Volume 69 Number 2, December 2017
Sri Lanka: Connected Art Histories
|Specifications:||148 pages, 130 illustrations|
|Dimensions:||305 x 241 mm|
Ceylon, Ilangai, Lanka, Lakdiva, Seilan, Serendib, Simhaladvipa, Tambapanni, Taprobane—the island’s various names suggest that Sri Lanka has clearly meant different things to different people, and external contacts have been central to its history and conceptualization. Expanding and going beyond the standard Sinhala-Buddhist narratives, the essays in this volume look at resident communities and their contesting cultures and claims to the artistic heritages of this island.
At times approaching the island from the outside, at other times considering it from the inside, the writers locate the country’s identity in a dialectic between national traditions and transnational histories. An extensive introduction places these new essays within the historiography of Sri Lankan art that began with Ananda K. Coomaraswamy. Though there remains much to explore and many new voices to listen to, this volume is a welcome first step in rethinking the art histories of the island.
Sujatha Arundathi Meegama is an Assistant Professor of art history at the School of Art, Design, and Media at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Her research interests range from connecting art histories in the Indian Ocean to the digital humanities.
In Search of National Traditions: Mapping Sri Lanka’s Art Histories
Sujatha Arundathi Meegama
Wherefore Does the Earth Quake? Artistic Exchange and the Construction of Buddhist Homelands in Andhra and Sri Lanka
Beyond the Politics of Conquest: Brahmanical Iconography in Polonnaruva
Political Boundaries or Cultural Zones? Recontextualizing the Iconography of Post-Polonnaruva Buddha Images
Albrecht Durer in Sri Lanka: A 16th-Century Ivory-Carver’s Encounter with a European Print
Sujatha Arundathi Meegama
Visualizing the Sinhala Buddhist Nation: The Temple Murals of Sarlis Master
Sea Change: George Keyt’s Murals at Gotami Vihara, 1939–40
This Island: The Idea of Landscape in Contemporary Sri Lankan Art
The volume explores the duality of an island—the local roots and the regional and global routes—and its role in the making of Sri Lanka’s artistic heritages. The art of the ancient cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruva are examined alongside Buddhist temple murals in the 19th century and the works of contemporary Sri Lankan artists in Colombo and Jaffna. Drawing from and going beyond the works of Ananda Coomaraswamy, Senerat Paranavitana and Senake Bandaranayake, each essay in this volume inserts the island in wider circles, yet reminds us of local traditions that respond to broader networks.
The artistic connections between Andhra Pradesh and Sri Lanka have long been debated, with the most intense arguments swirling around anthropomorphic representations of the Buddha. What happens when we shift our gaze from the study of the Buddha image to the analysis of narrative traditions? Through an examination of sculpture from Buddhist sites in Andhra and Anuradhapura alongside textual sources, such as the Mahavamsa, this article reconsiders the artistic interaction between these two regions during the early centuries of the Common Era. Not only do specific sculptures reveal significant artistic exchange between these two regions, but a broader view of the material and textual evidence also suggests that Buddhist communities in Andhra and Sri Lanka—both of which were located far from the main sites associated with the life of the Buddha—employed interrelated strategies to construct local Buddhist homelands.
The “Polonnaruva” period in Sri Lankan history is closely related to the expansion of the Chola dynasty into the island of Sri Lanka, particularly the northern and north-central regions, during the rule of Rajaraja (985-1014 ce) and Rajendra I (1012-1044 ce) in peninsular India. This has led to rigid historiographical interpretations about “dark ages”, and occupation and liberation on the one hand, and colonization and Hinduization on the other, in Sri Lanka and India respectively. The author looks beyond the politics of conquest to assess the Chola presence in Sri Lanka, as well as look beyond the immediate Chola context to understand the making of the cultural landscape in Polonnaruva.
It has been a practice to structure the Sri Lankan art history within a colonial narrative framework that is racialized and that adheres to the Buddhist nationalist hegemony. This mode of historical writing erases a shared cultural past and memories of connected communities and ethnicities. In addition, such a dominant narration has its own myths and prejudices as well as negations and marginalization of historical facts. In a larger sense this article questions the nationalist framework of art history writing based on the geographical or political landscapes of the nations. In doing so the essay emphasizes the practice of reading art history through the lens of cultural zones instead of political or geographical boundaries of nation states.
Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer’s prints travelled far beyond Europe, and one, The Bagpipe Player, reached Sri Lanka, where it was appropriated by a 16th-century Sri Lankan carver on an ivory casket. The essay shifts the focus from the European artist, collector, print and subject matter to the anonymous Sri Lankan ivory carvers. The writer argues that although the Sri Lankan carver reproduces what seem to be faithful copies of The Bagpipe Player, the changes made and the location of the carvings indicate a unique cultural understanding of this print.
Under the patronage of Buddhist revivalism in the early decades of the twentieth century in Sri Lanka, a “new” popular mural tradition came into existence. As in the case of Sinhalese theatre and literature, in these murals too, the “colonial realistic” mode was employed to propagate the nationalist ideology. By probing the visuals and visuality of the Buddhist mural decorations of M. Sarlis in the period between 1920 and 1940, this article attempts to read how these Buddhist art projects attempted to carve a national space within the colonial city of Colombo. By existing in a liminal space between the colonial and national, the museum and the temple, and history and myth, these murals played a crucial role in the metamorphosis of the Buddhist worshipper as a patriot of the Sinhalese Buddhist nation.
This essay examines George Keyt’s murals depicting the life of Buddha at Gotami Vihara, a Buddhist temple and monastic complex in Borella near Colombo in 1939–40. The medium and subject of these paintings reveal complex entanglements of art, religion, and politics in late colonial Ceylon. Keyt engages the ideas of Ananda K. Coomaraswamy in Mediaeval Sinhalese Art (1908) on the artist as craftsman and Buddhist painting as national tradition at the same time as he cites Pablo Picasso’s monumental protest painting Guernica (1937) to critique colonialism, fascism, war and violence. Reflecting contemporary developments in Buddhist belief and practice, specifically the influence of Buddhist reformer Anagarika Dharmapala, Keyt’s murals deliver the viewer into an intimate and immediate encounter with the Buddha. Through radical departures from the Kandyan painting tradition and his own easel practice, the artist articulates new forms of belonging to a national Buddhist polity and a global secular modernity.
The essay considers contemporary art in Sri Lanka, in relation to how ideas of the local have changed in response to different historical moments and the implications such changes have had on art practices, infrastructure and organizations. It looks at artists who have turned consciously or unconsciously towards representations of the landscape, deploying various means to do so, collectively addressing the instability of location and the capsizing of what landscape was, could be and might represent.