To see what it is like to live in fear, look no farther than a 2016 photograph of Tamil Sri Lankans by artist Riyas Komu. The picture shows ordinary people, their eyes downcast, waiting in line to catch the ferry from Nainativu Island to Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka, where the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam or LTTE, lost a prolonged secessionist war with the Sri Lankan Army back in May 2009.
“For me, this picture is the ultimate,” said Komu. “It’s why I call this series of photographs Agam Puram. Because my final observation is this: because of the militarisation, the complexities in the social structure today and because things are getting very political, these people are living in an atmosphere of fear.”
Komu’s photograph is part of a large show of works by six Indian and five Sri Lankan artists at New Delhi’s IGNCA. Called A Tale of Two Cities, the exhibition comes at the end of a project which took participating artists to Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka, and then to Varanasi in India, in late 2015.
From 1983-2009, the LTTE fought a war to carve out a separate state for Tamils from the Northern and Eastern parts of Sri Lanka. After nearly 30 years of fighting, the LTTE leader V Prabhakaran was killed. Komu says the paraphernalia from the war, including submarines which were once deployed by the LTTE, are now displayed all over the north in Sri Lanka as a constant reminder to the people of that crushing defeat.
The choice of cities for the project has veered the artworks sharply in favour of engaging with religion, violence and power, including political clout, military might, and spiritual influence. Both Anuradhapura and Varanasi are steeped in contemporary politics and power play as well as the spiritual and historical pasts of the respective countries. Anuradhapura is the seat of institutionalised religion in Sri Lanka, and it became the military headquarters of the Sri Lankan Army during the 30-year war with LTTE. It is also a major centre for the militant Buddhist uprising in Sri Lanka. Varanasi has been a Hindu religious centre for centuries and is increasingly becoming a political warfront for national leaders who come here during election time to put their popularity to the vote.
“I questioned the choice of Anuradhapura and Varanasi in my process of thinking,” said Komu. “India is on the verge of a Hindu Nationalist uprising. At the same time, Sri Lanka is in the grip of a very Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism. There is that provocative element you start with. But I am not interested in the idea of these two nations that depends too much on the past and history and myth – an approach to pull us backward. I am more interested in the contemporary. I think the contemporary is very challenging,” he added.
Indeed, the nexus of institutionalised religion and politics, the privileging of history and myth over contemporary realities by the powers that be and the connection between violence and spirituality are themes that permeate the works in ToTC.
Take for example, Victory Dome by Sri Lankan artist Pala Pothupitiye, about the wars fought in the name of religion. The work comprises five glass and copper fibre sculptures shaped like stupas. The first four hold a throne, a crown or a sword, and represent the violent history of protecting Buddhism through the ages. The last stupa is empty, and depicts a loss of ethical values and principles – a sentiment which occurs again in this show in works by Bandu Manaperi.
Geographies of Deliverance, an installation of seven tapestries by Sri Lankan artist Anoli Perera, goes a step further to point out that institutionalised religion, power and spirituality cannot be disentangled, because they draw on each other to sustain their power.
Two of the seven tapestries in Geographies are embroidered with maps and helicopters which depict the politicisation and militarisation of Anuradhapura during the war. These heavy, curtain-like hangings book-end photographs of pilgrims (including a picture of Perera’s mother praying) printed on wispy cloth hangings, which represent the spiritual pull of the place for millions of Buddhists.
“You have the outside and the inside, which is the spiritual space,” said Perera. “The outside is where the institutionalised entities engage. As a worshipper, you go in, you claim a space briefly, and that space is between you and the object of worship. But this alone cannot exist. Both have to interact to sustain. The outside structure, the institutionalised structure, cannot exist without the relevance of the spiritual,” she added.
Religion is constantly negotiating the potential for violence in human nature, agreed Sri Lankan artist Jagath Weerasinghe, who is also the co-founder of Theertha – a non-profit artists’ collective in Sri Lanka and one of three organizers of ToTC, along with Gallery Espace in New Delhi and the Serendipity Arts Trust. Where religion explicitly preaches non-violence, it simultaneously acknowledges the potential for violence in the practitioner. Where the interpreters of scripture and history foreground the ideas of persecution of a sect, retribution and religious war, violence and religion once again intersect at multiple points.
