Soft spoken and mild mannered, Asai Rasiah, the elderly art master, greets us warmly as we enter his humble home in the heart of Jaffna. Showing us the many paintings hanging on the walls, he leads us to his garden for an informal chat about Asai Rasiah, the artist. His eyes though, tell a whole other story…a story that remains etched in our hearts, long after we have left him.
“When society is going through a particularly bad time, it’s essentially the responsibility of an artist to show them the way through his art. An artist must highlight and bring to light the trials and injustices faced by the common man on a day-to-day basis. As the saying goes, ‘a picture speaks a thousand words,’ so an artist must allow his/her art to speak for itself,” says Asai Rasiah.
“As long as I can remember, I would be sketching in class,” he says. After his O/L’s, he applied to the College of Art and Crafts in Colombo, and when he was in his third year there took part in t he All Ceylon Painting Competition, organized by Cold Stores Ltd. Even though he had won the competition officially, he had to forfeit his win as he had misunderstood the instructions. However, his winning entry was published in a calendar later that year.
Having left his alma mater – Velany Central College, in 1971, he got his first break as an art teacher in Kayts, during which time, he also attended Teacher Training College. Then came the appointment as Art Master at Royal College, Colombo, from 1975-83. It was during this time that his world came crashing down.
Mr. Rasiah remembers the ‘83 riots with a heavy heart. “Initially, I wasn’t aware of what was taking place, so I started off to college as usual. On my way there, I saw a body burning inside a car in Thimbirigasyaya. The next thing I recall was being in the Principal’s room, crying. Luckily my wife and daughter were in Jaffna.
The college gave me refuge for four days and the hostellers even gave me their sheets to sleep on. After four days, the Police arrived and took me to the Thurstan College premises, where a temporary camp had been set up. Luckily for me, one of my co-teachers at Thurstan, Mr. Piyathilaka, offered me his staff quarters to live in whilst I was there. This way, I at least had a toilet and room to myself, instead of having to share the grounds with 2000-3000 other people and use barrels as toilets.”
“The Sinhalese family I was boarded with in Colombo, came to look for me. They helped send me off by ship to Kankesanthurai (KKS). Having travelled for four days on an India-bound ship, once we arrived at KKS, my trousers were almost falling off me, as we’d had almost nothing to eat throughout our journey there.
“My whole family had given me up for dead. My mother who had been waiting up for me without any sleep, for 14 days, had passed away out of anxiety and exhaustion, the day before I returned home,” he recollected tearfully.
“She was the real creative genius in the family. She was a seamstress and could literally take apart a pair of shorts and make a block out of it. She was also very good at intricate embroidery,” he recalls.
Too affected psychologically by his mother's death to take up art again, he turned to farming. Later, he tried photography, but soon gave that up, for lack of interest. He was also offered an appointment as Visiting Lecturer at the University of Jaffna, but turned this down too.
Subsequently, he decided to return to art, experimented with different mediums - oils, pastels, charcoal, water colours, and began using a palette knife instead of a brush to paint. His use of many colours is to give character and depth to his subjects, he adds. David Paynter, A.C.G.S. Amarasekara, Stanley Abeysinghe, J.D.A. Perera, Picasso, Rembrandt and Van Gogh are those he mentions as major influences.
“My art has been, and continues to be influenced, both, by my personal experiences and circumstances and the happenings around me,” he says. Some of his paintings depict poignant scenes from the tsunami, the destruction of the war and its aftermath, portraits and landscapes. One particularly powerful painting is a portrayal of how women who have lost their children/spouses to the war, are left to bear the burden of dealing with their grief and fending for their families.
His paintings carry powerful social messages - widows, killings, poverty, caste problems, displacement etc. all figure in his work. “My painting styles have constantly evolved. I would paint in a certain style at one point in my life, and then move on to a different style altogether,” he explains.
“Even now when I teach, I only teach the very basics, as I strongly believe that thereafter an artist must find his/her own way. I don’t think it’s fair or right, to impose a style/technique on a student. Each individual student must, in time, discover it for themselves.”
He has held annual exhibitions at the National Art Gallery in Colombo, and also held one-man shows at Achchuveli in 1985, and at the University of Jaffna, in 1998, where he exhibited 60 paintings. Some of his paintings are still on sale at the Platé Art Gallery in Colombo. Mr. Rasiah has also been a Designer/Panel Artist at the Philatelic Bureau in Colombo and has designed 10 stamps. He now gives art classes at his home, free of charge, and lectures at the University of Jaffna.
The current education system and art syllabus, he says should include more input on spirituality, as all beings are the same, and people need to be made more aware of the sacredness of life.And despite suffering from spondylosis now he still paints. “I’m able to express my emotions much more freely via my art, than I would be able to otherwise, and I also gain a strong sense of spiritual satisfaction via my art. Even when we’ve gone through rough times financially, I continued to paint.
I mostly painted for my personal satisfaction, and not for commercial purposes. My friends often ask me if I still paint. I reply promptly ‘Yes, of course. If not, I’d probably die.'”