Diverse and complex

Serendipity: 'New art from Sri Lanka', a presentation by the Serendib Gallery, Colombo of Sri Lankan painting, installation, sculpture, mixed media work, poetry, dance and music is now on in London. Held in association with the October Gallery of Bloomsbury, it is the first major exhibition of Sri Lankan art outside the country’s shores since the 43 Group exhibited in London half a century ago.

Twelve contemporary artists were selected to represent the broad spread of artistic production.

The exhibition had a successful preview on March 19, with Sri Lankan High Commissioner Faiz Musthapa and his wife, the Deputy High Commissioner Kshenuka Seneviratne and Mohan Daniel of the Serendib Gallery being present amongst a large gathering of art lovers and critics.

Polly Savage, curator of the October Gallery in her introduction to this exhibition wrote:

" I was gently advised by someone who ‘knew' that an exhibition of new art from Sri Lanka would be a waste of time, as this country had not produced an original artist since the modernist painters of the 43 Group over half a century ago.

"Colombo's artists were to confront me with a very different story: one of complexity, diversity and above all, a vitality that flew in the face of social constraints. And then there were the artists of Jaffna. For whilst the people of Sri Lanka have fought bitterly and suffered more than anyone ever should, the creative energy of the island gives powerful testimony to the strength and resilience of the human spirit.

"Yet Sri Lankan art is not all about the war. Neither is it all about a modernist legacy. Nor is it simply a synthesis of East and West. The art being produced in Sri Lanka today is as complex as the country itself, resolutely refusing to collude with expectations, or to be confined within the boundaries of nationhood.

"An earnest desire to reflect some measure of this complexity underscores this exhibition. And in every work this quality is present, in a multitude of forms in the layered duality of Gamage's installations and the textured depths of Ratnayake's panels; in Malathie de Silva's organic marble forms and Edirisinghe's wryly satirical reliefs; in Jagath Ravindra's infinite colours, and Shanaathanan's dark vision of war-torn Jaffna, in all these there is little that complies with a vision of how Sri Lankan art should look, yet neither is there any surrendering to western artistic vision. There is simply as rich a diversity of expression as may be found anywhere on the planet. And if originality must be measured, what better gauge than that?"


running in London, the exhibition will move to other locations in Britain ending with an exhibition at Lincoln in February/March 2004.

For this exhibition at the October Gal

lery a series of special events titled - Serendipity- a festival of new arts from Sri Lanka was arranged.

A night of classical Tamil music had singer Manickam Yogeswaran performing to an appreciative audience with a selection of musicians playing violin, miridangam, and morsing (Jewish harp). Yogeswaran has made an outstanding contribution to Tamil and Ragam music. He has sung as a soloist in such ensembles as the Tamil Classical Band.

He was the first Tamil vocalist ever to sing in a major Hollywood film as part of Jocelyn Pook's soundtrack for Stanley Kubrick's last film Eyes Wide Shut in 1999. Yogeswaran was born in Sri Lanka.

An evening of bharatha natyam had Anusha Subramanayam perform a selection from this dance repertoire. A teacher for 17 years in Britain, Anusha is part of the long tradition that has revitalized, restructured and re-interpreted bharatha natyam in a contemporary context.

Acclaimed cellist 'Rohan de Saram and friends' will perform works especially devised for cello, piano and tampura by Jonathan Mayer, with Druvi de Saram on piano, and the composer on tampura.

Finally to end this festival of Sri Lankan events, Preshanthi Navaratnam, Sri Lankan opera singer will perform a piece combining the work of Mendelssohn, and Sri Lankan composer Deva Surya Sena, as well as works by Strauss,

Debussy, Brahms and Sri Lankan Norman Corea. Preshanthi has performed widely, interpreting Benjamin Buell at the Royal Albert Hall, 'Jerry Springer the opera' at the Edinburgh Festival, Madame Butterfly with the English Festival Opera, and the 'Child of Jago' at the Purcell Rooms. She is currently working on the Brahms Requiem.

A seminar too is scheduled to be held with artists, curators and writers in the field of Sri Lankan art along with a series of workshops by Sri Lankan sculptress, Malathie de Silva whose work draws from Buddhist approaches to life and the rhythms and forms and nature. Delicately carved from stones such as marble, alabaster and serpentine, Malathie will demonstrate the tools she uses to construct her sculpture.

