02 April 2017

Rev. Katuwana Piyananda and his meditations on canvass

Pic courtesy Nilar M Cassim 
Do not ask this priest to explain the meanings of these paintings. As Tagore once said, "ask the paintings themselves their meaning. They will give you the answers".
- Prof. Valpola Rahula Thero

The tradition of painting is not something that does not belong to the world of a monk. The Chula Vagga Vinaya Chapter show that even at the time of Buddha, there were monks who had done painting and sculpture. History tells us of an incident where a Lankan priest Nanda had gone see the Emperor of China in 5AD taking priceless sculpture that he himself had made. All the paintings in Degaldoruwa and Ridi Viharaya of the 18th century were drawn by a person in robes who was called ‘Dewaragampola Silwaththana’. The attempts of Rev. Katuwana Piyananda is not very different from what has been done before. Painting to create pleasant emotions within a person is very much in accordance both with the heritage and the role of a monk.

I am hardly qualified to pass judgement on art, never having given the subject the attention and study it deserves. I am poorly equipped to penetrate the deeper layers of meaning of a given painting. The richer aesthetics escape me. Still, at some basic level, I do appreciate, and probably not less than the next ignorant consumer of art. Exhibitions inevitably allow me to come off with some crass caricature of the experience congealing in my mind. More often than not I latch onto a couple of thought-threads which weave their own rough and imperfect tapestries of reflection.

About four or five years ago, while passing through Matale, I heard about an exhibition of paintings. Since I had a couple of hours free, I decided to take a look. I was struck by the meditative sympathies that the works exuded. I came off with one thing clear in my mind; the fact that the artist had a profound understanding of colour. The artist, Rev. Katuwana Piyananda, was already well-known in the art community, not least of all because he was an anomaly, for the notion of an artist bikkhu was defined carefully as being discordant with the doctrine of the Buddha. This view actually is itself out of tune with history as well as the fundamental tenets of the Dhamma, including the vinaya rules for bikkhus, but that we shall reserve for later comment.

All my life, I have been more interested in the life-stories of artists than their art itself. The life stories of Picasso, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Goya, Dali and others I could relate to because they contained recognizable elements. Their paintings were a different kettle of fish altogether. The only artist I knew personally was Kulanatha Senadheera, a batchmate and family friend of my father. I couldn’t make head or tail of his paintings, and yet he was one of the more fascinating people I have met in my life. Rev. Piyananda’s story was like that. More "readable" than his paintings.

Sisiraratne Liyanage, who upon ordination became Katuwana Piyananda, was born in 1965 into a farming family living in Katuwana, in the Mulkirigala electorate. He was the second in a family of four. Sisiraratne began his education at Horawinna Maha Vidyalaya. He had become a bikkhu when he was around 12 or 13. "The haamuduruwo and my parents wanted me to join the sasana. I was also very keen. Thinking back, I believe I was taken up by the life of a bikkhu after seeing the village monks walking through the paddy fields. Much later, it occurred to me that the Buddha must have had a keen sense of colour. After all a group of saffron-robed monks slowly walking with the green of the forest as background is a picture that is serene and awe-inspiring."

Even as a child he had been very interested in things like art and dancing and said that he had attended a local kalayathanaya. After being ordained he joined the Siyambalagoda Vidyakeerthi Pirivena, situated in Akuressa. "Siyambalagoda is located just outside Sinharaja. So I began by painting what I saw, the trees, the vines etc. I used whatever material I could lay my hands on, water colours, pens, pencils etc. After passing the Ordinary Level Examination, I joined the Horana Vidyarathana Pirivena. I decided to study Art, along with Buddhist civilisation, political science, and Sinhala for the Advanced Level. Ariyapala Gamage was my art teacher and this was the first time that I had any formal training in painting."

He had obtained an "A" for art and had done well enough overall to qualify to enter the Arts Faculty. However, by this time, he was only interested in furthering his knowledge and honing his skills with respect to art, and although the application form has space for the particular candidate to write down a series of preferences, Rev. Piyananda had decided that he would study Aesthetics in the Kelaniya University. Unfortunately, he had not taken into account the general antipathy towards bikkhus studying aesthetics. He was not accepted.

"Even though I was not in the university or any art school, I was encouraged and helped by many teachers and artists. Albert Darmasiri, Tilake Abeysinghe and Sumana Dissanayake gave me a lot of strength with their encouragement. Since I was denied a formal training, I decided that I would study art on my own. I spent a lot of time studying temple paintings. I was able to trace the trajectory of development from Sigiriya through the Kandyan period, Kelaniya and Gothami Viharaya to the Sedawatte paintings. In addition, I learned a lot about the European tradition through books."

