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27th May 2001

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In love with nature

Few are aware that one of the great loves of architect Tissa Chandraratne is nature.

In his professional life he enjoyed a close liaison with nature during the time he served as architectural consultant to both the Zoological Gardens and the Wildlife Department. He was also encouraged by Lyn de Alwis, a former Director of both these institutions.

Today, 40 years on, Mr. Chandraratne now plans to share his experiences in the wilds with other nature lovers. Initially keen on videography rather than still life, he switched to photography after a jumbo sized recluse at Yala who strongly objected to being videographed charged him. Undeterred, Mr. Chandraratne continued his hobby but discovered that capturing a moment rather than an event was far more interesting - and immensely satisfying.

Yala apart, Mr. Chandraratne has also captured some wild life classics on film in Africa - Kenya and Tanzania to be precise.

Tissa Chandraratne's complete album of memories will be on display at the Lionel Wendt Art Gallery on June 2 and 3 from 10 a.m. to 8.00 p.m.


Hope rolls out from barrelism

By Andrea Provost

The people of Sri Lanka just might serve the country's peace mission well by paying a visit to Colombo's Paradise Road Galleries this month. For the latest 27-painting exhibition by Galle-born artist, Chandraguptha Thenuwara, does much more than simply adorn the chalky walls of the swank gallery. Its bountiful shades and dynamic intimacies depict a spirit on the brink of resurrection unmarked by any Sri Lankan artist.

Thenuwara is widely celebrated for his 1997 baptism of the theory 'barrelism' which suggests that the military barrels crowding Sri Lankan streets create depressing constraints on individual and national freedom. Thenuwara's use of this concept was depicted in his 1997 and 1998 exhibitions 'Barrelism'. Avid art fans may well remember the thousands of barrelistic images painted in layered tones of yellow. The haunting figures seemed to asphyxiate Thenuwara's artistic visions whenever he painted; indeed the man was a microcosm of his country.

For Thenuwara's barrelism makes a much broader statement about life in Sri Lanka: The presence of these barrels inadvertently created a new identity for all those who were forced to live within the constricted boundaries that they drew. Thenuwara explains, "We are all victims of these barrels that are coming to our country filled with social, political and economic problems."

So the Russian-educated artist painted. He painted life from his own caged barrel in a rhythm almost parallel to that of his nation's continuous quest for peace. Perhaps the hands of fate paid a visit to Thenuwara's doorstep, or maybe his barrel just got a little too full to keep on the lid. Whatever the reason, it is clear that this artist has transcended the very constraints that he was both living under and painting about. Now, four years after, Thenuwara is illuminating us with a slightly more heartening vision _hope.

Thenuwara's latest images seemed almost to inflate the stifling hot air of Colombo. Mothers cuddling cloth-wrapped babies stared at me from framed seas of red, green and yellow acrylic. I swear that if I had stayed there longer, watching 'What Future 2,' I might have heard her whisper Thenuwara's worries: "Must I really give my innocent babe to this warring society?"

Similar thoughts danced through my head as I strolled past beige leather chairs lounging underneath works entitled 'Bliss,' 'Expectant', 'Difference', 'Demasked' and 'Rape in Camouflage'. Each with a very different expression, all of Thenuwara's 2001 products bore a refreshing sense of life; the faces he painted were often distraught, scared or angery, but they were alive and that was more than enough to invigorate any onlooker.

Thenuwara admits that barrelism is still very much embedded in his artwork;. In a society that continues to be plagued with roadblocks, it would be virtually impossible for one to be completely detached from the effects of them. The artist does dream of living outside the rim of the barrel, but claims that "the political situation in this country, provides a wealth of ideas for me. Everyone has to help and stop the war to go away from barrelism . . . I cannot do away with the real barrel, so I'm compositionally trying to do something with the format." So Thenuwara plunges forth into his world, creating new spaces within which we may see his visions of progressive change.

