Vimila Velthas lays out lunch on the table in the courtyard.
She has prepared a traditional Jaffna meal – yam, coloured orange with the heat of chillies and cooked till creamy, a spicy fish and eggplant curry served with fat grains of red rice. Velthas presses her guests to eat more and scoffs gently at the modest size of their servings.
In the job she has held for the last six months, the 60 year old’s many loves – books, theatre, art, food and people – are combined. Velthas is the librarian at the Sri Lanka Archive of Contemporary Art, Architecture & Design, and also supervises the running of the house in which it is lodged.
The place, I believe, is like no other in Sri Lanka. This is in part due to the focus of the collection (contemporary art, architecture and design) and in part due to the space it has carved out for critical discourse in a country recovering from 30 years of war.
Its location alone marks it out – there are few art galleries in the northern city of Jaffna. Those who want to peruse or purchase artwork usually travel to the southern capital Colombo, eight hours away by train.
I make that journey in reverse, two days before the anniversary of the burning of the Jaffna Public Library. Before it went up in flames in 1981, put to the torch by an organised mob, it was known to be one of Asia’s finest. Counted among the 97,000-odd volumes in its priceless collection were palm leaf manuscripts of great historical value.
In the last three decades, Jaffna has been fiercely contested territory – held by the separatist group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) from 1986, wrested away by the Indian Peace Keeping Force in 1987, re-occupied by the LTTE in 1989 and re-claimed by the Sri Lankan military in 1995. Whoever the powers that be, gatherings of people have always evoked suspicion, and bans on such meetings have been re-enforced many times, both during the war and after the Rajapakse government’s controversial, yet decisive, defeat of the LTTE in 2009.
In this context, it is not an inconsequential thing even to say the Archive represents a space where people come together to listen and to talk. Over 2,000 people have attended a session here or come to browse since it opened its doors in 2014.
Sharmini Pereira is a co-founder and director of the Archive and the curator behind the not-for-profit publishing house Raking Leaves, of which the Archive is a flagship project. At the end of its first year, Pereira summarised the Archive’s activities in a newsletter to their supporters: “We have hosted 20 events, including the screening of 44 films, and hosted talks by 19 artists, filmmakers, art historians, designers, anthropologists and architects.” Those first 12 months also included a collaboration with New York’s Independent Curators International to screen Project 35 and a Q&A with citizen journalism website Groundviews to accompany screenings of filmmaker Kannan Arunasalam’s work.
Pereira is proud to note that despite being a relatively young organization, and one situated outside of the capital Colombo, the Archive has garnered such accolades as being voted the best new initiative in ARTRA magazine’s Visual Art Exemplary Work 2013/14 and, on the international circuit, a spot in Art Asia Pacific’s list of top new art spaces, Let 100 Kunsthalles Bloom, published in its 2015 Almanac. In its first year, the Archive received financial support from the Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development.
“Collecting materials (in English, Sinhala and Tamil) related to the development and study of visual culture in Sri Lanka remains our priority,” says Pereira. “As we move into the second year we begin the task of digitally cataloguing the over 1,000 books, exhibition catalogues, journals, invitation cards, posters and films collected and donated to date.”
Before the Archive could host visiting artists and researchers, T. Shanaathanan would invite them to stay at his house.
Though he has taught at Jaffna University’s Department of Art History for the last 16 years, inviting an outsider to deliver a lecture was never without its challenges. There were the University authorities to negotiate with and often the student unions as well. Once he had four artists in town at the same time, but a University strike left everyone grounded. The visitors came and went without addressing a single class. That was not the first time Shanaathanan felt keenly the lack of a space where artists could come and meet “beyond the politics.”
“We didn’t even have proper accommodation to offer them then. They would stay with me, and it was nice because we used to cook together and discuss.” Despite any inconveniences, Shanaathanan and his guests shared an interest in reinvigorating the curriculum, and giving their students access to the wider world.
He is, himself, a visual artist of considerable renown, known for his paintings, sketches and installations that explore conflict, identity and memory. His work includes a fascination with maps (in which he plots the shifting boundaries of worlds remembered and lost) and jigsaws (in which he explores their fragmentation).
