YOU CIRCLE THIS exhibition as you might a sacred site. The layout is such that one artwork leads you to another in a ring. The Red Dot Gallery in Colombo is so small that every work in ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ seems close enough to speak to its neighbour. They murmur to each other of old companions: politics, power and faith.
It is a muggy afternoon, and halfway through circling, it seems natural to pause in a room where the breeze from an open door lifts the thin fabric of Anoli Perera’s Geographies of Deliverance, an installation of seven tapestries. Anoli is one of 11 artists from Sri Lanka and India who travelled to the cities of Varanasi and Anuradhapura in late 2015 in the run-up to ‘A Tale of Two Cities’.
The year-long collaboration was first mooted by Renu Modi of Gallery Espace, and expanded to include the Theertha International Artists’ Collective in Colombo and the Serendipity Arts Trust, Delhi. The exhibition has travelled to Goa and Delhi, and is now on its final leg in Sri Lanka.
A founding member of Theertha, Anoli was already familiar with the ancient city of Anuradhapura. She recalls returning there, to the monumentality of its stupas and the quietness of old stones baking under the sun. “Devoid of the buzzing noises and human clutter that one usually finds in most places of living heritage sites, I found the sacred city of Anuradhapura to be a silent city,” she says. “I felt that power of Anuradhapura that can imprison one within its sacrosanctity and history. That in a way threatens to override whatever else surrounds its existence.”
In sharp contrast, Varanasi was thrumming with life. Manisha Parekh, whose work is the evocative series Home Shrines, recalls a sensory assault: “Varanasi is so dramatic, and life and death really play out in its various stations.” She found an entire spectrum of human experience by the river. People come to bathe and to say their prayers. Newly- weds seek blessings and come back later with their first-borns. People return to the Ganges again and again, until their bodies are cremated on its banks and their ashes are scattered in the waters.
“I became obsessed with the idea of the sacred,” Parekh says, speaking of how in Varanasi, the gods become curiously human. They are put to bed, and woken up again. They are dressed, and fed, and adorned. Taking in the grandeur of these most sacred sites, Parekh responded by changing the scale. Shifting from the public to the personal, her ‘home shrines’ examine private devotion.
Ruhanie Perera, the exhibition’s curatorial advisor, travelled with the artists. She writes in her introduction that the cities formed ‘the site, the stage, the place of artistic interpretation and intervention in this cross-cultural artistic exchange.’ Her fascination is rooted in how these are cities of ritual—both sacred and secular—and their ongoing transformation by processes of urbanisation and globalisation. For the small group making the pilgrimage between these two great spiritual capitals, it was also clear that these are bastions of the religious majority, symbols of authority and ascendency.
Ruhanie speaks of how the dismantling of the last military checkpoint, then at Omanthai (a little town in Sri Lanka’s northern district of Vavuniya), happened just two days before the group arrived in Anuradhapura. The geography of war had placed the city on the boundaries of the ideological south. The removal of that last checkpoint felt like a moment weighted with significance, and Ruhanie hoped that the artistic response to Anuradhapura would go beyond the immediacy of its identification as a sacred site, to consider the legacy of a long war.
“The cities formed the site, the stage, the place of artistic interpretation and intervention in this cross-cultural exchange” - Ruhanie Perera, curatorial advisor, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’
“What became most interesting was how at the beginning, every artist was anxious about how they would respond to the cities,” she says. Each in its own way was overwhelming: Anuradhapura, intimidating in sheer scale and historical significance, Varanasi in the sheer vastness of its crowds and the rituals of their faith.
As curatorial advisor, Ruhanie’s conversations with her artists began to be about what these cities represented. For some, especially those of a political bent, it was evident that faith has birthed violence and reinforced hierarchies of power.
The artist Jagath Weerasinghe was among them. Weerasinghe, too, is connected with Theertha as a founding member, but his role as the current director of the post-graduate institute of archaeology, at the University of Kelaniya, Colombo, frames how he sees Varanasi and Anuradhapura.
“As much as I am an artist, I am also an archaeologist,” he says. His interest in modernism has made him realise how contemporary movements such as the creation of heritage sites, Unesco cultural charters, and the like, can result in what he describes as a normative moral superiority.
Embracing the full weight of and legitimising the traditional, such sites become associated with particular communities. “When you bring this normative superiority into action through a discourse of heritage, it justifies our violent actions in the name of that heritage,” he says. “For the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi (a sacred tree in the Mahamewna gardens, Anuradhapura), you can do anything.”
Weerasinghe writes of his works, Theertha Yatra and Among the Ruins: ‘the religious stratum thus lends itself to violence,’ adding that it is ‘a violence that is structural, as much as it is institutional.’
Bandu Manamperi understands this very well. His works, Charcoal Journey and Moonstone 1, have found a place outdoors; three installations occupy a narrow corridor between the building and the boundary wall. Manamperi is best known as one of Sri Lanka’s leading performance artists, but here he attempts sculpture and installation to great effect. Bandu’s work, like those of his peers, seems to encompass and then transcend both Varanasi and Anuradhapura.
