Interlude in Sri Lanka

Amit Ambalal
Anju Dodiya
Atul Dodiya
Baiju Parthan
Gulammohammed Sheikh
Jehangir Sabavala
Jitish Kallat
Nilima Sheikh
Reena Saini kallat

  9 - 31 January, 2004


Ranjit Hoskote

Nancy Adajania

The convivium organised by the Guild Art Gallery in Sri Lanka, during the winter of 2002, acted as a stimulus and produced an enrichment at various levels. For all the participants, visual artists and writers, as well as those who bridged these two arts, the convivium provoked historical memory, even as it prompted an immediate response to the fact of being in a country that was at once intimately known and utterly strange. We absorbed sculpture, architecture, painting and literature in hectic measures, as we negotiated with a kaleidoscope of nationalities, landscapes, and languages that were startlingly new to us.

Our responses were not expressed immediately, which is appropriate; for such immediate responses often tend to articulate little more than a touristic bafflement or wonderment, the first, unnuanced responses, whose spontaneity ought not to be overvalued. Instead, each of us has had the leisure to reflect on our Sri Lanka experience, over a year, and to process the intriguing provocations to the senses, the invitations to the intellect that we encountered during our stay in the island-country. For myself, the response to Sri Lanka has taken the various form, appearing as images and tones that have woven themselves into my ongoing preoccupations, to unfold in a series of poems, four of which appear in this catalogue.

Ranjit Hoskote
January 2004



We drag our feet, quitting the cave
where the Buddhas sleep, 
its ceiling painted like a billowing tent, 
and through a window see a mountain framed 
in slow-burning crimson, lava spent: 
dead wind, a summit floating on cloud,
the sky about to be rolled up for the day. 

Twilight's secrecies are quick to descend,
cloaking from view the corridors that maddened us
all afternoon with their promise of cliff and jungle
beyond these rocks, even a silver rim of lake.
As we strain to compress lifetimes in an hour
and fail, two langurs watch us, returning with candour
our abstract gaze. What must these cousins think

of our search for missing words,
the way we scan the plains, as though
these were palm-leaves laid out to be read?
Our journals, sketchbooks, cameras propose
a poor barter for their ledge-to-ledge
leaping instinct, their nutmeg-pawed,
camphor-nosed grasp of particulars.

The langurs climb higher, higher than the temple speakers
that pitch an evening chant above the cicada buzz.
A waterfall drips out the minutes that remain 

and an attendant, impatient for prayer or video game, 
waits for the last reluctant visitors 
to collect their shoes and leave. 

Keys creak in locks, locks clamp down on latches.
The moon, thumb-printed in black, another entry signed.
Turning to check if anything's been left behind,
we find a half-shut door: a narrow pass, 
slipping through which we stumble down a rock-cut path 
picked out by glow-worms, small ambushes of light, 
as the mountain darkens to a deeper shade of night. 



Towards the end he stopped trying to edit
the footage that unscrolled in his mind the tape
playing over and over headphones blurred with calls
a shrine guerrillas ramming the gates footfalls
blowing up in the mined darkness first light
crouching over tents a trail of scattered boots the lens
pulled back to frame scorched pilgrims
huddling watchful as pigeons in their alcoves.

Tear this night off me, as a surgeon would strip
the sweat-soaked shirt off a wounded man.
Someone's printed his palms on my door,
javelins guard my bed, whose are those
bodies, driven into sand, scooped up with mudguards,
and this horse, its neck dripping blood on my sheets?
Give me plainsong, not reportage, he cried,
locked up in a prison of rumours.



He went back to drafting policies of state
but never forgot the courtesan in the Sanskrit play.

She wrote him letters on pages folded
in triangles like betel leaves

but did not wait for the beloved and spring;
creepers soothed her, her lamp-lit hours passed

among the scented shadows of lovers.



Silence is clean, a frigate leaving a harbour
with no siren wailing.

Silence is a tureen that needs no scouring
for the last stains of grammar.

Silence is fire,
a threat with no reprieve.

Silence is a panther
that stalks us through jade eyes.


A Teardrop on the Map: Reflections On a Southern Neighbour 

At noon, we lunch in the filigreed shadow of a cool bamboo grove in Polonnaruwa. The curry stings our tongues, cinnamon quills are crushed under our teeth. We bite into familiar spices, imagining Sri Lanka to be an extension of our own country. Our eyes water as the known tastes foreign: is it the hot spices? What do we really know of this golden island frozen like a teardrop on the map, the land we fought bitterly to embrace? 

