Political culture

The story of a Sri Lankan woodcarver who became a prisoner and a political artist

Koralegedara Pushpakumara disturbs the notions of history, politics and art in his rendering of Sri Lanka.

The Sri Lanka that Koralegadara Pushpakumara conjures in his art, is not seen in idyllic tourist guides, and it is far removed from the sanitised discussions of state officials. This is an aesthetic imagination of Lanka at the cusp of romance and reality, neatly blending his personal experiences with public history.

Pushpakumara, who is also known as Pushpe, was an eyewitness to the insurgency, violence, genocide, and civil war that wrecked Sri Lanka. The curious combination of symbols in his works present experiential accounts loaded with satire.

Pushpe’s maze of art works, including paintings, installations and performance art, earned critical acclaim in South Asia and beyond. This November, his Dissonant Images is being shown in India.

Wall Plug (16) 2013. Mixed media  on canvas 190.5 x 360 cm. Copyright: Pushpakumara Koralegadara
Wall Plug (16) 2013. Mixed media on canvas 190.5 x 360 cm. Copyright: Pushpakumara Koralegadara

The great churn

Koralegedara Pushpakumara was born to a family of carpenters, but grew up with an artistic inclination towards woodwork, especially carving. From the beginning, a source of inspiration was the famous woodcarving of the Gadaladeniya Ambekka temple in Kandy.

As he grew older, Pushpe wanted to continue experimenting with woodcarving, but life in the 1980s was taken over by Sri Lanka’s political revolution. In his childhood, Pushpe witnessed the caste discrimination his friends from lower caste groups experienced. Given his personal affinity towards a sense of Buddhist equality, he was dismayed at the caste-based divisions between Govigama (the land-owning upper caste group) and Rody (caste groups that perform work such as manual scavenging).

Like many Sinhalese youth, Pushpe leaned towards the transformative dream of the political left, and its most concerted manifestation, popularly known as the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna. Most young people inclined towards the JVP attended its lectures in isolated locations around Peradeniya and Kandy.

 Unveiling the confusion (xi)2004, Mixed media 110 x 86 cm. Copyright: Pushpakumara Koralegadara
Unveiling the confusion (xi)2004, Mixed media 110 x 86 cm. Copyright: Pushpakumara Koralegadara

The 1971 uprising against president Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s government attracted attention worldwide. The crackdown on the uprising claimed the lives of more than 10,000 youths in Sri Lanka. JVP's founder Rohan Wijeweera was arrested and imprisoned in Jaffna. This bitter defeat led to a second, longer insurgency that lasted nearly two years, between 1987 to 1989. By this time, the ethnic conflict between Tamil rebels and the Sinhalese-dominated government had begun, and in reaction to Indian involvement in according the Tamils autonomy, the JVP assumed a Sinhalese nationalist identity along with its revolutionary Communism.

They fought the Indian Peace Keeping Force and mobilised an anti-India sentiment, preventing Lankans from consuming Indian goods. However, the result of this uprising too included massive casualty of the innocent people – JVP cadres, government personnel, as well as the life of Wijeweera.

It was during this time that many who were under threat, including Pushpe, fled to Ampara in the Eastern province of Sri Lanka. Pushpe recalled wearing a cyanide pill in a locket, hanging from his neck those days, so he could commit suicide if he was ever captured.

As luck would have it, Pushpe could not evade arrest.

“In 1989, I was a final year student in school, a 21-year-old activist of the student movement attached to the JVP that rose against the Sri Lankan government." he said. "When the government crackdown of the JVP began, and I fled to Ampara, I was captured, detained and tortured. Finally, miraculously, I was released – for which the exact reason is still not fully clear to me.”

