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3rd January 1999

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Heritage in a fridge

The most comprehensive photo archive of the country's rich tradition of temple art languishes unseen in cold storage

By Hiranthi Fernando

pic 03A fine collection of photographs of Sri Lanka's temple paintings languishes unseen in cold storage. This collection, produced by expert photographer, Gamini Jayasinghe, is perhaps the most comprehensive photo archive of the country's rich tradition of temple art. Covering some sixty temples located throughout the island, the photographs have captured and preserved on film, the exquisite quality of these ancient works of art.

Jayasinghe first became interested in photographing temple paintings, in the 1960s.

In 1979, he was commissioned by the Lever Brothers Cultural Conservation Trust to produce the photographic documentation of temple paintings. During the next five years, he travelled extensively around the country, photographing the murals found in forty temples, both well known temples as well as little known ones, some located deep in the jungle. Among the temples photographed, the Pulligoda Galge in the jungles of Dimbulagala and the Gonagolla Temple in Amparai, date back to the 7th/8th Century. Most of the others were of the 18th/19th Century Kandy period. 

"We carried out the photography in a scientific manner so that if the temple is no more, the mural wall can be reproduced to actual size," Jayasinghe said. He explained that the first step is to make a lay out of the temple walls to exact scale. Taking a constant distance of five to six feet away, a photographic grid is made, splitting the wall into equal segments, each representing a single camera exposure. A board was kept with colour chart and size indicator. Keeping a certain degree of overlap, two colour transparencies and one black and white negative were made of each section of the grid. An indexing system indicated the position of each print on the grid. The sections can thus be enlarged and assembled to give life size reproductions of the temple paintings.

pic 4After the work on ten temples was completed, the Lever Brothers Cultural Conservation Trust held an exhibition in 1982. Leafing through some of the comments made in a visitors book, the exhibition appears to have been a huge success drawing large numbers of art enthusiasts. "It is a superb example of how the photograph has served the cause of painting," Tissa Abeysekera an artist wrote on the exhibition. "I would like to see this collection in a permanent exhibition,"wrote Harry Pieris. "Thank you for helping to preserve these treasures which may vanish as other treasures have," was I. Serasinghe's comment. "An entirely admirable effort which should result in photo preservation and a book for all to enjoy," James Greene of the World Bank wrote on seeing the exhibition of temple paintings. There were also numerous requests for copies of the photographs.

It is indeed a pity that since 1982, no other exhibition of temple paintings has been held. The invaluable photographic documentation is preserved in air conditioned storage at the National Archives Department. A highlight of the exhibition was a colour photo representation of the Thelapatta Jatakaya detailed on an entire wall made to the exact size of the mural wall in Mulgirigala Temple. This remarkable piece of work was presented to the then President J.R. Jayewardene, by Lever Bros. Ltd., and can still be seen at the Presidential Secretariat. 

Apart from the documentation stored at the National Archives, Jayasinghe has a private collection of about 10,000 colour negatives and colour transparencies. In addition to the forty temples documented for the Levers Cultural Trust, Jayasinghe has also photographed another twenty temples on his own. "In my private collection, I have individualised and highlighted various compositions selected from the temple murals," Jayasinghe said. "Some of the murals I have photographed no longer exist. For example, the temple at Walalgoda in Panamure has collapsed. In the Sailabimbaramaya Temple at Dodanduwa, the paint has peeled off in many places. The photographs of these paintings are therefore very valuable since the originals can be reproduced or touched up using them."

"All my colour negatives are sealed and preserved in the refrigerator. They should not perish there," Jayasinghe remarked. "Many people who came for the exhibition in 1982, have expressed a desire to see it again. They feel their children should see the reproductions of temple paintings and learn to appreciate our cultural heritage. I would like to have another photo exhibition of the temple paintings. If I was a rich man I would have done it myself but unfortunately I cannot afford to do it. I need to find a sponsor. However, I hope that I would succeed in this soon so that I could take out my negatives from their cold storage and exhibit them for our young people to enjoy."

