If Varanasi is said to be one of the oldest inhabited cities of the world, Anuradhapura is famous for its well-preserved ruins of an ancient Sri Lankan civilisation. Even though miles apart, they both are cities of ritual, and are intrinsically interwoven into the life of the people who populate these complex geographies. Apart from being the popular pilgrimage and religious sites, a common thread that binds them together is — Buddhism. With Sarnath, the place where Buddha preached his first sermon after enlightenment, just 10 kms away from Varanasi, and Anuradhapura considered as a ‘cradle of Buddhism’ in Sri Lanka, the two sites became a starting point of inquiry for 11 artists from both the countries to create works that re-looked at these sites from a fresh perspective.
Together this artist collective comprising Manjunath Kamath, Riyas Komu, Manisha Parekh, Ram Rahman, Paula Sengupta and Chintan Upadhyay from India with Jagath Weerasinghe, Anoli Perera, Pala Pothupitiya, Bandu Manamperi and Pradeep Chandrasiri from Sri Lanka collaborated for an art project — A Tale of Two Cities in 2015. This research-based art-making process was lead by curator Ruhanie Perera, who in the curatorial note writes, “It calls on the artist to revisit a city through individual artistic expression born of collaborative seeking and discourse.”
So in a year-long cross-cultural exchange the collective visited these sites and stayed there to observe and absorb; to reinterpret and contextualise, and to learn and explore. All of them, at some point in their lives, had visited these sacred sites in their respective country but for this project, they had to skim a part of that memory and approach the site with a renewed gaze.
Their artistic interventions have translated into various artworks that were first showcased at Serendipity Arts Festival in Goa last year, and are now displayed in the city, and will soon travel to Sri Lanka. The project, presented by Gallery Espace, in association with Serendipity Arts Trust and Theertha Artists Collective, Sri Lanka, is built around the framework to create a dynamic, longer-term sustained dialogue among artistic communities.
“We live in the subcontinent where there is a lot of conflict and tension, but at the same time, we also have a shared history and common myths. So, a project like this gives an opportunity to artists to see how we can start a conversation around things that need to be addressed,” says Riyas.
Elaborating on his work, titled ‘Agam Puram’, which includes photographs of important sites in Sri Lanka and its people, along with different kinds of sculpture in recycled wood, Riyas says that at the outset he was clear about what he wanted to explore in Sri Lanka. “I was not looking at her as a site of archaeology or pilgrimage, but was interested in exploring how the situation has changed in the post-war Sri Lanka,” he says.
All his works in the exhibition are layered with symbolism, especially a series of photographs that feature an abandoned submarine, a war memorial and close-up of a group of Sri Lankan people who look sad and troubled. Pointing towards the war memorial photograph in which a jubilant solider is holding a gun in one hand and in the other the Sri Lankan national flag, Riyas says, “Winning the war meant victory, but for people, this victory still hasn’t brought peace. I have tried to build this argument by placing the two photographs — war memorial and a group of people, next to each other.”
For Delhi-based Manjunath, it was the complex juxtaposition of history, myths and archaeology that he has tried to assemble and give a shape to. Titled ‘Restored Poems’, he has used terracotta, iron and cement to create five sculptures that take cues from myth and history and reinterpret them in an artistic language. One of the works merges half-body of Buddha and half of Vishnu. Elaborating on this, he says, “I have always been fascinated by history. It is half-fact and half-fiction. So, when I visited Anuradhapura I saw how the iconography was similar to South, where I come from. So, I decided to create sculptures that draw from popular icons and are half constructed…so that some part of the narrative remains open for interpretation.”
However, for Sri Lankan artist Anoli this art project came as an opportunity to re-look at these sacred sites with intimacy. “I was overwhelmed when I visited Varanasi because it is a space where events like life, death and marriage co-exist. But, it was more challenging for me to see Anuradhapura in a different light because I have been to that site several times. Yet, when I visited the site for this project, I realised how I had missed out on observing several things earlier. So this project allowed me to revisit and reinterpret these spaces in a new vocabulary,” she says.
For this project, she has created two works —‘Voyages of Institution and of Promises’ and Geographies of Deliverance’, printed images on cloth, and explore the idea of creating intimate spaces within institutionalised framework of religious places. “Varanasi and Anuradhapura both continue to attract a large number of pilgrims yearly. The histories of both these places are layered with myth, cultural interpretations, intersections of politics and religious upheavals. Visiting both cities stirred my curiosity on the idea of ‘pilgrimages’ and the parallel landscapes and sacred routes people construct,” she sums up.
(The exhibition is on till March 31, at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts)