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Monday, 24 May 2010






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I will not be ‘polythening’ this Vesak

I remember, way back in 1978, watching a program on ITN. This was just after we got ‘TV’ in Sri Lanka. We didn’t have enough programs back then to fill the day or even half a day. There was a lot of Sesame Street and other such shows. I remember watching what would not be called a ‘teledrama’. It was a Vesak-related story. This is how it went

A little boy makes a vesak kooduwa with great effort. He makes the frame, pastes the saukola (tissue paper), makes the frills and pastes these too, fixes a candle, lights it and hangs it on the branch of a tree. It is a pretty picture. It rains. There is wind. The vesak kooduwa catches fire. The little boy is distraught. Time passes. He moves from child to adult to middle-aged and old. He acquires things, loses things and in the evening of his life remembers the vesak kooduwa. The images of its making and its burning, the joy and the sorrow flash across his mind. The lesson is impermanence.

Vesak koodu brings in the idea of impermanancy. File photo

I remembered this ‘teledrama’ a couple of days ago when I saw vesak koodu (frames as well as fully decorated ones) for sale on roadside stands.

This is the month of Vesak. It is therefore a month of festivities and religious activities associated with the birth, enlightenment and parinibbana of Siddhartha Gauthama, the Buddha. It is also a month of rain. This is perhaps why the Vesak koodu that line either side of Bauddhaloka Mawatha are cased in polythene. When cased that way the vesak koodu lose their charm. I know there are costs involved but I have never understood the fascination or let’s say intent to preserve a vesak kooduwa in this manner since one of the fundamental tenets of Buddhism is the condition of impermanence. Among the vesak koodu that I saw for sale were ones that were decorated with polythene. That’s what took me back 32 years and to the living room of Lucky Nanda and Neelan Mama.

We are living in the 21st Century. The world knows about polythene, about plastic, about the impact on environment. There is no lack of communications about the importance of reusing, reducing and recycling. These are known. And yet we defer to convenience over the health of the planet. We want it easy right now and forget that what we do will reduce the quality of life of our children and indeed possibly turn this beautiful planet into an uninhabitable place for their children.

I do understand that people don’t have as much time as their parents did and suspect this has less to do with the times than one’s lack of understanding of the times. And time. You can buy the frames and also the tissue paper, make some paappa with flour and warm water and do your thing. You can hang it wherever you want. You can and must understand and reconcile yourself to the inevitability of decay and death, the result of subjecting vesak kooduwa to elemental play, the possibility of wind pushing flame to lick paper, the dissolve that monsoonal shower produces and the de-colouring power of sun.

You don’t have to teach children all this. They will have their joy, they will break with break and they will move on. Stronger.

We make a choice when we use polythene and plastic. We don’t have to. I remember interviewing an amazing artist, a graduate from the University of Kelaniya, and an award-winning maker of vesak koodu. This was seven years ago. The relevant article can be found at the following link: http://www.island.lk/2003/06/22/leisur01.html. There was something in Vidyartha K. Indradeepa Yagachandra’s koodu that was different and this is not the colour, shape, elaborate structure, attention to detail, decoration and creative lighting. It’s the fact that his award-winning creations are made of 100 percent traditional raw materials.

The following paragraph from that interview says it all: ‘Since the year 2000, Indradeepa has dealt solely with traditional material. It had been a conscious decision on his part to celebrate what is intrinsically “ours”. He often lists by his pahan kooduwa the raw materials used, along with specimen. And so, by the side of the Bauddhaloka 2003 kooduwa, a list read, “nava patti, puskola, matalu, pol kola, habarala kola, kaduru, lanu, naga darana eta, ging pol, dorana thel, and kithul rehen”.

The use of natural materials has philosophical meaning to the artist. “Buddhism, to me, is an environment-friendly doctrine. This fact I try to exemplify in my creations.”’

For Indradeepa, the Aloka Pooja or the “light offering” is not merely a religious ritual, it is a meditation. And the meditation does not begin with the ceremonious opening of the kooduwa, but at the first stage, that of collecting the ingredients. “Today one finds many rotating koodu, but most of mine are stationary. I have seen people stand before my creations for half an hour, transfixed in meditation. This is the kind of response I want to provoke.

While being a celebration of our traditional raw materials, art forms and aesthetic sensibility, a Buddhist story must also be told, a message must exude from the whole and its parts.”

Not everyone is an Indradeepa. However, that kind of thinking is not beyond anyone. He speaks a simple philosophy, easy to embrace and one which rewards immensely.

The Buddha Vachanaya or doctrine can be articulated in many ways. It can be celebrated in many ways. In whatever form of expression one chooses it makes sense to embed the tenets of the dhamma and not its disavowal or contradiction. I will light a pol thel pahana (coconut oil lamp) and will watch the flame waver with wind and die on account of gust or exhaustion of fuel. I will not be ‘polythening’ this Vesak.




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