Colombo and Himachal Pradesh are just two ground-based stops in artist Druvinka’s spiritual journey, writes Stephen Prins Daily, two crows join us as we sip our morning tea. One perches on the back of a facing chair, the other on the arm of the chair. They gaze at tea-drinker and teacup, reminding us they have [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Out of this world


Colombo and Himachal Pradesh are just two ground-based stops in artist Druvinka’s
spiritual journey, writes Stephen Prins

Daily, two crows join us as we sip our morning tea. One perches on the back of a facing chair, the other on the arm of the chair. They gaze at tea-drinker and teacup, reminding us they have come for their morning milk. The shallow plate filled with milk is placed in the garden, on a slab of cement paving. The birds tilt the plate with their beaks, tip the milk over, bend their heads to the ground and sip the spilled milk through the side of their beaks. The milk spreads out in broad white tributaries, flowing north, west, east. After the crows are gone, the remaining milk dries in the sun, leaving streaky overlapping dark stains that remind us of the art of Druvinka, the Sri Lankan artist who lives at the foot of the Himalayas.

An exhibition of Druvinka Madawela’s recent paintings is on at the Barefoot Gallery from March 14 to April 7

We must be the only non-collectors to be daily reminded of the work of Druvinka, as we step over the freshly poured art that takes shape in our garden each day of the week.
Druvinka’s canvases are stained with the milk and body fluids of the universe. They flow into view from cosmic corners and streak the heavens. A Druvinka painting is usually a dark proposition. Her view of the world is heavily overcast. But in the midst of the cosmic gloom light occasionally breaks through.
This surprise entrance, or breakthrough, of colour was welcomed by Druvinka collectors at the artist’s last Colombo exhibition, last year. Up to then her work had been uniformly grey or ashen – solemn and unsmiling. This time there was a glimmer of light. Yellow and red had leaked into view, as if a sun were rising galaxies away, or a cosmic egg yolk had broken.
Druvinka’s art is about fecundity, the fertilizing of the universal egg, the spilling of seed across Time and Space. Approaching Druvinka canvases is like entering the world’s belly, containing all manner of symbolic forms – phallic, mammary, uterine.
A year ago, the artist, who descends on Colombo from time to time to show and sell her art, explained her painting technique. The first stage is literally an “outpouring” – not from heart or head, but possibly from the subconscious. Paint is poured onto a canvas stretched on a wooden frame and left flat on the floor. The liquids flow and spread out. Once the paint has settled and dried into its final form, the artist starts stage two, the conscious part. In threads of fine ink, traced among heavenly shadows, the artist reveals a personal mythology that is steeped in ancient Indian-Hindu belief. Forms and figures suggest deities, shadows bodying forth Vishnu, Siva, Kali and Ganesh. Or the inked threads may writhe and gather into an image of impregnation and creation. “Pregnant with meaning” may be an art-lit talk cliché but it is appropriate for Druvinka’s work, which is profoundly female and maternal.
Meeting Druvinka is an experience. She is exquisitely feminine, with the grace and warmth of the idealised Asian-Oriental female. She is all Woman. She is Mother and Sister. When she talks, she is Mother Teacher or Sister Confidante. Her eyes film over as she tells the story of her art as a consuming spiritual quest, or as a difficult but joyous begetting of beauty. When you look at her sprawling canvases, you think: here is a woman who is ready to give birth over and over for the sake of sharing her unexplainable mystic message. Her paintings are prodigious offspring, each different but also alike, like non-identical twins and triplets. The work shown last year had all these elements of being both of one substance but also different.
Many of the images she showed on the last occasion were bi-valved organisms: you could draw a line down the middle, like a spine, and separate the painting into two almost equal halves, like a Rorschach inkblot.
The artist said she had no strategy when working on these paintings.
Druvinka is a faraway being. You sense her presence here in front of you is fleeting and that she’s waiting for the moment when she can distance herself, recede, disappear. When she told us that she lives in a village in the far north of India, with a view of the great mountains of the Himalayas, we thought: there’s nowhere else she could have gone.
Barefoot, in Indian garb, with bead necklaces, rings and nose ring, she looks like she is about to perform an Indian dance.
A recent newspaper photograph of a nightclub dancer who was reunited with her confiscated pet cobra is another reason we are thinking of Druvinka, a year after her last exhibition.
On Druvinka’s head, Medusa-like, is a snakes’ nest of what she calls “dead hair” – coils of it. She has a mystic bond with snakes, including venomous ones. She is drawn to the reptiles, which she picks up in her bare hands. She has never been bitten. She wraps a cobra around her body like a pashmini shawl. Never show fear in the presence of a snake, Druvinka says. They will respect you for that.
Snakes are present in many of Druvinka’s paintings. They hold things together, including the universe, in their generous serpentine folds.
The artist says she paints late at night, after her children have gone to bed. It is only when the house is perfectly quiet and there is silence and stillness around her that she can work. She works through the night. Her paintings are creatures of the night.
For the duration of the Druvinka exhibition, we went to see the paintings at night and during the day. You have one opportunity to see the art by night, and that is at the opening. You walk around the party guests and look between them and over them to view the canvases. Then you step into the garden, take a seat at the far end and look back at what is visible of the art, which is blazing in bright lights at a distance. A glass of wine later you are back in the gallery, where the art looks now more intense, more ready to yield secrets.
At one Druvinka opening night, the lights went out. During the blackout, the guests had to view the art by the light of oil lamps and candles. The artist was in her element. It was her happiest opening night.
Druvinka says she has found her spiritual home in Himachal Pradesh, a state in North India of great natural beauty. “Hima” is “snow” in Sanskrit, and the full name means “region of snowy mountains.” The state is also known as “Dev Bhumi”, or Abode of Gods. This abode of gods contains more than 2,000 Hindu temples. Himachal Pradesh is approximately 2,700 kilometres north of Colombo, as the crow flies.

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