As you walk into Kuala Lumpur’s Sutra Gallery, you can practically feel a certain warmth and charm flowing in the room.
Visual artist Sivarajah Natarajan’s latest solo exhibition Atma seems to get the most out of this gallery space.
Each of his mixed-media works, meticulously detailed and composed, exude strong and personable characteristics.
In this Atma series, Sivarajah uses a combination of photographs, paintings and texts. The multi-talented artist, now in his third solo exhibition, is concentrating purely on mixed media and there are no sculptures.
If you look closer at the paintings, you will find wise sayings framed up from poets, philosophers and ancient writings.
Verses from Persian poet Rumi, National Laureate Usman Awang or even lyrics from the Thiruvasagam (ancient Tamil hymns) are featured.
In a recent interview at Sutra Gallery, Sivarajah, 51, picks up the conversation on how his art has distilled influences from ancient myths, great heroes, tragic tales and inspiring fables. From paintings to poems, the artist’s latest visual language is joyous and inspirational.
In the past, Sivarajah, born and bred in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur, created many of his works from his observations of traditional Indian dance movements.
A cursory glance at all 30 of his new works would reveal how heavily elements derived from classic literature have stirred this man’s art.
The exhibition title Atma is closely tied to atman, a Sanskrit word that means inner-self or soul.
“There is atma in the ancient myths, legends and even in the poems. What I’m trying to do is to find and connect with the atma – or the semangat (spirit) – from these stories and poems. I want to put them into my paintings, to add life to the art,” says Sivarajah.
Elements from wayang kulit theatre and other Eastern cultures have also found a place in Sivarajah’s works.
As someone closely associated to the Sutra Gallery community, Sivarajah adds that the Datuk Ramli Ibrahim-helmed arts and dance centre has given him a source of inspiration, especially with the presence of clasical Indian dancers, choreographers and artists energising the venue.
The lush greenery and Zen calm atmosphere of the Sutra House’s surroundings have also played a part.
“I took it all to a different level. My works are dreamy and surreal. It may not make sense or even look bizarre, but that’s okay because being an artist, you don’t have to justify whether something is right or wrong,” says Sivarajah, mentioning how even the Sutra House pet cat made it into one of his works in Atma.
As a tribute to this now dead cat, Sivarajah created a work called Kalpana. The 76cm x 152cm artwork features a striped ginger cat. The work’s turquoise background, filled with Balinese motifs and traditional designs, gives it a striking visual appeal. Next to the cat is an image of a Chinese guardian. It almost feels like a comforting farewell to an old friend.
His painting Gadis Sumba is inspired by Indonesian poet/writer Goenawan Mohamad’s work Puisi Untuk Frida Kahlo.
“I was reading that poem from Goenawan and I knew I had to create a work from it. Frida Kahlo (a Mexican artist) always made paintings that were inspired by the natural landscape of Mexico such as palm trees and banana trees. That is why I used the banana trees in that painting and the female subject in Gadis Sumba is a helper that works at the Sutra House,” reveals Sivarajah.
Tok Rebab features a familiar face and friend. He’s someone Sivarajah has worked with through the years in the traditional arts circles.
“That’s Kamrul (Mohd Kamrulbahri Hussin) from Kelantan. He is a traditional musician and a puppeteer,” he adds.
At Sutra Gallery, Sivarajah has also presented solo shows like Ahimsa (2013) and The Crowning Glory (2016), which featured his Asian experience with figures from the Mahabharata and its derivative dance works.
Sivarajah, who is Sutra House’s resident set and lighting designer, says the idea to add texts to Atma’s paintings came during one of Sutra’s dance show rehearsals.
“At this show, I designed the backdrop work and we projected words on it. And at one point the dancers were on stage and I thought it was quite interesting that the dancers were nearly camouflaged, covered with the projected words.
“So I thought why not take this idea further and give it a different dimension through my art,” says Sivarajah, who won the Boh Cameronian Arts Award in 2009 for Best Lighting Design (for Sutra’s Rasa Unmasked).
Sivarajah has been a part of Sutra since 1992, evolving through the years as set designer, artist, photographer and art curator.
Atma is on at the Sutra Gallery, 12, Jalan Persiaran Titiwangsa 3 in Kuala Lumpur till Dec 31. Opening hours: 9am-5pm. Monday-Friday (public). Saturday-Sunday (by appointment). For more info, call 03 4021 1092 or visit sutrafoundation.org.my.