Gamini Jayasinghe, counts 35 to 40 years experience as a photographer. He has contributed his photographs to the publications, 'Buddha and his Teachings' by Narada Maha Thera, 'Rock and Wall Paintings' by Senaka Bandaranayake and 'Vision of the Buddha' by Rev. Sarada. A new book featuring the Dambulla Rock Temple, 'Ancient Buddhist Art Galleries of Sri Lanka', is in the making, under the sponsorship of the Dambulla Development Foundation.What we have seen of Jayasinghe's temple photographs is most impressive. The ancient works of art have been captured in beautiful colouring and great clarity of detail. It is to be hoped that he would have an opportunity to exhibit his remarkable collection so that more people could see and appreciate the beauty of temple art.

Exciting peek into vernacular heritage

Book review

The Architecture of an Island: The Living Legacy of Sri Lanka -by Ronald Lewcock, Barbara Sansoni and Laki Senanayake. Reviewed by Somasiri Devendra

In this long-awaited vol ume one sees where "the path less travelled-by", which Barbara Sansoni chose to follow, finally led her. It's been a long way from the tentative drawings in the now defunct Mirror past the seminal achievement of Viharas and Verandahs waiting for guide, slave-driver, guru and friend, to run the final lap together. But long will this book remain a source of information and inspiration.

Viharas and Verandahs was a visual treat, spanning the spectrum of buildings from the humble to the holy but, yet, only a wake-up call to the discerning. But here, the many strands only sensed in that, are knitted together, and the rationale for the whole laid bare. 

It is only at the vernacular architectural heritage that this book looks. "The diversity and achievement of the persisting vernacular architecture, a source of admiration and satisfaction to all who see it, form the inspiration and subject of this book."

The subject is introduced through a study of 95 buildings, from the modesty of village homes to the vast houses of God, Colonial Administrators and "native Chieftains". The ecclesiastical and secular, the primitive and the sophisticated, and every passing influence is here. But not the "high civilization" of the ancients, because the life has gone out of it. This book is about the living, only.

Presentation is through text and illustrations, closely twinned. There are two texts. Ronald Lewcock's describes form, structure, detail, purpose etc. for the student. Fundamental to the book's purpose, it succeeds without being pedantic. His informative and readable style shows the hallmarks of a good teacher. The complementary text is Barbara Sansoni's, adding a subjective dimension; short, personal descriptions of her 'encounters' with each of the buildings, written with humour (sometimes wicked) and feeling. I cannot resist from quoting one. Recognizing, in a church in Portugal, the high 'shriek' characteristic of Sri Lankan Roman Catholic congregations, she drily remarks:

"It may be considered an unwitting act of vandalism on my mother's part that she trained many a shrieking congregation to Latin plain chant."

Parallel with the text run the illustrations: line drawings by Barbara and Laki Senanayake, measured drawings, plans and sections, and photographs. The different media and disciplines add depth and raise an interesting question. Why are the drawings more pleasing than the photographs? The eye, is selective, and sees only what it wants to see. Through the drawings the reader sees the artist and the impact of the subject on the artist, and so shares the artist's excitement. The differences between the artists are also revealed: Barbara's are the more linear, more simplified, more revealing of her emotions. Laki's, emphasizing perspective, light and shade, and broad vistas are the more sophisticated. The photographs provide a sober counterpoint to the artists' ebullience. And their colour, which add, somehow, a more human dimension. The architectural drawings are necessary, too, particularly for the more complex buildings, and match the rhythm of the book. Restrained and factual like the text, they add what was missing in Viharas and Verandahs. All are essential, just as the two texts are.

In my own voyage of discovery, into the architecture of Sri Lankan watercraft, I came to realize that the India-influenced north, and the south dominated by trans-oceanic shipping, had their own, distinct craft cultures. But, from where did the vibrancy of the southern culture spring? It is certainly not Indian. It is the true Sri Lankan identity: an identity based on intermingling, acceptance of new ideas, the sea its source of inspiration and character that goes back thousands of years before Christ, independent of the Rajarata. Coastal communities linked by major sea-routes, have more in common with each other than with their own inland communities. Says Ronald: "........heterogenous, socially polyglot and palimsest, diverse and rich beyond its size, an intense crucible of shifting cultural forms end creative ideas......."

