Wednesday, June 10, 2009

ELOQUENCE IN STONE - Review by Richard Boyle, Serendib, May-June 09

Eloquence in Stone

The Lithic Saga of Sri Lanka

By Nihal Fernando & SinhaRajah Tammita-Delgoda

Photography by Anu Weerasuriya, Luxshmanan Nadaraja, Christopher Silva, Devaka Seneviratne, Roshan Perret

Colombo: Studio Times, 2009

Reviewed by Richard Boyle

Sri Lanka’s sheer diversity has proven a rich vein for coffee table books. The maestro of the genre, veteran photographer Nihal Fernando, has, since 1963, guided the renowned Studio Times, accumulated thousands of vital historical images, and published acclaimed volumes such as The Wild, the Free, the Beautiful (1986), Serendip to Sri Lanka: Immemorial Isle (1991), and Sri Lanka: A Personal Odyssey (1997).

Eloquence in Stone: The Lithic Saga of Sri Lanka is the most ambitious. Dispensing with the various subject-matter of earlier work, Fernando devotes this book to the human-embellished stone visible throughout Sri Lanka - the lithic saga of the country. To assist him in this compilation he incorporated the talent of five other photographers and wrote a substantial but absorbing text in conjunction with the historical author, SinhaRaja Tammita-Delgoda.

The miscellany of sometimes grainy monochrome images – reminiscent of the 1930s documentary Song of Ceylon - between the title page and contents page provides a dramatic prologue. The chapters cover the eras in the country’s stone heritage in chronological fashion, starting with the Stone Age itself, when caves were home to Balangoda Man, who left stone implements and wall paintings.

The arrival from India of Vijaya, the legendary first king, saw the appearance of stone representations and burial chambers. But it was the introduction of Buddhism and the subsequent establishment of stone-wrought Anuradhapura as one of the greatest ancient cities, a monastic centre with its 1,600-pillared Brazen Palace and towering dagobas - the Jetavana the third tallest construction in the world - which brought lithic invention to its zenith. After the decline of Anuradhapura, stone magnificence reoccurred at Polonnaruwa, exemplified by the four colossal Buddha statues at Gal Vihara. But Indian invasions forced lithic art into retreat, before it made a final appearance in Kandy, witness the carvings in surrounding temples like Embekke.

Seven human lenses of different photographic pre-occupation illustrate the text with archived images. But the fusion of contrasting styles provides a spectacular exposition of the island’s eloquence in stone in its multiple forms. Take, for instance, the ethereal, grainy monochrome image of Lankatilaka, and the ochre-hued overhead shot of Buddhist monks traversing a Zen-like terrace of interlocking stones of disparate, size, shape and colour at Abhayagiriya, an effect apparent only from above.

Small images detract: coffee book tradition states images must be expansive enough for the eye to have to make detailed exploration of the contents, not to absorb in one glance. Nevertheless, this hefty slab of a book is worth more than its weight in gold as a repository for the future, and is probably the nearest in aesthetic and textual excellence to the unsurpassable Island Ceylon (1970), by Canadian photographer Roloff Beny.

Budupatuna, Wila Oya Basin


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