The Purple Painting

I spent a lot of time being sick this week. Coughing my heart out, razor blades in my throat, you know the drill. So I took a great big pause from the busy-ness of my life, gave in and stayed in bed. Between the sleeping and waking, my eyes often came to rest on a photo of my father and me that sits on the mantelpiece in my bedroom. The tangled mess of my thoughts and dreams eventually swirled into this post below. Sept 1 is Fathers Day in Australia, so the timing is perfect. In writing it, I seem to have clicked into place one of the missing puzzles of my life. My father was a public figure and much loved by many, so I must preface this by saying what I’ve written is an unravelling of threads of my childhood memories, and of my relationship with him and his creativity. It is not biographical, it is personal.

Malini and Pa 1964

“All fathers are intimidating…Once a man has children, for the rest of his life, his attitude is, ‘to hell with the world, I can make my own people. I’ll eat whatever I want, I’ll wear whatever I want, and I’ll create whoever I want.’” –Jerry Seinfeld

My father was charming and funny and loving and generous. Amongst many other things, he was a designer, a gemmologist, a ceramicist, a teacher, a photographer, a painter and a visionary. He told stories, had an amazing sense of humour and a penetrating and uncanny insight into people. I admired my father, I loved him, but he was also mercurial and volatile and really, really, REALLY hard to live with. So for most of my life, I was terribly afraid of him.

The mystery of why my father was the way he was has been an endless topic of conjecture in our family. His mother died when he was a baby; he lost his youngest brother to some terrible disease as a teenager; his father and mother were uncle and niece (a tradition in some parts of India); he had an undiagnosed bipolar disorder; geniuses are often a bit crazy.

Our family home in Penang sprawled on top of a small hill on a large block of land. It was HUGE, with two wings, two sitting rooms that adjoined each other to form a great hall, really high ceilings and LOTS of wall space.

And every single wall was covered in art.

You’d think that was a good thing, but my mother found most of it highly objectionable. That’s because it was almost all my father’s work, and he had a very ‘particular’ style. She was ok with his early art, it was accessible, realistic, literal and safe. But then there was his foray into modern art. These he was really proud of: the abstract stuff. Messy splotches. Meaningless scratches. Paintings that didn’t look like anything. In the 60s and 70s in Malaysia (think 40s and 50s in the Western world), this kind of art was pretty out there. Our family home was different and intriguing. (Part of the living room wall was painted with broad violet stripes).

There was one really huge piece that he hung in the very centre of the house: a cool modern work that mum found exceptionally hideous! Large, purple, decidedly non-literal, it certainly belonged to the second style. I don’t remember if I liked it. I do remember the energy of it, and how it aroused strong emotions in people. My father used to say that it didn’t matter if people liked his work, just that they felt something when they looked at it. My mother certainly felt something about that painting.

The art, the charisma, the complicated back story. My father fit almost perfectly the stereotype of many of the gifted, tormented painters of the last century, except that he didn’t make a living from his art. He was a dentist.

Yep, a dentist.

His list of professional achievements is long and impressive but sadly, much of it is now lost. He burnt most of his papers in a fit of rage and despair when he lost his ability to read and write after his first stroke. Although I was dimly aware of them, as a child I never took much notice of the accolades and accomplishments that characterised his career. But I do remember the passion with which he spoke about dentistry.

He rarely performed any dental work on me, but when he did, it was with a gentle and kind hand – the only time that I remember being close to him feeling no anxiety, only complete trust. It’s probably why I feel strangely calm when I sit in a dental chair. (It should also be noted that my dentist is amazing. And the biggest patron of my art is also another gifted dentist!)

My father had four daughters and no sons, and this might be just about the worst thing that could happen in an Indian family. I think he delighted in this point of difference from others of his ethnicity. One of his favourite pastimes was to tell anyone who would listen that “daughters are better than sons”, and proceed to extol our beauty and brains while we squirmed.

When he died in 1992 I was a young woman in a different country just starting the adventure of having my own family. The first words I said to my husband Greg were, “My father died. Oh God, I’m so sorry, I didn’t love him enough.” It’s funny how guilt is so often the first response to news of death.

I was the only one of his children that truly embraced not only his passion for photography (my earliest visual art practice), but the unique combination of science and art that characterised his life. Google just told me that my father was the first Malaysian to earn a doctorate in Dental Science. So I’m an artist with a Masters degree in Medical Science, he was an artist with a PhD in Dental Science. There is one major difference, though. A kind of chaos often threatens to take over the mind of an artist; it ruled my father’s inner life more so than he admitted, but I am fortunate to possess an equanimity that he lacked. Perhaps the discipline and rigour of medical research (albeit a HUGE struggle for me) has helped give my inner life structure and definition. I have found that balance between science and art that eluded my father.