Who is this brother, this enemy? 

"Jara pani lana." An artist calls out to a waiter in his comfort-level Hindi. The waiter responds with a ready smile of incomprehension. It dawns on some of us that we have left the Indian border behind. But how do we unlearn our IPKF-period reflexes? Individuals can't be blamed for political mistakes. Evidently true, but how do they cope with the thumbprints of history? 

Who is Big Brother? Their friend, their ghost?

In looking for exotic differences, we miss out on what is common between us and in registering sameness we fail to detect difference.

How do we read another culture? This would certainly be the question exercising consciously or otherwise, the group of artists who participated in this Convivium. 

Where does the answer lie: in the footfall of an elephant which could have overturned our bus; in the fleeing deer that disappears from our window screen leaving a blur of gene, myth and almond eyes? Perhaps the Bodhisattva can help, but which of the Bodhisattva's births: when he was born as a wildfowl, or as a water-bird, or as a peacock? Let's hyperlink to the story of the Bodhisattva as a vulture from the Gijjha Jataka which is apparently close to the hearts of many Sri Lankans. In Michael Ondaatje's contemporary retelling, a fatal storm wrecked the Indian mainland when the Bodhisattva was in the middle of his vulture life. (1) At this time in Banaras, a group of vultures lay shivering near a ditch. An old merchant on his way to bathe in the river made a warm fire for them and gave them some food. He even posted an attendant to take care of their needs. When the vultures had fully recovered, they flew into the mountains and held a meeting that lasted a day and a night. They were discussing ways of repaying the good man from Banaras who had saved their lives. When they had met the merchant he was sparsely dressed, because he was going for his bath. The vultures thus assumed that he had very few clothes. So they flew over into Banaras and picked up all the stray dhotis and sarongs they could find and dropped them in the merchant's courtyard. They even stole clothes from people's bodies in this endeavour. The vultures were only repaying a good turn, but the people of Banaras were furious and complained to the

king. A vulture-catcher was appointed and the first bird he caught turned out to be the Bodhisattva himself. A conversation followed, between the king and the Bodhisattva as vulture, but that is another story. As Ondaatje reminds us, the solution to this story is locked up in the Official Secrets Act! Not even he can satisfy our curiosity. 

Compassion without knowledge and benevolence without discrimination can have dangerous side-effects. In responding to President Jayawardene's appeal, our government sent the Indian Peace-keeping Force to Sri Lanka. Three years later, when we realised that no one in the country, neither Sinhalese nor Tamils wanted our help, the IPKF was withdrawn; we had lost a 1000 soldiers and the island's goodwill. We liberate people from lack, only to overwhelm them with excess: one man's nirvana is another man's extinction.

In this island of incessant conflict, one can almost reach out and touch a rumour, fill a wound with the salt of memory. The peace talks between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government, which began in 2002, may have reduced the security paranoia. Tired, almost indifferent hands occasionally did a body-frisk before we entered a stupa. But we know that the political solution is nowhere in sight. Sri Lanka's history has been one of fratricide, invasion and ethnic conflict. 

We climb into the blazing white sky, run our fingers through a cloud, but don't dare to look down until we reach the wet-season palace Kassapa had built atop the 200-metre rock in Sigiriya, in the 5th century. The ruins of this impregnable rock palace conjure up structures of delight: moated island, water tanks, terraced pleasure gardens and a larger than life-size lion, now reduced to just a pair of paws and a broken staircase that once emerged from its mouth leading to the top of the palace. But these ancient feats of architecture, gardening and engineering were built on rock moistened by blood: Kassapa had had his father walled alive. Fearing revenge and invasion from his brother, Kassapa built this fortress, but he could not escape the slaughter that he had initiated. 

The country's territory was likewise ensanguined by colonial powers: the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British. Journeying to the Highland Spice Garden in Madawalaulpotha, Matale, we become fresh-faced children curious to know each creeper, bark and leaf. We learn by smell and touch: vanilla, lemongrass, cinnamon, nutmeg, clove. Sometimes we fail to recognise the most obvious spices, being used to super-refined varieties. The guide strips a piece of cinnamon off the bark, we ruminate on its juice, wild and sharp. Cinnamon was collected wild in the highlands of Kandy, it was colonised by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century. 

