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How to Draw Histories? Art as Method - T. Sanathanan


Updated: Nov 23, 2020

This talk was presented on August 16, 2017 as part of the 3rd annual History for Peace conference, The Idea of India, Calcutta.

My presentation is about four of my art projects based on the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict. My argument in the course of this presentation is that that the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict is a product of a misinterpretation of history. A renowned Sri Lanka historian recently dedicated his book to the innocents who lost their lives as a direct consequence of this misinterpretation of history. Hence, through this presentation of artworks, I would like to suggest other modes of writing histories—writing histories from ordinary things, and writing histories of the subaltern. These works also talk about alternative ways of archiving the past.

Let me start with a political understanding of the Sri Lankan national flag. Foreign friends tell me that it is a beautiful flag. But is it really so? When the British colony Ceylon transformed into an independent country, a flag from an ancient kingdom was adopted as its national flag. A gold lion holds a sword in its right forepaw on a maroon background, with four gold bo leaves in each corner. The lion represents the Sinhalese while the four bo leaves represent Buddhism’s four concepts of Metta, Karuna Mudita and Upeskha. Later, two vertical stripes of equal size in saffron and green, the saffron stripe closest to the lion, were added to represent the two main minorities: Tamils and Muslims. Interestingly, the lion in the centre of flag is raising its sword against the minorities. Further minorities and faiths are kept outside the borders of a nation clearly marked by Buddhist and Sinhala identity. Hence, the flag re/presents the ideology of the modern Sri Lankan state as well as the innate mechanism of the making of a Sinhalese Buddhist nation by marginalizing its others. History as a discipline played a crucial role in the validation of Sinhalese Buddhist domination. The modern discourse of history, by racializing and singularizing Sri Lanka’s identity and erasing the shared histories of multiple cultures, claimed the entire precolonial heritage as the achievement of the majority community. This provides larger ownership of the country to a particular community.

Racial consciousnesses marked the postcolonial polity that emerged from the conditions of colonialism in Sri Lanka. This overlaps with the manner in which the trope of race was mobilized in the Indian context. Romila Thapar has argued that the ‘theory of the Aryan race not only structured knowledge about the past, but perhaps more directly gave legitimacy to the conflicts of the present.’ While the theory was first introduced by the culture of colonialism as a theory of language, at its zenith it transformed into a racial theory, a product of the culture of imperialism. Aryan theory, from its genesis, is a thesis about linguistic origins, and argues that Sinhalese is an Indo-Aryan language. However, Sinhalese became an indicator of a lineage that descended from the Aryan ‘race’ whereby a linguistic theory metamorphosed into a racial theory. This was based on the belief that all speakers of Indo-European languages were related to each other by biological decent. Marisia Angell argues that archaeology, the Aryan theory and political legitimization to rule secured the structure of empire for the British. Therefore, the Aryan theory was used as a tool to increase British political power in Sri Lanka. This allowed the rulers to project a hereditary link with the majority of their subjects, which in turn allowed them to claim the legitimacy to rule. R. A. L. H. Gunawardene has noted that the Aryan theory in colonial Ceylon was embraced not only by British orientalists but also by large swathes of the Sinhalese community. The theory, located a section of the south Asian community in a privileged position: it elevated them to the rank of the kinsmen of their rulers, even though the relationship was a distant and tenuous one. Contrarily, the local Tamil population was portrayed as Dravidians.

In the census conducted in Sri Lanka by the British in 1871 and 1881, ‘race’ appeared as an important category for the first time. The history of Sri Lanka has always been conceived as the history of the Sinhalese people, argues Michael Roberts. ‘It has bequeathed to us, in a powerful fashion, two interrelated concepts: Dhammadipa (Lanka as a home of the Buddhist doctrine in all its pristine purity and glory); and Sihadipa (Lanka as the home of the Sinhalese).’ Sinhalese nationalism, by appropriating the imagination of the Ceylonese nation, displaced all minorities from the nation space and constructed the Tamils as a perpetual threat to the nation. ‘From the 1880s onwards, the preoccupation of the early nationalists with “Aryanness” meant demonizing the “lower races” of other ethnic and religious origins and the valorizing of Sinhalese Buddhism.’ As Roberts says, ‘invidious yet powerful influence of historical traditions, natural physiographic unity attached to an island and newly arrived democratic theories and democratic sanction of a demographic majority made possible this transformation.’ The word ‘Jathiya’ in Sinhala has been used to signify both race and nation. This linguistic fix, in a way, erased the line between these categories in popular usage. Therefore, for the Sinhalese, ‘there could be no nation that was distinct from a race.’

