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.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.