Tuesday, June 09, 2009

ELOQUENCE IN STONE - A Review by Neville Weeraratne, Asia Digest, February 2009


ELOQUENCE IN STONE: The Lithic Saga of Sri Lanka. Nihal Fernando and SinhaRaja Tammita-Delgoda with photographs by Anu Weerasuriya, Luxshmanan Nadaraja, Christopher Silva, Devaka Seneviratne and Roshan Perret. A Studio Times publication, 2008.

Let me say immediately that I have been overwhelmed by this book. It is no ordinary publication. It is a treasury, a devout offering, a declaration of unconditional love; and also, alas, a confession of fear. The object of this yearning is in danger of ruin even as we gaze upon it and as we wonder at its beauty. This book is, indeed, a sacred repository of a deeply-felt response to a dying civilisation. This is about Sri Lanka.

It is made up of a fabulous collection of photographic images around which is uttered a hymn of praise, a psalm spoken in awe. Each of the pictures is a glimpse of a fabled land. Its people are not far away because the work of their hands is there to speak for them.

It is the extraordinary power of photography that it can freeze time and hold within each frame any chosen moment, any chosen image, individual and landscape. This is what this magnificent book does, eloquently, simply and with the ultimate dedication.

It is a prayer uttered by a group of people whose religion is their country. The altar at which they worship is Sri Lanka, ancient as it is but still alive and full of hope for those who would have faith in her. Nihal Fernando is the high-priest of this cult.

He asked me, several years ago, to paint a picture for him which would express the joy and pride I myself take in Sri Lanka. I have, ever since, applied myself to the task of trying to find a single image that would adequately satisfy Nihal’s request. I have searched the recesses of my mind and my imagination. The sheer magnitude of the task has weighed heavily upon me and, eventually, I have had to abandon it. It has been an edifying exercise in discovering my limitations.

There is such a great range of subjects to choose from: there are the people, small of stature, perhaps, but handsomely wrought; there is the wild life that inhabits distant places, there is the untamed jungle and there are green, manicured pastures, the sea breaking on golden sands, and the giant boulders that tumble down from the hills.

There is water, conserved in tanks and reservoirs, seas of them, and rivers that cascade down the mountainsides, to refresh and sustain the people, and to replenish their land.

And then there are the works of men’s hands: sculptures that emerge from massive granite structures, stone edifices hallowed by centuries of fervent devotion, temples and palaces and fortresses; and yet others to satisfy the individual ego.

But none of these could be put together to make a single painting. They are a multiplicity of images each sufficient to still the heart but each separate and different. So how to find one picture to tell a myriad things even if it was worth a thousand words?

I think Nihal knew where to find the answer to that question a long time ago. He has worked assiduously at it over the years. I failed his test but I think he discovered the source of that joy in stone, a hard and unforgiving thing but also one that bears the burden of permanence like no other substance can. I have engraved in my memory a classical Sinhala poem learned at school, which talked of the enduring quality of the line etched in stone (as opposed to one struck metaphorically on water which soon washes itself away). There is a rich religious symbolism attached to the idea of the permanence and the integrity of rock.

I want to argue that Nihal Fernando understood this as an irrefutable fact and in his many and earnest journeys over Sri Lanka, sought in stone to gather the evidence he was looking for.

I thought Nihal had solved this problem more than ten years ago when he produced ‘Sri Lanka: A Personal Odyssey’ (A Studio Times publication, 1997). His canvas was as wide as he ever wanted it to be. It was a book over which I went into raptures. It overcame every difficulty I was faced with in my pursuit of Nihal’s quest by resorting to the multiplicity of images he was able to assemble into one space – and he had done it with every possible grace and joy. But it would seem that in his mind it was somehow inadequate and incomplete.

Nihal’s purpose then was to show what he described as his earthly paradise, his blessed isle of enchantment, his Elysium. He was then like an ancient prophet calling the people to repentance for the evil had been wreaked upon this beloved land. He had a dream.

As in the language of a latter-day sage, he held on to that dream. “This is the dream I have had for the last fifteen years. I want to tell the story of this country and its people. I want to make people think about our past and what we are doing to it before it is too late.”

His eloquence has brought together a band of disciples who have seen and understood, and who share absolutely in his disquiet. This company of enthusiasts -- devotees rather – has gone out over the whole island, scouring it everywhere, high and low, old and not so antique, and in its fervour has produced this truly magnificent book.

Appropriately called ‘Eloquence in Stone’ it carries a sub-title, ‘The Lithic Saga of Sri Lanka.’ I have to confess that I was unfamiliar with the term ‘lithic’ (except as it appears in ‘monolith’). I found that it means ‘of stone’ and it would seem to be a reiteration of the substance upon which the thesis of the book is built. It takes you from the prehistory of Sri Lanka through the times of much beauty and great achievement in the course of more than three thousand years to the collapse of far too many of these accomplishments.

The images are not always of stone as nature produced it or as man remodeled it. The occasional appearance of people, as of the boys frolicking in the Alawatura Ela in Bulathkohupitiya, is an effervescent interlude giving life and balance to the structure of the collection.