Tucked away behind crowds of admirers and trays of bubbling beer, I found a lone staircase. Perched upon the wall was one of Thenuwara's real wonders, a piece ironically entitled 'I Wonder'. A split dimensional acrylic painting of a human standing amidst a multitude of browns and yellows, looking up into a sky of aqua and ivory, 'I Wonder' emerges to me as a perfect emblem of Thenuwara's message. The colours are warm and inviting, while the occasional dash of grass-green co-mingled with yellow suggests a new realm of possibilities, opportunities for difference.

The figure in the ground is small in comparison to the environment around him, but his presence is imperative; this human stands brilliantly alone, peering up into the sky above him with a soothing dubiousness. There are, as Thenuwara later notes, "no barrels, save the limits of the sky and the earth," only new spaces which leave all humans, the man and myself included, to embrace with wonder.

Udayshanth Fernando, owner of Paradise Road Galleries, may not be too far off when he claims that Thenuwara is going to be one of the masters of the future. His ability to amalgamate reality and dreams is a virus that one could only hope would surpass the infection of war and strife that is spreading through the country. At a time when despondent mothers seek governmental assistance in searching for lost sons, and people live in uncertainty of the fate of their nation, it might do the soul a little good to take a walk through Paradise Road Galleries.

Chandraguptha Thenuwara's exhibition of paintings is on display until June 4, 2001, with the gallery opening at 10 a.m. and closing at midnight.


Soothing, simple cycle

One Thought: Exhibition by Nelun Harasgama at the Barefoot Gallery

By Betty Maier

After showing in an exhibition in India at the beginning of this year, Nelun Harasgama's oils are back at the Barefoot Gallery on Galle Road.

Accompanying her figural work and her others landscapes are a series of about 30 small landscapes centering on one thought. At first glance, the viewer wonders at the shades of red, black and white - colours in painting that have in the past referred easily to religious subject matter. Harasgama's one thought just like her composition and finesse, remains frustratingly simple, yet soothing all at once. Passing from red landscape to black and then white, the eye circles back trying to key into their language.

For the artist, the meaning relates to a cycle she sees frequently recurring in Sri Lanka. "While we destroy something, we don't look at it or maybe we ignore it... then it dies... and then we mourn and put that same thing up to be the best thing in the world."

Never presenting herself as an intellectual artist, Harasgama assures that this comment encompasses all that can be said. The colours themselves strictly relate to this pattern of the red wound, the black death, and the white mourning period. Harasgama takes each piece of artwork and holds it as a separate entity. The 30 canvases can be shown together in a sort of triptych fashion, but that's not necessarily the purpose. Instead, the purpose perhaps lies in their repetitive context of landscape. Harasgama takes landscape, a direct and simple expression of nature's beauty and pushes different coloured lenses onto their palette as if to show that it is the viewers themselves who choose to put on the different coloured glasses to see the world around them.

As for her figural work, she passed a few canvases before admitting, "My paintings are all very similar.... I've been drawing the same figure in the same way. It's something that is in my mind that I see." The elongated form and faceless presence of the figures evoke a ghostly response surpassed only by the figure's stark and unfettered surroundings. The loneliness of the piece entitled 'Homecoming' gives added weight though the palette remains in light and airy hues of antique white and soft brown. Thus, the pictorial space shows a man slumped over, with crossed arms on his way home. The question is, what is he 'coming home' to?

Similarly, one can ask that question in their day-to-day life. And it is this personal universality that triggers emotive response and lies well within Nelun Harasgama's talents. Though harkening on the same theme of individual strength in adversity where her figures 'make their own brooms' rather than conform, Harasgama's work is certainly worth viewing. Her consistency in style and technique has given way almost to a signature form, easily identifiable and likewise approachable in both aesthetic and intellectual practice.

"I am not really a proper artist," Harasgama says, but maybe what she refers to is the expected bohemian model or romanticized idea of 'artist' coming from the West.

The soothing quality of her style, as mentioned before, comes out of her ability to focus and produce out of her mind's eye what she sees around her. But in fact, the staid figures, the use of white, titles such as 'Angel' all come together in a not so soothing manner once one begins to read the language of the artist in representing figural emotion. Isolated, one of a kind, and boxed in by its surroundings, the figure sets the agitated mood for the canvas that otherwise would have a serene feel (not unlike the serenity found in the work of Ivan Peries (1921-1988). And not unlike a tropical country seeming so full of life and virility, but which also suffers unthinkable struggles.

