17th March 2002

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Click on to Lankan art

In a cool, quiet room, a sharp contrast to the blistering sunshine outside, sits Mohan Daniel staring at the computer screen before him. The room is crowded, paintings covering most of the wall space, books and artefacts reposing in cupboards, for Daniel is the owner of the Serendib Gallery, a veritable treasure trove for collectors.

Fascinating though they are, it's not the lure of the ancient curios and artefacts that has brought us to the Gallery at Rosmead Place, but the modern technology on the computer.

For since March 2001, Mohan Daniel has been working on a website that will document the art and artists of this country and it is now ready. Art in this country is a subject he is well qualified to handle and indeed the 'Art Sri Lanka' website launched on Friday at the Lanka Oberoi has already impressed those who've viewed it., Daniel explains, is a non-profit site designed to create a better understanding of the rich tradition of our art and culture not only internationally but among the youth of our country. He hopes to reach out not just to the Colombo intelligentsia but to people around the country and is working to have the information translated into Sinhala and Tamil as well.

So if you are a child of the Eighties and have no inkling of who the members of the Group of 43 were or what the masks of Sri Lanka really signify, this is the website for you. It not only encompasses the country's rich cultural heritage and its eminent painters but also provides up to date information on artists currently holding exhibitions and those making their presence felt in the contemporary scene.

The reach of Art Sri Lanka is impressive for it seems to provide something for everyone. There are maps of Sri Lanka, dating back to Ptolemy's 2nd century impression and Buddhist Art, featuring paintings from the 5th Century all the way down to the Kandyan period, with accompanying text, which will be invaluable to both student and collector.

Consider this extract: "The long history of Buddhist painting in Sri Lanka falls into two clearly identifiable periods: the Classical and the Kandyan. The Classical period can be dated from the existing records to a period from the fifth to the twelfth or the thirteenth century; and the Kandyan period from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century. Fresco paintings of the beautiful damsels interpreted by historians as apsaras (celestial nymphs) executed on lime plaster on a pocket of western face of the fifth century rock fortress of King Kassapa (478-496) at Sigiriya represent the earliest datable, the best preserved and the most outstanding examples of the classical style."

Then move to Christian art and guided by the very knowledgeable Fr. Anslem de Croos, you'll discover a hitherto undocumented, amazingly beautiful selection of statues and images, many Christians themselves are unaware of.

Interesting facts turn up too. "Do you know," says Daniel, his eyes twinkling, "that Saradiel's father and uncle were turning out statues for the Catholic church?"

In the section on masks, there are pictures of the four categories of masks, kolam, sanni, tovil and perehera taken by a young student of the Institute of Aesthetic Studies Thushantha Ratnayake, who Daniel says travelled far and wide to photograph them.

The section on Art History which details the History of Painting and Sculpture in Sri Lanka, introduced by artist Jagath Weerasinghe is also comprehensive and authoritative, covering the Early and Middle Historical Periods, (250 BC-1250 AD), the Late Historical Periods (1250 AD- 1800 AD), the Art Of Dambadeniya, Yapahuwa and Kotte, the Central Kandyan tradition, the Southern School and 20th Century Buddhist Paintings and Sculpture!

In including contemporary names on his section "Art Today", Daniel is giving some lesser known but promising talent the opportunity of having their work exhibited absolutely free. Twenty-four artists featured here are both established and relatively newer names including Pradeep Chandrasiri, Anoli Perera, Bandu Manamperi, Chaminda Thushara Gamage,Chandragupta Thenuwara, Jagath Weerasinghe, Kudaligamage Geethanjana, Tissa de Alwis etc, many of them products of the Institute of Aesthetic Studies. This section, however, will keep changing, Daniel says, as new work and talents emerge.

There is also an 'Online Exhibition' currently featuring Tilake Abeysinghe, which affords artists the chance to have their works on view long after the short exhibition period at a gallery is over. "We'll be promoting this site with various art agencies abroad to give them more exposure and hopefully, it will lead to better opportunities for them," Daniel says.

In the Retrospective Section among Keyt and Ivan Peries, is also Manjusri and in finding 40 of his paintings, Daniel provides a wonderful tribute to this artist whose accomplishments have, he feels, not been sufficiently recognized by the public. Those browsing through the Retrospective Section will quite predictably check out George Keyt and be in for a surprise. There is the familiar figure of the master but a very unfamiliar painting, among many. "It's a self-portrait, Keyt did, it's undated," says Daniel with quiet satisfaction. The painting is one of his most valued possessions.

It all began when Daniel explored the idea of having a small site, devoted to artists and art history. Then with characteristic efficiency, he hired a quiet but enthusiastic young web designer by the name of Roshan Fernando and the project just grew and grew. The website's design is clear and easy on the eye. Soft-spoken Roshan Fernando, has himself during the course of this project developed an appreciation of art and one cannot fault his uncluttered user-friendly format.

Many of the articles and information on the website have been contributed by eminent art critics and historians.

The names of Albert Dharmasiri, Prof. Srinimal Lakdusinghe, Dr. R.K de Silva, Prof. S.B Dissanayake and Dr. Brendon Gooneratne figure on this list and Daniel is appreciative of how so many devoted time to the project so unreservedly.

He has also managed to unearth much new material, hitherto unseen, for the website to interest the connoisseur too. We click onto the section on 'Colonial Art' and there discover many a gem in previously unpublished paintings, drawings, wood engravings of Sir Emerson Tennant from his original manuscripts and sketches of insects and reptiles by G.M. Henry of Birds of Sri Lanka fame. These came into his hands from the owners of these valuable documents themselves and will no doubt fascinate the purists. This section is particularly well documented with many paintings of colonial Ceylon by the likes of Henry Salt, Samuel Daniell, Lt. William Lyttleton, John Deschamps, Capt Charles O'Brien etc., In fact, several works that appear on the website are not in this country. "I feel very strongly that these belong here. The Government and the authorities concerned must make efforts to get them back," he says.

The section on antiquarian maps is also great reading and viewing.

A wide selection of maps, 80 in fact, supports the article and in a year, Daniel hopes to have as many as 300 on the website.

The website also provides information on the organizations that are seeking to promote and foster art in this country like the George Keyt Foundation, the Sapumal Foundation and the Post-graduate Institute of Archaeology.

Mohan Daniel's interest in art was nurtured in his Trinity College schooldays, and strengthened by long mornings at the Colombo museum where he pored over paintings and artefacts, all the while learning to identify the genuine from the spurious. It is a skill he is now teaching his young daughter who accompanies him on many 'scouting' expeditions. "She is very good, much better than I am at spotting these," he says, showing me what looks like a brass bowl. It is, in fact, a bronze water clock or pe-tetiya used by the ancient Sinhalese kings to measure time.

It is also one of Daniel's passions, though he is reluctant to reveal how many he has collected so far. "It took me 18 years to find my first," he smiles.

His passion for art, like the website is still growing. "The more you talk to people, the more ideas you get," he muses. The website now is 500 pages and I can't see it stopping there.

-Renuka Sadanandan

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