MALAYSIA'S OWN MODERNIST
TRIBUTE FROM A SULTAN
Fishing, Chendering 1955
In British Malaya monochrome or black and white photography as a genre was confined to salon photography offered by commercial photo studios, where families went to have their portraits taken. Outside the studio, the photographer was merely a technician employed to capture births, weddings, funerals and other rites of passage. Non-commercial photography began to establish itself in Malaya only after World War II. With the onset of peace, a new approach to photography slowly gathered momentum in the 1950s. Increased prosperity allowed it to flourish. But it was limited to the privileged because of the exorbitant cost of the camera.
HRH the late Sultan Ismail Nasiruddin Shah of Terengganu (1907-1979) had picked up early photographic skills from a Japanese expatriate photographer in the 1930s. After attending the coronation of King George VI in London in 1937, he made a commitment to take up photography seriously upon his return to Malaya. The war however disrupted his work. After the war, the Sultan continued giving the skill more impetus by becoming the founding patron of the Malaysian Photographic Society. He was an accomplished developer and owned a private dark room, which rivalled the most professional laboratories of the time. The Sultan also learnt how to use sunlight to print his own photographic images. A Leica was his favourite camera and he shot some of the earliest colour images of Malaya. For indoor shots he used a German-made camera, the Plaubel, whose generic name was 'Peco'. In the 1960s he favoured a Linhof.
The Sultan was an amateur who, in his own way, became a pioneer of Malaysian photography. In a rare departure from usual practice, he photographed his world as he saw it - spontaneously. It was the starting point for an innovative approach to photography in post-war Malaya. He pursued an untried method and fostered a fresh understanding of the complex visual field that was the Malaya of the 1950s. In photographic imagery the world of Malaya suddenly became a medium that was able to reveal more than what was seen by the naked eye.
The 50 images chosen for this exhibition span the 1950s and comprise, amongst others, idyllic rural scenes and domestic activities from his home state of Terengganu, where he was Sultan for 34 years. Lining the northeast coast of Malaya and bounded by the South China Sea, Terengganu was at one time a tributary of mighty Siam with whom an extensive maritime trade existed. The plantation economy was its base, rice cultivation and fishing being two of its main economic activities. Fishing methods characteristic of the state included the 'pulling net' (pukat tarek) and 'net fishing' (pukat jala) generally a communal activity executed in a cooperative spirit (gotong royong). Images where the elements of water, sun and sand come together are poignant, especially the stark contrast human figures on the shoreline created when shot against the light.
The Sultan had an affinity for little people. Rice harvesters performing a dance of thanks for a bountiful harvest in 'Pesta Menuai', Kuala Berang (1958), menfolk wrestling in the art of self-defence, 'Silat Gayong' (1953) or children playing on the strand are among his themes. Of singular importance is the portrait 'Mariam', Kampung Rusila (1957), part of a portfolio of images sent by the Sultan to London. It won him the accolade of being the first Malay photographer to be accredited an Associate of the Royal Photographic Society (ARPS) in 1958. In 'Mariam', he captures the epitome of Malay womanhood in the Terengganu weaver, an essay on a lifetime of dedication to the craft of mengkuang (pandanus leaf) mats.
Malay agrarian society is also portrayed. Terengganu was the only state in the Malay Federation not accessible by train in the 1950s and transportation within its rural confines was limited to the river (sungai). A vital resource, the river boat (sampan) was essential for voyages downstream to villages (kampung) and markets. Boats, whether at sea, on the river or moored at the shoreline are a conspicuous subject. One navigating the river has an umbrella (payung) shading its passenger. Indeed the umbrella was a recurring theme. New technological developments also feature in his work. Planes were a rarity. When the aircraft of the Federation Air Service referred to as an 'iron bird', made its first appearance in Terengganu, it created quite a revelation. In one image the Sultan depicts his entourage in traditional attire, equipped with tiffin carriers, about to embark on the weekly noon flight to the capital, Kuala Lumpur.
The 1950s were a time of social renewal in British Malaya. The Communist Emergency was receding and life was slowly returning to normal. Outside his home state, the thriving urban centres fascinated the Sultan, including the capital, Kuala Lumpur. The social fabric that was post-war Malaya is immortalised. As a social document of an ethnically plural society, images unfold of the indigenous Malay, immigrant Chinese and Indian communities living and working side by side. Particularly taken by the buzz of markets, the Sultan was privy to the popular culture of tropical street life. Around the Central Market, street barbers, moneychangers, poultry and flower vendors of all racial complexities go about their daily chores. The umbrella features again in nearby Chinatown where multiple umbrellas shade itinerant fruit vendors. The Mamak (Indian Muslim) vendor at the entrance to the Batu Caves operating what is known as the ubiquitous 'pulled tea' (teh tarik) stall is almost a ritual object.
The lull after the WWII saw 1950s Malaya embarking on building a credible infrastructure. Large-scale developments in the Malay peninsula, including the operating of the first port, Port Swettenham (later Port Klang), and the first international airport at Sungai Besi, as well as the expansion of the Malayan Railways otherwise known as KTM (Keretapi Tanah Melayu) are all documented.
However, landscapes of the verdant countryside reflect a slow and leisured pace of life, untouched by the outside world have not been ignored. The mirror-like reflection of the lakes of Taiping, bucolic scenes of village life and those of the Terengganu horizon feature water again as a dominant element. Through the prism of photography, the Sultan has managed to leave an enduring legacy of 1950's Malaya as a fitting prelude to the end of Empire. Tribute from a Sultan: Photographic Compositions from HRH Sultan Ismail Nasiruddin Shah is at Elm Quay Fine Arts, 368-B Jalan Tun Razak, 50400 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia until 18 October, tel. + 603-2161-5260, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Asian Art Newspaper, London
BUSINESS TIMES, Singapore
24 October 1997