The 12 artists whose work is being presented are Tissa Ranasinghe whose monumental bronzes extend the exhibition into the courtyard garden, Malathie de Silva's whose recent series of fluid marble and serpentine sculpture, designed for handling and feeling, are complemented by specially commissioned poetry from Jane Russell, photographer Dominic Sansoni, documenting over 20 years research into Sri Lanka's Ganesh Shrines and Chaminda Gamage whose paintings explore indigenous objects that have been 'borrowed' by the west.

Jagath Ravindra uses acrylic on canvas to explore themes of the Sri Lankan soul in isolation, Sudath Abeysekera - the winner of the Royal Overseas Travel Scholarship for 2002 which enabled him to work and study in Scotland, depicts Michelangelo's David as an icon for his generation using collage and strong colours, Pradeep Chandrasiri paints with reference to past social struggles and Wijelatha Edirisinghe's satirical mixed media reliefs belie her keen sense of political irony.

Kingsley Gunatilleke's series on the displaced woman in soft tones and Sujith Rathnayake's acrylic on canvas both question an individual's position in history. T. Shanaathanan’s' dark and surreal visions present with great poignancy, life in war-ravaged Jaffna.

Mohan Daniel of the Serendib Gallery is pleased with the reviews of this first major exhibition of Sri Lankan art abroad. The Serendib Gallery's non-profit web portal was his first step in providing Sri Lankan artists a window for the international exposure they deserved; up to thirty nine artists are featured on this site with no restrictions placed on the number of paintings which could be displayed, with no fee charged from the artist.

This web portal which now runs into 800 screens (at 800 x 600 resolution) promotes Sri Lankan artand culture.

Holding exhibitions abroad was the next step to popularizing Sri Lankan art abroad, says Daniel, this too being a non-commercial venture. He has already arranged to hold exhibitions in other major cities in other countries as well, not only of fine arts and photography but of the performing arts as well.


Her songs lit up the ugly

By Richard Harrington
Nina Simone, who died at age 70 at her home in the South of France, never hid her intense rage, or her immense passion.

Onstage, she was the embodiment of the combustible artist, ready to rail at inattentive audiences, inarticulate critics, deceitful promoters and thieving label owners. In performance, and on her many albums, Simone offered shimmering testimonials to the power of love as well as blistering social commentaries, most but not all of them rooted in America's shameful legacy of racism.

Like jazz artists Abbey Lincoln, Max Roach and Charles Mingus, Simone used her populist platform to shine a bright light into ugly corners of American society. Sometimes those two worlds were joined, as "To Be Young, Gifted and Black”, the uplifting anthem Simone wrote with Weldon Irvine Jr. The song captured the empowerment of racial pride:

Young, gifted and black

How I long to know the truth

There are times when I look back

And I am haunted by my youth

Oh but my joy of today

Is that we can all be proud to say

To be young, gifted and black

Is where it's at.

Powerful readings by Donny Hathaway and Aretha Franklin are better known, but Simone's is the original. Simone was a crucial voice in the civil rights era, when some of her most striking work addressed the horrors and injustices attending blacks in the South, incendiary tracts like "Mississippi Goddam" (inspired by the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four black girls), "Old Jim Crow" and "Backlash Blues" (based on a poem written for Simone by Langston Hughes).

There was a time when Nina Simone was dubbed "the high priestess of soul”, a term she hated, not only because it smacked of marketing hype but because it tried to put her in a box she'd never have fit in comfortably. While Simone certainly invested all her work with soul, she blurred boundaries and jumped genres, embracing jazz, pop, blues, spirituals, folk, French chansons, African song and the works of contemporary songwriters like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, the Bee Gees and the Beatles - Simone's reading of "Here Comes the Sun" remains a transcendent moment of elegance and joy. Simone was also one of the first African American artists to embrace traditional African garb, adding regal bearing to her already dramatic presence. Ironically, Simone's first and only American hit came early in her career, with a luminous reading of George Gershwin's "I Love You Porgy" recorded in 1957; it went Top 20, the only Top 40 entry of a career that covered 45 years. Confirming the vagaries of pop culture, Simone did enjoy a top-five single in England in 1987, when a three-decade-old recording of "My Baby Just Cares for Me" - from the same "Little Girl Blue" album that included "Porgy" - became a hit after being used in a television commercial.

