Cultural Sketchbook
Janakaís ĎSithuvilií gives a sexy twist to the traditional

by Malinda Seneviratne
Ambalangoda is made of masks, one would not be faulted for saying. Those living in that quaint part of the country would probably say "yes" and/but "no". Masks, after all, are not necessarily made to catch the eye of the accidental tourist who might venture to spend some cash, rupees or dollars as the case may be, to give an "ethnic" slant to his/her bourgeois-bohemian living room. Or bathroom, who knows? Masks are made of stories, they have cultural meaning and therefore carry the sensibilities and world view of the craftsmen and women whose labour, love and creativity produces them.

Ambalangoda is made of artistes, of that there is no question. It is in their blood, one could argue. I mean the "masks" in the fuller, cultural sense of the word. But then again, it is not that they are made of masks and nothing else. Their lives must encompass other worlds outside of dance and production for the market. Still, I believe that it would be hard for someone from Ambalangoda whose life is totally divorced from that cultural/historical weight, if you will.

Janaka Silva is a young artist/craftsman who would not deny that the larger "Ambalangoda" runs in his blood. His work and his life says that he is made up of other life-streams as well. This is, in sketch, is his story.

I first met Egodage Janaka Ivantha de Silva about a year ago, at the "Kala Pola". I am not a connoisseur of art by any stretch of the imagination. But I saw something unique in the work of this young man sporting a goatee. I wanted to write his story, but somehow I lost the piece of paper in which I had written down his contact information. Janaka contacted me recently and said he was planning to exhibit his work and open a shop of his own. Janaka will be opening his own shop, "Sithuvili" in the Galle Fort on January 25. We met and he told me much more than his exhibition. Actually, we never even got to his exhibition!

He was born in Ambalangoda. "Art" was not a consuming thing that his sensibilities was injected with, according to him. His father "did" batik. His mother helped. He does recall that he learnt of the traditional Sinhala motifs and decorative styles as a student at Devananda College, Ambalangoda. He remembers quite well learning about colours and their constituent raw materials. He knew of temple paintings and some of that history too. And yet he never had plans for a future devoted to art. He was, simply, more interested in plants.

"I loved flowers. I set up a nursery and dreamed of exploring the market for flowers in Colombo. I grew flowers along the railway track that ran near our house. I wanted to develop a herbarium. Having been to Colombo, I knew that if marketed properly, I could sell anything. I really donít know where Ďartí came from."

There was however a principle that guided him subconsciously; i.e. his fascination with the ape-kama ("ourness") that was imbedded deep in him. This he saw in theves muhuna, the pottery, the paintings, even in the plants; a quality that was distinctly "ours".

It didnít take him too long after coming to Colombo in 1994 to realise there was a huge marketing potential for what he describes as "ape-kama". He realised that a significant section of the urban upper classes were fascinated with thegemi-gathiya or "rurality". "They like to hang it in their walls". And so he set about re-inventing "rurality" to suit this promising market.

Naturally, this required that he re-invent himself. Without teacher, without training, Janaka had to do it all by himself. "I went to libraries and museums. I went to temples, learned about temple paintings." And then he rattled off the names of our temples famed for paintings.... "Bambaragala, Arathna, Kelaniya, Mulgirigala, Suriyagoda, Lanakatilaka, Dambulla, Ridee Viharaya, Hindagala..." all of which looked to the Jathaka stories for inspiration. Wherever he went, whatever he read, Janaka would always remember to take down notes and record in sketches that which he believed was useful to his craft.

Janaka had been intrigued by these paintings, where only four colours were used and where the artists were accomplished exponents of line-drawing.

He had begun with pottery painting. He wanted to develop a style and form of his own, based naturally on the existing forms familiar to him. From pottery painting he moved to pulp. Then he realised that the traditional forms required a certain slant to enhance their marketability. This is how he came to understand the import of "display". And so, Janaka began mounting his work in frames and stands.

It was natural that he concentrated on to masks. That was not difficult, after all the nadagam stories were not alien to him. He did them in all sizes, the attention to detail being the particular creative signature he added. He did covers for note books out of pulp, crafting the Sinhala akshara and the sun signs on them. In fact he has since moved to the brahmi script.

It had not been easy at the beginning because most shop-owners dealing in handicrafts typically looked to buy cheap and sell dear. Things changed when chance led him to Barefoot in 1999, where he met with Dominic Sansoni, a man who became his friend and in a sense business partner. "Dominic always agreed to a fair price."

Barefoot obviously knew what sells. I am not sure how fair Barefoot is and what part it plays in cultural exploitation, but if it takes the market to preserve Sinhalaness, for instance, then they have done their bit. As Janaka put it, "what Barefoot did was to dress the rookadaya in their colours. I am sure Ananda Coomaraswamy would have a different take on cultural preservation and utility, but there you have it: if it sells, then its production and therefore endurance will be ensured.

Once the market opened to him, Janaka had begun to see the market potential in the most ordinary things. Since he knew that the rustic and the antique had a value, he actively sought these in the material around him. He "played" with with bows and arrows, using traditional materials such as kobbe vel, nuga vel, velang kotu and rajali pihatu . Old doors and boxes acquired values of their own. All he had to do was to treat them and paint his stories on them. This was not difficult for as he pointed out, Ambalangoda is a veritable breeding ground for temple artists.

In doing all this, Janaka has been particularly sensitive to two things: being eco-friendly and using traditional material. He uses a lot of recycled paper. He draws from kaduru, mahogany, vetakeyya, kithul, kurundu etc. He uses clay and waste material such as broken tiles. He uses bees wax and nuga patta , cowdung and gini sapu.

Selling was not his only problem however. He has had to deal with cheap reproductions, the theft of his style. He agreed however that imitation is the supreme form of flattery and that the superior artiste can always stay a step ahead of the competition. To this end, Janaka is engaged in a constant process of re-invention. He knows that the survival of his craft depends on his ability to come up with new ideas and concepts.

Each year, both at the "Kala Pola" and at the various shops where his creations have become immensely popular, Janaka come up with a different twist on the same themes. There is always something unique for the consumer. This yearís Kala Pola will be held on January 18 outside the Vihara Maha Devi Park. I am sure one would find some of the things in the pictures that accompany this story. There would be more.

Speaking with him, I found it difficult to separate Janaka the Artist from Janaka the Entrepreneur. Heís from the south, I told myself. I am sure Janaka is grateful to Dominic and Barefoot, but with all respect to his sentiments, I canít help thinking that while we need the Dominics and the Barefoots, it is as or more important for the Janakas of this land to set up their own "Sithuvili". Nice word, "sithuvili". Lot of implications. Let us resolve to think.