From time to time there will be new entries made in my Journal. Sometimes it will be in the form of a blog about a facet of the art world, or life. Or its content may reflect my love of single words and their meanings, quotations from various sources that give pause, images that stir the soul. Your comments are welcome.
SRI LANKAN JOURNAL JAN. 2017
Sunday January 15 week 1
My current mask-making project is about to begin and I am picked up from my
Colombo AirB&B by my translator, Kusum De Silva. She arrives in the early evening in a “Pick Me” vehicle, Sri Lanka’s version of Uber, and we head off to Pinwatte, about 30km south of Colombo to be based there for the next 3 weeks. I am surprised that she isn’t driving her own car, as that was a bonus this time around, and she informs me that she had a collision just 2 days ago with a motorcyclist who was distracted and crossed the road into her lane and went head on into the side of her vehicle. He apparently was only mildly injured thanks to her slow driving, and now we are without a car for God knows how long as this is Sri Lanka.
So far the information is that the car had to be towed to the police station for a report. (3 days). Then it was released to a garage and kept until an insurance adjuster came. (2 days) He came, looked, and left. He asked the vehicle be dismantled to see what damage was done to the interior. (We are waiting another 5 days for his return.) Now the insurance company wants her to pay for 25% of the repair costs. So the drama continues.
But I digress. We arrive at Abeysvilla in Pinwatte. It is a lovely, immaculate 5 rm. guest house (ancestral home of the husband) and property w/pool. We are greeted by a buxom porcelain white Fraulein, who introduces herself as Jutta (pronounced Uta). I immediately respond with “Oh I had a close Italian friend named Uta” (pronounced Oo-ta) to which she barks “I AM JUTTA. I AM GERMAN.” This warm welcome is followed by a string of house rules, all of which begin with a NO and for reference purposes 30 of them are posted on our room door.
Fortunately she only spends 3 days of the week here and the rest in Colombo, so we and the staff have a respite when she is gone. We are told that her Sri Lankan husband is even worse. Much to look forward to……….
Monday Jan. 16
Our first day of the project. Since we are without a car the 30km trip to the village where the mask-maker lives involves riding 3 buses and a tuk-tuk (3 wheeler) to reach our destination. The trip takes 1 1/2 hours and costs approx. $3. versus $20. if ridden solely by tuk-tuk. (Since I am on a strict budget spending $40./day on travel is out of the question). Tilak, my Mentor is pleasant, and very accomplished, having won many awards. We spend time looking at his masks and discussing the different kinds, often referring to the textbook I have purchased on the subject. The masks of Sri Lanka, and there are over 200, fall into 3 categories. Kolam masks are used in storytelling performances to tell folk tales, Sanni (Devil Dance) masks are used in curing ceremonies in which they address the “18 ailments” demons, mental or physical that commonly affect villagers and that need to be exorcised. The 3rd, the Raksha (Demon) masks are “apotropaic” (the power to avert evil influences or bad luck) are mostly used in processions and festivals.
We begin the project by him carving the rudimentary shape of a mask known as the “Gull” (Gulma Sanniya) mask that I then continue to refine using my own small carving tools I brought. The wood is from the Kaduru tree, a local soft wood tree. This mask is one of the Sanni (18 ailments) masks. It is to cure people with nausea and vomiting, hence the open mouth symbolizing the act of vomiting and ridding of the ailment. The orangey colour is chosen to heighten the dramatic value.
I continue to carve the mask, and then sand, apply coat of gesso (in this case white house paint), fill holes and cracks with a polyfilla-type substance, sand with fine sandpaper, and then when smooth to the touch, begin to paint. Tilak complains that good quality paints and brushes are priced out of reach. It is a shame that he is working with inferior materials. This poses a question as to whether this diminishes the work. Many artists throughout the ages and even now work with inferior materials, and this is where the conservators role comes into play if and when this work is collected by a museum.
I am also given another already carved bird mask ( Gurula Raksha) to paint as practice. It presents a cobra (naga) caught in the beak of the bird. This is a mythical bird from the Himalayas that is so brave and powerful that he travels to the naga (celestial) world and captures a cobra naga and returns with it to his home in the Himalayas. This is one of the main characters of a Kolam (dance) performance, retelling an old folk tale.
All these masks have their origins in village life, and villagers were and in some cases continue to be a superstitious bunch as far as I can ascertain. Case in point, after the 2004 tsunami Tilak went to look for a store down south that carried his masks. It was washed away, and searching the area he found that people were collecting strewn objects and making a pile of them to burn. He found this particular mask of his (see photo) and rescued it, and will never sell it, or repair it, as it contains a spirit that has survived this enormous tragedy.
I continue painting both masks beginning with solid colours as a base layer and then adding more layers and designs. The Gurula mask is highly detailed and is difficult because of its small size (8” high by 10” wide), and the its three-dimensionality. In my previous traditional painting project I had much mirror image design work to do, and struggled with it, and here again I am confronted with it, with the addition of working on a carved surface. At times very frustrating!
I complete the Gurula mask minus the ears on either side. I have made many errors, but Tilak reveals that he gave me this mask to paint specifically to test me. If I could paint this he claims, I can do anything larger, which is what I really want to do. So presumably I passed the test because I begin working on a larger one next week.
Additional observations and Notations:
A glimpse of Village life: Tilak (about 60 yrs. old) resides in a small village where he supports his household of wife, 1 of his 3 daughters and husband, and grandchild solely on his mask-making. He has the same complaint as artists everywhere. He does not get properly recompensed for the time, materials, and skill he invests in his craft. His house is a partially completed house of concrete block walls with corrugated metal roof. Many of the outer walls are left unfinished and patched with corrugated tin. Windows and doors are mostly openings. His wife squats and cooks in heavy wrought iron pots over an open fire. The bathroom is a separate squatting outhouse.
However they are now in the process of building a large house on the property next door for all (including 3 daughters and husbands) to move into.
Kusum and I are treated each day to a delicious home cooked lunch of rice with 4 curries (1 being fish) made by his wife. There is considerable effort made to expose me to a variety of vegetables throughout the week, and much insistence on eating several helpings. This is an example of the kindness and generosity I encounter on a regular basis here in Sri Lanka.
On the political front Sri Lanka is a lively and paradoxical place. As a conservative third world country, always under the spectre of Buddhism and its monks, it nevertheless is surprisingly liberal and progressive. After the assassination of the Prime Minister S.D. Bandaranaike by a Buddhist monk in 1959, his wife Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the first woman Prime Minister in the world in 1960. She continued, followed by her daughters to rule the country for many years.
In the present government, the Prime Minister Ranil Wikremesinghe is gay, as is the Education minister, Akila Kariyawasam, as is the Foreign Minister, Mangala Samaraweera. Apparently Mangala tried to get gay marriage legalized but the Monks created such an uproar the he backed down.
On Wednesday “Herr” Highness decreed that one bottle of bottled water per day would be “released” to the guests free of charge.