Although many eminent historians are not in favour of considering ancient chronicles like the Mahavamsa as a historical text or as historical evidence, unfortunately Sri Lanka’s entire historical narration is deeply rooted in these texts. Mahavamsa considers the arrival of Sinhalese ancestors (Vijaya) from Bengal and the arrival of Buddhism to Sri Lanka as the major civilizational projects that transformed the island. It also talks about the inhabitants before the arrival of Prince Vijaya. It is important to note here that, in medieval times, there was no India and Sri Lanka. Because of the geographical location, Sri Lanka and South India have a shared history and culture, as Indrapala argues that South India and Sri Lanka is one cultural region, that the sea in-between is a unifier and not a boundary. Hence the island of Lanka had, every now and then, come under the direct or indirect rule of south Indian kings. Its art and architectural remains of the past depict its close resemblance with South India. But Sri Lankan history books interpret South the Indians as invaders, conquerors and destroyers of Aryan Buddhist culture whereas the North Indians are regarded as insiders. It also silent about the South Indian Buddhism and the Buddhist artifact produced by the South Indian artisans and South Indian rulers in Sri Lanka.

The transformation of a British colony called Ceylon into a Sinhalese Buddhist nation-state was engineered not only through an appropriation of selected bits of its past as history but also through cycles of riots. If you look at the history of riots in pre-independence Sri Lanka, the first cycle was against the Catholics, the second against the Muslims and the third against the Malayalis. The Malayalis are not a visible community in Sri Lanka now, for either they became Tamils or Sinhalese or they moved out of Sri Lanka. Similarly, there are photographic and other documentary evidence that establish the presence of a good number of Telugu speakers in pre-colonial Sri Lanka. After independence, the Sinhalese nationalist propaganda against the Anglo-Ceylonese or Euro-Asians forced them to leave the country. The history of independent Sri Lanka is marked by cycles of violence against the Tamils. Later, this violence led to the civil war that lasted for 30 years. Now the civil war is over but the violence is targeted towards the local Muslims. Every month there are reports about burning of mosques, attacks on Muslims and their business enterprises. School textbooks describe minorities as outsiders, invaders, colonizers and settlers. The same sentiments are expressed in much of the media.

In 1948, Sri Lanka emerged as an independent state after 400 years of European colonial rule by the Portuguese, Dutch and British. Since the majoritarian politics and the emergence of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism in post-Independence Sri Lanka was not agreeable to any mode of power-sharing, the Tamil minority was forced to claim a separate homeland for the Tamils. That led to the birth of LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam). During its 30 years of civil war, more than 3 lakh innocents have died. Thousands of people have disappeared, their families still searching for their beloved ones. There is not a single family from the north and east part of Sri Lanka—which was the warfront—that has not had an experience of displacement. In 2009, the war came to an end, with the government’s most cruel military initiative that killed more than 4,000 innocents and displaced nearly 5 lakh people. After the war was won by the government, there were celebrations, like the one that happened in India after the Kargil. The Tamils were not allowed to mourn their relatives lost in the war. All commemorations were completely banned—LTTE memorials and cemeteries all over the north and the east were bulldozed, almost vacuum- cleaned at the same time as the government and the military were busy building their own memorials and victory monuments in that very part of the country that was soaked in human blood.