While some crops were plundered other cash-inducing ones were introduced. Coffee, for instance, was introduced into Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon) in the 1830s. During the British rule, entrepreneurs from England seized vast tracts of common land from the villagers in the Kandyan valley who used them for fuel and fruit-gathering. These lands became profitable coffee plantations and the Kandyan villagers dragooned as reluctant wage workers on these new capitalist estates. In the 1840s and 1850s, nearly a million Tamil 'coolies' were imported from South India into Sri Lanka's coffee estates to upstage the protesting locals. Working under nightmarish conditions on these estates, many of these labourers died and most of them were immiserated. The British employed the classic strategy of divide-and-rule to fuel ethnic antagonisms between the Hindu Tamil and Sinhalese Buddhist populations.(2)After independence in 1948, the Senanayake government disenfranchised the hill-country Tamils, depriving them of their citizenship. Later, President Bandaranaike campaigned for "the exclusive use of Sinhala as an official language." This "Sinhala only" law was greeted by violent protests from the Tamils. 

The outsider syndrome was replayed, as in other countries in South-east Asia: the Sinhalas were made to feel insecure, their religion and language were supposedly threatened by the Indian Tamils (who were considered the natural allies of Sri Lankan Tamils). In the mid-1970s left-wing Tamils fighting for an independent state took to violence, a decision that culminated in the founding of a number of secessionist factions, among them the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). 


After the trip, the artists responded to this nation of tranquility seized by blood spells, with oblique reflections on the Buddha-kshetra, the field of the Buddha. 

Nilima Sheikh's The Undying Brother emerges from washes of khaki green tempera, the fatally silent landscape vanishes even before we can gather it under our gaze, much like the country that yields no answers. Whose dying head does the brother hold, his own, his twin's? 

Jitish Kallat's painting spreads open like the hungry maw of a gigantic beast; in the margins, a gun fires a shot. But when you look at the image from the right, this monster turns out be a weak-signal televisual image of Buddha. A mediatic distortion, this image of a seated Buddha explodes into pixel and blade marks, its body a maze of lines, its halo white as death, intact. In Gulammohammed Sheikh's gouache on digital collage, we are overwhelmed by billowing clouds of pixellated fire. But in the midst of these stylised miniaturist clouds are inserted the icons of Buddha. Sheikh cleverly uses the icon-form both as a metaphor of the reclining and the preaching Buddha, as well as a digital tool: the icon that clicks open into a hypertext of possibilities. 

In Dambulla Rock/Landing, Atul Dodiya's triptych of semi-abstract landscapes, the Buddha appears as a residue of faith in the tracery of architectural ruins. We sense the journey of monks through thousands of years testing their devotion in the muscle of stone and rock. Dodiya invites the viewer to visually touch cement splash and rock joint. The artist traces his own initials (his characteristic Albrecht Durer signature) in this landscape: enlarged, it appears like an abstract edifice, an empty mandapa. Black rocks marked with the pleats of Buddha's robe float on this edifice, carrying the accretions of faith. Attracted to abstract patterns in ruins, Jehangir Sabavala paints a watercolour that resembles a peeling apricot and green fresco (a chromatic homage to the celebrated fresco gallery of apsaras in Sigiriya). Bird-forms cover the paper: their feathers a dribble of green; their bodies occasionally reduced to a red shadow. Sabavala not only surprises us with bird forms that are more origami than cubism, but also by allowing himself an unusual decorative impulse: bindis are studded on the beaks, popular symbols of hope and fertility. 

A man and a watchful bird sit in two blood-rose cups in Baiju Parthan's Spirit Garden. This is an animistic paradise where no species claims supremacy over the others, and even a grain of sand has a thirsty soul. On visiting the spice garden at Matale, Parthan's earlier avatar as a student of botany surfaced, as also his memories of kinship with nature-spirits. In the Spirit Garden, a curl of cloud floats on the ground and the sky is a battleground of shadows cast by human beings, the ecologists of destruction. Similarly, 

Reena Saini Kallat expresses a symbolic kinship with the universe of jeeva-jantu, all forms of sentient beings, in her work. The Buddhist wheel of life revolves around a concentric-ringed lotus symbolising purity and truth. But into this sacred universe painted a Nathdvara pichhwai blue, orange cannonballs are dropped. Disguised as fruit they do not explode, but carry portents of fear. 