Shanaathanan is also known for The Incomplete Thombu, which Raking Leaves published in 2011. He interviewed Tamil-speaking civilians who had been displaced – some more than once – from their homes. In the book project, excerpts from these interviews are paired with ground plans drawn by his subjects from memory, architectural renderings based on these plans and, finally, dry pastel drawings representing the artist’s response to all the other elements.
Of Jaffna, Shanaathanan now says, “Personally my inspiration of becoming an artist comes from this place, my whole imagination is practising as an artist in this place, it is inseparable for me.”
The house itself is an essential aspect of the Archive’s appeal. The central area is open to the sun, as is traditional in a Jaffna courtyard house, and the structure is bordered by a thick length of garden. The sound of the wind in the trees outside carries through the walls, day and night.
The house is on loan from the Coomaraswamy family and was renovated by the architect Anjalendran C. He chose to add five bathrooms but leave the rest of the structure much as it had always been. “It belonged to my ancestors,” he tells me over the phone, “Mahatma Gandhi and Sarojini Naidu have stayed here.” Anjalendran gave the first talk at the Archive and he now sees it as “a positive intervention,” the likes of which he wishes the Tamil diaspora would support.
Events, like his lecture, can draw upwards of 60 people, most of whom students and faculty members of Jaffna University. Standing before one such gathering on a warm Sunday morning in May, Sri Lanka’s first professor of sculpture, Sarath Chandrajeewa, began his lecture with a frank admission tinged with pleasure: “This is the first time I am talking about myself.”
The sentence encapsulated something Shanaathanan, as a co-founder of the Archive, wanted the space to represent. Explaining that they opted to keep the walls bare of paintings for sale, he says, “We are not interested in an exhibition space, we are interested in critical discourse.” It is something he thinks there is not enough of in Sri Lanka – art is available for sale, but is not often up for intelligent discussion.
The Archives are a determinedly democratic space. Guest speakers and performers are comfortable in their own languages, champion a number of perspectives and hail from all over the island. To Shanaathanan’s mind each is a role model for the community here: from Talk #2, where Bandu Manamperi, one of Sri Lanka’s first performance artists, spoke of the transformation of his own body; to Talk #12 in which Azara Jaleel, a young, female Muslim publisher of a local art magazine challenged students to imagine the careers they could build for themselves.
In 2013, it was decided that the Asia Art Archive’s Mobile Library – a travelling archive of contemporary art books – would make its first appearance in South Asia at the Christa Seva Ashram in Jaffna. Raking Leaves were the host organisation, and responsible for the decision to install it there. While pleased, Shanaathanan remembers having some qualms. There was no community of artists here who would be eager to tap into it. What Jaffna did have, though, were students from all over the island.
Over the next three months, the faculty of the University of Jaffna’s Fine Arts and Art and Design Departments put the Mobile Library to work, giving assignments designed to encourage students to learn from and build on what they found in the books.
Shanaathanan knew his students would not have enough English to read through all the books, but he asked that they study the images therein. Each week brought new interests: students pored over ink drawings both in the Japanese styles and in Barbara Sansoni’s sketches of Sri Lankan Vihares and Verandahs. By the end of the year the Mobile Library had nourished a crop of unusual dissertations. Shanaathanan remembers one student who hypothesized that in Sri Lankan art history, surrealism was inspired not by Western traditions but by the country’s rich mythology.
This outpouring wasn’t something he had expected the books to inspire. “It was a small thing and the outcome was enormous. It was such an accident.”
At the end of the residency, 16 works were selected to be shown in Colombo in Open Edit, a public exhibition of art that responded to the Mobile Library’s collection and the initial collection for the Archive. Nine of these were by students of the Fine Arts, Art and Design Departments. The next step – led by Shanaathanan, Sharmini Pereira, and the poet P. Ahilan – was to found a Sri Lankan Archive that would continue this work. Though the Mobile Library would continue its travels, this new Archive would collect books, catalogues, invitations and newspaper articles on contemporary art, architecture and design from both Sri Lanka and the region.
The three founders gave from their personal collections and also appealed to galleries and institutions to contribute to the collection. The process is ongoing. Young researchers drawing on the Archives are encouraged to leave their spare material behind or share new information they uncover. During the week the Archive is quiet, with perhaps a solitary figure or two occupying a table, but it gets surprisingly crowded when a lecture is scheduled, usually each alternate weekend.