Standing before the first in a series— a pile of ashes and coal preserved in a clear glass cube—Manamperi recalls the ashes that remained on the ghats of Varanasi. “You go to Varanasi to die, you intend death,” he says. In Sri Lanka, these ashes have different connotations for him—he remembers the political violence of 88 and 89, where young men were burned alive and their remains left on the street. As he conceptualised his piece, Manamperi began thinking about how these different trajectories were bound together by the traces, the ashes, that lingered.
As part of this sequence of works, Manamperi has also created a warped moonstone. Usually found at the entrance of a sacred Buddhist site, the stone is part of the iconography that is intended to be read, to help prepare the body to enter the sacred space, the artist explains. Today, he suspects, most of us step heedlessly over it. “Though the iconography is still with us, the applied value of it is constantly changing,” he says. Manamperi completes his trilogy with a charcoal sculpture.
“The exhibition is about the historical and contemporary interconnections and dynamics of Sri Lanka and India” - Anoli Perera, artist
“This is a kind of meditation on death,” he says, adding that his island’s recent history must necessarily have a profound influence on any such attempt. “After 30 years of war in Sri Lanka, it is hard to ignore that for us, death is an obsession. To kill has entered our daily vocabulary.”
Manamperi’s mother came to see the exhibition the other day. Looking at the moonstone, she said to him, “You should not do such things.” The son of a traditional Buddhist family, Manamperi has seen how religious sensitivities can impinge on spaces for debate.
For now, this gallery in Colombo has not drawn the kind of attention that does not tolerate scrutiny of religious and nationalist ideology. As an artist, does Manamperi feel safer here than he has performing out on the street? “There is no real safety,” he contends. “It does not matter if it is on the street, or in front of parliament. That is less crucial than the ideological challenge the work represents, and the protection comes from the discussion about it.”
His family’s encounters with his work illustrates this for him. Even if they may disapprove at one level, on another they are able to discuss the larger context by engaging in conversations about the art itself.
These conversations began long before there were any visitors to the exhibition, and have their seeds in the journeys the artists undertook together. “The interactions in Sri Lanka were very intense. We travelled long distances, captive in a bus together,” remembers Paula Sengupta who created a series of tapestries The Plain of Aspiration.
Before she arrived in Anuradhapura, Sengupta thought of herself as a ‘Buddha traveller’. Her husband frequently treks in the Himalayas, and she began to accompany him over a decade ago. In recent years, the artist has travelled not only to remote Buddhist monasteries, temples and refugee centres, but also to sacred and archaeological sites in the plains.
However, what really made the travels fall into place for her was the visit to Sarnath, where the Buddha’s journey is said to really begin. “Though I had been there in my youth, revisiting Sarnath in the light of my consequent travels enabled me to see the vast journey of a thinker, the religion that he unwittingly founded, and the myriad shapes and manifestations that it assumed in the ensuing centuries,” she says.
When it came to creating her work, she dwelled on how over so many centuries, these sacred Buddhist sites had also become contested ones: “Anuradhapura itself, while being a place of pilgrimage, is also a military transit camp, geographically pivotal to the long years of strife in Sri Lanka, visited as much by pilgrims as by soldiers even today.”
In Varanasi, Sengupta interacted with weavers and textile artists and learned with some surprise of their long tradition of producing Tibetan and Chinese brocades. These textile practices had crossed borders, lending the fabrics of Varanasi the richness, expertise and seamlessness that were their hallmark. “It was this seamlessness that I wanted to capture in my work—a seamlessness that is like the River Ganges itself as it flows through Varanasi,” says Sengupta, whose final work was inspired in equal parts by the ritualistic Tibetan Buddhist tangkha and the very Bengali domestic pankha (or fan).
AS SENGUPTA’S understanding deepened and her work evolved, so did that of the other artists’. Referring to the presentation and interaction sessions organised by Ruhanie every day, Sengupta says: “Everything we saw, we saw through their eyes first, and afterwards, through our own. Absorption was inevitable.” When the exhibition eventually took shape, these conversations were immediately evident to her, and she feels now that her works speaks to that of others, and theirs’ to hers.
Roma Chatterji, a professor of sociology at the University of Delhi, wrote in an email that some pieces left a lasting impression, not just for their sensory effect, but the ideas they embodied. She mentioned Manisha Parekh’s Home Shrines, Manjunath Kamath’s Restored Poems, Anoli Perera’s Geographies of Deliverance and Paula Sengupta’s Plain of Aspiration. In Anoli’s work, Chatterji says she found a lack of certainty that forced her to ponder the meaning of boundaries— of nations, of disciplines, of what was most significant in such encounters. ‘The sensory and acoustical polysemy of the two ancient cities captured so beautifully in the installations may offer the anthropologist a new language to grapple with the registers of experience that are so difficult to express in our social science jargon,’ she wrote. ‘Thus on a general note the exhibition may actually initiate meaningful dialogue between artists and social scientists.’
For Anoli, the exhibition has transcended the two cities it took as its subjects. “It’s also about the historical and contemporary interconnections and dynamics of Sri Lanka and India,” she says, emphasising how Varanasi and Anuradhapura became a point of departure from which to embark on a discussion of the larger socio-political and cultural landscape of both countries.
(‘A Tale of Two Cities’ is on till September 8th at the Red Dot Gallery in Colombo)