Archive for January, 2016

Art & Soul

Saturday, January 30th, 2016

Art & Soul

ROYSTON REPORTS, NUMBER 291

TROPICAL TOPICS, Sunday 31 January 2016.

Welcome to this week’s newsletter, mainly about tropical art.

Toddy time

Toddy is the effervescent sap tapped from the flower of the coconut and a natural alcoholic drink when drunk slightly fermented. It can be bought legally in toddy taverns throughout the country, served in plastic bowls for immediate gulping. Have too much and the effect not only leads to laughter but to disaster too if it triggers diarrhoea. Sri Lankan arrack should be distilled from toddy to be authentic.

Two toddy vinegars

Two toddy vinegars

Toddy can also be turned into wonderful zesty vinegar. I use it to add a kick when I pickle quail eggs. It’s a favourite with Sri Lankan cooks too for dishes that need a touch of sourness. The vinegar is made and sold by brand name companies and a local supermarket chain. The difference in these two bottles of “Natural Coconut Toddy Vinegar” is not much in taste, but the supermarket one costs Rs120 (£ 0.58  $ 0.84) for 750ml while the branded bottle is Rs35 more.

Art & Soul

The art scene in Colombo is a vibrant one with paintings on display in galleries and along the pavement of Ananda Coomaraswamy Mawatha (aka Green Path), where the National Art Gallery is housed. This Sunday, 31 January, the whole street is being taken over by hundreds of artists displaying their works. I hope to report on my visit there next week as I search for art that reflects the soul of Sri Lanka.

Paintings on display at the National Art Gallery

Paintings on display at the National Art Gallery

The National Art Gallery itself has an impressive, neo-Georgian exterior but a dismal and disappointing interior. There is a permanent exhibition of some very unhappy looking worthies protected from closer scrutiny by a rope.

In the past century, Sri Lankan painting progressed from traditional portraits in dull oils to an unbridled reaction to this Victorian artistic sterility with a dynamic revitalisation of art.  That’s when a collective of young and upwardly mobile artists decided to add a Sri Lankan (tropical) touch to European modernism. The collective became known as the 43 Group and won renown at the time, holding their last exhibition in 1967.

In the 1990s Sri Lankan art reeled off in various directions. It was no longer the preserve of the elite, as youngsters from villages joined Colombo youth to take up paint brushes and palettes (and some even assiduously studied their craft instead of relying on — and boasting of — their untutored talent).

Sri Lankan art at Kala Pola

Sri Lankan art at Kala Pola

Digital technology arrived and with it all manner of ways of creating art were available to those with little natural ability. In the wave of enthusiasm for creating paintings, these artistic computer surfers had – and are still having – a great time creating “works of art.”

Classical & Sri Lankan images

Classical & Sri Lankan images

Today I shall be looking for paintings that are immediately identifiable as being by talented Sri Lankan artists who have developed a distinctive style. I don’t mean typical scenes such such as stilt fishermen or tea pluckers but something that says, this painting has soul.

 

The influence of Sigiriya

In the current DOMUS magazine (http://www.domus.lk) I have an article about the influence of Sigiriya on architects and artists. It begins:

“When I first climbed Sigiriya 30 years ago, I was bemused upon returning to my hotel to be presented by the manager with a Certificate congratulating me, as an over-50-year-old, for completing the climb to the summit. I was only 45 at the time! Nevertheless, the impact of that first climb has remained with me ever since. That’s because the design, landscaping, infrastructure and exquisite art created over 1,550 years ago on this toadstool of golden-hued granite protruding 183m into the searing blue sky from a hot, flat jungle wilderness, remains vibrant even today.”

A Sigiriya hazard

A Sigiriya hazard

The article reflects on the architectural legacy, which is actually the outcome of regicide (indeed, patricide), and is the stuff of legend. The colonisation of the gaunt inselberg so a murderous king could live in grandeur at the top of it seems like an impossible task even today, so when we consider the summit was conquered and built upon in seven years with neither modern earthmoving machinery, cranes or prefabricated materials, the achievement is amazing.

An attraction for visitors is the incredible legacy of the exquisite frescoes painted on the wall of a rock pocket visible only during the climb to the summit. These are often copied by contemporary artists while some painters are obsessed with the sight of Sigiriya in its different moods. As I conclude in DOMUS: “It reveals that, even today, the impact of the nuanced style, art and legend of Sigiriya lingers on.”

Sigiriya influence on street art

Sigiriya influence on street art

 

Ceylon Cartopholist

Regular readers will know from Newsletter 288 that this is the word for a collector of Cigarette Cards portraying Ceylon. I have come across these fascinating cards recently, each one of which tells a story not just in the text but in its artistic style.

Surf boat cigarette card

Surf boat cigarette card

 

Husking coconuts

Husking coconuts

 

Hello sailor

Hello sailor

 

Ceylon mounted infantry

Ceylon mounted infantry

Footnote

My thanks to those readers who have contacted me to express dismay at the announcement that the last issue of this weekly newsletter will be on Sunday 14 February 2016. Some of their remarks appear in the comments section of last week’s newsletter. To see that, and the previous 289 issues, click on http://www.roystonellis.com/blog

My last Guide book

My last Guide book

I have also decided not to do the updating for the next edition of The Bradt Guide To Sri Lanka. That’s because tourism is changing so fast here and is naturally geared to travellers much younger than I am, and consequently with different (and more active) tastes. So if you want to read about how this country is, rather than what it is becoming, buy the guide, available through all good booksellers, the amazons, or direct from http://www.bradtguides.com

Beat regards

Royston