12th December 1999

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There's beauty, anger and difference

By Asoka de Zoysa

"Harmony", the first ever group exhibition to be organized by the Indian Cultural Centre in association with the Vibhavi Academy of Fine Arts brings together five artists from different cultural backgrounds.

Some artists like Kushan Manjusri inspired by Buddhist philosophy use varied metaphors of South Asian art deriving from murals in cave temples to Rajasthani miniatures. It is nevertheless difficult to brand Kushan's paintings as Indian art or Sri Lankan due to his individual style. He also draws much inspiration from the West. The other artists Muhanned Cader, Godwin Roger Constantine, G. Kailasanathan and Nilanthi Weerasekara seem to have been influenced by the masters of classical modern art. This is not surprising as all these artists, except for Kailasanathan, who had his formal training in Kopay Training College, Jaffna have had direct contact with western art academies. They can be regarded as the mentors of avant garde art in Sri Lanka today.

What is most fascinating is that these artists have not painted for the sake of producing art. Going by their works exhibited or published so far, they show individual developments in recent years, each artist following his or her highly individual agenda at times to protest, at times to create awareness, at times to make one rethink standards and notions carried down for generations.

Naturally, those who try to discover the cultural identity of each artist on the base of his language, ethnicity or religion, will most likely be disappointed.

These artists have gone beyond picturesque representations, just to please the eye. No ruins of ancient temples, no sunsets, no sedate villagers in timeless space and no beggars of romantic squalor. Instead they use symbols sometimes with an overt message. Quite often these symbols are twisted the other way round, like in the case of Muhanned's paintings, when he makes a laconic comment to a social reality that we take for granted. Looking closely at his untitled painting, one finds a part of a tie placed on a Kulla. He thereby places the tie, an ornament of smartness and credibility, on the Kulla, which is an utensil that separates grain from straw, having no status value like the tie.

Godwin's untitled painting at a distance looks more like an arrangement of wall tiles. When one gets closer, the grotesque skulls grinning out of the coloured checkerboard become visible, just like the war in this country, regarded from a 'safe' distance, has come to be another facet of life if not taken as a multitude of individual tragedies. The unconcerned majority forgets the dead when the media relaxe and turn their attention to other distractions. The lost lives due to war blur out into statistics in history.

Against the backdrop of primitive cave art, Kushan's lady gazes into space unseeing like the Moghul ladies. Her breasts and neck reveal ideals of female beauty as written in classical ornate poetry, the Sanskrit Kavya. The only female artist Nilanthi, rejects these very standards of beauty. She selects examples from the Sigiriya frescos, and gives a new reading in her fabricated woman.

Going by these few works, selected at random, one may wonder how these artists with such different modes of expression would produce and select their works for the forthcoming exhibition. Whether the objectives of the organizers have been achieved or not, will be decided by the general public visiting this very unusual exhibition.

The exhibition will be inaugurated on December 16 and will be open to the public on Dec.17 and 18, at the Indian Cultural Centre, Bauddhaloka Mawatha, Colombo 4.


Fascinating tale of a monk

Visidunu Publishers seem to be rather selective in their publications. A few months ago they released a reprint of Dr. Senerat Paranavitana's 'Sinhalayo'. Earlier, works by Munidasa Cumaratunga and Gunadasa Amarasekera were among their publications. Their latest publication is the Sinhala translation of 'A Record of Buddhist Kingdoms or The Travels of Fa-Hsien' ('Bauddha Rajadhani Pilibanda Thoraturu Nam Vu Fahsienge Deshatana Vartava') by Professor Wimal G. Balagalle.

The story of the Chinese monk, Fa-Hsien, is a fascinating one. He was born in 334 A D. He had three older brothers who died as little children. The father got scared and got him into robes when he was just three. The name Fa-Hsien means The sparkle of the Dhamma' or 'Spreading the Dhamma'. Being too small, Fa-Hsien was allowed to stay at home but when he fell seriously ill , his father sent him to the temple. He recovered fast. When he was asked to come back home he refused. "I got into robes not only because my father wanted me to but because I saw the futility of life and wanted to enter the Order," he said.

In a biographical sketch, Professor Balagalle relates an incident to illustrate the young monk's steadfastness and bravery. Once he was harvesting a field with about 30 other monks when a gang of thieves who wese looking for food suddenly turned up to rob the harvest. The novice monks fled but Fa-Hsien remained. He told the gang: "You can take even the whole lot of this harvest. But think of one thing. Why are you in this plight today? You are poor because you have not given any alms or done any merit in your previous birth. What you are trying to do today is to plunder someone else's belongings. The result will be that you will again be born poor and helpless. I pity you." He then left for the temple. The thieves returned without touching a single grain.

Fa-Hsien's lifelong ambition to go to India and see places of worship and study the Dhamma was achieved only when he was 65. He undertook the journey with four other friends. Five others joined them and by the time they returned to China after 15 years, Fa-Hsien was the sole survivor. History records that he spent six years in India, two years in Sri Lanka and the other seven years travelling, which was arduous then. His main objective on the trip was to copy the Vinaya Pitaka and the Sutta Pitaka which he did. After his return to China, he recorded the entire trip. He was 79 then. He lived till he was 87.


Creating out of the dim and undefined

Book review

Divided Loyalty and Other Stories - by Flower Munasinghe. Reviewed by Carl Muller

If there must be a grand dame of the letters in Sri Lanka, it could well be Flower Munasinghe, that indefatigable lady who has now given us yet another collection of short stories. In her new book, Divided Loyalty and Other Stories, I find that Flower has, in deriving from the domesticity of Lankan life, a truer, sometimes starker, sometimes tenderer appreciation of the best she could dream of.

What Flower has given us is a bold, brave attempt to redefine moments of intense pain or pleasure. Sometimes, grief can be too big for words and even great joy has no articulate voice. There can be sensations too acute for description. How can such sensations be reproduced? Ah, there lies the story-tellers art - and to Flower, thinking back over the very many years of her life, comes the gift to re-live it all, create out of the dim and undefined a precious shape and form.

How does a writer express the grief, the torment of a mother "bereft of parents and home by the cruel war" and look on the still-born baby she has expelled from her womb - the baby who was to be her comfort in the lonely place she had fled to? And how like the tale of the fatted calf when Podi Appu tells his daughter, Podimenika: "This is your brother whom we gave up for lost. Hurry now and make him a good meal of rice and polos curry. We have a fruit on the tree."

Adriotly, Flower spins her story - Sinhalese foundling, raised by Tamils, returns to his own. But, he is so much the Tamil and so much the Sinhalese too. Where will he ever find peace? Only in the solitude of the forest, away from all contact, both Sinhalese and Tamil...

We are not to know how many of these stories are drawn from Flower's own life - experience but is it always the way with man (woman) that he faces eternity with a fear that blinds? Is this why, even when man faced the days of earthly banishment and death, no dictionary even today can truly explain the vocabulary of "Paradise Lost"? When, in "A Moment of Eternity" the elephant raises its leg, the victim blacks out. What good will this crushing death do to "a human brain with its education and appreciation of all this beautiful"?

It is only expected that Flower will use the scenario of the countries she has lived and travelled in. Yet, I have not found anything of real excitement in those tales which, alas, could just as easily have been set here. The mother who watches her daughter die of cancer is not given the necessary sense of drama, but this is made up for in the poignancy even if the story has been stretched to a needless point. However, what the reader is made to realise is that there is always a revolt against the maxim that "Mother knows best"- and Ellen has to watch her daughter die and know that the sun has left her own life and all is dreary and sad - clouded and leaden on every step of the stairs. Why this book deserves praise despite the "to be expected" progression of some of the stories, is that Flower has not spared herself in her enormous zest for the recording.

She herself is writing with a head crammed with all of a totally stupendous, magnificent, spell-binding and rare sort of life - and that's another thing altogether. Divided Loyalty and Other Stories" is a quiet, quite-easy read, uncomplicated, and with that sort of selflessness that one can see and understand in Flower herself. This is why the book has its own special attractiveness, and this is why I wish her more years of her own uncluttered creativity. It must be a great gift indeed, to create free of the very sense of creation and to mark her paper with tears when there are none in her eyes.

