The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

On the streets that he loves

As Kandy resounds with the sights and sounds of the Esala Perahera , Kumudini Hettiarachchi speaks to Michael Sarnacki of Michigan whose love affair with Kandy from the mid-90s has resulted in a book on the story of the annual pageant

It was a strange combination of factors — a plane-ride within America, holes in socks, a long chat between two people from different sides of the world and an invitation.

……..And now a beautiful coffee table book, tightly packed with photographs which will remain etched in the minds of those who flip through its pages.

“Caught in a spell,” was Michael Sarnacki of Michigan, America, the very first time that he saw the grand pageant of the Esala Perahera at Kandy, when not only more than a hundred caparisoned elephants but “hundreds of people including flag bearers, officers of the devales, chiefs, torchbearers, drummers, musicians, dancers and specially-trained performers” took to the streets in veneration and celebration of the Tooth Relic of Lord Buddha.

Michael’s favourite photograph: ‘The elephant in the clouds’

For this 62-year-old photographer who lives and works in his home studio in Royal Oak but has travelled the world, the splendour of the many nights of the Esala Perahera, the colour, the elephants, the devotion of the pilgrims enchanted him.

Behind that first night of the perahera was a tiny picture and behind that was a strange tale. A “little photo” of the Kandy Perahera when he was researching about Sri Lanka just before his first visit of 1995 intrigued him.

He had boarded a plane from Detroit to New York City in early 1994 and was stowing his luggage when he saw the holes in the socks. The “airy hosiery” was of a Roman Catholic priest from Wennappuwa in Sri Lanka, Fr. Quintus Fernando, towards whom he felt an affinity as, growing up among four boys, he had had “no socks or underwear to call my own” until he went to college.The priest invited Michael to come visit Sri Lanka. “I didn’t have a clue” except that it was at the foot of India, when the photo of a grandly-adorned elephant caught not only his eye but also his creativity.

Pachyderm and pageant being inextricably-linked, numerous are the frames of these gentle giants that Michael has captured, in his glossy book ‘SRI LANKA AND THE KANDY ESALA PERAHERA – Discovering the Spirit of Buddha in the Land of the Elephants’.
As would be natural, when asked what his “favourite” is, Michael simply points to the cover and questions, “Did you see the elephant in the clouds?”

Trunk raised, it is a startling image that meets the eye. The elephant giving the impression of being in the clouds and as we look enthralled, out flows the story behind the picture.

Walking up to some mahouts who were squatting under an awning, Michael camera around his neck, had been asked for money by one of them. Knowing very well that a professional photographer cannot keep giving money whenever he wanted to take pictures, Michael had told them so, when another mahout had muttered something to the others and given a command to the elephant.

As he clicked away furiously, the elephant had raised its trunk, with Michael getting a sneaky feeling that the mahout had brushed him off, “like people do with their finger”, smiles Michael. Although all the mahouts laughed, most probably it was Michael who had the last laugh, having captured that all-important image that would make the cover.

Michael’s love affair with Kandy had begun in 1995 and it was the Esala Perahera which held his fascination though he did take many shots of Colombo and Negombo.Rationalising that Kandy where the Esala Perahera has been held for centuries, would be a good place to “learn about Sri Lanka inside out” rather than by touring the country, he returned in 1996 and 1997.

“I was on a roll. Coming from a family with a strong Catholic faith, I had a lot to learn. Different kinds of things,” says Michael, adding, “What I saw was the same devotion and commitment that Christians, have that the Hindus and Buddhists do – the practices may be different but devotion is the same.”

Michael Sarnacki. Pic by M.A. Pushpa Kumara

A shocker came with the bombing of the Dalada Maligawa in 1998.Where earlier people would walk about freely and even sleep in the open on the grounds facing the Dalada Maligawa, now there was none of that. Barricades were up. There were machine gun boxes and soldiers, also body searches. He was disappointed and decided to take a few years off.

But his project on the Esala Perahera was always on his mind.In 2005 he was back, returning every year thereafter in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010. Last year, however, was an exception. Michael was on his way to Sri Lanka when he was violently sick having eaten something that did not agree with him in Thailand and had to turn back.

“By that time I had enough images for the book,” he says, having a collection of about 15,000. Next came contact sheets, getting 3X5 prints and posting them on his studio wall.

“Chapter by chapter, the selections began,” he says, explaining that it took nearly a year to pick out the most compelling and telling images. “Photos are like children – the more you look at them, the more they grow on you, but finally the cream comes to the top and there were 300 in all. Some are purely pictorial, nice on a wall but others tell a story and they are more journalistic,” he says.

To muster finances to publish the book in China, Michael began fundraising on ‘Kickstarter’ on the web through which more than 200 people including many Sri Lankans from here and abroad, contributed US$21,000, “a sizable chunk”.

And it was not only the Esala Perahera which kept his attention riveted. He, like the perahera, walked the streets of Kandy, imbibing the sights and sounds of the city, talking to people who always stopped to answer his many queries without ever questioning why. The book has snapshots of even the mundane “Waiting & Gathering” which includes vendors aplenty; “The Preparation” gives a glimpse of the elaborate “dressing” that takes place soon after the boom of an aerial firework; and also nuggets of information which may even surprise a local. Americans freaked out whenever he gave them peeks of some of his work like the human-powered Ferris wheel, while the coverlet on his hotel bed folded in different patterns was “very un-American”, he says.

In this “personal project”, as opposed to the thousands of assignments he has undertaken, he says he wanted to do a book as special and fulfilling as the Esala Perahera. It had to be first class, not like most other publications. The book tells the story of the perahera with a strong historical and cultural pointer. Although the perahera may change over the years, as it may have done over the centuries, his book, he hopes will depict the scene in the 1990s and 2000s.

With a germ of an idea developing about another book on the ‘Elephant Doctor’ after seeing veterinarian Dr. Ashoka Dangolla at work, for now, Michael was back in Kandy last week in time for the perahera, bearing a gift from the heart of an artist and photojournalist which he hopes Sri Lankans will embrace.

“This book is my gift to Lord Buddha,” says Michael.

Want to meet Michael?

If you want to meet author Michael Sarnacki, he will be at the Vijitha Yapa Bookshop, Crescat branch, Colombo 3, today (July 29) at 10 a.m.
‘Sri Lanka and the Kandy Esala Perahera’ is available at all Vijitha Yapa Bookshops; signed copies with Dhammika Swarnasinghe of Swarna & Sons Ltd, No 1 B Queen’s Hotel Bldg., Kandy (Phone: 081-222 4740 or mobile 0712733170); and internationally from: www.Amazon.com or through the project’s website: www.SriLankaFestival.com

The American Center in Colombo will hold an exhibition of about 20 of Michael’s photographs for four weeks from August 6.

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