~ Anoli Perera, Senior Sri Lankan artist and art commentator based in Colombo and New Delhi.
Yashodhara Dalmia’s book on Geoge Keyt, a pioneering 20th century Sri Lankan artist is of crucial historical importance at a time when such efforts are extremely scarce in Sri Lanka itself. When I read through the pages of Dalmia’s book, George Keyt, a famously bohemian artist, with his most alluring style of painting that made the English-speaking elite as well as the conservative Sinhala Buddhists embrace him as a cultural icon, became so human and proximate to me. His letters to Martin Russell, probably his biggest patron, and others, and their letters to Keyt exchanged over a span of 50 years reveal the drama of Keyt’s life, and then, one begins to understand the crux of his art. What Dalmia offers is minute documentation based on extensive research in to the life of Keyt. In my review, I will take Dalmia’s book as a point of departure and explore how Keyt’s work might be of relevance to contemporary Sri Lankan art.
For most of us, in our infant days, growing up in Sri Lanka and aspiring to be artists, George Keyt’s art and Sri Lankan Buddhist temple paintings together formed our aesthetic alphabet and key points of reference. Our first canvases were attempts at trying to draw like Keyt. Some contemporary artists adopted variations of his style and continued in the erotic lyricism and the celebratory ambience synonymous with his work, which Dalmia has elegantly documented in her book. Others, when they formally studied art, moved on to find their own stylistic preferences. But for many who have equated the modernism of the 43 Group with Sri Lanka’s search for a post-colonial/post-independent cultural self, Keyt still represents a comforting influence and a pleasing style that personifies what is often thought of as ‘the Sri Lankan authentic art’, irrespective of the colorful path of Keyt’s life that are replete with contradictions. These contradictions, which are so crucial for his life and work are also well captured by Dalmia, which are by now to a large extent, conveniently forgotten by most Sri Lankans. For contemporary Sri Lankanartists, Keyt and the 43 Group (of which he was a core member), presents the crucial bridge that made art cross the boundary from the confines of tradition, both local and colonial, to the modern. The preceding generations have invariably referenced the 43 Group for its modernity and its radicality as a critical guide in their own search for an art that reflected their time.
Contemporary Sri Lankan art underwent a major change in the 1990s, as art did across South Asia in general, responding to prevailing socio-political environments and the cultural anxieties of the time. Sri Lankan youth were affected by two malaises in the 1980s and early 1990s. That is, an armed conflict in the north of the country involving Tamil guerillas and a violent youth uprising in the south involving Sinhala youth, both violently confronted by the armed forces of the state. In both situations, men between 17to 35became the prime victims of either state sponsored violence or the violence of insurgent groups. Youth politics in universities played out the frustrations, despair and the general mood of political chaos and the resulting pathologies in society. Art — through theatre, music and visual art — became a significant platform to represent the critical views, and growing frustrations of the masses. Therefore, art had to necessarily adjust its structures and formats to represent the mood of the socio-political predicaments.
In this scenario, more than any other member of the 43 Group, Keyt’s aesthetic language that had influenced the younger generations of artists,became inadequate to capture the complexity of the time. This is also because by then, Keyt’s work had become synonymous with the exotic, tranquil, idyllic and transcendent culture of the post-Independent Sri Lanka that as a nation many wanted to consume. Keyt’s association with Buddhism, Hindu mysticism and his way of life and the thematics that his art was centred around, all fused together to provide the Sri Lankan cultural elite a taste of art that they were aesthetically comfortable with, seen to be adequately Sri Lankan, while referencing modernism and tradition at the same time. His work became the marker of ‘authenticity’ for Sri Lankan art, and had a major influence in propagating to the future generations of artists a romanticized depiction of life, religion and its rituals as a predominant theme in painting.
The transformation that happened in the visual arts in the 1990s, when a young group of artists chose to work within a different rubric of art, now popularly referred to as the 90s Art Trend, rebelled against this ideal and the corresponding aesthetics, bringing in a different format of art-making in its aesthetics, thematics and concepts. Artists such as JagathWeerasinghe and Chandragupta Thenuwara, the major proponents of the 90s Art Trend played out their anxieties in darkly painted canvases with khaki greens, dark browns and blacks with titles such as ‘Who are You Soldier?’ and ‘Thousand Barrels,’ the latter coining the word ‘barrelism’ as an art concept where painted barrels with camouflaged designs signifying war became the artwork.
Buddhism was held accountable for its role as political advisors and spiritual guides to a state that was responsible for mass violence. In many ways, the spiritual and the secular worlds that Keyt projected in his art with his rendition of the Buddha’s life at Gothami Vihara(temple) in Colombo, his many ‘Radhas’, ‘Krishnas’, and peacefully and sensually placed ‘Naikas’started crumbling from the 1990s onwards. Artists who seized the reins of the 90s art ideology embraced a cathartic processofart-making in the next couple of decades where their art reflected the bursting of bottled up discontents within which they questioned the role of the artist, the relevance of art in society and the formats and materiality of its production. If Keyt’s art gave reverence to the spiritual and was celebratory of the secular, 90s Art became irreverent and interventionist in its ploy to navigate the volatile political landscape.