Weerasinghe’s series of five acrylic-on-canvas works, Teertha Yatra, are the first thing that visitors see on entering the exhibition at the Twin Art Gallery in IGNCA. The large, 54x72 inch paintings conjure the idea of pilgrimages merely by hinting at the shape of boats on a river. The abstract works in red, yellow, black and green draw the eyes, not least because of the bright red dogears on three of the paintings. They give the works a look of having been used, like tarpaulin, to keep water out.
At the core of the artworks is an enquiry into how religion and its iconographies straddle the past and the present, the real and the mythical, the symbolic and the functional. “Taking a boat trip is really mundane,” Weerasinghe said in an email interview. “But at Varanasi, on the river Ganga, it isn’t just that. The reminders of life’s pleasures and suffering, the flow of life unfolding along the ghats, and the play of religious ideas in contemporary politics don’t allow a boat crossing in Varanasi to be a simple thing,” he added.
Instantly recognisable, religious symbols have been appropriated by political causes in the past. Interestingly, at least three artists chose to put religious iconography under the microscope in this show: Ram Rahman in his photo-and-text works in The Man, The Word, The Tree, The Lotus; Bandu Manamperi in his Moonstone-inspired sculptures; and Manjunath Kamath’s Restored Poems, a series of Buddha sculptures. The intent and the results varied in their respective artworks, even at places where the artists happened to use the same imagery and symbols as their starting point.
The Moonstone or Sandakada pahana is a distinctive feature of Sinhala Buddhism. It is literally the first step to enter major Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka and is seen as a stepping-stone to Nirvana. Moonstone-1, a fibre glass and resin structure by Manamperi, shows a warped Moonstone to represent “a collapse in the expectations of Buddhist philosophy in my lifetime”.
In an email interview, Manamperi wrote, “You would never see a moonstone distorted like this. Now the moonstone does not have or cannot have its actual utilitarian value. That is, it cannot be used as the first stone in an entrance, where you symbolically enter into enlightenment or the purity and scared space of Buddha. Now this distortion, or the crooked shape, symbolically represents the distortion of cultural values in society.”
Kamath’s Frankensteinian sculptures in the show treat religious iconography like the legend of a map, to read how stylistic elements travelled across South and South-East Asia, especially in the context of temple architecture, as skilled craftsmen accepted assignments across the region. One of the sculptures in his Restored Poems series, for example, grafts the chest of a sleeping Vishnu figure on to the feet of sleeping Buddha. “To me, this is akin to writing history,” says Kamath. “In history, you excavate objects and try to build a narrative around what might have happened. Or you create an altogether new fiction about it,” he said.
Rahman’s work in ToTC starts out as a brief history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and its linkages to India. But it quickly catches up to the contemporary moment, including BR Ambedkar’s adoption of Buddhism in 1956 and a 2014 selfie by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Soon after casting his vote in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, Modi, then the prime ministerial candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party, shared a photo of himself on social media. In the picture, he held up his index finger, freshly marked with voter’s ink. A white lotus cutout acted as a foil to the ink mark. The lotus, of course, is the election symbol of the Bharatiya Janata Party. In Buddhism, the flower symbolises purity and the chance for redemption. “They say the lotus bloomed wherever the Buddha walked,” says Rahman. “You often see depictions of lotuses on Buddha’s feet.”
The final piece in The Man, The Word is a picture of a peaceful monk at Anuradhapura; perhaps it is wishful thinking on Rahman’s part for a calm end. “Look how relaxed his hands are,” Rahman said.
The artists in this show have different backgrounds, visions, aesthetics and choice of form and materials. Just the choice of materials in this show ranges from terracotta sculpture to embroidered fabric, photography, carved wood and video installation. Despite the differences, two things unite the works. The first is, of course, a strong theme – the majority of works in this large show have to do with power and religion. The second is the way in which the artworks sometimes convey the same message through different routes, strengthening it through repetition by other means.
For example, the idea of distortion which is integral to Manamperi’s work resurfaces in a sculpture by Komu, which depicts the lions atop Ashoka’s pillar. But the lions’ toes are breaking off from the main structure, which is disintegrating, in this iteration too. The symbol of the lions is of course an important piece in Buddhist history, as well as a symbol of authority in independent India. This falling apart or hollowing out of something that used to be meaningful is one of the more powerful ideas that echoes through – and unites – the different parts of this show.
A Tale of Two Cities is on at IGNCA, New Delhi, till 31 March.