Simone - born Eunice Waymon in Tryon, N.C. - had originally trained to be a classical pianist, but such opportunities for African Americans in the 1950s were limited.

So initially, to support her education, she made a living accompanying classical singers. When an opportunity to work in an Atlantic City lounge cropped up in 1954, it was on the condition that she sang as well as played. That's when Eunice Waymon became Nina Simone, out of fear of offending her handyman father and, perhaps more important, her Methodist minister mother. Up to that point, Simone had never sung in public. Simone started off exploring the Great American Songbook, but also expanded her repertoire with stately spirituals like "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands" and reconstituted folk standards like "House of the Rising Sun" and "Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair." Whatever the material, Simone offered it on her terms.

Her recording career started in the mid-'50s on the Bethlehem label, and even though she was never a particularly commercial presence, she was prolific. The online site All Music Guide lists almost 100 albums (including compilations). Many of the best are live albums that capture the artist's charisma, tenderness and fervour - as well as the occasional firestorm of anger and frustration. Because Simone was so productive, particularly in the first two decades of her career, she could be annoyingly erratic and inconsistent on record: her best-ofs are often the best representation of less-than-stellar efforts, but there's usually at least one gem on every album she recorded.

By the late '60s, Nina Simone had grown weary of American racial politics and frustrated with the level of her commercial success. She relocated to Europe, where she felt more appreciated as both an artist and a black person. She lived at various times in Switzerland, France and England, as well as Liberia and Barbados.

Back in 1992, Simone published her autobiography, "I Put a Spell on You." The title is taken from one of Simone's unparalleled covers, this one of Screamin' Jay Hawkins's wild voodoo declaration of lust and love.

In Simone's hands, it was seductive, bold and irresistible, a testament to a fiercely independent spirit who did things her way because that was the only way.

-The Washington Post

A musical evening of education not entertainment

The lecture-demonstration with two violins and a viola by Lakshman Joseph de Saram, assisted by Chaturika Abeysekera and Shehara Gunasekera, that took place at the Alliance Francaise on March 29 under the auspices of the Western Music Panel of the Arts Council proved to be a musical evening with a difference.

For the focus was not on entertainment but on education, not on the works performed but on the musical tradition from which they originated or to which they contributed; and hence, not on the presenter himself but on the material he presented. The music in itself was not remarkable, albeit most skilfully and feelingly played.

The two early Beethoven duets transcribed for violin and viola were essentially minor works. But it was interesting to see how the first reflected the influence of the Italian style of composition which Beethoven discarded as he came under the Teutonic influence that was to determine his development as a composer. Examples of the former were the use of the glissando and the obviously Italian lilt of the melodic line.

The second work performed was a duet for two violins by Viotti, a composer of whom little is heard. We appreciated his being given the limelight here because of the influence he was to exercise over the writing for violin of Beethoven and Brahms, among others, as reflected even in their great violin concertos.

The second Beethoven violin/viola duet, apart from demonstrating the indebtedness to Viotti, was interesting for its depiction of other features that were to come to play a major part in the development of Beethoven's distinctive style. It was in the key of B flat, to which Beethoven returned in major works like the Fourth Symphony, the Hammerklavier Piano Sonata and the 13th String Quartet plus the subsequently separated Grosse Fuge. Here, too, we saw the very first use of the Scherzo, which was actually invented by Beethoven to succeed the Minuet and Trio as a compositional movement. There was also the theme and variations format to which Beethoven would have recourse in his greatest works, such as the last Symphony, the last Piano Sonatas and the last String Quartets.

Last to be performed were nine of the 44 duets for two violins by Bartok. These represented the composer's "fusion" of modern and folk elements with the modern influences of Debussy and Stravinsky.

At a time when so much quasi-fusion music is being forced upon us, it was good to be able to perceive from these excerpts that genuine fusion comes about only when the creative imagination of the composer welds otherwise disparate elements into a new harmonic whole.

I believe the most significant achievement of this lecture-demonstration was to help the audience to realize that behind the great and well-known works of musical composition there lies an unbroken tradition of techniques, styles and other influences all of which, in the hands of their innovators and developers, the small and the great alike, have contributed to the rich and living tapestry of this tradition. Even Beethoven, for all the originality of his genius, was indebted to this tradition and even the modern individuality of Bartok drew inspiration from it.
-Priya David


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