Rev. Piyananda’s studies, coupled with deep reflection on the Abhidhamma, apparently helped him develop a style of his own. He started exhibiting his work in 1984 with "Vedana" (pain). This was followed by "Yatharthaya" (Reality) in ’85, "Samaya Minisamaya" in ’86, "Mihitale Minissu" (People of the earth) in ’87, and "Mahee Rekha" (Lines on the earth) in ’88. These exhibitions were all held in Colombo. Political unrest in the country and the resultant dislocations and social ferment inevitably found expression in his paintings around that time and his meditations on canvas appeared in an exhibition called "Pelagesma" in 1990. This was held all over the country, and this turned out to be his break-though exhibition. His work started receiving the attention of serious scholars and fellow-artists.

"Niramisa Thelithudaka Chalanaya" (The movement of a peaceful paint brush), "Pevethma Ha Nevatheema" (existence and ceasing), and "Antharavaloka" (Introspection) followed soon after. As the titles suggest these collections were in fact artifacts of a journey of discovery, both of self and the relationship of self to the universe. "This ‘introspection’ of mine constitutes not only a penetrating look into my own mind, but also the minds of all people living in this society. I am trying to examine if the areas touched by my brush, the harmony of colour and lines, can penetrate and expose anything of the inner conditions of my own environment and the world around me."

In "Bhava Veethiya" (Passage of emotions), Rev. Piyananda attempts to transcend the barriers imposed by language. In other words, believing that sometimes it is difficult to express in words the heart-rending situations arising from racial conflict, attempts to create a language beyond words, where the emotions can be traced and understood better.

Having already exhibited in Malaysia and Singapore in 1994, Rev. Piyananda’s work got further international exposure when Rev. Galayave Piyadassi and Nandana Weeraratne invited him to visit London. "Bhava Veethiya," was exhibited in the London Kingsbury Town Hall under the title "Mental and emotional journeys through images". He spent one and a half years travelling in Europe, exhibiting his work in Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and Netherlands. His work has won critical acclaim from artists and art critics. 

"That trip was very important since I became friends with some of the top painters in Europe, some of whom were impressed by the philosophical message I try to convey through my work. In fact there were some who wanted to come to Sri Lanka to study Theravada Buddhism. I also think it was important that I was able to learn first-hand about the European traditions and their modern expressions."

Upon returning to Sri Lanka, he put together another exhibition titled "Rupantharanaya" (Metamorphosis). "It is in a sense a trace of my artistic journey, from the very beginning where I was influenced by the aesthetics of Sinharaja, through my study of Buddhism and temple art, and finally the church art and the artistic traditions of Europe."

Having followed a training course at Rupavahini, Rev. Piyananda has experimented with the medium of teledramas as well. His first effort, "Mediyam Isawwa" (The region of midnight) was called off half way due to lack of funds. "Last year, a one-hour film called ‘Bhava Veethiya’ was shown on Rupavahini. And I have completed another one-hour film called ‘Rupantharanaya’ which is in need of a sponsor."

If the initial reaction to his artistic endeavours was negative, so was the response to the news that he was moving into the cinematic medium, although for vastly different reasons. "I was told that my art would suffer as a result. But after the first film was shown, the same people encouraged me to experiment further. They had found the images in the film to be very artistic, like my paintings."

I had to coax him to elaborate on his vocation’s alleged infringement of the Vinaya. "Like in most things, there are obstacles. Even the Buddha had to surmount opposition. I got inspiration from the Buddha’s example. Ven. Walpola Rahula was a constant source of support and encouragement. So was Rev. K. Ananda. As Ven Rahula rightly points out, the tradition of painting is not something that does not belong to the world of a monk. And the Buddha himself used the visual medium to illustrate salient elements of his doctrine. What else was he doing when he created the image of a monkey and then goddesses in order to convince Prince Nanda?"

Art, clearly is just one form of expression. Literature is another. If Buddhist monks were not prohibited from writing, it should follow that artist monks should be treated in the same way. There seems to be some double standards about art and artist monks, for our temples are veritable art galleries. They are meant to persuade the seekers to reflect on the eternal varieties of life, through depiction of Jataka stories and other visual forms.

Rev. Piyananda’s efforts, however, are a radical departure from the traditional art forms found in temples. His passion seems to be one of creating visual tools to help reflect on the philosophical teachings of the Buddha. They contain dynamic messages in spiritual, inspirational and social terms.

He is convinced that the modern artist has to move with the times. "Bana is being preached over TV. This didn’t happen before. If literature was used to convey the message of the Buddha, it follows that today the television and the internet should also be used."

Rev. Piyananda remains a person highly sensitive to the world and social milieu around him. He has always been a keen student of politics. "These things naturally find expression in my paintings." He travels a lot around the country, lately because he keeps looking for appropriate locations for his films, but for other reasons too. As such his work will naturally be a mirror of who we are. But more, about who we can become.

Talking to this soft-spoken monk in his sparsely furnished Avasaya in Udahamulla, made me wonder how I would read subsequent collections of his paintings. I wondered if I would still end with something as drab as "A nice blending of colours". He referred me to Ven Rahula, who says "Do not ask this priest to explain the meanings of these paintings. As Tagore says, ask the paintings themselves their meaning. They will give you the answer." Patience and reflection should help, I think.