and share this visual poem
Seneka Abeyratne reviews Anoma Wijewardene’s
bold experiment with digital art
Anoma Wijewardene is at the cutting edge of modern
art in Sri Lanka. Her works, especially her mixed media paintings,
embrace a wide range of spiritual and cross-cultural themes bordering
on mysticism, which perhaps are only accessible to the connoisseur
of art. Yet even the layman cannot fail to notice certain aspects
of her compositions, such as the complex spatial configurations,
the dense, multi-layered textures and solid, rocklike masses arranged
in a sequence of planes, the vibrant colours and dynamic forces
and the sense of motion conveyed through rhythmic strokes of the
brush and the palette knife.
Many of her paintings, including a recent series
inspired by Rilke’s poems, are attempts at integrating fragments
of diverse culture and ideas as well as interweaving iconic and
personal idioms, lines and motifs through powerful, abstract imagery.
Even though her works entail a high level of spiritual and metaphysical
apprehension, they are grounded in reality, and it is this intriguing
blend of realism and mysticism that gives each and every one of
her paintings a rare, luminous quality. Anoma’s distinctive
trademarks are her profoundly aesthetic treatment of cross-cultural
themes, her heartfelt lyricism, and her own transcendental technique,
which few other eastern artists can match.
Anoma, a graduate of Central St. Martins College
of Art, London, lived for many years in the west before settling
down in Sri Lanka in the late 1990s. Before returning to her native
land, she was a visiting lecturer for over ten years at several
British Art Colleges. Prior to becoming an artist she was a successful
designer in Europe, having published her works in such prestigious
magazines as British Vogue, HarpersUK, The Times London, and Architectural
Digest USA. Her clients included Pierre Cardin, Yves St Laurent,
Calvin Klein, and Ralph Lauren.
Her career as a professional artist has taken
her on a more creative and illustrious path. During the past decade,
her works have been exhibited in several cities, including Colombo,
Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, New Delhi and Brisbane. Her most recent
solo exhibition in Sydney (2005) received glowing reviews in the
Australian press. Some of her best paintings are now in private
collections in North America, Europe and Asia.
Anoma’s new project, entitled “Quest”,
represents a qualitatively new phase in her artistic career –
a quantum jump, so to speak – as it involves a bold experiment
with interactive digital art. At the trilingual, multimedia exhibition
we see her first outcrop of digital images, which have been composed
over the past three years using computer technology. The exhibition,
which combines digital art with interactive video installations
to probe the social and cultural landscape of Sri Lanka, brings
the audience face to face with two central overlapping themes, namely
ethnic conflict and tsunami destruction.
Anoma has experimented with a wide range of artistic
styles including realism, expressionism, impressionism, surrealism
and cubism so as to stir the imagination and empower the viewer
to comprehend the full import of the conflict and the tsunami disaster.
The timing could not have been better as the country
is once more on the brink of civil war. The paintings, which could
be viewed as a photo essay or a visual poem, are superbly composed
and leave a lasting impression on the viewer. Through stark juxtapositions
and powerful imagery, the artist compels us to subject her works
to close scrutiny and to dwell on their weighty social and political
Anoma’s intention is not to provide answers
but rather to sensitize the viewer to the issues and challenges
confronting this conflict-ridden nation. For example, the haunting
images of poverty-stricken refugees raise many questions: Are they
conflict IDPs or tsunami IDPs or both? How long will they remain
refugees? What is their destiny? Does anyone care?
The exhibition’s audio visual component
consists of a synchronized, multi-screen, power-point/DVD presentation
with new-age, electronic music provided by a talented young Sri
Lankan composer. The objective of this exercise is to enhance and
intensify the artistic impact of the images through an interactive
communication process. Says Anoma: “The multi-screen video
installation vastly increases the possibility of fusion and layering,
overlapping and repeating in several ways to allude and hint at
a myriad of possibilities, interpretations and realities. The integration
of different elements – imagery, sound, movement, an idea
installed in a sculptural environment –
allows for interactivity in the viewing in an almost theatrical
In sum, this is the most ambitious and visionary
project undertaken by Anoma to date, which exploits the interface
between digital art and modern communication technology so as to
create a “visual poem for viewers to enter and share”.
Viewed in this context, the interactive art exhibition (the first
of its kind) represents a personal milestone, a ground-breaking
achievement, which is likely to add a new chapter to the history
of artistic expression in Sri Lanka.
A gallery of beauty
“I like dealing with beautiful things,”
says Manique Gunawardena reflectively, surveying her collection
of artworks. She sits on a bench and all around her the rare and
exquisite are arranged – all of which are for sale at a price.
Her gallery on Bullers Road ‘Objects d’ Art’ has
been in Mrs. Gunawardena’s family for over 50 years now and
she has personally been in charge of it for the last two decades.