Kala Korner By Dee Cee

Down memory lane

Lyricists Sri Chandraratne Manawasinghe and Mahagama Sekara dominated the Sinhala music scene in the sixties. Joining them to create this a new music culture was W. D. Amaradeva who directed and sang some of the finest compositions ever created. Their main vehicle of communication was the radio - then Radio Ceylon. They were lucky to get the blessings of the hierarchy there to experiment and present something new and refreshing. Madhuvanti and several Geeta Natakas helped to improve the taste of the listeners. They set a new trend.

These renderings remain fresh to this day as was proved the other evening when a packed hall at the Maharagama Youth Centre was treated to songs created by the duo Manawasinghe- Sekara rendered by Pandit Amaradeva. Amaradeva was paying tribute to two of the greatest lyric writers with whom he had worked intimately. It was also a worthy cause. The Lions' Club of Werahera was setting up a scholarship fund in their memory. In a way it was a departure from the usual Lions' projects we hear of. Here was a pioneering effort - a laudable project which others can well follow.

Project chairman Prabath Manawasinghe had done a good job. He and his team had ensured a full house. There was due recognition to the widows - Srimathi Manawasinghe and Kamala Sekara who were received in traditional style by Amaradeva by offering a bulath hurulu. They in turn garlanded the photographs of the two great artistes.

Just as much as we were enthralled by Amaradeva's singing, his introductions to each song were equally fascinating. There was a little story behind each one of them. And how well he remembered the days he sat with the two of them and composed the memorable tunes. He began the evening with Jagan Mohini, Manawasinghe's composition which he has transformed into an immortal classic. He took us back to the days of Ranmuthuduwa when at the first Sarasaviya Film Festival, the song Galana Gangaki Jeevithe' won awards for the lyric writer Manawasinghe and the singing duo Nanda Malini and Narada Disasekera.

Then there was Sekara's Athe Kandukara Himavu Arane in Chitrasena's ballet, Nala Damayanthi. He reminded us of Sekara's brilliance in adapting Rabindranath Tagore's call to the nation - Patu Adahas Nam Pavurin - for one of the Madhuvanti programmes as most appropriate in today's context. And he brought to life Manawasinghe's Maha Bo Vannama describing the arrival of the sacred Bo sapling. Sekara's moving portrayal of life in Sannaliyane was once again presented in Amaradeva's inimitable style. And there were many more.

Wedded to art

It was nice meeting the Weereratnes - Neville and Sybil, after a few years (the last time was when Neville launched his book on the '43 Group) at the Gallery 706, where they were exhibiting their latest creative efforts - a fine collection of paintings and drawings.

Describing the duo as "two artists who have spent a lifetime in single-minded devotion to their art", Lester James Peries summed up the new creations thus: "One's first impression of Neville Weereratne's new work as well as Sybil Keyt's is that years of self-imposed exile have only intensified the nostalgia and the memories of a 'distant homeland' - the vision is unblurred, the idiom unchanged, the sensibilities still responsive to Weereratne's own credo - 'the search in the Sri Lanka milieu for images necessary for expressing certain fundamental truths of the landscape and the peoples of Sri Lanka."

The gathering included many 'old boys' - Neville's colleagues at the time he was on the Observer and the Tourist Board. The evening brought back fond memories of how, in the late sixties, we spent Saturday evenings together late into the night when Neville was laying out the Sunday edition of the Observer, then called the Observer Magazine edition. He was always ready for a 're-cast' - changing the page layouts to accommodate the latest news or giving a better look to the feature pages which he himself had done a day or two earlier.

With the distinguished looking 'all white' beard and his big frame, Neville obviously continues to eat well! Sybil looked the same, calm and collected. In fact, glancing through my old papers, I came across a chipping from the Times Weekender (August 1967) where both of them were featured in a series titled 'Wedded to the Arts' written by 'Guttila' on couples who were prominent personalities in different fields of art. Neville didn't sport a beard then (a moustache he did), and 32 years ago, naturally they looked much younger!

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