As exemplified by Gillian Rose, (2012), one of the experts in Visual Methodologies, “choosing an appropriate research method, means developing a research questions and the tools that  generate evidence for its answer. What topic one should choose or what research method one should choose is a complex, ongoing problem all visual researchers face today. This [...]

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Discovering the hidden mysteries of a statue


As exemplified by Gillian Rose, (2012), one of the experts in Visual Methodologies, “choosing an appropriate research method, means developing a research questions and the tools that  generate evidence for its answer.

What topic one should choose or what research method one should choose is a complex, ongoing problem all visual researchers face today.

This problem is answered to a certain extent by Senior Professor Sarath Chandrajeewa in his timely book “Veragala Avalokitesvara  Bodhisattva: An Inquiry into its style & period (The Mahayana Buddhist Bronze Statue from Colombo Museum).

He is also the present vice-chancellor of the University of Performing and Visual Arts.

In his introduction, the renowned sculptor and artist, Prof.Chandrajeewa, says one of the purposes of this book is “to show an example especially for postgraduate students, who want to do visual research, how to produce a visual discourse on a sculptor or a painting or any other work of art”. There is no doubt that Prof.Chandrajeewa has pored over this unique bronze statue for hours and days to meditate, discover and describe its significance.

Using semiology, he first denotes the meaning of different gestures of the statue.

Going right into the description, he chisels in our minds,  that  “… Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara is seated like a royal personage. His right knee is lifted and placed on the throne closer to the body while the left leg comfortably hangs down. This posture is called ‘Royal Easy Posture’ (Rajalilasana), which is a combination of the majestic pose of Maharalilasana and the relaxation pose of lalitasana. The right armrests on the right thigh with fingers of the same hand showing the ‘Crab Symbol’ (katakahasta). He connotes the gesture by saying……. “there may have been a lotus flower between his fingers in this same hand to depict his ‘spiritual clan’ (Padma-kula) and also to symbolise his spiritual purity.

However, what is praiseworthy in this book is all denotations and connotations are based not on mere speculation but available historical documents….”

Citing F.M. Muller (1894), he says, “Taken as a whole, this valuable sculpture of the Bodhisattva represents a royal personality full of spiritual qualities. But it symbolises Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara of Mahayana Buddhism, who is praised in sutras written in Sanskrit as all-powerful and boundlessly compassionate”.

This book is important not only to students and historians but also to the general public in Sri Lanka, because, according to the editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Avalokiteshvara, (Sanskrit: avalokita, “looking on”; ishivara, “lord”), Chinese (Pinyin) Guanyin or (Wade-Giles romanisation) Kuan-yin, Japanese Kannon, in Buddhism  and primarily in Mahayana  (“Greater Vehicle”) Buddhism, the Bodhisattva  (“buddha-to-be”) of infinite  compassion and mercy, possibly the most popular of all figures in Buddhist legend. Avalokiteshvara is well known throughout the Buddhist world—not only in Mahayana Buddhism but also in Theravada  (“Way of the Elders”), the branch of Buddhism that largely does not recognise bodhisattvas, and in Vajirayana  (“Diamond Vehicle”), the Tantric (or Esoteric) branch of Buddhism”.

Avalokiteshvara supremely exemplifies the Bodhisattva’s resolve to postpone his own buddhahood until he has helped every human being on earth to achieve liberation (moksha; literally, “release”) from suffering (dukkha) and the process of death and rebirth samsara. His name has been variously interpreted as “the lord who looks in every direction” and “the lord of what we see” (that is, the actually created world).

Another noteworthy feature in the book is the proper citation to prove a point. Different archaeological and historical views are presented about the period of the sculpture, citing relevant sources, but at the end, the author using inductive approach says that Paranavithana’s view is “that the statue goes back to the 2nd century AD to the last centuries of the Anuradhapura period”.

The fourth chapter, titled “worship of Avalokitesvara in the Island of Lanka”, records in exquisite details how, when and where the cult had begun in different parts in Sri Lanka and in other countries. The stories and various interpretations around a horse bring to our minds stories from the “Tales of Punchathantra”, namely the story of the turtle that fell off the stick — as well as the legend of the Trojan Horse, a subterfuge the Greeks used to enter the independent city of Troy and win the war. However, it is safe to deduct  that these stories seem to be springing from one common tradition, and it is worth of future research.

The fifth and the sixth chapters of the book are visual content analyses of the style of the Veragala Avalokakitesvara  Bodhisattva. For anybody who wants to do visual research, these two chapters are eye openers and a must. They describe how to analyse a piece of art, whether it is a painting, sculptor or an artifact.

What is more interesting is how the author formulates theories based on scientific and available historical facts. Details and measurements of various drawings of the statue help the students how to go about in visual analysis.

The last chapter of the book is titled ‘Perception’. Since this is a kind of a primer for visual art students, I think it should be titled “Discussion” or a “Conclusion”.  As a skilful sculptor gives his final touch to his piece of art, the author, building up his conclusion on substantial historical evidence, says that “……… can be strongly ascertained that the creator of this statue is a maestro of art and that this work is not of a common artist or of a student studying under a teacher belonging to a certain school. He concludes by saying …..” Veragala Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara statue is an artistic representation which transmits the splendour of the kingdom of Anuradhapura, the royalty and the divinity.Further, it also conveys the connection that prevailed between politics and spirituality of that time…”.

More importantly, this invaluable bronze sculptor invites both amateurs and experts to take notice of its artistic style, period and the religious vision it represents.  It invites all of us to understand its ancient Sri Lankan identity, the skillfulness of ancient sculptors of the Anuradhapura period, which is connected with other countries in South Asia.

Though there are many books on research methodology for social sciences, it is the first time a book on how to interpret an artwork visually has been written — or to walk the talk —  by a Sri Lankan academic who is also a well-known sculptor. No doubt this book contributes to the existing knowledge in visual research and adds the vice chancellor’s own contribution to the novel research culture he plans to promote during his tenor in the University of  Preforming Arts.  Stuart Hall, says “Culture, it is argued, is not so much a set of things — novels and paintings or TV programmes or comics — as a process, a set of practices. Primarily, culture is concerned with the production and exchange of meanings —the ‘giving and taking of meaning’— between the members of a society or group…. This culture depends on its participants interpreting meaning, entirely what is around them, and ‘making sense’ of the world, in a broadly similar way.”(Hall 1997a:2).

Another value added feature in this book is the selection and inclusion  of great masterpieces of arts of the same caliber. As a classic text, the book appeals to undergraduates, postgraduates, visual researches and academics who are interested in doing visual research. The book, its language and style invite all of us to a silent dialogue with the statue to discover the hidden mysteries of peace and calm.


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