Embassy in Kuala Lumpur.
“My friend’s children say, ‘I can’t believe you’re an artist!’ They think I’m a housewife because of the way I dress,” says Sivam, laughing.
“They” are sorely mistaken, of course. Any insight into her long but patchy career is pertinent to the history of Malaysian art.
Even as a child growing up in Kajang, Selangor, Sivam’s artistic flair surpassed that of her peers. “My teachers constantly praised my work,” she recalls.
Her conservative Hindu parents, however, were none too delighted because an artist didn’t have the same cachet as, say, a doctor or lawyer in those days. “They refused to send me to art school so I took up a teacher training course, with art as an option.”
Not prepared to give up her passion, she worked as a teacher but looked for avenues to further her talent during her free time. Salvation came in the unlikely form of a flamboyant Englishman called Peter Harris, the-then Art Superintendent of the Federation of Malaya. Harris formed the Wednesday Art Group in 1952, which anyone with an interest in art could join, regardless of age, gender or race.
Not surprisingly, Sivam, who was in her early 20s then, jumped at the chance. Every week, her brothers would escort her to the evening classes, where the group would hold frequent, and often lively, discussions about art. She calls it one of the “most rewarding experiences” of her life.
“I was one of the first few people to join, together with Ismail Mustam, Patrick Ng, Cheong Lai Tong, (Datuk) Mustapha Mahmud and Renee Kraal. Peter would throw these big parties in the evenings but my curfew was always 10pm. The experience changed me nevertheless! It helped shape my perceptions of art and broadened my artistic vision.”
Sivam eventually won an art scholarship to England, but turned it down because of her parents. She married a few years after that. One would expect her career to end before it had even begun, but her husband, Dr Viswanathan Selvaratnam, wasn’t having any of it.
“He thought we should fulfil our ambitions so we both gave up our jobs to study in Manchester (Britain). I pursued a degree in art while he did his PhD.”
It was the swinging Sixties, when people wore strange outfits, experimented with even stranger chemical stimulants, joined protests against the Vietnam War and generally rejected authority.
“I never went through a wild artist phase because I felt it wasn’t necessary to put on an exaggerated personality to fit in. I didn’t mind mingling with people who did though,” says Sivam, with a mischievous smile.
This new youth revolution was felt across film, music, fashion and, of course, art.
“Music was the unifying factor then. I would always rush home at 7.30pm on Thursdays to catch Top Of The Pops,” she says.
Fascinated by the parallels between music and art, she began to draw inspiration from her own musical influences whenever she painted. She used classical Indian music by Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan as an artistic anchor and, for her final-year project, centred her work on sound and movement in colour and form.
“I find their music hypnotic and intense, sometimes overwhelmingly so. They conjure images in my mind and put me in a certain singleness of mood,” she says of the two maestros.
However, her burning desire to become an artist was short-lived. When she returned to Asia, raising a family became her number one priority. “I didn’t really have the opportunity to concentrate on my painting. In a way, my life has always been overpowered by family.”
Life for her became a cycle of complacency until 2002, when she fell gravely ill while on a family vacation in Pangkor. The doctor’s prognosis was grave.
“He said it would be a miracle if I lived. There were times when I lay in bed thinking that my days were over. I went through hell,” she recalls.
But every cloud has a silver lining, and while Sivam hasn’t entirely recovered from her illness (she has a pacemaker that helps control abnormal heart rhythms), the medical ordeal re-ignited her passion for art.
“Sikkil Gurucharan and Anil Srinivasan’s song, the Colour Of Rain, helped me get back on my feet and paint,” she says, before adding, “Art puts me in a state where I forget about my body and focus instead on colour and canvas. It’s therapy.”
She now works on linear figurative studies juxtaposed with nature, as well as blending energised yantras – divine geometric elements – with music.
Take her stylised interpretation of the Gayathri Mantra, which featured in a recent exhibition called My Prayer, for instance. The geometric shapes in a vertical row, with wispy streaks of colour running through them, radiate inner peace and imbue the space around them with a calm energy. It is an accurate reflection of the artist’s present state of being.
Sivam, however, refuses to name her paintings because she wants her audience to think. “That’s the main idea of going to galleries, isn’t it?” she says.
In a sense, Rapt In Maya – her first exhibition after many years, and it coincides with her 50th wedding anniversary – is like a homecoming.
It was launched last Wednesday by Royal Professor Ungku Aziz, who officiated at her debut solo at the British Council in KL in the 1970s.
Sivam is cool about the prospect of addressing a new generation of art viewers and collectors.
“Now that I’ve gone through the worst, I’d like nothing more than to carry on painting,” she says matter-of-factly.
> Rapt In Maya is on at the Universiti Malaya Art Gallery (UMAG) till Sept 15. Opening hours are 9am to 5pm, Mon-Fri. Closed on weekends and public holidays. For enquiries, call 03-7957 1061.