For Mrs. Gunawardena, her small enterprise combines
her passion for art with her love of travel. Having seen much of
Europe and Asia, her collection at Objects d’ Art is as eclectic
as it is intriguing. Pieces of European statuary are to be found
side by side with Chinese pagodas and Kandyan artefacts. In the
displays, genuine antiques mingle freely with exact replicas and
therefore while some pieces are ancient and elegant, others are
modern and innovative. Diverse styles and techniques find representation
- paintings, furniture, lamps, statuary, jewellery, and other knick
knacks all fill the space.
Mrs. Gunawardena is particularly proud of her
collection of what she calls feng shui pieces. Mostly Chinese in
origin, these artefacts are said to be lucky and beneficial to the
atmosphere of a house. She points out a Chinese pagoda - one of
her prime feng shui pieces.
Traditionally a pagoda is an auspicious symbol
associated with protection and education. All considered, her collection
remains small, each piece hand picked by her for its unique appeal.
“I have only about 50 pieces (excluding the jewellery) in
my inventory at any given point in time,” she reveals.
Some pieces are particularly striking. Take for
instance, the Indonesian wrought iron mini bar which she says it’s
unlikely she will ever agree to part with or the huge wooden Dutch
chest which is over 200 years old. The statues featuring everything
from nubile young goddesses, roaring lions, large fish and knights
astride their horses are particularly noteworthy. Cast in bronze
for most part, these solid pieces are detailed and well executed.
Interestingly, a majority of the work is commissioned
from local artisans – some of whom are based in Kandy. Mrs.
Gunawardena explains that she commissions pieces regularly from
them. Some are of her own designs, while many others are replicas
of creations she has only seen pictures of. Her arrangements with
carpenters, sculptors and other artisans also make it possible for
her to custom make artefacts for clients.
Objects d’ Art was first begun by Mrs. Gunawardena’s
father, Mr. Dharmapala, who was an engineer by profession at Radio
Ceylon. “After retirement he devoted his time and energy to
his great love – the collecting of antiques,” revealed
Mrs. Gunawardena, adding, “he was the pioneer of the business
that is now shared by my brothers and I.” Despite its long
history, the operations of the gallery remain curiously informal.
The gallery is part of Mrs. Gunawardena’s home and the art
works are scattered all over the place - overflowing into the garden,
into the garage and then into the very house itself.
Objects d’Art has the appeal of a large
treasure chest, an impression that is further heightened by its
exclusivity. Mrs. Gunawardena receives clients by appointment only.
An interior designer by profession, she explains that she also is
involved in charity work that takes up much of her time. In fact,
much of the proceeds from sales are re-directed to such worthy causes,
The dance has just begun
Tara Coomaraswamy traces the steps of Anandavalli,
a Lankan Bharatha Natyam exponent, now domiciled in Australia
The legendary dancer Ram Gopal described her as
a “young dance phenomenon”. Professor P. Sambamoorthy,
one of the highest authorities on Indian music and dance, said she
had been “born with bells on her feet”. She had her
Arangetram at the age of just nine, and by the time she was twelve
had danced in Paris, and toured Germany and the UK.
Although it is a few years since Anandavalli has
performed in Sri Lanka, many in her native country will remember
seeing her dance. Now settled in Sydney, she has forged a new career
as a choreographer and artistic director and is making a significant
contribution to the arts in Australia.
Anandavalli was a child prodigy, whose talent
was spotted early by her mother, Linga Satchitananda, daughter of
the redoubtable Professor C. Suntheralingam, polymath and politician.
Anandavalli began dance training at the age of seven under Neela
Satyalingam. She was soon travelling regularly to Madras where she
trained in Bharatha Natyam and Kuchipudi under such eminent gurus
as Adyar K.Lakshmanan, Vazhuvor Ramaiya Pillai, Vempati Chinna Satyam,
Vazhuvor R.Samarraj and Udupi Laxminarayan.
After living and performing abroad for many years,
and despite being offered British citizenship in 1974, Anandavalli
returned to Sri Lanka to live, but after the traumatic events of
July 1983, she and her family left to settle in Australia. She continued
her international career as a dancer, performing in a range of countries,
from Singapore and the Philippines to India, Pakistan and the UK.
She has performed in all the major cities of Australia, including
at prestigious venues such as the Seymour Centre and the Sydney
Opera House. At the end of a successful national tour in 1989, she
was honoured on stage after her Sydney performance by being awarded
Australian citizenship in recognition of services to the arts in
She took her first two pupils in 1985 and today
the Lingalayam Dance Academy (named after her mother) has nearly
100 pupils, who take part in sold-out annual productions. Anandavalli
is proud of the fact that no fewer than twelve of her pupils have
committed themselves to the years of arduous training required to
undertake an Arangetram, or solo dance debut. In 1996 she also formed
the Lingalayam Dance Company (LDC) around a core of graduates from
her dance academy – mainly Sri Lankans and Indians but also,
remarkably, some Australians. The LDC has put on a series of exciting
and innovative productions and in under ten years has established
itself as one of the major ethnic dance companies in Australia,
with support from the New South Wales Ministry for the Arts.
