The year was 1954 when a gangly boy eyes filled with wonder, stepped foot onto Penang soil for the first time at age 11. Born and raised in the village of Alagan Kulam in Tamil Nadu, India, Syed Thajudeen Shaik Abu Talib didn’t know much about Malaya except that his parents fled the country to spare him from brutally during the Second World War. When his family finally decided that it will safe to return back to Malaya, the young Thajudeen was overwhelmed by the tropical hues and the humidity of the more equatorial climes. While the potpourri and pageantry of multi-religious festivals captured his attention to the diversity that is offered in Malaya, the distinctive hybrid of the Peranakan clan as well as the Chittys were the tipping point that opened up his view to Asia’s marvel; and later, to his art.
The next 12 years, Thajudeen studied in the Indian-Muslim enclave of Little India near the waterfront under the iconic shadow of Masjid Kapitan Keling. Growing up at the heartbeat and catalyst of an increasingly prospering Penang, Thajudeen then became interested in art and showed a poster-colour work of the baju kebaya with its intricate patterns in his first exhibition, a group event, at the Penang State Art Gallery (PSAG) in 1965.
In 1968, Thajudeen went back to India to study Fine Arts at the Government College of Fine Arts (formerly known as the Government School of Industrial Arts) in Chennai after doing his pre-university studies on Humanities. When he came back in 1974, he worked part-time at the Mara Institute of Technology (now Universiti ITM), teaching Textile Design and Figure-drawing till 1976 before a short spell in advertising. It was also during that period that he had the first of his nine solos at the PSAG in 1975, after which he became a “resident artist” with the United Asian Bank (later Bank of Commerce, Bumi-Commerce Bank and, presently CIMB Bank) before opting out to become a full-time artist in 2001.
Can you describe your technique as an artist?
As a student of art in India, part of the education program is to travel all over India visiting monuments, temples and museums. My visit to the Ajanta and Ellora Caves of Maharashtra was a turning point in my artistic development. The Buddhist Jataka tales were grandly painted and depicted on the cave walls centuries ago. This is where I have appropriated and adapted the miasmic golden-earth colours as a leitmotif in my canvas with painstaking woollen-puff daubs and Pollockian drips. The mock Ajanta-Ellora palette is infused with an admixture of yellow ochre, burnt sienna, raw umber, moss green, gamboge, alizarin, permanent rose, sap green, olive green and crimson lake to imitate the rustic cave paintings.
Is there a reason as to why you emphasised the eyes and the lips of the figures?
In this part of the world in Southeast Asia, we have prominent eyes and lips. However, the nose is rather flat. That is why I emphasise the eyes and protruding lips to signify my Asian roots and depicting Asian characters in my paintings.
With over 50 years of experience, how would you describe the progress of your work throughout the years?
My work has evolved through time. As a student, I drew inspiration from Paul Klee and had a penchant for cubism. My colours used to be dark and contrast while my subjects were experimental. As I progressed in my career as an artist, I started delving into many series of works from the epics to love, Merdeka, spiritualism, the origin of mankind and traditional costumes such as the Kebaya and Cheongsam. My colours also grew brighter and more vibrant. It is my way of creating joy for those viewing my painting.
What is the process like when you are working on a piece?
It always starts by getting an itch to do the next big painting. Then, I would start to look for subjects suitable for the big canvas. The Kapitan Keling Mosque, a 15-feet painting was inspired by my recent Retrospective held at the Penang State Museum on invitation by the state government. The mosque is a place very close to my heart as I used to visit it frequently as a boy in Penang with my father. I studied the architecture vigorously and drew the image on canvas. It requires passion, patience and dedication. My style of painting is not for the lazy man.
Of all the artwork you have seen in the world, which is your favourite?
The Ajanta cave paintings which date back from the second century BCE to about 480 or 650 CE. My first visit to the caves in Maharashtra was in my second year in art school. Travelling was part of our syllabus to learn the Indian culture, heritage, history and the arts. My first thought upon entering the caves was if these were truly man-made. It was magnificent. The caves were intricately carved and was filled with frescoes from top to bottom. It was really a sight to behold.
Frescoes are paintings which are done on wet plaster in which colours become fixed as the plaster dries. The Ajanta’s frescoes have a special importance of their own. They are found on the walls and ceilings in the cave. The paintings reflect different phases of Indian culture from Jain Tirthankar Mahaveer’s birth to his nirvana in the 8th Century AD.
I realised as an Asian, we are so deeply entrenched in arts and culture that it can enable us to produce such magnificent artworks so early in time. It made me look deep within myself and my roots for inspiration rather than aping the West.
Looking back, what are some of the things you would have done differently?
My first solo was in 1972. My second was in the 90s. It was a gap of 20 years. However, I was doing a lot of group shows locally and internationally during the period. Looking back, I could have done more solo exhibitions.
Which piece of art would you say has encapsulated the true essence of you?
The Ramayana was a 25-feet painting depicting the tales of Rama, Ravana, Sita and Hanuman. It took me about three years to complete this nine-panel painting. I started it after my visit to the Ajanta caves. I was truly inspired and was searching for an epic tale to be put on canvas. Kamban’s Ramayana came to mind. It was a path of self-discovery, as I had to study the literature, the tales of hardship, good and evil to be able to translate the epic tale on canvas. The painting was my first mural piece, completed in 1972, and is now in the collection of the National Visual Art Gallery.
Which is the most challenging art piece you have ever created?
The Eternal Love between Hang Tuah & Puteri Gunung Ledang. Composing the characters with the tigers and deer on 6 panels was a very big challenge. It was the longest to complete (3 years to be exact).
Do you have any advice for the younger generation artists?
It’s not about getting fame and fortune but a contribution to the culture and heritage of the community and country. It requires dedication and commitment. Today you graduate, you cannot become Picasso tomorrow. It just doesn’t happen. So, find your signature style and be consistent.