Two different takes on the reclining Buddha are painted by artists Amit Ambalal and Anju Dodiya. In his usual tongue-in-cheek manner, Ambalal paints in Many Lives, one of our well-known art critics in a reclining Buddha pose, the eyebrows a thin line of desire, the cheekbones taut with determination. A voluptuous apsara from the fifth-century Sigiriya frescos inhabits this past-present, even as the arrow of Kama the love god (the art critic in another, Turko-Persian avatar) prepares for the kill. Under the surface revelry, Ambalal is perhaps implying the eternal conflict between the voluptuary and the renunciate in Indic religious culture. On a sombre, but no less passionate note, Dodiya projects herself as a sleeping Buddha, yellow with anxiety; this oblique self-portrait shies away from the gaze of the devout. Above, a fish tears through a fiery red sky vomiting out the artist in her painter avatar. But there is an ambiguity here: has the artist been disgorged, or is she stuck in the mouth of the fish? Is the sickly yellow glow on the self-as-Buddha portrait a post-partum look, or is it the look of a country that has been swallowed and disgorged by history. 

…This nightly battle is fought with subtleties:
you get pregnant, I'm sure,
just for extra ground 
- immune from kicks now.

Inside you now's another,
thrashing like a fish,
swinging, fighting 
for its inch already.(3)

Ondaatje's words render my memories of Sri Lanka a shade darker, deeper, stubborn as the black moon radiating light in a paradoxical eclipse. 

1. Michael Ondaatje, 'The Vulture', in Griffin Ondaatje ed., The Monkey King & Other Stories (New Delhi: HarperCollins, 1995). 
2. Fred Halliday, 'The Ceylonese Insurrection' in Robin Blackburn ed., Explosion in a Subcontinent: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Ceylon (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975).
3. Michael Ondaatje, 'A House Divided' from his The Cinnamon Peeler, (London: Picador, 1989). 

I would like to thank Shalini Sawhney for making this trip to Sri Lanka both memorable and instructive. We travelled on a demanding but rewarding seven-day schedule, taking in Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura, Sigiriya, Dambulla, Kandy, Negombo and Colombo. During the day, we were rasiks united by our concern for art and architecture. Through the long evenings of conversation, we were an amiably divided lot, discussing the untold and perhaps untellable histories of 20th century Indian art! 

Nancy Adajania
Winter, 2003

A Sri Lanka Interlude: Participants' Biographical Notes

AMIT AMBALAL (born 1943) took degrees in the arts, commerce and law, and joined the family business before devoting himself fully to his art. He has held solo exhibitions of his paintings at Gallery Chemould and the Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai, and participated in such group exhibitions as 'A Gallery of Indians' (Harvard, 1990), 'India: Contemporary Art' (Amsterdam, 1989) and 'Utsava', at the Festival of Perth (1995). In his scholarly role, Ambalal is the author of Krishna as Shrinathji, an authoritative exposition on the art of the temple-town of Nathdvara.

ANJU DODIYA (born 1964) graduated in painting from the Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy School of Art, Mumbai, and has exhibited with Gallery Chemould, Mumbai, and the Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi. She has participated in group exhibitions, among which are 'Watermark' (1999); 'Family Resemblances', 'Embarkations' and 'A Global View: Indian Artists at Home in the World' (all Mumbai, 2000); 'The Bodied Self' (Mumbai, 2001) and ARS 01 (KIASMA: the Museum of Contemporary Art, Helsinki, 2001). Dodiya lives and works in Mumbai.

ATUL DODIYA (born 1959) was educated at the Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy School of Art, Mumbai. He has shown with Gallery Chemould and the Sakshi Art Gallery, Mumbai, as well as the Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi, and Bose Pacia Modern, New York. He has held solo exhibitions at the Japan Foundation Asia Center, Tokyo, the Reina Sofia Museum, Madrid, the Walsh Gallery, Chicago, as well as participating in major group exhibitions at the Tate Modern, London, and the First Yokohama Triennial (both 2001) and the Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna (2002).

BAIJU PARTHAN (born 1956) was trained initially as a botanist and was midway through a graduate program in engineering when he decided to switch to the visual arts. He took a degree in painting from the Goa College of Art, holds a diploma in comparative mythology and is a trained Web-designer. Parthan works both as a painter and as an inter-media artist, and also writes on the relationship between art and virtual reality. He has participated in the IX Asian Art Biennale in Dhaka, the Glasgow Live Arts Festival

(2002), and 'Under Construction' (Tokyo, 2002-2003).

