Art Attack

Why a Sri Lankan artist’s redrawn maps are gaining ardent admirers in India

Pala Pothupitiye’s alternative cartographies articulate memory and its erasure.

Pala Pothupitiye, a defiant artist from Sri Lanka, has earned many admirers in India over the past six years with his critically acclaimed artworks that reimagine maps. His popularity was evident last week at a preview of his solo show in Delhi: a number of art lovers and collectors stood frozen before the vociferous frames narrating the artist’s history, enmeshed in biography.

Until this Moment, arranged by Galleries Exhibit 320 and Blueprint 12, is relevant historically and politically in South Asia and beyond because of the instances of violent reaffirmation, of territorial and military aggression from various epochs of history. When the US dropped the Mother of all Bombs in Afghanistan, this became the most immediate instance and point of departure for an art critic gazing at Pothupitiye’s works.

Apart from acknowledging instances of military intervention, Until this Moment invites the viewer to critically ruminate on the stringent laws curbing free flow of humans, trade and culture across the globe. The powers that be regulate migration – under the pretext of economic and security reasons – which in turn encourages racist, communal, and political exclusions. At such a moment, Pothupitiye’s maps cajole viewers to engage with the perpetuity of neo-colonial modernity, striding across mythology, history, and the present.

South Asia Map. Credit: Lalith Manage, Theertha Artists’ Collective, Colombo.
South Asia Map. Credit: Lalith Manage, Theertha Artists’ Collective, Colombo.

Un-mapping the maps

Pothupitiye has delivered a rich series of works in the last decade. “They [the maps] confront issues such as colonialism, nationalism, religious extremism and militarism, and extend the inquiry to questions of caste, the distinction between art and craft, tradition and modernity, as well as generating a critique of Euro-centrism,” said the artist, describing his work. His works on government maps and old colonial maps sometimes merge to create new cartographies, dismantling the idea of rigid sovereign territory.

Pothupitiye conceptually treats maps as two-dimensional surfaces, which he can use to bring attention to lived experiences in these inscribed spaces. These alternative cartographic exercises articulate memory and its erasure, identities and their discomfiture, in the wake of the thirty years of war in Sri Lanka and the complexities in the aftermath. Many of them – such as Histories and Past (2017); and Jaffna Fort, Fort Frederick - Trincomalee, Batticaloa Fort, and Galle Fort from the Fort Series (2015) – narrate stories of civilisational fluidity enmeshed in colonial encounters. Histories and Past, a work on Ptolemy’s Map of Ceylon, with strokes of history, mythology, conjures a rapturous cosmos demanding more than merely a glance.

Barcode World Map (2017). Credit: Lalith Manage, Theertha Artists’ Collective, Colombo.
Barcode World Map (2017). Credit: Lalith Manage, Theertha Artists’ Collective, Colombo.

Grimness unfolds in the Map Series (2015), which includes the famous South Asia maps, a reworking of the upside down map of Himal South Asia, a periodical published in Nepal. Pothupitiye adds motifs to this to communicate the political violence of the region.

His Matara, named after a Tamil city in Southern Province of Sri Lanka, comments on the political interventions loaded with vested interests.

Matara. Credit: Lalith Manage, Theertha Artists’ Collective, Colombo.
Matara. Credit: Lalith Manage, Theertha Artists’ Collective, Colombo.

Pothupitiye’s orientation

Pothupitiye obtained a degree in Fine Arts at the Visual and Performance Art University in Colombo, and in 2005, he was selected to participate in the third Fukuoka Triennial at the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum in Japan. In 2010, he won the jury award of the Sovereign Art Asian Prize in Hong Kong. He came from what art historians in Sri Lanka recognised as the fringe – raised in a traditional village in southern Sri Lankan called Deniyaya, Pothupitiye inherited the fine craftsmanship of his father Somasiri Pothupitiye.

“My father’s traditional caste occupation, of making costumes for ritual healing performances at villages in southern Sri Lanka, was my beginning as an artist,” he said. “The craftsmen from Navadana caste were renowned for making ornate costumes for their community at traditional performances. These ritual dance performances invoked Hindu gods such as Kataragama, Vishnu and local gods such as Saman Vibhushana and Sunyan Daiyo. The colourful dresses, headgear, belts, shoes and armlets were made and adorned by mortals, to invoke the proximity with the immortals.”

Degree Holder (2017). Credit: Lalith Manage, Theertha Artists’ Collective, Colombo.
Degree Holder (2017). Credit: Lalith Manage, Theertha Artists’ Collective, Colombo.

As a result of his childhood influences, Pothupitiye’s artistic tools are dipped in religious and cultural cosmopolitanism, which intersects with the caste structure in Sinhala society. If a renowned cricketer or cultural celebrity comes to Pothupitiye’s studio in Colombo to purchase his works, he first takes them to his father and says, “He is the one responsible for all this.”

This Is Not A Hero’s Dress (2017). Credit: Lalith Manage, Theertha Artists’ Collective, Colombo.
This Is Not A Hero’s Dress (2017). Credit: Lalith Manage, Theertha Artists’ Collective, Colombo.

There is more to Pothupitiye’s emergence as an experimental artist with deep political insight: it pertains to the historical phenomenon in Sri Lankan art called “1990s Turn” by art scholars. There was a turn towards the political in contemporary visual arts in Sri Lanka, as artists began to explore their personal-experiential narratives from conflict-torn villages. The Theertha Artists’ Collective in Colombo, with the pioneer artist and teacher Jagath Weerasinghe and Anoli Perera, nurtured this idea of the avant garde in Sri Lankan art. Pala Pothupitiye, one of the earliest members of Theertha along with artists such as Koralegadara Pushpakumara, Bandu Mnamperi, Janani Corray, Godwin Constantine and others, began to cross borders with their political and intellectually provocative works, to participate in international exhibitions.

Until this Moment is another critical point in that movement, and it comes to Delhi at an apt political time. It asks us many questions, to which only experiential history delivers answers, if we allow ourselves to read between the lines.

Histories and Past (2017). Image credit: Lalith Manage, Theertha Artists’ Collective, Colombo.
Histories and Past (2017). Image credit: Lalith Manage, Theertha Artists’ Collective, Colombo.

Until this Moment is on display at gallery Exhibit 320, Delhi, till May 27.

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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.