Sunday, February 7, 2016

‘Kala Pola 2016’: Stalls, faces, and smiles

There are people who can rant and rave about a painting at length, meditate on its intrinsic worth, and dwell on line, contour, perspective, and what-not. Some paintings are valued for originality, others for how well it reproduces an external reality. I can’t really say which is better – those who inject creativity or those who look at an abstraction or model and attempt to recreate. Not that there’s much of a difference between the two, of course.

This year’s “Kala Pola” (which opened on Sunday January 31 along Ananda Coomaraswamy Mawatha) was no different to the “Kala Pola” we’ve been seeing for the past two decades. Stalls, faces, and smiles: these are what I saw and what I savoured. There were paintings and there was sculpture, but what appealed to me was the way the whole event was structured: open-air, inclusive, and all-embracive. No tickets to be bought, no admission criteria to fulfill. You came, you went through, and if you liked it, you bought. Simple. Neat.

Tradition and modernity come together in ways too difficult to perceive immediately. They come and intermingle and then go out of notice in a flash. This probably explains why in painting, arguably more than in any other art-form, the sacred and the profane (can) easily cohabit, making up the very definition of art, in terms of observation and study. I’m not suggesting that this is what art is all about, but the conception that this function can only be fulfilled by the wealthy, the privileged, and by default the “educated”, is crass and unfair.

At least that’s what I noticed this time around. I saw painters dabbling in the traditional and the modern, defining and redefining what those two terms mean on their canvases. The fact that none of these artists are “highbrow”, the fact that they all are (in the truest sense) down to earth and easy-going, and the fact that they can explain what they paint with the easiest of terms, capture what’s been bugging me for so long: that in painting, there can be no distinction between what’s arty and what’s plebeian. Some of the works of these painters were pricey, but that was to be expected, and fair too, for they would have worked with sweat on their brows, transforming mind into matter, idea into reality.

I like abstractions, as much as I like what’s plain and in-your-face. Thankfully, “Kala Pola” has always abided by the principle that the two must coexist, that they cannot live apart. And so this year I came across frescoes, reproductions of Jathaka stories, images of Christ and Siddhartha Gautama, side-by-side with depictions of the inexplicable and contorted, the twisted and magical. I couldn’t explain some of the latter, and there’ll be those who’ll try to, but that’s not the function of the art-lover. Their function is to look and appreciate. And this year, when I observed onlookers, that’s what I saw them doing.

But then this begs a question. None of the artists I saw and admired was pretentious. They were not haughty. They had clearly drawn from their hearts. With instinct. And yet, with all that talent, and all that easy-going charm emblematic of Sri Lankan hospitality and friendliness, why is it that they’re relegated to the outskirts? There’s more fun and enjoyment to be derived from these men and women, far surpassing the pretentious nonsense that’s all too often paraded as “art”.

True, I admit these questions shouldn’t be asked. But they matter. They matter because (in the end), that’s what “Kala Pola” embodies. I have always believed that the true index of the progress of a culture lies in how well its patrons regard the utilitarians (those who consider art in terms of instinct). The organisers and patrons of “Kala Pola”, I believe, have done justice to this. For they have helped, willingly and with no strings attached, these artists to come up, to display talent, and to make their name known, at least for one day.

And for the past two decades, that’s what has sustained this show, which purports to reflect the “airs of Montmartre” (as Kumar de Silva puts it). I don’t know how many Bohemians exist in this little country of ours, but I’m sure that those who are Bohemian know what art is, and why, in the long run, it cannot be relegated to the backwaters, while constantly and consistently privileging the elite and pretentious. I’m not sure whether I’m a Bohemian, but I am sure that even among the most conventional of those who patronised “Kala Pola”, that aspect to their character came out. Remarkably.

We’re grateful to the organisers, not because they have recognised and affirmed the need to “give back”, but because they have lent space for canvas and sculpture, works authored by those who remain, whether the elite and the promoters of haute-couture like it or not, the true artists. The ones who’re driven by instinct. The ones who never ask for praise or comment. The ones, in other words, who will vindicate what art should really entail.

Written for: The Island LIFESTYLE, February 7 2016