17th August 1997


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Reproducing Lanka's sacred art

By Hiranthi Fernando

Pix by Dominic Sansoni

[Vishnu]To bring the sacred art of Sri Lanka from temples and caves into art galleries and collections worldwide, is undoubtedly a monumental undertaking. Focusing on this aim, the Cultural Survival Trust has commissioned a group of artists, skilled descendants of the court artists of India, to produce a collection of paintings depicting gods and goddesses from Kailash in Bharatha to Kataragama in Sri Lanka. Mythic images from temple walls, caves, manuscripts, books and old cloth painting in Sri Lanka, have been the source of inspiration for most of these paintings. Brush painted in natural hand ground earth colours on paper made by hand especially for this purpose, the paintings show great beauty in their fine detailed work. The muted tones of the natural colouring also gives an impression of serenity. This skillfully executed collection will be presented by the Cultural Survival Trust at an exhibition 'Devi Devata' which will be opened on September 9 at the Sapumal Foundation.

The exhibition commemorates the 50th death anniversary of Dr. Ananda Coomaraswamy, which falls this year.

[Sivali Thera]Manik Sandrasagra of the Cultural Survival Trust, Curator for 'Devi Devata' explained that a whole studio of artists in Jaipur, India, has been engaged to carry out this work. Mark Boudin from France has also joined hands with them in the project. The artists, who are skilled exponents of Moghul and Rajput art forms, have worked for two years under the supervision of Sandrasagra and Boudin to produce the thirty one paintings of the collection. They are experienced copy artists who can copy perfectly from drawings, sketches or photographs. For example, the painting of the God Kataragama started with a rock rubbing. A French artist painted this on to paper and took it to India. There a line artist filled in the details that were missing. The Jaipur artists finally reproduced the painting.

Each painting takes about a month to complete and is done by many artists specializing in different aspects of the work. While many of the paintings are copied from existing images, some original paintings have also been done. For instance, Sandrasagra pointed out, one painting shows the golden doorway of the Dalada Maligawa with a bronze figure of the Buddha taken from elsewhere, placed in the centre.

"We are using and adapting the symbols found in our traditional culture," Sandrasagra said.

[Skanda]Speaking of the long process involved in producing these paintings, Sandrasagra said the first step is making the paper. This is done by hand, using old papers moistened with water. Then the necessary colours are prepared using natural minerals. For instance, Lapis Lazuli is used to obtain the blue colouring and gold leaf is used for the gold. The only colour which is not freely available in the natural minerals is the yellow which is now in short supply. A touch of chemicals is therefore used for the yellow colouring. The colours are made by grinding the minerals using pestle and mortar. The paintings are done entirely by brushwork. Making the brushes is itself a specialized task. The hairs from the tails of squirrels are used to make the brushes. The squirrels are let off once the hairs are plucked from the tails. For the very fine work in particular, new brushes are required. The finished paintings are rubbed over with stone.

Further, Sandrasagra explained that since paper was not made in Sri Lanka in the old days, our art galleries were found on the walls of temples and caves. Although temple art in Sri Lanka has been documented photographically, there have been no reproductions except for the pioneering work of the late Manjusri. Skills as well as funds have been lacking. "However, the spadework has been done. There is enough material and documentation available in Sri Lanka. I am looking for the sources and collecting the material together. It is an unending field and a great joy to work on."

[Suriya]"India has an abundance of paintings and Moghul miniature," enthused Sandrasagra. "Moghul and Rajput painting is directly descended from the original Buddhist temple paintings. India has also maintained the skills. We hope to exchange skills in the subcontinent. There is so much this region has to offer culturally, that we can learn from each other. We would like to foster regional unity through culture and skills."

According to Sandrasagra, an Indian organization of crafts persons, Dakstar, is willing to help Sri Lankan artists to recognise and regain the skills they once knew and have forgotten. "Dr. Ananda Coomaraswamy often spoke about the links between India and Sri Lanka. As this project continues, the Cultural Survival Trust plans to take Sri Lankan artists to the studio in Jaipur to learn and participate in the reproductions of temple art. It will be in effect a continuation of the 'Guru-Shishya' or teacher, pupil links that has long existed between India and Sri Lanka. Many of our artists have gone to India to learn from the masters and reproduce in Sri Lanka. We hope that Sri Lanka will create a market for religious art," Sandrasagra said.

Looking ahead, Sandrasagra says that after this exhibition the portfolio will be expanded and officially dedicated "for the supreme joy and emotion of the pious" on February 4 1998, which is the 50th Anniversary of Sri Lanka's Independence. Thereafter, the collection will be presented as a website on Internet networking galleries worldwide. A tour is being planned to cover New Delhi, New York, Washington, Toronto, London, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Sydney. The Cultural Survival Trust hopes to create sufficient interest through the exhibitions and tours to enable the work to continue.

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