Today, Shanaathanan relishes, in particular, the Q&A’s that follow each presentation. The students learn from these and will bring up what they learn in class. The speakers take something away too. Shanaathanan – who typically sells his work in Colombo or even further afield – is used to the idea that the ‘Other’ will examine it. This is not always true of visitors from other parts of the island. At the Archives they are confronted and challenged by questions from their compatriots who, due to the separations of war, have very different perspectives and experiences. “They are naïve, but their questions have a directness. They are offering a genuine response,” Shanaathanan says of the audience.
Through its participation in these conversations, he sees his small community discovering the possibilities that exist for art in contemporary Sri Lanka; he sees people forming networks that extend beyond their hometown; sees them changing from passive to active narrators of their own stories.
I remember T. Krishnapriya when we meet – the last time we spoke it was in 2013 about Artefacts from Jaffna, her artwork featured in the Open Edit exhibition. It took the form of a book which you opened only to find blank pages. A closer inspection revealed an object or curio delineated as a hand-embossed line drawing. The images that haunted her work were of ancestral possessions that had been stolen from, lost to or sold by her people, from their homes and temples.
Artefacts from Jaffna was a response to Colonial Period Furniture in the Geoffrey Bawa Collection by the architect Channa Daswatte, a book from AAA’s Mobile Library. Krishnapriya is now a regular visitor to the Archive where she is undertaking research even as she works on her next project with Sharmini Pereira.
For her new piece, she intends to use the moulds from a letterpress that belonged to her father. He had hidden them in a secret drawer under their table and so preserved them from looters who ransacked the family’s belongings (including her late mother’s clothing and ancestral furnishings) when they were forced to flee during the war.
Having recently earned a degree in Fine Arts from the University of Jaffna, Krishnapriya is still very much at the start of her career. She hopes to earn a living as an artist. It is why she attends talks at the Archive – for her this is a chance to learn from those who are living her dream.
At home, her father isn’t wild about her career choice. Having lost her mother when she was only three days old, Krishnapriya was largely raised by her grandmother. Her two elder sisters are already married. Now she gestures eloquently when she speaks about the pressure from home to follow a more traditional path – to stick with a government job, to marry, to have children.
“It is very difficult. ‘You are a girl,’ my family tells me, ‘why are you wasting your time, you should settle down!’”
“I tell them, ‘I want to be an artist. Nobody should interfere with this.’”
I think of Krishnapriya’s conviction again when Vimila Velthas and I chat over our lunch. We manage mostly in Tamil, though the librarian knows a handful of English words which she sprinkles through her sentences. One of her favourite terms is ‘male domination’.
Born, raised and twice displaced from Jaffna, Velthas was the daughter of a policeman. One of nine children, she grew up obeying her father’s strict rules about women. There were to be no unnecessary outings, they didn’t have a TV, there was no radio either and no access to books at home. To her father’s mind, the most important lessons his girls needed to learn was how to be good wives and mothers.
The only place Velthas was allowed to visit regularly was her cousin’s home. There she played with the boys and there she read every book she could lay her hands on. As an adult, she married, just as her father wanted, but it was a “late” marriage to a man she met at the Jaffna University library where they both worked.
Her husband passed away a few years ago and, Velthas retired soon after. Her new job gives her endless pleasure but it also seems to stir a sense almost of loss. She imagines what her life would be like if she, like Krishnapriya, had had access to the world the Archive is offering Jaffna’s students. “I was born in ’54, the same year as Prabhakaran [founder of the LTTE],” she says, speaking of how the best years of her life have been shaped by the ethnic conflict.
Now, with the end of the war and a shift in political leadership, there are new possibilities. “I am seeing the changes with my own eyes,” says Velthas. Though it may not have come as early as she might have wished, the Archive represents for her, too, a kind of second chance. She says she loves the work here and much prefers it to a quiet retirement. Why? “I love to read, I love to talk and I love the garden.”
(All images courtesy of Sri Lanka Archive of Contemporary Art, Architecture and Design)
Smriti Daniel is a journalist based in Colombo. An Indian national, she has spent the last decade as a features writer for the Sunday Times of Sri Lanka. Her work has appeared in publications including The Hindu, BusinessLine, Condé Nast Traveller and Open. She manages social media for the South Asian edition of SciDev.Net.
(Photo by Suda Shanmugaraja)