Interview with T. Shanaathanan: Everyday stories from the war zone

Shanaathanan’s The Incomplete Thombu tries to intersperse architecture, art and memory

Updated - January 07, 2018 12:35 pm IST

Published - January 06, 2018 04:15 pm IST

T. Shanaathanan

T. Shanaathanan

As an art educator, T. Shanaathanan has one primary goal. “I want my students to acquire a sophisticated visual language to articulate their own stories, suffering and hope,” says the visual artist based in Jaffna, the most prominent town in Sri Lanka’s war-scarred north.

And this language, he emphasises, should speak to the gallery-centric, museum-backed urban art world. A sort of subaltern voice negotiating and challenging that discourse on art, bred by the prevailing capitalist system.

“If we think of art as resistance, then that resistance cannot afford to exist in isolation, in a bubble. It must enter the dominant space, even as it speaks a very different language. But for that, artists from the periphery need a certain aesthetic, an expression,” says the 48-year old, who heads the Art History programme at the Fine Arts Department of the University of Jaffna.

Shanaathanan speaks from experience. As someone who has been exposed to the national and international art scene, he says he has gained a lot in terms of learning and thinking. It began in his student days in India.

Following his A-levels (equivalent to Class XII) in the science stream, Shanaathanan followed his dream to study art, contrary to his family’s aspirations for him. His parents would have liked to see him become a doctor, engineer or lawyer in that order of preference. As a concession, they may have even considered an accounting profession. But the idea of an artist was too farfetched for their Jaffna middle-class sensibility. But young Shanaathanan was certain and determined. “I was born and raised in Jaffna. I did my schooling there. My entry to the field of arts was really a response to the surroundings I grew up in.”

The dream took him to Tamil Nadu first, as it did many other artists before him. However, it was the wrong year — 1991, when Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by the LTTE. Every Sri Lankan Tamil became suspect in Indian and Tamil Nadu eyes of the security establishments. “I remember the time when my relatives and I had to go to the Anna Nagar police station to give our fingerprints. It made me very uncomfortable.”

Tough call

Admissions to colleges in the state also became harder for Sri Lankan students. So, the Government College of Fine Arts, where some of his seniors went, was ruled out. He went to New Delhi and enrolled for a Bachelor’s degree in fine arts at the Delhi College of Art. “That experience opened up my mind in a big way. Students were mostly preoccupied with issues in Pakistan, and were indifferent to Sri Lanka, or my identity. I too didn’t speak much about it, fearing that might distance them. Painting became my main outlet, a personal journey.” In those years, Shanaathanan focussed on mythological themes from Hinduism and Christianity and “told my own story symbolically. No one would know unless I told them.”

Then he returned to Jaffna, lectured at the University for a year, and returned to the same college for his masters. Following his Masters, he taught in Jaffna again for seven years until 2007, before returning to New Delhi for a Ph.D. at Jawaharlal Nehru University, during which time he researched art in colonial Colombo. Meanwhile, during his years in Jaffna, he helped curate an exhibition in 2004, titled ‘Agam Puram’ at the renovated Jaffna Public library. After a Sinhalese mob set fire to the iconic library in 1981, it was reopened briefly in 1984 following partial restoration, but remained closed for most part until 2004. That was ceasefire time, following relative peace brokered by Norwegians.

Sinhalese artists from the south exhibited their work — mostly reflections on a repressive state that violently targeted insurgent youth of the Leftist Janathā Vimukthi Peramuṇa (People’s Liberation Front). “It was a shift that began in the 1990s, southern artists, from outside Colombo, began looking at militarisation, state repression and violence through their work. Their visual expression was powerful.”

Conventional themes

At the same time, Shanaathanan felt that though Jaffna had been the epicentre for the war, art coming out of the town was mostly fixated on conventional themes like landscapes and portraits. “There was no engagement with the contemporary art world. Our work was not politically charged.” Drawing upon the “art as an idea” concept, he decided to work with installation and asked 500 families to share any object that they felt reflected a certain story, a memory. “We put the objects into bottles and placed them on the newly painted, empty book racks of the library. Many new stories of common people emerged. We called it ‘A history of histories’. It was a turning point for me.”

Different exposure

In 2009, Shanaathanan worked on a similar project with Sri Lankan diaspora in Vancouver. “I got to see how these two societies — one in Canada and the other in the island’s north spoke to each other’s realities.” These experiences led him to work on The Incomplete Thombu in 2011, a book that tries to intersperse architecture, art and memory. The idea was simple — Shanaathanan went to different people in the community and asked them to roughly sketch the ground plan of their house. The outcome left him stumped.

“As they drew the plan of their house, they spoke of the architecture or style. They spoke of it being taken over for a high security zone later. Simultaneously, they would speak of what remains, what was destroyed in shelling. They would talk about a neem tree that was cut, a kitten that had to be abandoned as they were displaced, their family that inhabited the house. They would tell me what made the house as seen in the ground plan their home .” The book is a collection of these ground plans, with the stories and Shanaathanan’s accompanying illustrations.

Shanaathanan suddenly realised that while the armed forces were memorialising their own efforts in the war, and while the LTTE and other rebels were telling their accounts, the stories of ordinary people on the ground had not come out. “People merely gave me an account of what happened, they were not interested in pointing fingers. There was an imminent risk of erasure of such stories on suffering and everyday resistance.” The work, he says, became a mobile public memorial at a time when ‘reconciliation’ was yet to pick up as an idea. “Now, after the regime change in 2015 the space for memorialisation has opened up to an extent. But at that time, we didn’t know if we would ever be such a space.”

In addition to foregrounding everyday stories of people in a war zone, the different projects he worked on through the years of war and after it ended in 2009, shifted his focus from trauma to the notion of memory. “Today we have students from all over the country studying in our department. Those from the hill country and other marginalised groups bring so much to the class, their artistic language is sophisticated and very compelling. Considering the sensitivities involved in a diverse classroom, we don’t delve much into the war. But this diversity in class will make all students think deeper about socially engaged and aesthetically profound art.”

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