|Wednesday, 13 October 2004|
Studio Times exhibition series
The wild, the free, the forgotten
by Lasanda Kurukulasuriya
As a business establishment depending on commercial photography for an income, Studio Times has always presented something of a puzzle. You walk into a studio, headed by an incurable romantic and run by people who will engage you in conversation on the dangers that beset the fragile natural heritage of this land, the travails of the people who till its soil and the tragedy of its fast disappearing cultural treasures.
These are the concerns that lie behind a series of exhibitions launched by Nihal Fernando and his team of photographers, the second of which recently ended at the studio premises at 16/1 Skelton Road, Colombo 5.
The pictures at this year's three exhibitions have been arranged according to the geographical areas that roughly correspond to the ancient kingdoms of Ceylon - the three territories of the Thunsinhale Rajadaniya.
The Rajarata, which had Anuradhapura and later Polonnaruwa as its capital, Ruhunurata, covering the southern part of the country and Mayarata, which includes the central highlands and western sector. Those who missed the first two exhibits should make a note of the dates for the third and last in the series, scheduled for November 24 - 27.
Studio Times and Nihal Fernando need no introduction as names that are synonymous with Sri Lanka's best wild life photography. The exhibitions however present more than just a display of some amazing pictures, in black and white and colour. Alongside each photograph is printed information on the subject, and how it came to be taken.
Some of this is quite detailed. So the event becomes like a very instructive guided tour of parts of Sri Lanka, with an itinerary that tkaes you to archaeological sites and places of cultural and historical interest.
The Studio Times team comprises Nihal Fernando, his daughter Anu Weerasuriya who now manages the studio, Christopher Silva and Luxshmanan Nadaraja. In the Ruhunurata exhibit they took the viewer off the beaten track to virtually unknown nooks of the country, to uncover some ancient Buddhist sites.
These pictures become valuable simply for having accomplished the task of documenting these places. Their exploration of the Mailla cave at Kotiyagala, for example, has revealed a 4 - 5th century Buddhist shrine that grew into a monastery.
"The most extraordinary thing about this forgotten place is the painting inside the caves, on the surface of the rock," writes Dr.Sinha Raja Tammita Delgoda in his comment accompanying the pictures. "Two to three layers deep in faded red and yellow, are some of the oldest murals in the country. They are as old as Sigiriya, and judging by their remains, almost as beautiful."
Other pictures tell a sadder tale. Those from Budupatuna, Wila Oya Basin, show the remains of three figures from an ancient Mahayana shrine that have recently been vandalised by treasure hunters.
This site was first uncovered in 1985 by a Japanese team from the Exploration Club of Hosei University, who described the figures depicting the Buddha flanked by Bodhisatvas Maitreya and Avalokiteswara. The image house, dated between 650 - 750 AC was hewn out of the hill and three figures carved in relief, on the rock measuring 6m in height and 5.5m in width.
In 2002 the Studio Times team reached the spot, travelling on foot along the bed of the dried up Wila Oya and braving the scorching heat, which had caused sunstroke in several members of the Japanese who went before them.
They found a gaping hole beneath the feet of the carved figures.
"The ground has been completely dug away leaving the figures exposed on a rocky shelf," writes Dr. Delgoda. "The head of the Buddha has been completely gouged out and parts of its hands and arms are missing.
The Bodhisatva Avalokiteswara too has almost completely disappeared. Stained green with running water, only the Bodhisatva Maitreya remains intact. With the passing of time it will be difficult to tell that there were ever any statues here."
The texts by Dr. Delgoda that accompany photos such as these, are excerpts from a forthcoming Studio Times publication titled Eloquence in Stone: The Lithic Saga of Sri Lanka.
Relating another episode, Anu described a site south of Batticaloa where they discovered a cave with ancient inscriptions and the picture of a boat.
A huge Buddha statue was being constructed in front, by the incumbent monk. According to the mason working on it, its purpose was simply to block the site from view so that those who believed there was a "nidhanaya" buried there, could carry out their digging undisturbed.
In travelling the length and breadth of the country and making a photographic record of what remains of Sri Lanka's vanishing heritage, Studio Times seems to have, by default, taken on work that should be done by the Archaeology Department.
On one occasion when they had reported their findings to a Deputy Commissioner, he had protested that there was little the Department could do with a mere 50 officers to cover the whole country. Documenting these things for posterity is a challenging task even for those with the authority and backing of officialdom.
How much more so it must be, for an avowedly small outfit such as Studio Times. It's no surprise that the question of funding for their projects - such as the forthcoming publication - is a constant source of worry.
What is it that has kept them going, to produce such superlative work with limited resources? Perhaps the answer has something to do with the romantic idealism that some might even fault them for.
"Studio Times has survived because its ideals were strong," wrote Bonnie Fernando, in a catalogue of the Photographic Society of Sri Lanka (Dec. 1986).
"It has become a place where those who want quality work go to, but even more it is where people go to talk about the murder of wild life, the destruction of ancient remains, the heresies and hypocrisies of living."
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