The memorialization project in postwar Sri Lanka is linked to the discourse of power. If you look at the flag and read its symbolism, it very clearly delineates the minorities from the majority. After winning the war, then president, Mahinda Rajapaksha, said that there were no minorities or majorities in the country—only patriots and traitors. Any person or group questioning or dissenting from the dominant discourse were labelled traitors. Hence that statement implicitly identify minorities as traitors. The power gained from the victory was further invested in the making of new ‘historical sites’ connected to Buddhism. An archeological site belonging to the Megalithic period in Jaffna is declared a Buddhist site. Hundreds of new Buddhist temples have been built in the minority areas where there is no Buddhism. These temples have been validated by local myths and seen as evidence of the Sinhalese Buddhist claim to the entire island. Pilgrimages and war tourism continue turning myth into history.

In this context, I did four works as a response to my immediate surroundings. In 2009, I got an invitation from the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver. They said they were inviting artists who use anthropological tools in their practice to make art. Until then I didn’t realize that I was using anthropological tools to make art. Similarly, when Megha called me regarding the history conference in Calcutta, I realized my approach to art and its method fit well into the project of writing alternative histories. Similarly, before the Asian Art Archive in Hong Kong invited me for a project involving archiving and art-making, I had never thought that there was an archiving element to my work. As an artist, I am reacting to a situation. When I conceived these works, I conceived them as artworks, although they have elements of memory, history and archive.

In 2004, during the Norwegian-mediated peace talk between the Sri Lankan government and LTTE, the war came to a temporary halt. As a response to a bigger, visual-art exhibition visiting  Jaffna, my four students and I did a work in collaboration with the general public. It is called History of Histories. We collected, from randomly selected homes in Jaffna, 500 objects representing the memories or histories of 25 years spent in a war zone. We exhibited the collected objects at the Jaffna Public Library that had been set on fire by the government in 1981. Tamil minorities in the north consider the burning a cultural genocide because it was a treasure house of rare palm-leaf documents and other materials that can never be recovered. It was one of the best libraries in South Asia. The act of burning further fuelled the ethic rift. That library building underwent a major renovation and reopened to the public in 2004—but with empty bookshelves! We filled those bookshelves with the 500 objects we collected from the local people. The objects varied—a broken limb of a doll, shell pieces, empty bullets, water, barbed wire, death certificates, identity cards, house keys, a shoe belonging to a dead child, passports, sand, particles of ruined buildings, clothes of dead relatives, costume jewellery . . .  

In 2009, I was invited to exhibit the same work in Vancouver. At that time, the war had re-escalated. And most of the materials in History of Histories were banned under emergency regulations. So I couldn’t transport them to Vancouver. Certain materials had to go underground and could not be in the public domain. So I did a similar work with the Tamil diaspora in Vancouver, slightly shifting my focus from home to home-making. Interlacing 300 individual memories and stories of home, that installation tried to unpack the emotional and material boundaries of diaspora homes and how they interact with and transform each other. Many of those Tamil migrants—both legal and illegal—crossed various borders, entry points and checkposts to reach their final destination. Those unpredictable and dangerous journeys determined the size and nature of the objects they could carry. Thus, the passage of travel became the subtext of these objects. Like the migrants, the objects too went underwent the surveillance of state and non-state actors at various points along the journey. Hence, travel handled, translated and altered the memory and meaning of objects and determined their transparency or opacity.

In Vancouver too, we collected 300 objects in a similar manner and explored the element of travel. Because they too had gone through different experiences: some had immigrated illegally, some legally. How do these objects transform memory and represent history? What kind of objects do people take with them, and what do they leave behind? Even though a significant amount of the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora live in Vancouver, the anthropology museum has no representation from this community. This art project gave a chance to that diaspora to exhibit its history. It brought untold personal stories to the public in the form of objects, through this aesthetic mediation. It built a collective history of a community that was forced to live with the experience of exile, displacement and trauma.

In 2012, I did another artwork called The Incomplete Thombu. Winslow’s (1862) Tamil dictionary defines thombu as a public land registry. It is a word commonly used by both Tamils and Sinhalese, and is probably derived from the Greek word thome, meaning a section, most likely of papyrus, which gave rise to the Latin word tome or large book. The Portuguese and Dutch, who colonized Sri Lanka in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries respectively, used this term for the land registers in which they documented land ownership.

