This Sunday sees Hindu devotees celebrating a key date in the Malaysian calendar. Bringing together people from around the world, Thaipusam is a time of astonishing devotion.
A Hindu festival celebrated in January or February each year, mainly by the Tamil-speaking community, Thaipusam sees devotees seeking blessings, fulfilling vows and paying tribute to Lord Murugan, a son of Hindu god Shiva. The festival lasts several days, transcending caste and culture, and celebrations in the Malaysian state of Penang are expected to attract 1.2 million people this year!
Thaipusam is celebrated across both India and Malaysia. In Malaysia, some of the most famous celebrations take place at the Batu Caves, 13km from the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur. The celebrations here start early; before the sun rises, thousands of devotees will travel with a statue of Lord Murugan to the caves in a grand procession. Worshippers mark their devotion in different ways. Some carry pots of milk on their head during the long procession to the caves; others pierce their skin with metal skewers and hooks. The latter may be attached to a heavy ornate structure called a kavadi, which the worshipper carries towards the caves as a sign of faith or penance. The festival of Thaipusam is not for the faint of heart.
With Hinduism a massive religion inside and outside Malaysia, it’s probably not surprising that the deep-thinking artist Ahmad Zakii Anwar has touched upon Hinduism in his work. He explores the Hindu priests’ cleansing ritual in his charcoal triptych ‘Devotees,’ created in 2008. The works when displayed at government-run Petronas Gallery, prompted some controversy along social and religious lines. An incident like this highlights the fraught places that artists – and curators – can find themselves navigating in different social spaces. Beyond issues of boundaries regarding creative expression, lie issues of interpretation of works of art and artist intent. What social values are at stake? What is really being threatened when backlash occurs?
As Thaipusam gets underway this weekend, we would hope that the festival is understood for its positive aspects: a passionate collective outpouring of faith, as individuals seek to connect with one another and with their inner, spiritual selves – a noble goal, perhaps, in present times all too defined by material and divisive identities. This notion of transcendence of self, of ego, is something we dig into when trying to understand Zakii’s art: how he visualises his own emotions and spiritual journey on paper and canvas.
You’ll be able to see how firsthand when our film is released soon; in the meantime, be sure to follow us on social media, and let us know if you’re attending the Thaipusam celebrations anywhere in the world. We’d love to hear about your experiences!