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Tracing India-Sri lanka Buddhism connect through temple art

Aparna Misra

Chamini Weerasooriya is the first women temple artists from Sri Lanka who has been spreading the message of Buddha through her paintings and also on the position of women in Buddhism.

India and Sri Lanka are two neighbouring countries with shared cultural and historical influences, resulting in many similarities between them. Both countries have strong Buddhist tradition, both were colonised by the British and both have common festivals and sports. Just as Ramayana connects India to the Emerald Isle to its south, it is Buddhism that makes the bond between the two-nation tenacious.

Ties between India and Sri Lanka go back to a hoary past, to times when Asoka was the Chakravarti (king whose rule spreads in all four directions) and even further when Buddha is said to have visited the island nation.  Since times undated ideas have travelled back and forth between Sri Lanka and India.

A fascinating example of this interplay of ideas both in philosophy and art is the story of Chamini Weerasooriya whose name I came across while researching Buddhist Temple art.

Chamini, (which means a gem), is a trail blazer, a pioneer in her own right. She is the first woman temple artist from Sri Lanka. She is married to an Indian Buddhist and has made Nagpur her second home. In her initial travels she was dismayed by the state of Buddhist Viharas (Abode) in India and took upon herself to revive the age-old traditions by painting the interiors of the viharas herself. She has been spreading the message of Buddha through her paintings and talks at various conferences in India. She was an important speaker at a Buddhist Conclave held in 2022, where she spoke in Hindi, on the position of women in Buddhism.

Sri Lankan art and spread of Buddhism

I got to interact with her during the month of Buddha Purnima and learnt more about her thoughts on the interplay between faith and art. I put aside my pre-conceptions of the hegemonic artistic tradition of Ajanta. Chamini admits Ajanta’s dominant influence. “Rightfully it can be said that the history of painting in Sri Lanka is also the story of the spread of Buddhism in the island. Sri Lanka has a rich tradition of Buddhist paintings. The purpose of paintings was to communicate the essence of Buddhism to devotees.”

The purpose gave an impetus to great many styles and modes of presentation. Sri Lankan artists adapted the medium according to their own interpretation. Today we witness many regional styles right from the ancient times of Anuradhapura, Pollanaru, to medieval Kandyan to the modern academic styles and the more recent styles made popular by George Keyt and the Colombo 43 group. Interestingly the evolution of art in India and Sri Lanka has followed a similar pattern which became evident after witnessing Chamini’s personal artistic journey.

She was born in Anuradhapura, the gateway to Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Many reasons are attributed for the vibrant Buddhist faith in Sri Lanka.  A key role was played by local viharas and their Dhamma school. The walls of the viharas and stupas came alive with scenes from the life of Buddha -Birth of Buddha, the world outside the palace, young Siddhartha leaving the sleeping Rahul, the enlightenment, the first sermon and the Mahaparinirvana Buddha looking down the walls going through the life’s turbulations with acceptance and a gentle smile subtly hypnotised the laity to surrender and embrace the path walked by Buddha.

Chamini was only 13 when a Dhamma school in Anuradhapura gave her the first opportunity to dabble in temple art. Her first drawings were of stupas at Lalaththewa Mahavidyalaya, a Buddhist vihara in Anuradhapura. The early memories of simple white stupas were a stark reminder of what was missing in Nagpur. The clear absence of a subtle initiation into the Buddhist way of life propelled her to embrace her life’s purpose – to communicate the forgotten glory of Buddhism though paintings in India. Her masters in Fine Art from the University of Kelaniya and her early exposure in the Dhamma schools equipped her to embrace her calling.

Her first job was at Kebithigollewa Central College as an art teacher. But the blackboards of her school could not reign in her desire to be a temple artist. The Anuradhapura Puraanagama Vihara gave her the first crucial break in 2017. Mindful of her legacy and paying homage to the art tradition of Anuradhapura she chose the style to paint her first murals of Buddha with his first five disciples in the classical style of Sri Lanka. This style is known for its strong line drawing and the use of colours like red, brown, dark red, yellow and white, shading within the lines create an impression of depth and the figures come alive in the soft glow of the lit lamps.

The lyrical quality and the realism of Anuradhapura style have a first claim to heart, yet she had not hesitated to follow other schools and artists in search of honing her own style. Chamini has a deep reverence for M. Sarlis. He was instrumental in restoring Buddhist art in face of challenges posed by European art. Buddhist art was losing out to Christian art as it was patronized by Christians and the colonial powers in Ceylon of Nineteenth century. The compassionate one was replaced by the cold distant face of British royalty in the Buddhist homes. It was master Sarlis who brought a new vigour to the Buddhist Art. He painted scenes from the life of Buddha which could be used as wall decorations. Although he was influenced by European techniques and colours his theme was Buddhist. His re invention of Buddhist art in Sri Lanka reminds one of the works done by Raja Ravi Varma in restoring traditional art in India.

Chamini got a chance to pay homage to master Sarlis when she restored the paintings at Sri Sidhartharamaya in Colombo in 2018 which were done by Sarlis. Chamini admires his work but she finds his technique very European and distant from the Sri Lankan traditional style.

She has worked in another important regional style -The Kandyan school. She was commissioned to work on Gampola Bodhirukkharamaya in 2019. Gampola Bodirukkharamaya is inspired by the Kandyan school, a school that laid great emphasis on line drawing with limited color palette.

Since the time she started painting she has been working hard to find her own style of interpreting the message of Buddha. She has worked on different aspects of Temple art, from painting the Buddha with his disciples, to restoration work, to indulging in Sinhalese temple decorations which are an integral part of temple art in Sri Lanka. She got a chance to indulge in this form and painted lotuses, swans to adorn the ceilings of Anuradhapura Shailabhimbaramaya.

She admires the work of Solias Mendis, the revivalist who brought back traditional art to the forefront, akin to the Bengal School of Art in India which broke the monopoly of the Company school of painting in India.

While drawing the Sadagiri Vihara paintings she drew heavily from Mendis – the rhythmic line drawing, full bodied figures, fine detailing of dress and jewels, the expressive lift of eyebrows, the curl of the upper lip, the wrinkled forehead reveal the influence of Mendis on her work.

The watershed moment was when she moved to Nagpur with her husband. The state of Viharas in India and Nagpur in particular filled her with shock. She had expected to find Viharas glowing with murals and the countryside reverberating with the chants of Dhamma. Contrary to her expectations the scene was bleak and in India. She resolved to restore temple art one vihara at a time. She began her journey on her birthday – March 10th when she painted the scene of the birth of Buddha at Nagpur Bodhigaya Vihar in 2020. The style was inspired by the sights and smells of India. Despite being in the neighbourhood of Ajanta she chose to paint dream of Queen Maya in bright colours in a typical Bollywood fashion.

In retrospect she is critical of her Bollywood inspired art. Doing a course correction she went back to neutral or limited palette, delicate lines, soft expressions, fluid movement to convey a feeling of serenity and a sense of bliss.

Her passion for painting and her calling came together in India. Her art still had to find a voice of her own. She increasingly wrestled with the existential crisis about her uniqueness. At this stage she was increasingly pulled by Japanese and Chinese paintings. Hanthana Sadagiri Stupa done in 2021 glows in style which Chamini calls her own. It is a composite style that borrows freely from Japan, China, Thai Ballet dancers, Bollywood and the traditional art styles of Sri Lanka. The murals at Hanthana make a statement for Pan Asian art. They reveal the subtle linkages.

At her core, Chamini Weerasooriya is a traditional temple artist who likes to follow the ancient style of Anuradhapura. Murals of Anuradhapura involved preparing the surface with clay, extracting colours from plant or mineral sources, fastening the colours by mixing it with oil from Doranaplant. However, it is difficult to practice these processes in present times. Doronaplant has become extinct and its usage is prohibited. Chamini has started using acrylic colours, her heart beats with the classical style of Anuradhapura which she interprets with the aid of Pan Asian Styles.

Traveling with her through her painted walls one is wonder struck by the stylistic nuances of Sri Lankan art traditions. One realises the mistake in assuming that art in South Asia is an offshoot of Ajanta. Ajanta is a great source of inspiration but each region had its own style and the local artists interpreted the stories according to the socio-economic cultural conditions of their time.

One can see a connection emerge between Bhikshuni Sanghamitta and the modern-day temple artist Chamini_- one crossed the ocean and made Anuradhapura her home while the other flew across the strait and made Nagpur her abode, a karmic cycle of debt and repayment in the most wonderful sense seems to be at play.

Photographs are by the artist Chamini Weerasooriya

Aparna Misra is a writer on culture and heritage. She has been an educationist. She is an avid traveller and has written blogs and articles for newspapers and journals sharing her tales.

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