The colonial document talks about the ownership of a property in relation to the boundaries shared with others. So the ‘other’ is very important. The Incomplete Thombu is about the emotional boundaries of lost property. One of the major challenges I faced was how to present the individual who is not a visual artist, and how to engage my skills in drawing in this collaborative endeavour. I finally chose drawing as tool of remembering or as a method of collecting individual testimonies. I randomly selected individuals from my social network as well as those who were recommended to me by word of mouth. I asked each person to draw the floor plan of the house that was most closely associated with his/her image of home. In the process of drawing, they shared memories of loved ones, objects, incidents, plants, pets, colours and smells associated with that building. Their narrations transformed the hand-drawn plans into a tangible expression of home. I then did a drawing in response to the stories I heard and the emotions they gave rise to. To make these mental house plans more ‘legible’, an architectural rendering of the original floor plan, on transparent paper, was inserted between my drawing and the hand-drawn plan. An extract of each narration was included on the reverse of the plan. The entire work was bound and presented in a form that recalled a thombu or land register. The result contains 80 documents of memories of home by Tamil and Muslim civilians displaced from the northern part of the Island and presently living either in Sri Lanka or abroad. Given below are a few testimonies.

  • I was a small child when we were displaced in 1990. We walked nearly 15 km to reach Jaffna. My family members carried household things that were portable. Since I was small, they told me to carry my pet puppy. I carried him because he was too small to walk that distance. A few days after we reached Jaffna, the puppy died . . .

  • We got notice to leave our village without delay because of the advancement of government troops. My grandfather could not bear it. He died the same day. We left the village immediately after his body was cremated.

  • It is hard to nurture a jasmine creeper in the heavy winter of Toronto. I covered the plant with a blanket and kept it inside the house. Last summer it yielded four flowers. Their fragrance took me back to my Jaffna house.

  • We had to leave our house because of the advancement of troops in 1990. My father carefully locked the doors and brought all the keys with him, with the hope of return. Now, almost 20 years have gone by. My father passed away a few years back, without seeing his house. We still have the keys even though it, and my father, no longer exist.

  • I have my ancestral house in Jaffna. My elder sister’s marriage took place in that house . . . Now it is a military training camp. Once, when my family visited, we received guest treatment in our own house. We sat in our drawing room tasting cool drinks and biscuits. Later, when I attempted to see the house, my request was rejected on the grounds that I did not have the right. Now I watch my sister’s wedding video to see my own house.

  • Now I am living in Toronto with my family but my childhood memories are more closely associated with our house in Jaffna . . . There is no trace of my house now. I used to look at my empty land from Canada using Google maps . . .

  • My father died when we were little. My mother struggled to feed seven children. I stared working in the paddy fields when I was eight years old. My elder brother, who was helping my mother to raise the family, was shot dead by the Indian army. My elder sister is married and living in Switzerland and my younger brother is in France. Now I work as a university lecturer in Jaffna. One of my sisters was an LTTE cadre and was killed in 1995 during a military operation. My other two sisters are married. One of them was badly injured in the last phase of the Vanni war. Both my sisters’ husbands lost their legs in the same war.

  • Since the late 80s, due to heavy shelling from the Palay air base, we had to move out of our house many times and stay in neighbouring villages. During the time of our final expulsion in 1990, we were in the process of building a new house. One of the most disturbing incidents during the expulsion was that we could not take our pregnant Jersey cow with us. We had no option but to abandon her in our cattle shed. We never knew what happened to her.

  • I have resettled in our own house after nearly twenty years. I was displaced to Puttalam. Everything has changed here. My street does not look like it did. Most of those who were displaced have yet to return . . . Even in the refugee camps in Puttalam, we lived with our relatives and friends. Now I am living with strangers. I am a stranger on my own street.

These art projects are a collage of diversified identities, contested memories and disjoined histories of lost homes and the different mechanisms of home-making. These projects represent the common feeling of loss, and attempts to rebuild the community based on that feeling. They register voices of the common man who carried the burden of history.

