“To die will be an awfully big adventure.” So wrote J.M. Barrie in Peter Pan. The sentiment seems borne out in Rajinder Singh’s latest solo exhibition, which addresses the artist’s own inevitable demise with both a sense of awe and intimacy.
Imposing icon paintings share the space with introspective triptychs and kaleidoscopic abstracts, creating an immersive experience that draws on both Asian spirituality and Western art traditions.
“I’m preparing for my death,” Rajinder says, explaining the overarching theme of his show, Cage Of Deliverance (currently on at Wei-Ling Contemporary gallery, Kuala Lumpur).
Turning 50 two years ago catalysed the exploration of the subject. “You trundle through life convinced of your own immortality, and then it hits you. So this show is concerned with my impending and unavoidable death. It’s about preparing myself physically, spiritually, and mentally for what is to come.”
To do so, Rajinder found himself turning to his past. Having grown up in Tanjong Rambutan, he left Malaysia at the age of 18, and is now a full-time artist based in London. The works in Cage Of Deliverance, however, are very much a product of his early years here.
“Memories are a very important part of anticipating the end. Where you came from becomes more and more important as you get older,” he says.
The initial inspiration for the collection, in fact, came from even further in the past; specifically, a water-damaged photograph of his grandfather.
“There he was, in full British army regalia, standing like a demigod. He was no longer here, but there was a power to that image he had left behind. I wanted to build myself something that would allow me to see death as a way for the spirit to triumph over the body,” says Rajinder.
To do this, he, perhaps unsurprisingly, found himself drawn back to the spiritual experiences of his youth.
“I took my past, and turned not to one god, but to fragments of gods, ceremonies, and sacred spaces I remember. I wanted some song and ceremony of my own making to see me off. And I decided that I wanted to focus on one specific parade of pageantry from my childhood: the vel kavadi,” he says, referring to how devotees of the Hindu god Murugan often carry a large structure attached to the body with skewers pierced into the skin, typically during the festival of Thaipusam.
“The vel kavadi both entranced and scared me when I was young. And as I thought about this exhibition, I started wondering about the connection between the mortification of the flesh, purification, and spiritual release. I see the kavadi as the cages of deliverance.”
It was important to Rajinder that the kavadi was present in his works not just as a motif but on every level. For this, he did extensive research on vel kavadi carrying. He built a model of a kavadi in his workshop to put on so as to understand how it felt on his body.
He also painstakingly learnt how to gild because he wanted to use gold leaf on the silkscreen paintings.
“Silver and gold kept figuring in my imagination of the kavadi,” he says. “I also used powder in all the pieces, which was inspired by the vibuthi (sacred ash) used in Hindu rituals.”
In many ways, one can see how his 2014 show, … the ceiling floats away with a sigh …, evolved into Cage Of Deliverance; where the former dealt with transitional spaces and the connection of the material world to the uncertainty beyond, the latter is much more concerned with transcending the physical world completely.
But rather than dealing with abstracts, the current exhibition uses the corporeal to hint at the metaphorical.
Rajinder’s background in engineering and mathematics is apparent in the way he translates philosophical concepts into his works of art. It is visible in the rigour and precision of the works, in the focus on lines and geometry, and in the way the elements in each piece lock together just so.
Familiar kavadi silhouettes and the peacock feathers sacred to Murugan frame incongruous figures, suggesting both a caged existence and the potential for freedom.
The triptychs, Rajinder explains, are a coming together of three parts of a whole: his idea of god, his sacred space, and the abstract notions that bind the two.
In other pieces, symmetrical Rorschach Test-like motifs coalesce, as you stare at them, into aerial views of a kavadi procession – chaos and order merged into one.
When asked how creating the pieces in the exhibition have changed his approach to death, Rajinder says he personally found the theory and philosophy behind the works more transformative than the process itself.
“Will I now die not thrashing? I don’t know. But working on this show has opened up my thinking, my language, and my mind when it comes to death.”
Cage Of Deliverance is on at Wei-Ling Contemporary, RT01 6th Floor, The Gardens Mall in Kuala Lumpur till Sept 30. Info: Call 03-2282 8323/03-2260 1106. Visit: weiling-gallery.com.