The buildings are a feast to the eye and mind. In spite of all the apparent dissimilarities, many characteristics link them. Strictly practical, a sense of the harmony of proportions, a feeling for the interplay of line and colour, an elegant simplicity and style, and a strong sense of oneness with site and environment. Purposeful, not boastful or ostentatious. To be able to say this of structures from temporary cadjan shelters to cathedrals is to acknowledge the strength of the vernacular heritage.

I cannot, however, agree with Ronald when he says:

"Manuals to guide builders were written and we have some of them but as they are rules established in accordance with symbolic meanings, many of which we do not know and understand they are generally rather difficult to follow. Analysing the architecture is relatively simple by comparison - deceptively simple. For there is a disparity between the rules proposed in the manuals and the surviving buildings which is surprising and yet defies explanation."

He has missed something important here. A living vernacular legacy is a continually developing one, not one bound by manuals. New superstitions grow. There is room for diversity within the guidelines. And symbolic meanings can be understood, but only after much effort and working alongside builders. Doors are auspiciously aligned; the number of openings in a house follows a rule; the parts of a shrine-centric Hindu house are strictly disposed; the non-theistic Buddhist south has its own totems and taboos; horoscopes are consulted, mischievous spirits placated. The manuals are guides only: individual builders modify and pass them on through the guru-shishya paramparawa (the teacher-pupil continuum). Then, the "magical" significance of numbers, language and etiquette and the soul of the structure, of the people who lived in and used it. Barbara's description of the laird of House no. 9, seated where he can see the front entrance

".... A low armless chair stood by him for the rare visitor who might be allowed to use it and he made it clear that no near neighbour would be allowed to that privilege - he trusted none of them."

Vernacular architecture includes these attitudes, not found in the manuals.

Many other things that spring to mind:

o Could, I wonder, the walled village of mud, be one of the precursors of the courtyard houses? After all, everyone has more than one ancestor.

o The loveliness of the smaller, rural buildings. The Tampita vihara. The ambalama. The Wattegama shrine, near Matale, islanded amidst paddy fields, the quintessentially Kandyan village temple: why have these not been studied and recorded, yet, as a genre? 

o The sleeping arrangements for the father of the family in the verandah of the village house. The interior of the house was for the few possessions, and for the women and children to sleep. Nobody lived indoors. 

oThe best of the churches, ambalamas, and devales show their bare skeletal structure without cover-up: pillars, beams, joints. Their naked simplicity lending them a chaste grace.

oThe occasional wrong identification : the "Aiyanar Kovil" near Madampe, Chilaw, with the statue of a horse. Isn't this the "Thanivalli Devale", dedicated to a local prince-turned-deity, in the Bandara Deiyo tradition?

oVillage-scape and streetscape. The contrasts, in visual texture, in the terraced houses of Messenger Street. The streets of medieval Kandy and the last of those at Ambalangoda, Balapitiya and Galle (up and behind the main street Bo-tree) are all but beyond documentation now. The Galle markets facing the main road have been ruined in the name of restoration.

The achievement of this book is that, in the end, it records with understanding our vernacular architecture at the end of the century. Perhaps, at the end of the next, there would be no material for another. Till then, let us be content that Ronald, Barbara and Laki have salvaged this much for our children. And for this, much thanks.

A mine of historical illustrations

Newspaper Engravings is a volume of 404 pages of 29x22 cm in size. It has an Introduction and five chapters: People's Customs and Occupations, Historical Events, Leisure and Sports, Elephants: Kraals and Hunting and Towns and Buildings. Views. Natural History and a Glossary. The latter contains explanations of various words, used in the context of art and engraving, some Sinhala place-names and notes on some personalities.