If Keyt’s embrace of Buddhism and his veneration of its philosophy energized him to execute the magnificent body of murals that unfolds Buddha’s life in the GothamiVihara, it is the violence against Tamils in 1983 in Colombo and its suburbs which propelled Weerasinghe’s seminal painting titled, ‘Broken Stupa’ that rejected the infallibility of the Buddhist faith in its institutionalized form. The artists who welcomed the disjuncture in the visual arts in 1990s continued in its aftermath engaging with the thematics that covered identity politics, gender issues, urbanity, war and issues of globalism. And their tropes of art production no longer privileged the canvas on an easel, or the artist as a genius who yearned for the tranquility of his studio to do his art. In this instance Keyt’s art became the antithesis to what the 90s Art Trend aspired to be.
In this scenario, contemporary artists responded to Keyt’s life and his work in multiple ways. It would be wrong to assume that Keyt and his art became irrelevant to contemporary artists. Instead, he was always treated as a rebel of his time. Apart from his specific visual language,Keyt also gave a particular personification of an ‘artist-being’ through his way of living, which not necessarily synced with the cultural expectations of a society overshadowed by a certain sense of Sinhala-Buddhist conservatism at the time. The kind of cosmopolitanism that surrounds his persona via his shifting of identities within his socio-religious background and his openness towards ethno-religious diversity at a time of identity consciousness, he was an artist who went against the grain. These personality streaks that were so central to his life and work have been well documented by Dalmia, and more robustly than any Sri Lankan biography of Keyt I have seen. He certainly was a rebel in his time who broke the conventions in both art and social propriety. He was born to a Catholic family, adopted Buddhism on the way, embraced Hindu ideals and became a Muslim to marry his third wife who was Indian. The complex and contradictory nuances that are projected from his life made him an unconventional being unafraid of breaking conventions and protocols of social behavior. For contemporary artists, Keyt was a risk-taker and an artist who lived art where political and personal were one and the same thing. In this, contemporary artists found a compatriot in Keyt.
For us, Keyt’sGothami Vihara murals represent the epitome of radicality that stems from the artist’s self. A clear breakaway from the typical renditions of mural paintings in temples followed at the time, Keyt painted the entire theatre of Buddha’s life in a dynamic, sensual and modern idiom. For us, the highlight of this drama was his decision to paint Yashodhara, the Buddha’s mother as a dark skinned woman as opposed to the usual yellow skinned woman, which hitherto dominated murals. This reflected Keyt’s penchant for the unconventional, and his tendency towards breaking the stifling molds of convention.
For the artists working within the 90s Art Trend, one of the biggest challenges was to move the attention of art patronage and audience from Keyt-inspired aesthetics, to notice the grim ambiance of their art, to convince their audience to read the new narratives beyond the conventionalism of 43 Group’s modernism, overtly established within what Keyt’s art presented.
I remember the dilemma of a well-known archaeologist and art historian when he saw my work at my 1997 exhibition, ‘The Vehicle Named Woman.’ This was a body of work dissecting the woman’s subjectivity that included painted car doors hung on the gallery wall. His anxiety was that unlike Keyt’s work, my work apparently did not reflect a rooting to Sri Lanka, and when one relooks at them in 50 years’ time, in the absence of its present context, he insisted it would not be possible to present this work as‘authentic’ Sri Lankan art or as a body of work emanating a sense of ‘Sri Lankan-ness.’ This was not one isolated comment. Many of us came to bear the brunt of such critiques during a number of early exhibitions representingthe 90s Art Trend. The culmination of such critiques pushed a group of artists to call themselves the ‘No Order Group,’ and put out a manifesto demarcating the parameters of the 90s Art Trend and its ideology as a formal break from that of the 43 Group’s sense of modernism.
But for all of us, Keyt is historically a giant who ushered in modernism along with the rest of the 43 Group. He is remembered as an eccentric and radical artist who renounced his elite way of life to live simply in the village of Sirimalwatte near the city of Kandy in central Sri Lanka. In many ways, for contemporary artists, what is important today is not Keyt’s paining, but moreKeyt himself, his life. Keyt’s place in contemporary Sri Lankan art history and South Asian art history is quite deeply etched.
Buddha to Krishna: Life and Times of George Keyt certainly reveals to us the whole theatre of his entire life, giving a crucial perspective and color to its every scene. Keyt is not merely a matter of Sri Lankan or South Asian art history. His work and life also offers space in the present to reflect on how we have dealt with the consequences of modernity and how we might have traversed the realms of postmodernity while not specifically calling it as such. In this context, we have to acknowledge YashodharaDalmia’s tireless efforts that have gone into this well researched book with a wealth of information, and an aesthetically written narrative, which brings forward a very human story.
(This review was initially published in Society and Culture in South Asia, Vol. 4, Issue 2 (June 2018). It is republished in TAP Book Talk with the consent of the Editorial Board, Society and Culture in South Asia)