That Midnight Knock on the Door:Sundarampuram: Janel Piyanpath – part II



English name- Jaffna Doors and Windows
Concept, Design, Editing, Sarath Chandrajeeva
Layout Kanishka Vijayapura
Printed and bound – Neo Graphics Pvt (Ltd)
Sales points – Barefoot Book shop Galle road Colombo 03, Sarasavi Book shops, Sakura agencies Colombo 04, Plate Pvt(Ltd) Colombo 03.
Selling price – Rs.10,000.00 (below cost)

By Laleen Jayamanne

(Frist part of this article appeared on Friday August 25)

The Photograph as Allegorical Object

Walter Benjamin, the foremost modern theorist of Allegory, has shown us how Allegory as an aesthetic form and procedure has had a profound influence on European culture across different historical epochs, from the Christian Middle Ages on. Think of Dante’s Divine Comedy for one, where the classical Roman poet Virgil guides Dante through the several circles of hell, where former wicked politicians and princes suffer punishments, specifically designed to fit their crimes. Christian Justice!

Following Benjamin’s idea, Frederic Jameson, the Marxist literary theorist, wrote that post-colonial literature is often allegorical in form, because death haunts the cultural patrimony traduced by the colonial project. There were lively debates on Jameson’s theory among South Asian scholars who analysed Latin American allegorical novels such as A Thousand Years of Solitude and India’s own Midnight’s Children, as allegorical work. Recently Shehan Karunatilaka’s novel The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida resurrects both Richard and Rajani as allegorical figures from the underworld, who reopen the buried layers of Lanka’s present, by searching for some photographs.

What I glean from Benjamin’s theorising of allegory is that it privileges several figures as emblems: the ruin, the corpse, the ghost and capitalist advertisements and the photograph as artefact. In all these figures, death or destruction of an original living form’s meaning is enacted. And through this strategy new thoughts, ideas and feelings are elaborated on them. In so doing, many new connections can be generated rather arbitrarily, which is how allegorical constructs are made. This is why, unlike realism, it’s such a flexible form structurally, but in the hands of unimaginative dull artists, it becomes literal. The ruins of Sundarampuram with the poems, multiply connections in our minds by enabling actual, meaningful interactions among strangers.

The Mycelial Networks

In another marvellous book, Entangled Life: How Fungi make our worlds, change our minds, and shape our futures, by the biologist and musician, Merlin Sheldrake, we learn about this most ancient plant form and of its evolutionary necessity for organic and even mineral life on earth to have formed and be sustained. It is not a centralised root and branch system as in trees, but has a different form and function in evolution. It’s a tangled, root system which behaves rhizomatically, that is, connecting laterally in many different ways like grass but hidden from the sun, underground. They are large networks of organic ‘roots,’ but very fine, which offer us, according to Sheldrake, also a mode of thinking and imagining how we might connect with each other and nature without destroying life on earth. It does not ‘Command and Control’ like the tap root system, but rather, finds ways to multiply forms of connectivity that sustain and enhance life. The surplus yield of this activity are mushrooms, sustained by these underground, intricately patterned, fungal networks.

I said earlier that Sundarampuram in its non-hierarchical, generous invitation to ponder on one specific image of a ruin at a time, has set off a mycelial network. I’d like to explore Sheldrake’s idea a bit more as it holds a lot of potential for imagining collective acts of creativity in Lanka, dealing with mass trauma and ecological destruction but also seeking new modes of connectivity visible in the ongoing post-Aragalaya forms of organisations, including trade union mobilisations and several other groupings. The violence with which these groups are now attacked by the law enforcement instruments of the state are an indication of their strength and resilience.

In these qualities they are agile like the web of underground fungal networks that spread across the earth, a ’wood-wide-web’, sustaining ecosystems and plant life and as such a kingdom of its own, not quite animal, nor exactly a plant as it does not photosynthesise, living underground. And in this process it provides us with some yummy mushrooms, some very cheap but also truffles which are among the most expensive of foods for gourmets. Though some fungi are indeed poisonous, some are magic mushrooms expanding our minds and penicillin is derived from a fungus. Sheldrake’s beautifully written book with images, is a best seller and was his Ph.D. thesis in biology at Cambridge!


Sundarampuram’s written introduction by Sarath takes the form of ‘Reminiscences’ where he chronicles his own family connection with Jaffna as a child and then later as a visual arts educator, artist and institution builder between the North and the South. Sarath’s father was a police officer who lived and worked in Jaffna and the Northern territory and had introduced him to its deep cultural life and ethos through the many stories he told him. His father worked there during the 1958 ‘Shri’ race riots and refused to be relocated to the South. Sarath as a child was taken to Jaffna on a memorable train trip by his grandmother, and carried these childhood memories with him in developing friendships and institutional connections with Jaffna later in life.

There are two friendships of Sarath that are important for this book. One is with the Painter artist Asai Rasiah, whose Track (oil on canvas, 1985), is placed at the beginning of the book giving it a central role. It’s a Jaffna landscape with palmyra trees on the horizon, with a track through bush land. It’s a rather blurred, impressionist, soft, coloured image of that bewitched twilight moment when daylight fades into night. There are two groups of women walking in opposite directions, in groupings of three carrying large bundles on their heads, moving with ease and elegance. But strangely, when I look at it again and again, I feel that they are moving and that they are all walking towards us! This illusion appears to be a function of the blurring.

It is a rare peaceful scene in Jaffna. I feel it’s this delicately painted image of nature and a bunch of women going home after work, which inspires the splashing colour fields on which the images of ruined buildings are printed, creating a painterly quality. In this way the painting bleeds into the photographs offering them a sensory richness that only colour can evoke. The colour this time, not blurred but bright and sparkling in sunlight, charges the sorrowful images with vitality.

The other friend is Rev. Fr. Professor N. M. Saveri, Founder Director of the Center for Performing Arts in Jaffna with whom Sarath had developed several cultural projects. There is a portrait of him by the same Painter artist Rasiah (oil on canvas, 2016). The portrait looks so realistic that I thought it was a photograph at first. These two paintings by Rasiah introduce us to the multitude of photographs, some of which actually look like paintings! This is formally made possible through the mediation of colour, which is matter at its most spiritual, closest to music, in its powers of sensuous abstraction and emotional richness. The perfect territory then for the ‘raga mala’ to be heard as we linger there and perhaps read the poems out loud as some poems call us to do.

As always Sarath’s scholarly publications chronicle in detail Lanka’s art historical and fine arts policies, curriculum developments and practices, in several educational institutions dedicated to the study of the arts and crafts. The notes to the main text present in extraordinary detail, the twists and turns of the ways in which Sinhala Buddhist nationalism has adversely influenced education policies that were designed specifically to create durable bridges between students of the South and those in Jaffna. This research, presented in the form of an objective chronicle, provides primary material for art historians and cultural studies scholars of Lanka to draw from.

Sarath is also an invaluable oral historian as he was both a Professorial Dean and a Vice Chancellor of the University of Visual and Performing Arts where he developed a modern Fine Arts curriculum.

The carefully crafted words and images of this book (as allegorical emblems) can suggest novel ways of forging connections among Lankans beyond the same old habitual ways, and thereby generate quantum potentials, synchronicities. Young artists and poets with their fresh energy just might be able to carefully cultivate ‘mycelial networks’ that suit their idiosyncratic temperaments and desires, and even find themselves carried away into strange subterranean zones of creativity, which is why Lanka needs them now more than ever


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