16 December 2022

The universe of smallness

I don’t know if whoever said that the universe is contained (containable?) in a grain of sand was thinking about miniature art. I’ve heard of angels dancing on pin heads, but perhaps because I don’t know anything at all about art, especially sculpture, I had not heard of pencil tip carving. A chance popup on Facebook opened a mind-door to a fascinating world of grain art, though. Rice-art. Miniature rice art, to be precise.

The story of Dayananda Lokuliyanage, owner of Daya Micro Art, has been excellently captured by Ama Vanniarachchi in an article titled ‘Beauty in the miniscule.’ He has meticulously engraved all kinds of images on grains of rice. There is a faithful replica of one of the Sigiriya frescoes, a set of soccer stars, a dragon, flowers, religious iconography, maps and other fascinating things. He has sculpted and engraved images on the tips of pencils.  He has even ‘written’ on human hair and carved  elephants and glued them onto a toothpick. He plans to engrave on the inner surface of the eye of a needle.  

Apparently Daya often works 14 hours a day to finish one of his many projects, using microscopes and fine instruments. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine. Even with the most sensitive of fingers it would be a tall order to carve or paint anything on, say, a piece of paper the size of a  bus ticket. On a grain of sand? The lines, the colours? Mind-blowing!

In a sense it is the artist’s version of a physicist’s fascination with the ultimate particle, the search for the proverbial ‘dust’ that makes us and to which we disintegrate eventually. What Daya does is slightly different. He takes the universe to the grain. He would know best why he takes the trouble and it would be best to ask him.

As I reflected on the entire exercise, the meticulous attention to detail, the pursuit of the minuscule and the generosity of freely sharing know-how (he’s even made a video of the process, condensing into a few minutes a process that takes dozens of hours) I realised that we know little or nothing about the world around us. We miss the woods for the trees, as they say. We see composites but not constituent parts.

And if we do gaze upon ‘the tiny’ or at least think about it, we rarely extrapolate.  We construct but do not deconstruct. We see monuments but not the labour. We see spectacle but not the sweat, the shine but not the tears, the shrine but not the worship that is made of.  

Daya’s grain-art, if I may call it that, reminded me of a legend about how the game of chess was invented. A king had commissioned his game-maker to come up with something new. The king was so pleased with the invention that he told the inventor to ask for whatever he wanted.

The man, apparently, had said, ‘There are 64 squares on this board; give me a grain of rice for the first square, two for the second, four for the third and so on, doubling the number associated with the previous square until the 64th square is reached.’ The king had been amused and had chided the man for asking for such a paltry reward. Then he got someone to calculate and it was found that there isn’t enough rice in the entire kingdom to meet the request. The king, angered, had ordered the man to be beheaded.

My father related this story when I was about five years old. I was astounded. ‘That much?’ I asked. He took a handful of cooked rice and gave it to me. ‘Count,’ he said. I did. There were over 250 grains. I learned something about dimensions that day. And I learned something about the universe of small things. Later I would learn about universality and about the vast truths contained in the miniscule.

What’s more beautiful, the apsaras or the heart of the artist(s)? What’s more compelling, the Aukana Pilimavahanse or The Word of the Buddha? What has greater volume, the Kala Weva, a diyadotha of the mighty waters, the imagination of the engineer(s), the sorrows and joys of those whose sweat is congealed in the headworks? Can something captured on a pencil tip tell us of grand(er) narratives about the universe, the world, the human community, how we relate to one another and how we grapple with the angels and demons resident in our minds and hearts? Can it all be collapsed and engraved on a single grain of rice?  

All of a sudden the world seems to be a monumental canvas the paint upon which is crumbling and disintegrating. Fresh pigment replaces that which has faded. Images gazed upon with wonder have made way or are making way for as or more wondrous depiction of creatures, places and things.  And in the here and now, we swear by permanency and infallibility.

We are but add-ons, really, in an image that Daya has carved or is carving upon a grain of rice or a pencil tip, complementing a larger and more profound depiction. And from there, upon grain or pencil tip of the surface of a single human hair, the universe must look more beautiful than we have hitherto imagined.  



['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is the first of a new series.]

 Other articles in this series:

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart 

The allegory of the slow road