GULAMMOHAMMED SHEIKH (born 1937) has taught art history and was professor of painting at the Faculty of Fine Arts, Maharaja Sayajirao University, Baroda. He has held solo exhibitions at the Sakshi Art Gallery, Mumbai and the Vadehra Art Gallery, Delhi. He has lectured on Indian art in Europe and the USA; most recently, he was co-curator of 'New Indian Art: Home-Street-Shrine-Bazaar-Museum' (Manchester, 2002). He has contributed seminally to the debate on the relationship between the arts and the crafts in India.

JEHANGIR SABAVALA (born 1922) studied painting in Mumbai, London and Paris, completing his studies at the Academie de la Grand Chaumiere. Since 1951, he has held numerous solo exhibitions and participated in such group exhibitions as 'Art Now In India' (Arts Council of Great Britain, London, 1965) and 'Modern Indian Paintings' (Hirschhorn Museum, Washington DC, 1982). He has been the subject of a film, Colours of Absence (1993) by Arun Khopkar, as well as of a critical biography, Pilgrim, Exile, Sorcerer (1998) by Ranjit Hoskote.

JITISH KALLAT (born 1974) was educated at the Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy School of Art, Mumbai. He has held solo exhibitions with Gallery Chemould, as well as at the Bose Pacia Modern, New York. He has participated in group exhibitions such as: First Fukuoka Asian Art Triennial, (Japan, 1999); 'Bombay/Mumbai 1992-2001' (Tate Modern, London, 2001); 'Under Construction' (the Japan Foundation/Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery, 2002) and 'The Tree from the Seed' (Oslo, 2003) and 'Arco 2003' (Madrid, 2003). Kallat lives and works in Mumbai. 

NANCY ADAJANIA (born 1971) is an art critic and cultural theorist. She has written and lectured extensively on contemporary new-media art and its political and cultural contexts, at Documenta 11, Kassel; the Zentrum fur Kunst und Medien, Karlsruhe; the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein, Berlin; the Danish Contemporary Art Foundation, Copenhagen; the Transmediale, Berlin, among other venues. She is a contributor to Springerin, Vienna, and Metamute, London. She is co-curator for the exhibition 'Zoom! Art in Contemporary India' (Lisbon, April 2004).

NILIMA SHEIKH (born 1945) studied painting at Maharaja Sayajirao University, Baroda. She has held solo exhibitions with Gallery Chemould. She has participated in group exhibitions such as: First Johannesburg Biennial (South Africa, 1995); Second Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (Brisbane, 1996); 'Theatre and Kunst' (Fine Art Resource, Berlin, 1999) and 
'Conversations with Tradition' (Asia Society, New York, 2001). Sheikh lives and works in Baroda.

RANJIT HOSKOTE (born 1969) is a cultural theorist and poet. Among his six books are three collections of poetry (most recently The Sleepwalker's Archive, 2001), a critical biography of Jehangir Sabavala (Pilgrim, Exile, Sorcerer, 1998), and an anthology (Reasons for Belonging: Fourteen Contemporary Indian Poets, 2002). Hoskote curated a solo exhibition of Atul Dodiya's work, 'Bombay: Labyrinth/Laboratory' (Japan Foundation, Tokyo, 2001); he was co-curator for the trans-Asian exhibition project, 'Under Construction' (Japan Foundation, Tokyo, 2001-2003).

REENA SAINI KALLAT (born 1973) was educated at the Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy School of Art, Mumbai, and holds a postgraduate diploma in Indian aesthetics. Saini-Kallat has held solo exhibitions with Gallery Chemould Mumbai and Sakshi Gallery, Bangalore. Her group exhibitions include: 'Big River 2' (CCA7 Gallery, Port of Spain, Trinidad, 2001); 'Crosscurrents: Fiftieth Anniversary Celebrations' (Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai, 2002) and 'Elephant's Walk: Youth Arts Workshop' (Asia-Australia Arts Centre, Sydney, 2003). Saini-Kallat lives and works in Mumbai.

REENA SAINI KALLAT (born 1973) was educated at the Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy School of Art, Mumbai, and holds a postgraduate diploma in Indian aesthetics. Saini-Kallat has held solo exhibitions with Gallery Chemould Mumbai and Sakshi Gallery, Bangalore. Her group exhibitions include: 'Big River 2' (CCA7 Gallery, Port of Spain,


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