In Conversation with T. Shanaathanan

Though not refuting the presence of a fair volume of pictorial and malleable characteristics of  European art, the '43 Group were stirred with a sense of the imaginative and potent realities of the human condition. From those of social truths to societal stigmas, the works of the '43 Group are symbolic to visual idioms of the East & West. Associated heflty with elitism and academism, in conversation with T. Shanathanan, Revered Artist & Senior Lecturer in Art History, Department of Fine Arts at the University of Jaffna, Sri Lanka – we explore the theoretical framework upon which the works of the collective can be approached for purposes of critical reading.

Q | What is the most significant aspect of the '43 Group?

A | “In my opinion, the most important aspect of the '43 Group is that they were not nationalists. Their work reflected their own thoughts irrespective of the political propagandas of the pre to post independence periods of Sri Lanka. Their approach was in contrast to artists of those times in South Asia, as national art was considered to be of vital importance in their country. In the catalogue of the '43 Group's tenth exhibition, they do in fact mention that the real problem to art is Nationalism. Their approach to art has been very secular in which they perceive it to be of cosmopolitan in nature, truly international with local experiences thereby differentiating themselves from most South Asian movements. Instead of approaching their work as a national project, they were individualistic in thought and form, especially those of Lionel Wendt and Harry Pieris.”

Q | How influential & relevant have the '43 Group been within Sri Lanka, and outside Colombo, in your opinion?

A | Firstly, one must understand that this Modernist collective exists within a small social class, supported by the same – who were primarily from Cinnamon Gardens. Thus their impact outside this social circle and Colombo is highly questionable. Their works were certainly relevant to the goings-on of the world in terms of language and technique, but not of Sri Lanka to a great extent. Their works were parallel to art movements influenced by Shantiniketan, the prestigious art school in West Bengal India established by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore in 1919.

Although the '43 group is universally acknowledged in academia and publications as a reflection of Sri Lankan art, I believe it is not necessarily the case. They're activities are confined to Colombo – except for the workings of Geoffrey Beling and Kanagasabey, the latter being a part of the extended circle of the '43 Group. In education and understanding, the '43 Group were similar in their beliefs imparting and disseminating thought provocation complimentary to those of others, mediated by their people. Although not a populist movement, the works we patronized by the same group of collectors. They bought artwork themselves – they were in fact a closed group class-wise, and they did not have a bigger support system outside themselves. Because of their social position, they were able to continue their art along with the support of international patrons and their well-connected South Asian institutions. Thus, they were positioned profoundly within the art scene as a result of their influential networks.

George Keyt, Women with Flower, Sapumal Foundation Collection 

Later on, the '43 group were tyrannized by local art historians as they were formalists. Their writing belonged to bibliographic movements, including that of H.A.I Goonatilake, Neville Weeraratne and to date, we do not have a theoretical framework to understand Sri Lankan art. Many of the written text about Modernist movements are of artist biographies – which have not helped us look at the '43 Group from a critical perspective.

Q | Do you find the works of the '43 Group to be Apolitical, as it is considered to be mostly?

A | In fact, I find the works of the '43 Group to be very political, although contemporary discourse present them is formalist style that denotes to the significance of their use of style, colour and texture. I feel their works can be read as a part of a larger chemistry as they are connected to socialist movements, and driven by communist thoughts.

T. Shanathanan is a visual artist and a Senior Lecturer in Art History, Department of Fine Arts, University of Jaffna, Sri Lanka . His artist book projects include 'The One Year Drawing Project', 'The Incomplete Thombu', and 'A–Z of Conflict'. He is also the author of several articles and book chapters on Modern and contemporary visual art in Sri Lanka. He received PhD in Art History from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He is co founder of Sri Lankan Archive for Contemporary Art, Architecture and Design in Jaffna. 

1st December, 2022 Visual Art | Paintings