In Conversation with Jagath Weerasinghe

C. Anjalendran imparted much of his learnings unto the people he met and into the houses he built. The architect effortlessly took on the role of a cultural conduit as he conveyed and translated his own interpretation of the Sri Lankan identity, instilling a sense of authenticity into homes with a strong fortitude and resolution through an urgency of fervency and passion. He was both an architect and an art aficionado and is greatly knowledgeable in both these fields, creating a system that celebrated each. He designed spaces that were culturally rich and in doing so, highlighted the significance of archaeological characterization. In unravelling the life and works of Anjalendran on ARTRA Magazine's Architecture of Anjalendran Edition, we conversed with revered contemporary artist Jagath Weerasinghe as he explored the ways in which the architect and his thought processes created an epoch of distinct classification.

Art and architecture are instrumental elements in the living of communities and diverse societies. They are fundamental tools that comprehend the way of living and existing of the people and their culture. As we conversed with artist, and art historian Jagath Weerasinghe, he unfolded the nuances in which Anjalendran's role as a cultural conduit bridged the gaps between diverse social classes while introducing distinct perspectives into new homes. Jagath draws parallels between the architect and art historian Ananda Coomaraswamy as he explains Anjalendran's instrumental influence in society and translating the cultural significance of traditional Sri Lankan forms into architectural designs.

Q | Can you explain Anjalendran's role as a cultural conduit?

Anjalendran, I believe, bridges a "gap," a "distance," that exists between artists and those who collect their works; this distance defines both groups in social and cultural terms. The "gap" or "distance" is premised on one of the fundamental questions that every artist should indeed address: what is art now? Anjalendran enters this space with his commanding presence and creates a dialogic space for personal interactions between the two. The newer artists are now emerging more from burgeoning classes rather than from the established, upper classes who have a tradition of living with art at home. I don't think artists like George Keyt, Justin Deraniyagala, or Lionel Wendt had to face the kind of socially defined classbased sentiments, as most of us had to. So, I claim that Anjalendran is a kind of a force that suppressed or blurred those differences in class backgrounds between the producers of art and the collectors. He ensured that the emotions and politics of those artists coming from different social backgrounds are made accessible to a larger community of art collectors. He brought accessibility to those artists from the North, East, and the South, collectively. Anjalendran was never restrained by class or ethnic emotions, the kind of emotional politics that plague this country.

Q | In your opinion, how has Anjalendran's unique persona and role been received by society, and/or how has his work influenced society?

Anjalendran is a social phenomenon that challenges the very society he dwells in from within; a larger-than-life presence amongst his peers. He is a unique personality with a lot of idiosyncrasies, and yet, there is an amicable rapport between him and the society around him. When looking at this unique relationship that Anjalendran has with his society, it gives me a good feeling about us; that we are not yet a fully broken society. When a society is ready to accept an individual's specificities and idiosyncrasies – that very tolerance of difference also defines the civility of that society as well. A society's capacity in embracing the idiosyncrasies of individuals, for me is a healthy sign of our society in an otherwise sick and fragmented society. As and when a society opens itself to the idiosyncrasies of some unique individuals, such characteristics get inscribed in the social as “standards”, or “unique qualities” and that is a remarkably healthy sign of society. And, Anjalendran has made such a healthy social atmosphere to become a reality among us. This accommodation happens, in the case of Anjalendran in the form of art and spatial experiences. This is also how he intervenes with that class or society of people, in which he promotes accepting cultural authenticities and differences of the time we live. As a cultural conduit, Anjalendran traverses many layers in the society that he commands with his presence and the authoritative knowledge in architecture and design. The significance of this traversing is marked by the impact he makes and, in the way, society responds to him.

Q | In your opinion, what is the significance of Anjalendran's architectural works?

My claim is that Anjalendran is a quintessential modernist architect and a vital modernist citizen of Sri Lanka. One sign of modernism is it has to find its own history to be a complete epoch, to be fully contemporary and modern. When Ananda Coomaraswamy was here in the early 20th century, whilst colonial archaeologists like H.C.P Bell and other archaeologists had already established Sigiriya and Anuradhapura, and other such ancient cities, Coomaraswamy did not look at the classical past. He invented a historical epoch, which is the “Kandyan”. The same thing happened in Europe because European modernists looked at medieval Europe, not Greece. In a way, Coomaraswamy founded a historical period that was not made classical by colonial artists and archaeologists. My thoughts are coming from a German theorist, Jurgen Habermas. He explored a theory about Modernism being an "incomplete project". When I think of Habermas' explication of modernity, in my opinion, this is what Ananda Coomaraswamy was doing here in “Ceylon” – he was giving us a new epoch, a new profoundly complex and aestheticized period which is different from that of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, the places authorized by a classical past written by archaeology and art history. Anjalendran does the same. You can see that Anjalendran is influenced so greatly by the buildings of those periods, I mean Kandyan, and the vernacular yet creates a modern architecture. I think that for one to be modern, one must find a new epoch from the past. In that sense, I believe he takes the Kandyan period and the vernacular and then he reconstructs/redesins the given for a modern present. In doing that he is in the same paradigm as Geoffry Bawa, Minette de Silva, and Ediriveera Sarachchandra, the eminent playwright – a non-classical past is constructed and phrased for the modern. If you walk into any of Anjalendran's houses, you'll see it's almost as if you're walking into a “new period” that is both familiar and strange. He is an enlightened modernist thinker in terms of space and spatial interpretation and in encompassing the idea of the public in these spaces by way of art. Whatever Anjalendran does, he performs the idea of the “public” and “difference” in his work, thoughts, and gestures. This is something that we can't say about many others; artists or architects, or art collectors. For me, he is a cultural hero, not just an architect.

Jagath Weerasinghe has been a significant driving force in the development of Sri Lankan art since the early 1990s. He holds a Master of Fine Arts from the American University in Washington DC. He obtained a Bachelor of Fine Arts with Honours in Painting at the Institute of Aesthetic Studies, University of Kelaniya, Sri Lanka in 1981. In 1985 he received a Conservation of Wall Paintings, International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) in Rome, which was followed in 1988 by a Conservation of Rock Art from the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles. In 1991 Weerasinghe obtained a Master of Fine Arts in Painting at the American University, Washington, D.C. Weerasinghe coined the phrase "90's Art Trend", recognising at the time the need for a cohesive framework to describe the activity of his peer group. This adopting of a phrase as framework by Weerasinghe acted as a catalyst for theoretical inquiry into the politically conscious contemporary art praxis of the 1990s in Sri Lanka. He was commissioned by the Sri Lankan government to design the monument "Shrine for the Innocent" as a remembrance for the innocent victims of the violence that the southern part of the country experienced in the late 1980s and early 1990s with the work completed in 1999. He co-founded the Theertha International Artists Collective in 2000, and served as its Chairman till 2017. Theertha continues to foster new artists and initiatives. Weerasinghe's works have been exhibited in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, India, Netherlands, Germany and Japan. He has received numerous awards, including the David Lloyed Kreeger Award, American University; Bunka Cultural Award, Sri Lanka; Hirayama Silk Road Fellowship; Visiting Fellow, Institute of Archaeology, University of London; ICCROM Fellowship for Conservation Studies, ICCROM, Rome; Visiting Fellow, Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Studies, South Africa and Visiting Scholar, University of California at Berkeley and at University of Texas. He is also a recipient of the Arts & Literary Arts Award of the Rockefeller Centre at Bellagio. 

21st April, 2022 Visual Art | Paintings