In 2016 I did a new work called Cabinet of Resistance. It contained 25 resistance/resilience stories of war-affected communities. It was exhibited in the Kochi Bienniale, and the stories are narrated through printed texts and drawings on a series of index cards placed in library index boxes. By inquiring how these individuals appropriated or relativized their day-to-day existence under the conditions of war, such as economic embargos, displacements, lack of communication facilities and travel restrictions, this project aims to register the innovative and alternative inventions that intertwined with the experience of war. The cabinet, as a physical form, and conceptual imagining, connects to the colonial cabinet of curiosities that led to the development of museums and archives. By employing this particular method of collection and display, this work attempts to play with ideas of archive, memory and indexing in relation to their connection to object and object making.

I will read one or two examples of these stories of resistance of different people.

Shreen and the Sandbags

i) Sand bags were crucial during the war to protect us from aerial bombings and sniper attacks. Fertilizer bags and hessian sacks were commonly used for making sand bags.

ii) But in the last phase of war there was a heavy shortage of these sacks because people did not carry them when they were displaced.

iii) People who were trapped in the final days of the war were displaced many times. With every displacement, the number of things that could be carried grew less and less.

iv) People carried items that were needed for their day-to-day survival and items that had sentimental value.

v) They sold their gold jewellery during different stages of displacement out of the need to purchase food items such as rice, coconut and milk powder for the children.

vi) Most of the married women carried their bridal saris as their most precious property, especially for their sentimental value. To safeguard themselves and their families from the shelling and air raids, they gave away their expensive silk bridal saris with gold and silver thread to make sand bags.

Sivaraj and the Radio

i) The distance between Jaffna and Colombo is 394 km, and it is nearly 7 to 8 hours away by train or bus. When the LTTE took over the control of the entire northern part of Sri Lanka, the main road that connects it to the capital Colombo was closed. No direct transport was available.

ii) People had to travel to Colombo for many reasons. They took the risk of travelling dangerous routes crossing landmines, jungles, lagoons and ‘no man’ zones. Many of them died when they were caught in the crossfire in the areas between no-man zones and the LTTE- and government- controlled areas.

iii) Travel to Colombo sometimes took 4 days or more. People would inform their families in Jaffna via letter that they had reached Colombo safely. There were no telephone or telegram facilities available at the time. Letters could take more than a month to reach Jaffna depending on the schedule of the ship service.

iv) With great difficulty it was possible to tune into broadcasts from the state-owned radio station. Due to a shortage of batteries and a lack of power supply, people only used the radio for listening to the news at 6.30 a.m., 12.45 p.m., 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. After every news transmission, the radio would broadcast the daily obituary announcements.

v) Those that reached Colombo safely, sent their own obituary notices to the radio station. When their relatives in Jaffna heard their names they celebrated their safe passage to Colombo.

Thiyaku, Thirunelveli Mechanic

i) For more than 10 years the government stopped the supply of petrol. As a result, all petrol engine vehicles were abandoned.

ii) But there was a limited supply of kerosene. So we converted petrol engines into kerosene engines.

iii) By following the function of tractor engine, we fixed three to five gaskets and converted the petrol engine into a kerosene engine. The gasket reduces the compression. I converted many British-made cars, such as Morris Minor, Morris Oxford, A 30,A40, A 90, Austin Cambridge and Somerset, in this manner.

iv) For a while we had to mix vegetable cooking oil or gingelly oil or bassia oil with engine oil, and in some cases coconut oil with engine oil, to run the engines.

v) During this time, there was also a shortage of spare parts for these converted British cars. I used parts of condemned vehicles as spare parts for cars in running condition. Occasionally, we also made our own spare parts by casting them in aluminium or iron.

Question and Answer

Audience Member. You mentioned something about Malayalis and Tamilians and the communal hatred against them. Was this politically influenced?

