Saskia Fernando keeps her art gallery filled with exquisite things. However, her most prized possession has never been on display. Instead, the delicate miniature sculpture is kept nestled inside her jewellery box. The statue of a venerable teacher with his student is a netsuke, a form of miniature sculpture that was invented in Japan in the 17th century. “The sculptures served a practical purpose,” says Saskia explaining that the piece she holds may have once been an essential part of someone else’s wardrobe.
Today, it is Saskia’s good luck charm. “It was given to me by my father when I was 18 and on my way to University,” she says, explaining that her tiny companion has never left her side since and has travelled all over the world with her.
|Saskia’s netsuke goes where ever she goes. Pix by M.A. Pushpa Kumara
Netsukes exist because kimonos have no pockets. Before western dress came to their island, Japanese women turned their elaborate sleeves into purses, tucking small items into the folds of each. Men, however, chose to have their personal possessions suspended from their obi, the broad kimono sash that circled their waists.
Their purses and pipes were held in beautiful containers known as sagemono; and this is where the netsuke proved indispensable. Saskia points out a hole in her sculpture. It is evidence of the netsuke’s use – when the chord that held the sagemono was run through it and then attached to the obi, the netsuke would keep the whole thing from simply unravelling.
The netsuke shared the burden with a little sliding bead known as ojime, which was strung on the cord between the netsuke and the sagemono and helped the owner to tighten or loosen the opening on his latter.
Despite the fact that a netsuke was essentially a component in the ancient equivalent of a waist pouch, artists spared no effort in its creation. The value of the sagemono, the netsuke and the ojime went far beyond the practical. “Each was very much a work of art,” says Saskia. “Just looking at the different netsukes, you can see how intricate the design is on each.” It’s true that there is a startling variety among netsukes. Where some netsukes were comedic (in one, a man is bent over scrubbing the floor. His face is a study in consternation – he has just realised a rat is running across his back), others were erotic (a comely young woman bathes naked in a tub) and still others depicted animals, plants and mythical creatures. Some of the most expensive netsukes were intricately carved or boasted lacquer work and inlays of precious stones and corals or rare materials. In an object that is rarely more than an inch long, this detail is quite wonderful.
Having poured over the images online, Saskia says: “just looking at the netsukes you can see that there are some that are more modern or intricate but I can’t quite seem to find one that looks like mine.” Saskia’s netsuke is made of ivory. The passing of the years has given it the patina of age, turning the once white ivory brown. While ivory netsukes are common, they are believed to be largely the work of Netsukeshi (netsuke carvers) living in areas such as Osaka, Kyoto, and Edo. Those from other areas rarely had access to ivory and worked instead with a variety of materials including cherry wood, narwhal (marine ivory), boar’s tusk, amber, stag antler, pottery and bamboo.
Running along the base of Saskia’s sculpture is an inscription in Japanese that she is yet to decipher. Perhaps it is the artist’s signature, or Saskia speculates that it could be the name of the person who commissioned the carving of this netsuke for his wardrobe. The idea of the statue having a long history of use is a beguiling one, and adds to its value in Saskia’s eyes.
However, its primary claim on her is a sentimental one. It reminds her of the path her life has taken – from studying commerce in university to her return home to work with her father at Paradise Gallery; then a stint at hotel school before she returned to Colombo three years ago to found the Saskia Fernando Gallery. “This little sculpture went everywhere with me,” says Saskia. “It’s the good luck symbol that finally brought me back home to do the thing I wanted to do all along.”