Nelum Harasgama's exhibition will be open till June 10.


Thoughts from LondonPreaching press freedom is not enough

World Press Freedom Day this month was marked in many countries, in- cluding some in which press freedom hangs tenuously by a thread. It was remembered in London too, with the BBC making the occasion.

At the tail end of a BBC news programme a few persons of different ethnic groups handling foreign language services for the World Service appeared, sermonising on press freedom. Dutifully they said how in some countries the media was suffering under the jackboot of repressive government.

These three or four talking heads were probably repeating their master's voice. The standard mantra was that those in this part of the world must keep up the pressure against such repression if press freedom is to survive, or words to that effect.

Among the pundits who found time to preach to less fortunate journalists in Sri Lanka and the world where press freedom has eroded or been threatened, was the head of "Sandesaya", the BBC's Sinhala programme, Priyath Liyanage.

Readers might recall that over a year ago some Sri Lankans demonstrated outside the BBC in London accusing the Sandesaya of pro-LTTE bias and a lack of impartiality.

The demonstrators claimed that Priyath Liyanage was not a journalist, but that he was a male nurse working in the UK who had been brought into the BBC by the then head of Sandesaya, Vasantha Raja.

This same Vasanthan Raja was the person supposedly handpicked by President Chandrika Kumaratunga to head Rupavahini.

Subsequently, he fell out with the government or some persons in it and resigned from Rupavahini.

The next thing we know is that this ex-head of Sandesaya and Rupavahini resurfaces in London and appears on various platforms in support of the Tamil Tigers.

Whether Vasantha Raja's protege or successor Priyath Liyanage is a former male nurse, as the demonstrators claimed, is not the issue here.

What is significant is whether he has the credentials to lecture on press freedom, particularly in relation to Sri Lanka, without understanding the complex nature of the subject and that freedoms cannot be simply replicated.

Just paying lip service to media freedom will not do. Word and deed must prove that commitment. Sri Lankan journalists who have gone through the rigours of government control of media, censorship, political and security harassment have proven their commitment to their calling by continuing to serve the cause despite the rigours.

When the JVP was at its prime in the late 1980s several journalists were served with death threats. Some were killed, others escaped, some by sheer luck. Publishing a newspaper those days meant a chilling reminder that you were next on their list.

Even then newspapers were published because journalists at the vortex of those troubles believed in the public's right to know. Some directors and editors had disappeared- only they knew where- and the daily decision of whether to publish or not was left to a couple of others who were consequently targeted.

The winner of this year's Freedom Day Prize was not someone who sat in a studio thousands of miles away preaching pious platitudes.

The winner of the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano prize awarded on World Press Freedom Day, was a former editor of the daily Hanthawati newspaper in Myanmar(formerly Burma), U Win Tin. He could not collect his prize because he is under armed guard in Yangon General Hospital. He has been imprisoned since 1989 as being a threat to the country's military rulers.

There are others like U Win Tin who have fought unyieldingly for the right of free speech. Some have paid with their lives, some are in prison and others are fighting their own battles to preserve free speech without mouthing prattle about how the West can save press freedom.

Those who join the western media choirs to sing hosannas to press freedom should first try to ensure that freedom exists in their own backyards. Press freedom must be accompanied by media responsibility.

Let those media organisations that call for press freedom first ensure that they accept and respect those responsibilities that make this freedom worth fighting for - fairness, impartiality and the journalistic practices that make for a free and fair press. Otherwise they have no business preaching to others.

The BBC is not the fair-minded, balanced, impartial paragon of journalistic virtue that Priyath Liyanage's boss Elizabeth Wright tried to make it out to be when meeting the anti-Sandesaya protestors and also during a visit to Sri Lanka in April 2000.

Continued on Page

At that time I pointed out with examples of stories filed by the BBC correspondent in Colombo, how one sided they were and how inaccurate they could be.

Here is an example from very recent events in Sri Lanka. In a story headlined "Religious violence spreads in Sri Lanka", the BBC reported on May 7: "Inter-religious violence in Sri Lanka has continued with Muslim men setting fire to shops in the north-east of the country, it is reported".