In 2002 the Dance Board of the Australian Council
for the Arts awarded Anandavalli a Fellowship (granted only once
in an artiste’s lifetime) to undertake advanced research into
dance. In India, in addition to deepening her choreographic skills,
she trained in a new Kuchipudi repertoire, had formal training in
Carnatic music and also researched ancient scripts, music and the
Indian epics. Back in Australia, she undertook an apprenticeship
under one of Australia’s foremost experts in lighting design.
Despite hanging up her shoes - or “bells”!
- in December 2003, Anandavalli has been reborn as a choreographer-cum-artistic
director. The majority of Dance Academy and Company productions
are her creations. Interestingly, most of the LDC productions since
1999 have dealt with feminist themes. Anandavalli has taken traditional
Hindu mythological stories and either developed hitherto unexplored
aspects of them, or re-interpreted them for contemporary audiences
so that their force as allegories of the human – particularly
female – condition becomes more poignant. The LDC’s
fascinating dance-dramas include “The Temple Dancer”
and “The Courtesan’s Daughter” – which tell
of how female dancers in the temple, all originally “brides
of Siva”, Lord of the Dance, traditionally evolved into entertainers
through royal patronage. “Serpent Woman” is the story
of a woman who, in her desperation to have children, mates with
a serpent – with horrific consequences for the twin girls
she bears. “Earth and Fire” contrasts the heroines of
the Ramayana and Mahabharata, showing how the patience and humility
of a Sita can be as powerful, in their own way, as the fiery vengefulness
of a Draupadi. A favourite of Anandavalli’s is “Sthree,”
which describes the seven ages of Woman, from infancy, through to
old age and “liberation” from the eternal cycle of life.
The goal has been to demonstrate, through these diverse stories,
women’s “shakthi” – their tremendous strength
and ability to cope with life’s vicissitudes.
Anandavalli herself seems the embodiment of Shakthi,
with her tremendous drive and resourcefulness. Thoroughly professional,
she demands the highest standards of herself as well as of the people
she deals with. Although still relatively young, she is very much
a “grande dame”, with the bearing and easy confidence
of one who has been in the public eye for over 35 years. Always
immaculate and beautifully dressed, she commands attention wherever
she goes, not only because of her striking looks but also through
the dynamism of her warm and lively personality.
Madras, where I met her recently, is her second
home, after Sydney. She has a long association with the city, and
recalls how as a little girl, she used to be taken there three times
a year during school holidays, to study with her dance gurus, often
sleeping on mats on the floor in their houses. Now she lives in
the comfortable flat which her mother had bought in 1984, foreseeing
that her daughter would need this base from which to periodically
refresh and renew her creative wellsprings. And every year Anandavalli
returns, to consult her gurus, get new ideas and, more practically,
to get costumes sewn for her productions.
Anandavalli is also grateful for the opportunities with which Australia
has provided her. It has nurtured her creativity, allowing her to
develop in her own way, without forcing her to “contemporise”
her art. She has risen to the task of educating Australian audiences
to appreciate Indian dance on its own terms and has won them over
without either compromising her artistic integrity or patronising
them. Instead, she has tried to constantly challenge them with powerful
dance-dramas which appeal through relevant content, narrative interest
and expressive power. Thus one of her major achievements has been
to develop an effective means of dialogue with the Australian public
while retaining her own cultural identity.
Her son (appropriately named “Shakthidharan”)
is carrying on the tradition. A high achiever academically, he decided
against the conventional professional careers which were open to
him, and chose to follow his passion for drama and music. He has
had a significant input into Anandavalli’s work but has also
recently set up a small theatre company of his own, called “Curious
Works”. Its first major production was “The Migrant
Project” which dramatised the experiences of immigrants from
diverse backgrounds in Australia’s most cosmopolitan city,
Life has never been busier. The LDC’s latest
production, “Tarangini” had an audience of a thousand
and raised $10,000 for children orphaned by the tsunami in Sri Lanka
and for a women’s charity in India. Requests for the Company
to dance at various events and venues are coming in thick and fast.
There are plans to tour, possibly to Singapore or the UK. 2006 will
see three more new productions – two by the Company and one
by the Academy. Anandavalli is brimming with ideas, eager to take
her Company in new directions and to evolve new forms through collaboration
with other dance genres - though she is wary of that overworked
In 2004, for example, the LDC staged a revolutionary
version of Shakespeare’s “Tempest”, with the collaboration
of internationally renowned dancer-choreographer Astad Deboo, a
veteran of many Indian and Western dance styles, Albert David, a
specialist in Contemporary and Aboriginal Dance, and Prasanna, a
guitarist whose range spans Jazz, Western Classical, Carnatic and
One gets the feeling that Anandavalli has only
just begun. Although she already has an impressive list of achievements,
she is certainly not resting on her laurels. We can expect to hear
more of her in the future. Sri Lanka’s loss has definitely
been Australia’s gain.