#InTheNameOfArt: Samuel Tin & Theyvapaalan S Jayaratnam On Thannir தண் ணீர்

·6-min read

How do we speak about a violence with no witnesses? We do not have recorded footage of A. Ganapathy’s death, a forty-year old Tamilian and Dravidian man who was detained at Gombak police station for an inquiry into his sibling’s alleged crimes and who died in the ICU of Selayang Hospital on 18 April 2021 from injuries sustained during his detainment.

There are no witnesses to the event of Ganapathy’s death except for the testimony of his mother, who claims her son told her that he was beaten with a rubber hose by the police. Ganapathy’s death was not an isolated event, but one that speaks to a long-neglected legacy of police brutality and racism against Dravidian bodies in Malaysia.

Compelled to respond, Samuel Tin and Theyvapaalan S Jayaratnam created தண் ணீர் THANNIR, a digital art piece exploring the relationship between water and death, comprising a video diffracting into a container of water housed within a mirrored cupboard. 

The duo began collaborating as students in Performance and Media at Sunway University. They connected through their shared interest in what they call a ‘lack of form’, or an undisciplined and multifarious understanding of performance. This fluid methodology is mirrored by their focus on the physicality of water, a recurring motif in the collective’s practice.

In the present work, water is the witness. It is a vehicle to enter the crime scene and to fill and infiltrate the spaces in which it occurred, principally the prison cell and the motorcycle workshop where Ganapathy was arrested.

How did the idea of THANNIR come about ? 

Paalan: I truly believe most Tamil artists in Malaysia have their own versions of Thannir in their imaginations, just from their own experiences waiting to be created. Both Samuel and I have different takes of inception in the project. For me, it felt like a series of events that led into the making of Thannir.

When George Floyd was murdered and the Black Lives Matter movement took place, I became extremely curious and frustrated about my skin—its colour and what it meant.

My anger could only see these parallels between anti-blackness and people who are against Tamils. I wanted to start making works that reflect these experiences. Using my voice and privilege to access certain space to tell them about this injustice. 

I didn’t have to go on a special search to witness and understand the injustices towards Tamil people. They are in abundance everywhere including my own experiences, yet this isn’t at all a prominent discussion in many of our social circles.

Ganapathy’s death struck a huge chord in me. The disgusting gap between others and people of my skin colour became very clear as I was watching them. It wasn’t something I’m not aware of, just this time it became something I simply couldn’t ignore.

It showed up in the places I work in and in the way social circles accepted me and not other people who look like me—I think this was when Thannir began. 

Samuel and I decided that we needed to talk about this gap. The reason I can make art from Ganapathy’s death is also because of this very gap between him and I. Much like the queers, Tamils in Malaysia are also divided into the socially celebrated, the frowned upon and lesser desirable bunch. 

Paalan, you’ve briefly mentioned about the usage of water in this project, what sparked the idea behind it? Is it because water is this viscous material that it authorises a response in movement?

Paalan: We thought of water as a witness to the event. We are filled with it. It’s in the air. And we were cracking our brains to think: how can we get into this lockup space and how do we record what’s in it?

And we thought maybe this very powerful element is one of the things that can tell us what happened inside the space. Another thing was that we thought of water as this Tamil or Dravidian spirit: it’s wild, it has so many forms, and it’s everywhere.

But in certain spaces, it’s very contained and is set to a fixed form. So we were interested in how people try to fix elements that are wild and free. How do you try to fix this type of person, control them, and have them take certain shapes? And when they don’t take that shape, maybe what happens is that they disappear. 

In your statement you describe these two spaces—Ganapathy’s prison cell and the motorcycle workshop where the arrest occurred, as being “liminal spaces”. Could you elaborate on what your understanding of liminality is in this context and why it’s important to your telling of Ganapathy’s death?

Samuel and Paalan: We talked a lot about what happened with George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, and we couldn’t help but realise the only reason there was this huge flare up was that he was recorded.

It’s almost like no one else could deny this event and that’s why it had the response it did. That’s why we went to the location. We wanted to look at the other witnesses in this space, to observe the witnesses to this event and to the arrest of Ganapathy.

We also felt like this space still had a memory of what happened. And this isn’t just a one-off thing; Gombak police station is infamous for having Dravidian bodies die in lockup. We wanted to capture this memory from this specific space.

What happened in the lockup seemed to be like this magic dressing room that people go into and then come out either in an invisible cloak or in a different form. So we talked about the lockup with this term ‘liminal’ because we don’t know what happens, right?

This space can swallow people and change their form. And in this case, there were physical changes to his form: his leg had to be amputated. Maybe this lockup is a space where people that are dark-skinned are dragged in, and then after a certain period of time, just happen to change.

We felt that maybe that was like us on stage when you go into a zone and you’ve done this thing and then you come out with a different state of mind. So we felt like it was this magical, liminal space.