"The Ministry of Defence on Monday said that Muslim men had set alight eight shops belonging to members of the Sinhalese community in the town of Muttur overnight".

Any person of average intelligence would, having read the headline, and in the first paragraph, have expected to be told what the other religious group was, having already been warned about "inter-religious rivalry".

But it is Sinhalese shops, which are burnt not Buddhist or Christian or even Hindu So where is the religious rivalry? The BBC, having reported on ethnic conflicts for long, now perhaps wants to start religious wars like those in Europe.

Last month the BBC's own complaints unit concluded that the broadcaster had wrongly accused a minister of lying during a programme.

Liyanage and the BBC can do a lot more for press freedom by launching a campaign for cheaper newsprint and freer airwaves, both of which are increasingly under the control of western big business and crippling the free and balanced flow of information.


Sea sights

By Gamini G. Punchihewa

Galle's Dutch Fort was listed by UNESCO and the International Committee on Monumental Sites (ICOMOS) as a World Heritage Site in 1991. For the conservation and management of this historic site, the government brought in legislation under the Galle Heritage Foundation Act, No. 7 of 1991.

The old entrance to the Dutch Fort faces the harbour but its new entrance overlooks the Galle Esplanade. Over the archway of this old Dutch edifice is carved a shield with the monogram of the The V.O.C. (Verenigde Ost-Indische Compagnie), the Dutch East India Company). On it is the date 1669. The monogram has two lions carved on it. This had been the Commandant's Court-of-Arms during the period of the Portuguese-Dutch rule. And behind the cockerel carved on it is an interesting story which says that the first Portuguese fleet that sighted Galle heard a cockerel crowing as they approached land.

Under the wing of this old entrance to the Dutch Fort, in an antiquated Dutch store-house (then called a packhuis), is housed the National Maritime Museum maintained by the Department of National Museums. It was opened in 1992.

A walk through its vast gallery evokes nostalgic memories of the exploits of the ancient mariners - the Portuguese, Dutch and British who held sway many centuries ago.

The exhibits there are systematically displayed and categorised into maritime, fauna and flora, marine anthropology (old and new), fishing gear, cultural aspects of fishing, nautical maps and charts from the past to the present day.

The maritime section reveals old anchors, marine instruments like compasses used during the Portuguese, Dutch and British times upto the present day. Among the models of sea-faring craft used in Dutch times is Kattumanna which is still used by our fishermen.

Next in line is the present day madel paruwa, vallams, theppams (used by fishermen in Negombo, Chilaw and Puttalam coastal areas). Jaffna is also represented here by the display of her typical fishing craft known as yalpana oruwa.

Every Sunday, awareness programmes are conducted for school children. Video films on time to aquatic flora and fauna are shown, followed by lectures on these topics. Such study programmes for the school children are sponsored under the Amphibia and Reptile Organisation of Sri Lanka (ARROS), the University of Peradeniya, Medical Faculty and the Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle.

In the maritime section in the display of invertebrate under water marine life are octapus, sea-cucumber, star-fish, sea-horse, star fish. Then comes the living fossils like the lamp shells and the nautili.

For fishermen all over the island, the sea-horse (muhudu aspaya) is sacred. When one is caught in their nets, it is brought ashore, dried and kept as a talisman (suraya) in a bronze case and worn around the waist or the neck. It is believed to brings luck and safety to the fishermen at sea and on land, as well. Among the other marine animals displayed are the whale, dugong (muhudu ura) and turtle species. There are models of stilt fishermen found mostly in Galle from Unawatuna to Ahangama and Weligama.

When the ancient mariners called over at the Port of Galle, traders bringing silk, carpets and porcelain bartered them for items like pearls, gems, ivory, peacock feathers, cardamoms and spices.

The silk route of ancient sea-trading times, Mantalai, the ancient port is shown in the nautical maps which are displayed there. A lively painting of the Pearl Fisheries' grand old days is hung on the wall.

Varied parts of the ship like the bridge wale, sextant (position finder) of a ship, are also exhibited.

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