This has been a tremendous undertaking and it has produced the answer to Nihal’s challenge to me. I could not possibly put together in one composition, however massive its proportions, the vast panoramic dimensions of this book. It is literally a weighty presentation (but in no sense ‘heavy’, being some three and half kilograms!) ‘Eloquence’ runs into 474 pages in a very large format, measuring 30cms x 28cms within two stout covers.

Eranga Tennekoon’s design for the book is modern and generous in the space given to the photographs, frequently straddling across two pages. The pictures are in monochrome and in colour, and the shift from one to the other enhances the visual pleasure of the entire presentation.

Principal of those who collaborate with Nihal Fernando is SinhaRaja Delgoda-Tammita who provides the perfect text. With him are the photographers Anu Weerasuriya, Luxshmanan Nadaraja, Christopher Silva, Devaka Seneviratne and Roshan Perret, who are individually acknowledged with their work. This is a community of devotees who fulfill their vocation with religious zeal and, if it came to that, I daresay, they would cheerfully have dispensed with this formal recognition.

However, from among these Anu appears as a leading figure vitally inspired by Nihal Fernando, her father. She has taken on the burden of Nihal’s conscience gladly, vigorously and in perfect sympathy with him. Reading the note at the end of the book it becomes clear that she has been the mind and the heart behind this awesome enterprise. She it is who would appear to have held together the various shades of thought, like the harmonious blend of a mosaic, to their logical and, I think, exquisite conclusion.

The book observes a simple pattern. Following an Introduction, the contents are made up a nine chapters beginning with the origins of Sri Lanka and telling of the coming of Buddhism in the third century BC, Anuradhapura’s ‘golden age’, the ‘flowering’ of Polonnaruwa, the Ruhuna kings and their demise, the intrusion of the Cholas and the Pandyans and the sorry end that awaits Kandy and, indeed, our inheritance.

Tammita-Delgoda is sensitive to these movements and writes with a graceful choice of language that is highly appealing and totally in keeping with the sentiments that he wishes to express. These are feelings entirely in harmony with those of the photographers but what is even more satisfying is the fact that we have here a neat combination of picture and text in proximity of one another in a manner I have rarely seen before but dearly yearned for. Tammita-Delgoda writes a comprehensive narrative relating to each image, placing it in context and providing us with the information we need. It is scholarly without being pedantic. It eliminates what had been abstract before but now is elucidated with clarity. It is exhaustive but never irrelevant.

This is perhaps, the first most complete record of all that is Sri Lanka.

For me, ‘Eloquence in Stone’ has also been a voyage of discovery. I cannot claim to have visited anything like even half of what the book reveals, so it takes me to places far and beyond what I could ever expect to see.

Many intriguing details emerge in the course of this massive journey. One I had not been aware of was the presence of what is claimed to be Kuveni’s palace within the Wilpattu National Park. ‘Eloquence’ also provides me with the opportunity to stay and watch where once I would have been forced to move on. Some images held me captive. Such a case is the section devoted to Mihintale with which I am familiar. Not only are we shown this very hallowed place in much detail, we also see emerge from them a mystical, ethereal domain sanctified by ages of devotion. The time of day, the light in the sky, and the perspective that compose the photographs made for that exquisite moment I have longed to experience.

We see, too, the image of the Buddha as conceived by the sculptors and painters of Sri Lanka. It relates intimately to human experience. It is no longer distant and removed from human knowledge but is endowed with a dignity and a benign countenance that is immediate and fulfilling.

Nihal Fernando opened his ‘A Personal Odyssey’ with the warning to the traveller that “there is no path. You have to find you own.”

In the course of this search, the traveller was to discover not only achievements of great beauty but, as ‘Eloquence’ reveals, some of the great disasters that face the beloved island. For instance, the chapter of Kandy describes it as the last stronghold of the Sinhalese kings, but that which was so valiantly defended from foreign invasion is now being destroyed, no longer by the invader but by its own native citizens. This is very much the burden of Nihal Fernando’s concern, and I think the fearful truth that Tammita-Delgoda describes needs to be quoted to illustrate the ugliness of the situation. He writes:

“The rigid order and precision of the old city stands out amidst the chaos of the new…The Kandy Lake was the greatest creation of Sri Vikrama Rajasinha (1798 – 1815), the last king of Kandy. Built at a staggering cost and with enormous effort, it transformed the capital into a place of beauty. However the streams that once fed the lake are drying up. Many of them are just being stopped or blocked to pave the way for more development. As a result the lake itself is drying out; once it does the beauty of Kandy will be gone forever.”

The lithic saga of Sri Lanka tells alas, of this kind of abuse, of destruction willfully wrought, of sheer neglect and vandalism and, of course and undoubtedly, we are made aware of the ravages that time would inflict in the end.

Meanwhile, we shall have the satisfaction of holding in our hands the homage the authors of ‘Eloquence in Stone’ wish to pay to the bounties of nature and the skill of artist and craftsman. Collectively and individually these have all contributed to make Sri Lanka resplendent everywhere, at every turn and, we fervently pray, for all time.

-- Neville Weereratne

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