The Introduction, contains a historical sketch of illustrated journalism in Britain, together with a well written account giving the techniques and intricacies of wood-engraving, and its progress in the late 19th century upto its displacement by mechanical processes. That account provides the reader with the necessary background to understand and appreciate the medium of illustration.

The Engravings, as seen by the chapter headings, have been presented subjectwise- the engravers themselves being hardly identifiable. From a user point of view, the arrangement is convenient, as one could easily refer to a section for the information that one seeks. The Table at the end of each chapter has a list of illustrations, which would also serve as a quick reference guide for readers and researchers.

The illustrations themselves are accompanied with contemporary notes given at their time of printing. The engravings provide either historical or informative data. They are satirical or humorous of the subject that is being illustrated. Thus, the illustrations together with the contemporary notes, are a mine of information that have not been available upto now, in this readily accessible form. Additionally, the volume provides notes by the compiler/editor often bringing a subject to-date, thus enhancing its historical and informative value.

In this volume, we see some early illustrations taken from the British publications, Penny Magazine of 1833-1835, and the Saturday Magazine of 1835, Illustrated London News 1848, The Graphic 1876, and two others. They are supplemented with illustrations from German, French, American and Australian newspapers, together with those from Sri Lankan Muniandi 1869, Ceylon Observer 1887, Ceylon Mail 1888, and the Sinhala, Kavata Kathikaya 1895, Satyalokaya 1897, and Kavata Anjanama 1898.

The 250- odd illustrations, some being composite pictures, are gems of information for a wide spectrum of studies.

The intention of the publishers of the material given in this volume was to inform the British public, of the happenings in a far flung part of their Empire. Hence, it is natural that what has been published was what the Britishers would have liked to know.

In that light, the events connected with the visit of Prince Alfred (1876) and of other royalty are well illustrated. An example is the beautiful illustrations on the decorations in Colombo and elsewhere, and the section on kraaling which vividly portrays the capture of elephants on the occasion of the visit of the Prince.

The artists and photographers who had communicated material for the engravings too had been mostly British. Out of the 22 names mentioned in the Introduction, 16 of them like Andrew Nicholl and Arthur Rackham were British. Among the rest are a French Eurasian - Hippolyte Silvaf, two Germans and three Sri Lankans - Van Dort, Andree and Lawton.

It is difficult in a short review of this nature to do justice to the plethora of excellent illustrations in the volume. However, I would mention just one engraving,-the Environs of Colombo (1882) which shows the tranquillity and beauty that prevailed in comparison with the busy, overcrowded, jarring and unkempt environs of today's Colombo. Perhaps the illustration has a little of the engravers or artist's licence, but still it would largely represent that part of the city, as it was at that time.

In the island's history,the 19th century occupies a pre-eminent position as the formative period of modern Sri Lanka. It has given Sri Lanka valuable documentation of its history and civilization, mostly contributed by the British, who were in the island at that time.

In his Newspaper Engravings, Raj has supplemented that information, and that richly, from another medium. Here, Raj has given practically all the known illustrations of that medium on the Sri Lankan scene of the 19th century. Thus, between his Early Prints, and this volume, the visual representations of 19th century Sri Lanka, is almost totally covered.

To my knowledge, the only other place where this genre was discussed and some illustrations were provided was in the Sesquicentennial Volume of the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka 1845-1995, (1995), where Raj himself gave a pre-view of what was to come in his publication.

I understand that these engravings are perhaps the only genuine and pedigreed collectible items on Sri Lanka now available in the art and antique markets of Britain and Europe. If so, to a collector, the value of the publication would have another dimension.

Technically, between the original and the reproductions, the authenticity of the reproductions are remarkable. Perhaps, here or there, one may see an illustration a shade darker or a shade lighter, which would have been inevitable in the course of reproduction to a uniform size and format required by the volume. 

As usual, in this volume too, Raj has set an enormously high standard for the production-he is a perfectionist. This third volume of his, is of the same size, as his other two volumes, and would form a 'trilogy' on the illustrated history of the island, 17th-19th centuries.

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