Tuesday, June 09, 2009



“And every sky was blue and rain,
And sudden rainbows in between,
And every bough was green again
And all the world was gilt and green.”
Wild Ceylon, R.L.Spittel

Picture this scene: it is holiday time in a timeless past of Lanka, where conflict was outlined by irate motorists trying to overtake a plodding loaded bullock cart on the quiet streets of Colombo, and violence was when exploding concertinas of firecrackers heralded the New Year. You are packing the car and pouring over the AA map to figure out the best route, and checking the oil and water levels. Someone more responsible has handled the essentials of food and supplies. It is as yet a few hours to dawn, and you are champing to be on the road, to get to those sylvan forest vistas peopled only by species which have had rights of way in Lanka long before humans arrived.

You travel on minor roads, motor past sleepy hamlets, and have breakfast by an ancient waterway now inhabited by lotus and water birds. The road ahead, ever winding, calls you on. By now, Dawn’s pearly light has lit up the east, and the world is stirring. Buffalos emerge from misty rice paddies, and an occasional cyclist meanders on. Green horizons with intermittent hills roll away on either side of the road.

Tribes of birds, mount from trees, reed-beds and islets of sedge flap screeching into empty skies.

You enter a wilderness which is sans human intersections, electricity pylons, microwave towers and all the detritus of our techno lives. A wilderness, which is alive, watchful and unforgiving, in its rigour, against transgressions. Your Gods have no currency here. Your voice is stilled, conversations are in whispers and brevity is key.

You are about to return to an age of innocence, where humans intersected with older habitués of Lanka with mutual respect and a balance was maintained. Where the whispered instructions of the old man crouched next to you above a forest water hole would rule your life for the next hour or so. Where the salt breeze blowing in from southern wastes would knife through you as you watched a thousand whitecaps come storming in on a deserted jungle beach. Where an evening spent overlooking a villu with the long, sustained note of the cicadas as accompaniment, together with the rhythmic moan of the loris, makes you aware of the world around you as never before. You are alive to a million sounds and sights, your eyes glued to your binos as you scan the emerging herds of forest dwellers in front of you. You are in the eternal moment, an observer and creator, as one with the red ant making its way up your legs and with the trickles of sweat coming down your neck. You have attained the Nirvana of the Ceylon traveler. This “emerald isle girdled by sapphire wave”, as the Ramayana describes Lanka, is yours to discover again.

Nihal Fernando has been documenting the wilderness and the passage of Lanka’s original inhabitants through time, for the past 50 years or so. With the dawn is his latest, and perhaps his most poignant offering, considering the context of the time we are in now. In a land beset by conflict and crisis, this is a reminder of what we have forgotten.

Using black and white film is now an almost forgotten skill. It is an art form, that when used by a master, etches into our vision those moments. With the dawn is all black and white, a travelogue through Lanka’s wilderness. The novelist Pico Iyer has called black and white the shade of nostalgia, and perhaps it is this quality which adds another dimension to this book. We all have our memories of the best times of our lives, and for most of us Sri Lankans, our childhoods evoke that time.

The art of nature photography and the art of presenting the fruits of such skills are two very different things. One is not a complement of the other. To show to a wider audience a private and personal perspective of the natural world demands a sharing of the essences of the person who captured that moment. The great photographers such as Ansel Adams, Capa, Bresson, Bailey, Don McCullin, have that eye, which Cezanne-like, capture the world and hold it for eternity.

Nihal, in his years of roaming the hidden byways and forgotten places of this island, has that certain eye. Capturing eternity in a moment he holds, transfigures and changes the world for ever. His partner in this book is Herbert Keuneman, who has added the text, elegant and sparse, to Nihal’s images. Herbert Keuneman’s prose complements the images perfectly, a balanced counterpoint.

Of the great nature writers of old Lanka, R.L Spittel was the most vivid and natural. The current masters of this genre are Peter Mathiessen and George Schaller. Schaller is better known as the world’s greatest Field Biologist who happens to write good books on his adventures. Peter Mathiessen is a great writer who happens to be passionate about nature, Buddhism, Africa, American Indians to name a few.” He is a writer with all the gifts: an exceptional ear, an unequalled eye, a ravenous soul, and a muscular radiance” (Pico Iyer). Add to this the requirement of a lot of space, a lot of wilderness and clean water, and you have the complete naturalist writer. Spittel was an earlier incarnation of Mathiessen, with the same qualities and needs.

Nihal’s camera style is the perfect riposte to Spittel’s prose: lean, spare and rigourous. Looking at his works, one can see the words unwritten forming in our minds. It seems to me that artists of Nihal’s calibre do not come easy in a small country like Lanka. There was a time when we were blessed with a surfeit of world-class artists such as Justin Deraniyagala, Lionel Wendt, coming together at one time. Art then had a rigour and quality which shines through. These diamond days are no more, and what we have now in this new millennium, where everyone is an instant camera expert, are a plethora of mediocrity, where personal pictorial histories are elevated to a global audience through the Net. The medium is no longer the message, but a mess.

In such times as today, Nihal’s images hark back to our timeless past

In his earlier works, such as The Wild the Free the Beautiful, and Sri Lanka - A Personal Odyssey, Nihal opened to the world the rich vein of Lankan imagery he has amassed over the decades. The gossamer filigree of dawn in the Hortons, the solitary Sambhur on the sand dunes of Yala, the head of a young village girl taking a bath, a group of Sambhur doe listening intently for approaching doom, a group of feathery coconut palms, a misted Ruwanveliseya at first light across the Basawak Kulama, these are visual poems in a frame. There is an evolution in his works: Sri Lanka - A Personal Odyssey is epic in scope and execution, a sweeping statement of Lanka’s roots, a portrait of an ancient land with transcendent imagery.

In this book, Nihal does not overtly grasp at the epic sweep of Lanka, but narrows his focus to the daily grind: another day at the office in Lanka’s wilderness, with all the multitudes and solitary players avoiding the pitfalls at work and play. The images which stuck with me are, the swoop of the Sea-Eagle in “lightning strike”, the leopard captured in several frames, stalking, leaping, playing, and with its mate, the Buffalo in a forest river, and the picture which says it all, “Violence and Conflict” where the Elephant and man stare at each other over a fence, stand out. They encapsulate the jungles of Lanka, and the future.

Nihal too is an artist who needs a lot of space, a lot of wilderness, and clean water. These are now in increasing short supply in Sri Lanka. Like Spittel and Mathiessen, Nihal too has an exceptional ear, an unequalled eye, and a ravenous soul. The Lanka he knew may be fast receding as the century advances, but his images remain, and with them, a peerless legacy. With the dawn is to be enjoyed at the end of the day, with some spirited company, and the lights down low, to take you back to that time of innocence, when we were at dawn.

Prasanna Weerawardane

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