Sanathanan. Yesterday we were talking about how Bangladesh is moving away from a secular state to a Muslim state, how Pakistan was formed and what is happening in India now. A similar project started in Sri Lanka 50 years ago. Through riots, discourse of history and the constitutional arrangements, it has become a ‘pure Sinhalese Buddhist’ state.

Audience Member. So no other religion or language?

Sanathanan. Buddhism has a special place in the constitution. After independence, in 1956, Sinhala was made into the official language. Ever since, the Tamils have been fighting for equal status for their language. Although Tamil gained the same status in 1987, in most cases, the state violates the constitution. The sect of Buddhism followed by the Sinhalese is called Theravada. But in South India it was Mahayana. Mahayana sites were found in significant numbers in Sri Lanka, showing the link with South India. But the tragedy is that the history of Buddhist South India remains unwritten.

Audience Member. What were the socioeconomic ramifications of all these aggressions?

Sanathanan. If you look at the records from the 1920s and 30s, there were negative sentiments that came with the Buddhists reformists. They were anticolonial, anti-Tamil, anti-Indian and anti-Muslim—because they found that most of the economy was under the control of the minorities. Even now, if you look at the demography of Colombo, 60 per cent is non-Sinhalese. The minorities own the major business establishments. The plantations, which were a big part of the country’s economy, are supported by the South Indian Tamil labourers brought in by the British in the nineteenth century.

English colonial government established tea plantations in hill country and developed infrastructure facilities to support its rule in the southern part of the island. Schools set up by the missionaries and the Hindu revivalists in the north produced employees for the colonial administrative machinery. Hence many of the government jobs were secured by the Anglo- Ceylonese and Tamil communities. But, after independence, the national government introduced the quota system that made the minorities feel that they were being sidelined by the Sinhala state. That was one of the reasons for the Tamil insurgency.

Audience member. What has been your procedure or process for selecting these stories? How many people did you talk to and how did you decide what would eventually be a part of the project?

Sanathanan. The number was decided by the size of the book or the size of the site where we were going to exhibit. Hence the book project contains 80 stories. History of Histories and Imaging Home contain 500 and 300 images, respectively. Cabinet of Resistance has 25 stories. We collected stories through a rhizomic process. I was very concerned about the collection of stories outside my social and ideological locations. I did not pass any judgement—I treated everything equally and rejected nothing. Since I underwent similar experiences, I was able to empathetically identify myself with each story. If I put it differently: it is about telling my experiences in others voices.

Audience Member. How have Sri Lankan textbooks interpreted Buddhism?

Sanathanan. After the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhist sites in Afghanistan by the Taliban, a group of Buddhist students in Kurunagala, Sri Lanka, met with a local Buddhist monk in the area and asked if they could do something. It was decided that a gigantic statue of Buddha would be built in Kurunegala to compensate for the great loss. The commission was given to a sculptor from Tamil Nadu. What is interesting is that the same sculptor was employed to build a huge Hanuman sculpture in the hill country few years before the Kurunagalla Buddha. This may have been the practice throughout history, because the stylistic aspects of artefacts connect Sri Lanka with South India. But the Aryan myths imaginatively connect it with North India. We look at history from the point of view of the dynasties and kings, but never the craftsmen. We don’t look at history from the point of view of patronage, labour, migration and travel. Myths played a crucial role in the absence of scientific evidence to bridge Sri Lanka with North India, such as Buddha visiting Sri Lanka by flying through the sky. Sri Lankan textbooks hardly distinguish myth from history, religion from history and totally ignore the fact that there was no Sri Lanka as a political entity in the premodern era.


T. Sanathanan is a visual artist living and working in Jaffna, Sri Lanka. His work has been exhibited in Sri Lanka and at the Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver; Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane; of Ethnology, Vienna; Devi Art Foundation, New Delhi; Asian Art Archive, Hong Kong; Kochi Art Bienniale; and elsewhere. His artist-book projects include The One-Year Drawing Project, The Incomplete Thombu and A–Z of Conflict (forthcoming). He is currently Senior Lecturer, Art History, Department of Fine Arts, Jaffna University, and co-founder of the Sri Lankan Archive for Contemporary Art, Architecture and Design.

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