22 July 2012

ANURALOKAYA: Facets of a 33-year long journey

Anura Shrinath was not encouraged to draw when he was a child.  His father, a labourer by profession had been an artist in his own right, but wanted Anura to walk the science-road to a different kind of profession.  The problem was that he attended Lumbini.  He couldn’t escape ‘art’.  This, and the fact that he grew up surrounded by his father’s paintings saw the young man learning the craft his father had not recommended. 
Anura, following paternal instruction, studied biology for his A/Ls, but a chance encounter with the artist P.A. Leelaratne turned hobby into profession.  Leelaratne introduced young Anura to the celebrated cartoonist Cammilus Perera who helped him find a job as a cartoonist for the comic-strip paper ‘Suhada’ in 1980.  Later that year, when Upali Newspapers was launched, he had been hired as an artist for the ‘Chitramitra’ cartoon paper.  Since then he has worked in several such newspapers and created countless comic strips which naturally earned him a considerable number of fans. 

With the decline of chitrakatha or comics in the country and the open economy moving to top gear it was natural that Anura moved to advertising.  After a few years in some of the top advertising agencies, Anura reinvented himself as a freelance artist.  Clearly, his freedom-need was too much to suffer the constraints of briefs and briefing.  Apparently it was not just brief-straightjacketing.  He believes that advertising lost its ‘art’ somewhere down the line.  It became easier thanks to new technologies and sophisticated but user-friendly software.  He found that the aesthetic quality suffers and moreover got devalued or even ignored.  Ads became monotonous.  Just a matter of mixing photo and text.  Earlier, he claimed, ads were like paintings.  He recalled a time when people spent a lot of time looking at print ads, enjoying the aesthetic in them.  Today, he laments, there is a conspicuous neglect of detail and that this is replicated in hoardings and other outdoor advertisements.

So he went out of advertising.  This did not mean that advertising left him of course.  He would take on assignments now and then but never so much that he had to compromise the time and space needed for his independent creative pursuits. 
‘There are far better artists in advertising, but they don’t have time to paint.  I have time and space and so I have things to show.’

He draws a lot.  He paints all kinds of things, some for specific purposes, some for pure personal exploration and expression.   This is evident in the collection that will be open to public perusal from August 2-5, 2012 at the National Art Gallery.  ‘Anuralokaya’, a name suggested by his friend Aman Ashroff, is eclectic in terms of subject and choice of material.  It is almost like an exhibition put together by several artists. This itself points to Anura Shirnaths versatility.  There are portraits of the famous.  He paints cars, draws cartoons, book covers and greeting cards.  Each one of them has a story. 
The painting of the late singer Gunadasa Kapuge was based on a photograph by Sisira Wijetunga.  It was drawn for the Lanka newspaper when Kapuge died.  It is a painting that always comes up in google images if one went looking for Kapuge.  ‘Much used’ is the conclusion.  ‘Not acknowledged’ too, can be concluded.  He’s done book covers for many of Prof. J.B. Dissanayaka’s publications, some of which will be exhibited.  One of the book covers, that of the novel ‘Budun Nodesoo Daham’ (Sermons not delivered by the Buddha), was actually a Vesak card he had designed for ‘Rasa FM’, a radio station catering to Sri Lankans in Australia. 

Perhaps the most dramatic story is that of a railway track in the hills, hugging a hill and backgrounded by enough sky to indicate chasm. 
‘It was purchased by A.S. Jayawardena, then Governor, Central Bank.  The painting was destroyed during the LTTE attack on the Central Bank.  I re-painted it.  It was picked up at the Kala Pola by a retired judge, who purchased and reserved it.  Mr. Jayawardena, who happened to be strolling through the Kala Pola inquired about it.  I painted it all over again for the Central Bank, and re-painted it for this exhibition.’

That’s a ‘real’ location, but not all is transcription.  The painting titled ‘Badulu Kochchiya’ or the Badulla Train shows a non-existent landscape.  Breathtaking.  And yet, Anura’s imagination doesn’t always produce wide-eyeing.  Some of the ‘fantasy’ reveals a deeply reflective mind and a man who is not completely at ease in the world he inhabits. 
There is one painting which seems like a still from the cartoon film ‘Antz’ or ‘A Bug’s Life’.  He explains: ‘It’s a world made of all the good people, those who are not interested in fighting one another, who help one another, who make this world safer, softer and more beautiful’.  That idyllic hope finds expression in a lot of his paintings, especially of children.  The philosophy behind that hope is captured beautifully in the aforementioned Vesak card, featured on this page. 

Anura knows history and politics.  He captures not just known-figure, but the depth of character that makes them world-known. It comes out of attention to detail and knowledge of personality and place in his history.  He obviously knows cinema, theatre and music, for personalities of these fields have inspired him to sketch and paint.  And yet, there’s such a child in this man, that much too is clear.  Why else would he take so much trouble to paint antique cars, sketch soccer players and draw cartoons? 
According to Anura, this diversity of interest and medium as well as the corresponding versatility in subject matter is born of fear: ‘I am terrified of monotony’.   This fear, apparently, worked well for him when he drew comics: kathaven kathava venas (no two stories are alike).  

It is only recently that Anura started putting signature to his work.  Few would know that the amazing ‘cut-out’ for Asoka Handagama’s film ‘Vidu’ was one of Anura’s creations.  It shows not just creative ability, the rare skill of doing capture-all without compromising the tease-element, but the amazing work ethic of the artist.  It is not a matter of copy-paste, that easy and lazy device so over-used by art directors and layout artists.  That’s love for vocation.  Respect too.   
He describes the 32 years that have passed thus: ‘The journey that began in 1980 has been hard, colourful and sweet.  I have had the strength to overcome adversity, so I have no regrets.’  The life slices that will be on display at the exhibition speaks of that journey and the truth of the claim. 

He’s not done, yet.  Anura plans to bring out a monthly magazine called ‘Talks and Jokes’. All cartoons.  Something to look forward to!

[Pubished in the UNDO Section of The Nation, July 22, 2012]