21 January 2023

Visual cartographers and cartography

Who knows a land like the back of his or her hand, as the saying goes? Those who live in full and respectful engagement with the land could be a good enough answer. ‘The land’ is of course not just an earth-piece with a human-decided perimeter. The land is all the resources embedded in a particular ‘plot.’ The soils, the fauna and flora, social intercourse, the past as a shadow on the present and foundation for future,  history and heritage, wisdom in word and as embedded in cultural practice, climate and climate change, the wind, the rain, leaves on the ground, sunlight reflecting off the leaves, breaking into innumerable gold coins scattered for a while on the ground, the trials and tribulations of all creatures in their mutual friendships and enmity. All these things. And more.

So who knows this land? Typically, not many. Indeed, very few if at all would be able to offer a comprehensive and detailed description, even if they had back-of-the-hand knowledge. Certain things just cannot be described in full. It doesn’t mean that they don’t have a clue though.  

‘The land,’ so to speak, grows upon an individual or a collective but only to the extent that it is allowed to grow, allowed to grow and teach in the manner of the kindest and most generous educationist. The land teachers, but students decide whether or not lessons will be learned. Not all who encounter ‘land’ do so with all senses alert and with hearts ready to receive sunlight and rain.

And yet there are people who have lived in this land who have let it grow on them simply by walking through it. They are sociologists, biologists, archaeologists, historians, anthropologists, zoologists but without certification and, typically, unaware that they are endowed with the relevant explorative tools. They walk and in walking they map.

Surveyors, formal and informal, know this land. Among the informal kind, one can think of Nihal Fernando. He was a cartographer whose only tool was a camera. He captured what he saw and in ways that told the magical and constantly unfolding story of this land. His work is an invitation to fall in love. Those who learned photography from him, especially the likes of Luxshman Nadaraja, have walked and re-walked the paths he cleared for us all. Others too, in all probability.

I know of two such cartographers. Tharindu Amunugama and Kasun De Silva. They walk. They record. They have eyes and hearts that can imagine better frames with which to contain what’s before them. Their mapping is obviously very different from the work of formal cartographers. And yet they do give us the contours of living heritage, seasonalities, the play of time and life on faces, the transformation of landscapes and of the land, physically and culturally.
I’ve written about Tharindu, his photographs, journeys and philosophical musings which have greatly enhanced my sensibilities and taught me that it is so easy to fall in love with this country over and over again.  I have never met and never travelled with Kasun, and yet, his work has delighted me in much the same way.

Kasun’s Facebook page has several albums titled ‘Authentic Sri Lanka.’ One can argue about the definition of authenticity, but it would be quite a challenge to prove that anything that Kasun has captured is unauthentic, that it is not something that is in fact Sri Lankan. From frame to frame, a face to a river, a sunset and sand dune, a tree to a canopy that filters sunlight, watch the slow movement of an oruwa upon a picturepost card weva, it's a journey upon a living, breathing and serendipitous map.  

In addition, there are albums on Nuwaragala, Basawakkulama, Dambava Tampita Viharaya, Bundala, Mannar, the road to Sri Pada via Eratne, Wawulagala and many other places, every photograph in every collection a piece of visual poetry. They are not ‘stills.’ There’s motion in the captures and the images spill out of the formal frames, find their way into our minds and softly ask (at least to me) ‘who are you?’  And I, having read Rumi, know enough to say, ‘I am you,’ and so they respond, ‘then we are one and therefore there’s room for another.’  

What is this land if not collective memory containing truth and falsehood, and yet not entirely un-capturable? What allows for half-way decent cartography than hearts open to sample its innumerable visual, cultural and sociological flavours both vibrant and subtle? What makes it possible to obtain the pulse of this land if not allowing the land to grow upon your skin, sink beneath and enter and re-enter anew your blood streams?

One doesn’t have to know the land to live decent and comfortable enough lives of course. No one should be presumptuous as to prescribe life to another and I will not. I am just glad that this land exists and I am grateful to its visual cartographers for showing me pathways I could explore in the time left to travel and for reconfirming this indelible truth as far as I am concerned: I am blessed to have been born in this land. 

['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 a new series. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below] 


Other articles in this series:

Ithaca from a long ago and right now

Lessons written in invisible ink

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness'

A tea-maker story seldom told

On academic activism

The interchangeability of light and darkness

Back to TRADITIONAL rice

Sisterhood: moments, just moments

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows

Sirith, like pirith, persist

Fragrances that will not be bottled 

Colours and textures of living heritage

Countries of the past, present and future

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

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