Art and ‘national culture’

Saturday, 17 January 2015 04:32 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By Arun Dias Bandaranaike It may be argued there is ‘art everywhere’. Apart from the fascination that living things (e.g. birds’ plumage), humans, their clothes and constructions, their crafted landscapes, book covers or vehicles, all provide and involve, and therefore is what we take so much for granted, there is another aspect that sometimes is less evident. I refer to “fine art”. It is generally recognised that such forms of expression on a canvas, or in crafted stone, fabric or metal, belong in the province of a gallery and in the sophisticated ambience of living rooms among the elite. And yet, ‘fine art’ must be recognised as a public phenomenon, transcending the privately relished confines among a coterie of aficionados. Then, indeed, does art become part of a national culture.                       For centuries, such art, mainly monumental and patronised by monarchs and clergy, was in the public domain. Perhaps eliciting awestruck veneration and as subjects of pious meditation, but, there was also the celebration of creativity for its own sake, beyond the merely didactic. In time, Ceylonese and Lankan art was submerged in the mores of other traditions. That was until the 1940s when there was a definite renaissance, not limited to religious themes but expanding into secular commentary as well.     After the initial enthusiasm of the 1940s, there was again waning, a hiatus that impinged upon art in the public milieu. Art retreated, becoming the preserve of a few. Another revolution occurred with the setting up of the George Keyt Foundation in the 1990s. From then, until now, the impact and consequent influence exerted upon artists in different parts of the country has been both encouraging and surprising. The ‘Kala Pola’ was one of the first initiatives fostered by the likes of Professor S.B. Dissanayake. ‘Dissa’ was a typical ‘renaissance man’. His interests were wide and his curiosity unbounded, with energy to match.     He, in his role as one of the first Trustees of George Keyt Foundation strove to bring to the fore the considerable talent that lay within the community of Lanka’s artists. Furthermore, he was able to critique the work being done. His sense and good taste was able to underscore the essence of what artists would want to do in expressing themselves. Dissa was very involved and active with many of the activities conducted under the aegis of the GKF. He was able to moderate the discussions and dialogue conducted among artists, in which context they could share and learn from each other and also from their fellows from overseas. The ‘Kala Pola’ was an opportunity for artists to present their work before a public that was much wider than would grace the precincts of a gallery. Those artists that actually showed promise and who were worthy of being supported with further ‘exposure’ were selected each year.     Dissa was involved in providing the encouragement. He spoke with them, and was able to assess what lay within their inward selves. In fact, Kala Pola has been the launch pad for several artists who today enjoy renown. Without such interventions on their behalf, they may have been obscured in anonymity with just a few paintings or sculptures they submitted for their degree programs at the College of Fine Arts, and thence, forgotten. This ‘tradition’ of the Kala Pola continues. What is noteworthy is that it has not worn off. Rather, every succeeding year there has been greater enthusiasm from all sides with a ‘carnival atmosphere’ that prevails over the day the Pola is held.     Much has been possible because of the generosity of the John Keells Foundation, which has adopted the Kala Pola as one of their laudable CSR projects. More strength to them all, and in particular the artists of Lanka! Free of charge and open to the public, Kala Pola 2015 takes place on Sunday 25 January along Nelum Pokuna Mawatha in Colombo. Presented by The George Keyt Foundation in association with the John Keells Group, it opens at 8 a.m. and will continue until 9 p.m. the same night.