 Excavation  (school uniform,burnt tyre) 2004  Mixed media  210 x 54 cm. Copyright: Pushpakumara Koralegadara
Excavation (school uniform,burnt tyre) 2004 Mixed media 210 x 54 cm. Copyright: Pushpakumara Koralegadara

As a fugitive, Pushpe was still making woodcarvings at his brother’s workshop in Ampara. He was highly sought after among homes, for his experimental work. He had by this time, realised the consequences of the uprising: a violent loss of lives, rather than the promised structural transformation. He had witnessed the elaborate mechanism of killing those employed by both the JVP and the Sri Lankan army, as well as the rising violence of LTTE. He watched helplessly, as the the notorious “necklace”, a garland of burning tyres was used to asphyxiate the rebels and suspects.

In our conversation, Pushpe recalled:

“Many thousands disappeared and were killed both in the war and the uprising. After 15 years, being an ex-JVPer and an active artist, I joined an institute in Colombo to do a postgraduate diploma in archaeology. The assignment was about dating dead bodies. I couldn’t escape the flashbacks. I wondered – how would someone find and date the dead bodies of my contemporary youth, who disappeared, and the people who were massacred in the war in North? It will be under the burnt tyres with engine oil, in mixed, decaying, charred clothes. You wouldn’t find the typical succession of insects, other creatures and decaying patterns – you would need a different theory to explain and date them.”

Political art in Sri Lanka

Pushpe returned to Colombo and obtained a formal education at the Institute of Aesthetic Studies, University of Kelaniya, in 1997. When his art was exhibited in Colombo, Pushpe became one of the early artists in the contemporary visual art scene in Sri Lanka, which has been described as a “1990s trend” by the eminent art historian and artist Jagath Weerasinghe.

Weerasinghe, artist Anoli Perera and many others contributed to this trend, creating a new paradigm of artistic practice under the institution named Theertha Artists’ Collective based in Colombo. A vivid turn to the political underpinned the visual arts at Theertha. The political undercurrents and appeals of these artworks subsumed the individual self, socio-cultural traditions, and politico-public encounters of violence.

Goodwill Hardware 1 - IV . 2009.Plywood board, trapolene, wax, barb wire, clear hose, white car paint. 50 x 81 cm. Copyright: Pushpakumara Koralegadara
Goodwill Hardware 1 - IV . 2009.Plywood board, trapolene, wax, barb wire, clear hose, white car paint. 50 x 81 cm. Copyright: Pushpakumara Koralegadara

According to Weerasinghe, Pushpe is conscious of the socio-cultural underpinnings that form his existence as a painter – this is evident in some of his famous works, such as his series titled Goodwill Hardware and Barbed Wire, which stand in testimony to Pushpe’s quest to re-fashion culture in the time of civil war and its aftermath. He fuses the sublime and bizarre, innocuous and injurious, the colourful and banal to engender a sense of sarcasm.

Barbed  Wire (xiii) 2012 Screen Print, Acylic on Canvas 110x67.5 cm. Copyright: Pushpakumara Koralegadara
Barbed Wire (xiii) 2012 Screen Print, Acylic on Canvas 110x67.5 cm. Copyright: Pushpakumara Koralegadara

The motif of a knot, borrowed from the woodcarvings in the Ambekka Devalaya in Kandy, appears on the surface of Barbed Wire. The knotty barbs, in a frame that appears normal otherwise, unsettles the usual grammar of viewership and art appreciation. Pushpe also scatters fine dots in his works to symbolise the vocation of woodcarving by the caste of carpenters of Sri Lanka.

Violence appears frequently in Pushpe’s works: in Excavation, he puts a burnt tyre at the centre of the canvas. In Wall Plug, Pushpe paints a colourful pond with the famous Lankan flower Niyangala (Gloriosa Superba/Glory Lily/Poison Flame). The beautiful flowers have poisonous roots, which Pushpe had seen consumed by the distressed victims of the ravaged Lankan countryside.

In his rendering of Sri Lanka, Pushpa disturbs the fixed notions of history, politics, and art.

Pushpe’s Lanka comes to India in a show of his select works, titled Dissonant Images, at the gallery Exhibit 320 in New Delhi.

Dev Pathak teaches sociology at South Asian University and researches on performance arts in Sri Lanka.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
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From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.