It is difficult to separate Sri Lankan artist and archaeologist Jagath Weerasinghe’s body of work from the island's recent conflict. After all, they’ve almost run on parallel tracks. The Sri Lanka Civil War began right around the time Weerasinghe started to find his niche as an artist in the 1980s – and played out in the background for the next three decades.

Weerasinghe was one of four artists whose works Theertha International Artists Collective, an artist-led non-profit from Sri Lanka, brought to the India Art Fair that concluded last month.

Weerasinghe's body of work has always reflected his concerns about the moral dilemmas posed by the conflict between the island’s Sinhalese and Tamil communities, said Lalith Manage of Theertha.

A turning point

“You can’t talk about Weerasinghe’s work without talking about the history of the land,” said Manage, pointing at Crumbling of the Stupa, one of Weerasinghe’s paintings from 1992.

This painting, and the exhibition at which it was first displayed, was a turning point for Sri Lanka’s art scene, which moved firmly towards more socio-political expressions after that, added Manage.

'Crumbling of the Stupa' by Jagath Weerasinghe. (Photograph courtesy: Theertha International Artists' Collective)
'Crumbling of the Stupa' by Jagath Weerasinghe. (Photograph courtesy: Theertha International Artists' Collective)

Crumbling of the Stupa was a direct comment on Buddhism, the religion followed by approximately 70% of Sri Lankans. Weerasinghe, a Sinhala Buddhist himself, took the religious icon of a stupa and broke it down using his paintbrush, one angry stroke at a time.

Mirror to society

“His protest was that the core values of the Buddhist religion were not being practiced and that it was getting associated with politics" said Manage. "He wanted to drive home the point that this political-religious connection was problematic and undesirable to the nation."

'Who Are You, Soldier?' by Jagath Weerasinghe. (Photograph courtesy: Theertha International Artists' Collective)
'Who Are You, Soldier?' by Jagath Weerasinghe. (Photograph courtesy: Theertha International Artists' Collective)
'Who Are You, Soldier?' by Jagath Weerasinghe. (Photograph courtesy: Theertha International Artists' Collective)
'Who Are You, Soldier?' by Jagath Weerasinghe. (Photograph courtesy: Theertha International Artists' Collective)

Another Weerasinghe work, a 2007 series of paintings titled Who Are You, Soldier? puts the spotlight on anonymous soldiers stuck fighting someone else’s war. Either glorified or loathed, the nameless, faceless soldiers of Weerasinghe’s paintings are just helmets in uniforms with guns. The artist highlights how the soldier is deprived of his own identity by being reduced to extremes. “Weerasinghe is not pointing fingers at the soldier," said Manage. "He isn’t calling him heroic or guilty. He is simply questioning the fate of these soldiers.”

The futility of war

The darkness in Who Are You, Soldier? is evident despite the bright yellow halo around each figure’s head. The golden hue symbolises the manner in which the soldier is glorified, but the violent black brushstrokes on the helmets hint at the moral conundrum posed by the figure of the soldier.

'Who Are You, Soldier?' by Jagath Weerasinghe. (Photograph courtesy: Theertha International Artists' Collective)
'Who Are You, Soldier?' by Jagath Weerasinghe. (Photograph courtesy: Theertha International Artists' Collective)

The Crumbling of The Stupa was damaged while being shipped to the India Art Fair but Manage said the work still hasn’t lost its social value and expression.

Weerasinghe had simply rolled up the canvas in rice paper and shipped it to Delhi. “I opened it and there was a crack in the middle!" said Manage. "When the collector came, the first words out of his mouth were, “Shit! This work has lost its market value’.”

But the crack simply added value to the work as it represented other historical cracks experienced by Sri Lanka, added Manage.