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Blend of modernity and tradition

Artist Senaka Senanayaka's works reflect the unique cultural ethos of his native Sri Lanka. His deployment of forms are extremes, from light and airy to weighty and earthy.

TO BE credited with a little more than 100 exhibitions at a comparatively young age of 51, to find a place of honour in the Delegates Lounge of the United Nations General Assembly in the capacity of a child artist to paint the mural there alongside the executed works of two major modern artists, to be born with a golden brush in hand, to have genes filtered from three generation of artists in a family and to be affluent and politically affiliated... it is no surprise then that Senaka Senanayaka, an internationally acclaimed artist, has his credentials established within the art circuit.

A progressive minded teacher at school served as a catalyst for young prodigy on his artistic journey. Says Senaka, who was born in Colombo on March 20, 1951, "After a history or geography class, she would pin large sheets of brown paper on the wall and the children were required to draw images of various animals or tribes of a particular continent."

It was this nature of community work in school that left a deep impression on his mind. Termed `precocious' by many leading art critics in Colombo, he held his first art show in the city when he was seven years of age. After his schooling in Sri Lanka, Senaka went to Yale (U.S.A.) to study art, where the structured curriculum and the art practice supported by History of Art undoubtedly opened up vistas on great masters.

In addition, at the University, he was exposed to a different culture as he came in contact with his peers with similar interests and the interaction proved productive. The pedagogy manicured his talents and deepened his creativity; but left no indelible impression upon his style or technique.

His works implicates the culture into which he is grounded. The tradition of Sri Lanka with its craft oriented industry and the ancient mural tradition all have their bearings. Admirably the technique that he has evolved is true to the tradition particularly in the murals at Sigiriya.

He says, "The circular style I have adopted has evolved for three reasons: it creates movement, it creates dimension and it shows the continuous motion of life."

By 1980, Senaka had evolved this individuated style and today, it has largely become his working method. Senaka's themes are wide ranging and encompass every facet of life. In "Pinna Patha", that obliquely references the religion of the island, the presence of the Buddha is implied symbolically by the stupa. This dimension of spiritual ambience is sanctified and reinforced by a group of monks with a female devotee interceding with utmost reverence. In the work, with dexterity Senaka work has enhanced the sanctity of the personages with white transparent bubbles within which the heads are contained instead of the usual halo around it.

However, though in this particular work, the transparent light bubbles tends to highlight and strengthen the main protagonists, it appears to be a popular device invented by Senaka noticeable in "The Egrets" and other works. "The Butterflies" and "Baby Elephants" clarify Senaka's versatility in his deployment of forms that are extremes from light and airy to weighty and earthy. These subjects further reinforce Senaka's humane philosophy that every life on this earth is precious and should not be mindlessly destroyed.

Senaka's paintings exude an aura of contemplative stillness admirably melding skill and creativity. His calculated organisation of forms and colours are the determinants of his decorative style that forces the viewer to linger on and glean out details that are meticulously worked out. Consequently, his works do not carry the burden of semantics, but rather serve as retinal treat, marked by the excellence of his craft and technique. The rich narrative, which he produces is largely inspired by his pride in his national heritage not only of architectural monuments and canonical pictorial traditions, but its rich flora and fauna.

Meeting the artist, the man and the philosopher all melded into one, Senaka's art efficiently bespeaks of all this and much more. His deep spirituality emanating from the works is the reflection of his simplicity and unaffectedness despite an international status, acknowledgement and appreciation from a tender age.

A preview of his show was held outside the Senate Hall, University of Madras on November 24, jointly organised by the Apparao Galleries and Apollo Hospitals. The first Indian show of Senaka will open at the Visual art Gallery, India Habitat Centre, New Delhi on December 1.


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