26 June 2012

The Lithic Saga of Sri Lanka

‘It is our story and we are the ones telling it!’


It was first an exhibition.  An effective and infuriating teaser.  The book came later, much later than anticipated.  The work, however, was neither exhibit nor text; it was a civilizational story etched in artifact and clearly resident in the heart of a chronicler who not only knew ‘point and click’, but when to point and what to point at before clicking.  All that is eloquent.  So too that other text, the one with words, that accompany, complement and even elevate the work of a self-effacing patriot who walked the talk and let his lens say all the things he had to say. 
'Eloquence in Stone,’ as I said, was first an exhibition.  It gave us a glimpse of the book that eventually came out some years later.  This is a note about that book, by the same name.  ‘Eloquence in Stone’ is not just a collection of photographs.  It is, as claimed, an account of the lithic saga of the island of Sinhale, whose name evolved into ‘Sri Lanka’. 

There are many ways to write a history.  One can collate the various chronicles, the stories of the heroes, the kings, queens, princes, princesses and other royalty, the years marked by ascension, death and disposing, the critical wars that altered the political landscapes, or the ideological sweep that marked the end of an era and the beginning of another.  One can gather history, also, by recording the unwritten, those hidden narratives bypassed by chronicler but resident nevertheless  in folk tale and folk song, or scripted into dance and drama.  In all this there is interpretation, for such texts are soft and pliant in the hands of a reader armed with privileging intent.  And then there’s stone, yes, also amenable to reading, but nevertheless more obdurate when facing history-twister. 
One thing is certain.  For all the stories that got edited out, for all the multiple interpretations pregnant in artifact, for all the decay courtesy the elements, for all the desecration and vandalism, there is something splendid in these stones, these lithic remnants of vibrant, glorious and tragic centuries.  It is by no means complete, for archaeology is a relatively recent fascination and there is probably more under the earth than the unearthed.  ‘Eloquence in Stone’ is a chronicle of the unearthed, and what’s seen, even as it speaks of splendor, hints at a past that is probably far more magnificent than evidenced by the excavated. 

It’s not a story that begins with Vijaya or the arrival of Arahat Mahinda. It is a record that covers artifacts from centuries before all that.  It takes us from one age to another, dynasty to dynasty, one seat of power to another.  The narrative gaze lingers on canal, dam and other irrigational elements, all speaking of an economy, a way of life, an ethic in interacting with the natural world, a benign and complementary rather than a violent and destructive engagement.  It’s an eye that takes in and gives out architecture, that pertaining to state-craft and to the other, more abiding and culture-defining lines, curves and crafting that is and of faith, as majestic but made for the kind of reflection that marked the civilizational ethos and runs as thread through the centuries. 

There is beauty and charm in all this.  The aesthetic was never made to play second fiddle to the ‘pragmatic’ shall we say of the state, the ‘demands’, shall we say of the economic.  That was what life was and still is in places that are as unbelievable as those of the past captured in these photographs: life was and is art and there was and is cross-reflection.  You find this in ornament and stairway, moonstone and sluice gate, the dam and the spill, the stupa and the altar, the sakman maluwa and the monastery.    

‘Eloquence’ is a page turner, as all good photography books are, but it’s page-turning power has to do with the elegance of text as well.  Sinharaja Tammita-Delgoda’s descriptions move seamlessly among the photographs and are an intrinsic part of the overall textural weave of photo-strand and word-strand.  It is an introduction and a nutshell version, a gentle guide and a chronicle which only someone gifted with word, love of land and skilled in the instruments of historiography can produce.  Tammita-Delgoda is clearly attributed with the requisite tools.  He has not disappointed.  

This is not the first time I got my hands on ‘Eloquence’.  Each time I flip through the pages, or just turn to a random page and read, there’s a thought that invariably interrupts:
‘We are blessed to have been born in and to this land.  We are the product of the tenderness and drive of our ancestors and we better do justice to their efforts.  This country is a treasure trove, every square inch of it.  The world may have many wonders, but the wonders of my land await my visit and I know that I don’t have the years and decades necessary to partake of it all, or at least that which is visible as of now.  This book is the only “tourist guide” this country ever needed.  This book is to be read and it is to be travelled.  Every page, every photograph and every descriptive line is an invitation to explore.  It empowers.  It inspires.  It settles the furies and unearths dormant energies.  It makes me love my country like I’ve never loved it before.’

Tammita-Delgoda recounts a conversation with Nihal Fernando, the man who had the legs and heart, the patience and discipline to capture this history: 
‘I want to tell the story of this country and its people.  I want to make people think about our past and what we are doing to it before it is too late.’

Nihal was and still is acutely conscious of what the marriage of greed and ignorance can yield.  He knows firsthand that the unearthed is not just vulnerable to the ravages of wind, rain and sun, but more terribly the fingering of human beings.  He has, I know, a deep enough understanding of the human condition as well as the political economy that often frames, limits and provokes violence, to predict possible outcomes.  As such, ‘Eloquence’ is a letter to the conscience of relevant authorities, academics and most of all, the citizens of this country who, if robbed of heritage would be easier prey for the kinds of vandals who have mutilated this land for centuries. 
I believe therefore that ‘Eloquence’ is a must-have for every school library, every Government institution that has a library, every politician and every academic.  And ideally, it should be available in Sinhala and Tamil too. 

These are breathtaking, meditation-inviting, inspiring pictures.  The black-whites, especially, shows what a master Nihal Fernando is when armed with lens.  His is not, clearly not, point-and-click photography.  He is a composer who is conscious of light and shadow, the movement of wind and the relevance of time and timing.  He knows angle too.  One gets the sense that he is a perfectionist who might even lament that he is yet to take his best photographs. 
The collection includes the work of those who have learnt from him, among whom are some who have gone on to develop their own styles and specialities.  Anu Weerasuriya, Luxshmanan Nadaraja, Christopher Silva, Devaka Deneviratne and Roshan Perret probably share the love Nihal has for this land and most likely enough of his work ethic.      

As I mentioned, it is words too, not just visual and exceptional quality of page and book design.  So I believe it is best to let the co-narrator, Sinharaja Tammita-Delgoda have the last word for it is as much about ‘Eloquence in Stone’ as it is about us, i.e. you and I and all of us and even those whose feet will touch the good earth that gave us a land, a history, a heritage, a civilization and a tomorrow that can very well be ours:
‘Eloquence in Stone’ is a voyage through Sri Lanka as it was and as it is, it seeks to inquire and to question, to understand and appreciate, to reflect and perhaps inspire.  An image of ourselves, it muses on our past, our present and may be our future.  This is why we have called it “The Lithic Saga of Sri Lanka”.  It is a story which deserves to be told, for it is our story and we are the ones who are telling it.’

 [Published in 'The Nation', June 24, 2012]
Reactions:

2 comments:

SANDIKA said...

'some texts are made of leaves'

sometimes the problem i have in understanding your 'articles' is my lack of knowledge' on many things and especially i have a very poorly maintained 'dictionary' my dictionary of words become smaller and smaller everyday not because of anything but i sometimes try to compare the words that you know with the number of words i know. i know only a limited number of words that is sometimes a barrier for me to understand most of the writings of all the good writers.

i think English my way is not enough to understand the world in a better way 'English Everyone's way' is the better way to touch the world and its magic.

sajic said...

sandika. your comment made me sad. You are not alone, you know. There are many like you who are not so honest. Read prose, simple books, comics-get the feel of them. Poetry is more difficult because you have to get into the mind of the poet. It comes more slowly.Try the older poets.I'm sure you are very proficient in your mother-tongue.You are fortunate.
The 'english' will come. Just keep reading.