And that painting, the one mum hated? I wonder if that painting was his grand, real, bold, authentic, take-it-or-leave-it-this-is-what-I’m-doing gesture. It must have taken him considerable courage to paint something so massive, so purple, and hang it in the centre of our home, knowing that no one in his family (or even the country) were likely appreciate it.

Today, when my mind drifts back to my childhood home, it doesn’t go first to the anxiety and pain I witnessed and felt. It goes to the violet striped wall, the orange swirls, the massive purple painting. Distinctive. Courageous. Bold.

When I remember my father, I clearly see the cheeky grin, the teasing twinkle in his eye. He’s singing entirely made up words to a Harry Belafonte song. Distinctive. Courageous. Bold.

All the scary stuff has faded, and mostly gratitude remains for the lessons in creativity and courage he gave me.

And for that ugly purple painting  🙂

Comments 20

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  1. Malini, I am really moved by your post about your father. It was so raw and written with such feeling. I really connected with what you wrote. I have had similar experiences in my relationship with my father, who has a genius level IQ. Thanks for sharing this and touching a part of me that had been buried underneath too many layers! Shannon

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      oh my, I really didn’t expect anyone to really relate to this, but it’s amazing how there is so much we share. Thank you for your kind words, Shannon, and I am glad it was meaningful for you. xox

  2. I hope you are feeling better. Thank you for sharing such a profound part of your life and what it was like for you with your faher. I love the photo of you with our father. You haven’t really changed, you are still as pretty as you were as a young girl. 🙂

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      Hello Suzanne, lovely to ‘see’ you here and thank you for saying such sweet things 🙂 Your work with The Plan sounds amazing!! So glad you have found a route to wellness that resonates so well with you, and have had the committment and follow through to run with it. Amazing! xxx

  3. Thank you for sharing this, Mal. Very interesting insight into grandpa. I wish you had a picture of that ‘purple’ painting. I keep trying to envisage this purple painting. Surely it can’t be that ugly 🙂

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    Yes, I wish I did too! However, in many ways it doesn’t matter how the painting really looked, it was more what it symbolised for me 🙂 I’m glad you stopped by and read about your grandfather, thanks Zar (his first grandchild!) x

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  5. I would LOVE to have that purple painting – maybe it’s not too large as I have a rather small 70’s home!! And it would fit rather nicely into the purple bedroom we have!
    Oh Mal, I do so love the sound of your father – rages et al.
    Mine ‘ran’ away from 5 daughters plus wife and one small son (the 2nd boy born) by becoming a politician after having lost his first son and mebeing born (4th girl) and having ‘no one sane to talk to’ was a saying he had but laughed as he said it. PLUS he showed his love for each and every one of us individually and together. We WERE his family as he had been raised in an orphanage in South Africa somewhere.
    Thank you for sharing.

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      So glad you enjoyed it Robin. Sounds like your father was quite a character too! We have so many stories inside us, don’t we? Each person in the world!

      And I’m sorry, no luck with the purple painting…long gone, who knows where! Mum got rid of it when he died…most of his paintings were sold to eager hands. I’d love to have it too 🙂 xox

  6. Dear Malini,
    What a beautiful, true and wise story. Our hearts are such amazing things when we let gratitude take over, aren’t they? And as ever, I love reading your lively and inspiring words. xoxo Laly

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      Laly dear, just visiting your site lifts my heart – your art is so delicate and strong and beautiful! Thank you for stopping by and for your kind words x

  7. Dear Malini,

    I really loved this! Thank you for sharing it. I have recently found a passion for photography taking night classes. I have felt the passion to be creative has gone hand in hand with the birth of my children. Our second child Colby was born just over a week ago and your memoirs struck a chord with me.

    Love

    Ralph

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      Thank you Ralph! I’m so glad that you’ve found a creative outlet! It will change everything 🙂 Congratulations on the birth Colby!!

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      You are so right, Robin! It’s amazing how time helps things come into focus, where before it was fuzzy and unclear… thanks so much for stopping by and for the warm words x

  8. I always smile when I see you post, because I know its going to be a deep and thoughtful delight, Malini. The story of your father is so touching, because in those days before there was an awareness of mental issues, people off the “normal” track usually suffered in silence. It is so wonderful that you have explored your memories and relationship and now understand yourself much better. And you paint a vivid picture of your childhood home — purple stripes sound fabulous!!!!

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      You say the sweetest things, Lisa! Thank you so much. You are absolutely right about the lack of awareness of mental health issues. I’ve often wondered what he would have been like, had he gotten the help he needed to find some inner peace. Thank you so much for taking the time to share a tiny slice of my life and for your kindness. xox

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