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07 December 2011

Asian giants renew courtship

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By Karim Raslan

India and Indonesia, whose historical and cultural relationship spans the millennia, are fast regaining interest in each other, with Indian investment in Indonesia growing from some RM36mil in 2007 to RM138mil last year.

Art shows are often pretentious affairs but the recently-opened Jogja Biennale (the city’s 11th) is held together by an unflinching curatorial focus.

Only two countries are highlighted – India and Indonesia – and there’s only one theme: religiosity.

The ensuing result is an exciting and revelatory survey of art and contemporary concerns from two of Asia’s largest nations – one predominantly Hindu, the other Muslim, yet both avowedly secular.

Interestingly, the art from both countries is resolutely centrist and plural.

Concerns about extremism and bigotry are interspersed with pleas for tolerance and mutual understanding with a sideways glance at the gradual erosion of traditional folklore.

These preoccupations are apparent whether in the video installations of Akiq Aw and Krisnanmurti or the raw concrete work of Indian artist N.S. Harsha.

Akiq’s offering is particularly fascinating.

Consisting of a blurry video in a darkened room, it’s an exploration of the shadowy world between faiths that is both haunting and yet strangely banal as a nondescript man recounts his personal journey from Islam to Christianity.

Later, a woman describes her path in the opposite direction.

To my mind (but maybe I’m biased as a long-time Biennale supporter), the ambitiousness and sheer bravado of the venture is quite enthralling.

I like the way that artists, wri-ters and curators from both countries have come together, dispensing with the accepted metropolitan centres of supposed excellence.

London, Paris and New York are forgotten as the art displayed creates its own intriguing linkages and juxtapositions between Yogyakarta, Jakarta, Mumbai, Mysore and Del­hi.

Still, the real surprise was the enormous number of art lovers at the Biennale’s opening night.

With thousands cramming into the Jogja National Museum (most of them young students), the city displayed its dynamism and openness to the arts.

As the Indian co-curator Suman Gopinath told me: “The sheer number of people is amazing.

“Besides that, the Biennale shows what you can achieve with limited funds and infrastructure.”

According to the director of the Biennale Foundation running the operations, the next Biennale will focus on an Arab nation.

As Egypt goes through the throes of its own reformasi, I only hope that it’ll be the chosen country, providing a fascinating counterpoint to Indonesia.

Of course, the bonds between India and Indonesia will be hard to equal.

The ties between the two are profound and deep – deeper indeed than the bonds that link Indonesia with China.

Moreover, on the south-facing plains of Central Java with Mount Merapi as a silent sentinel, the historical and cultural traces of the relationship – Prambanan and Borobudur – remain as haunting presences of an interaction that has spanned the millennia.

In more modern times, India and Indonesia had supported each other’s independence movements.

Furthermore, in the 1950s and 60s, Sukarno and Jawaharlal Nehru were the twin pillars of the Non-Aligned Movement.

Now, after decades of less intense relations, India and Indonesia are fast regaining interest in each other, as the Biennale demonstrates.

The rebuilding of ties is moving at an even faster-pace business-wise. Indian investment in Indonesia has almost quadrupled from some US$11.6mil (RM36mil) in 2007 to US$44mil (RM138mil) last year.

Indeed, another US$25bil (RM78bil) worth of investments from India to the republic are in the pipeline, including from giants such as the Tata, Reliance and Aditya Birla Groups.

On the obverse, Indonesian coal stalwart Bumi PLC has predicted that India will overtake China as its largest customer by as early as 2012, fuelled by growing consumer demand for energy.

Thus, the Biennale undercurrent is that India and Indonesia mean to also assert themselves both culturally and economically.

This is going to be the beginning of a marked increase in engagement between the two Asian giants.

Recognising this trend, the Biennale’s organisers made a big point about stressing the documentary aspects of the collaboration and the need to increase Indonesian understanding of India.

What does all of this mean for Malaysia?

Well, it should worry us because our long-cherished goal to emerge as a South-East Asian hub will be eroded thanks to such collaborations.

Why should the rising nations of the world bother coming through Malaysia for anything when they can deal directly with each other, as India and Indonesia are doing?

And when they do so, well, where does that leave us?

(Courtesy: The Star, Malaysia)

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