THE JOURNEY 2014-15 BY ANUSHKA RAJENDRAN
Theertha was my first experience of Sri Lanka. Having grown up in South India, the differences were hard to spot the second I stepped out of the airport. I could smell the ocean. That was familiar. The streets were clean. That was pleasant. The sun was bright after a cruel winter back home.And the air was fresh after theseasonal Delhi smog.I stepped into the taxi that was to take me to Red Dot
I was not armed with extensive research on the country or its art, only a preliminary overview. It had all happened rather suddenly. Within just days of being informed that I had received the Art Scribes Award, I was told that I had to be in Colombo in just over a week’s time. I was excited, but I was also recovering from a viral infection of epidemic proportionsand heartbreak of minor proportions. While I was unwell, work had piled up. Tying uploose ends before embarking on a month long residency was myfocus. Always at fault for being too ‘studied’ about everything, I was almost relieved that I was going to have to take things as they unraveled.
Theertha seemed just as relaxed about my little visit. There were no expectations. I had liberty over my time. I could work at my leisure – peppered with blissful cups of tea, brief trips around the city, pleasant chitchat with those who kept popping in and out of Red Dot and piping hot meals that were familiar enough to be comforting and exotic enough to be exciting. Having juggled mountain-loads of work between my day job and my research for years in New Delhi, I had almost begun to wonder – if I hadn’t already signed up for all that I did, would I have kept going anyway? In a land where everyone seemed to take it easy, I felt like I was expected to kick in the breaks, grind to a halt and lose myself in a time warp. In the thickness of the humid air circulated by pedestal fans, caught in the flux of a language I could almost pretend to understand, and the community haze of Gold Leaf, I had my answer.
Soon enough, I realized that I was not just bobbing about the time warp like a lost plank of wood in the deep sea. It had its own logic and I had neatly slid into its groove.Organically, a routine took form from the apparent randomness. Friendships, which I knew immediately that I would hold on to, were struck in instants. I discovered lovely little spots around the city that I could comfortably slip into and occasionally disappear in, as I am prone to. And in the middle of all of this, I began to notice myself voluntarily piling reading material on Sri Lankan art upon myself, and scheduling studio visits. It felt a bit like I was on a treasure hunt, or playing detective. I unlocked clue after clue in every encounter, every conversation, every book. Sri Lankan art and culture was an adventure. And a personal one at that. It was a journey guided by friendly exchanges over dinner with the Theertha artists, conversations at various studios that felt brief but had actually gone on for hours and books I mostly picked up while browsing arbitrarily in the office/adda that was Theertha.
The first couple of weeks were spent suspended in the bustle of the impending Performance Platform. And the last two weeks whirling from meeting to meeting amidst the lethargy of an entire group of people recovering from it. Moving counter to the general mood worked for me rather well.During the event, and the days leading up to it, I could benefit from quietly observing the workings of an artist-run space and meet Colombo artists that I might never have been able to get to know otherwise. And then, while they took a breather, I was able to go about formally organizing all that I had picked up, identify and fill in the gaps within that body of knowledge, and leverage my skills to make sure I could do justice tothe warm allowances of Shrine Empire Gallery and the hospitality of the TheerthaCollective.
The Performance Platform gave me the opportunity to be an outsider and insider at the same time. I was witness to the process behind it enough to be informed, and distanced enough to still experience it as an involved spectator. I was looking forward to writing about performance art, since I was a designated writer at the event. I was delighted to be able to interact with the artists who were part of it consistently throughout the project, and get their insights on art, life, the weather, and of course, the city I was just about getting accustomed to. It turned out to have been a good time to visit Colombo. Besides the Performance Platform, there was so much else going on as well – exhibitions opening in most galleries around the city, artist talks, a symposium at the Sri Lanka Archive of Art, Architecture and Design in Jaffna that I travelled to…
By the end of my stay, Colombo had become a context that was pleasantly comfortable, and not merely because I was used to it. Oddly enough, it’s the little things that I miss most about the city – short distances to almost anywhere, the friendly vibe, the gossip, midnight strolls on empty streets, knowing that the sea is just a hop away. A few weeks after I was back to my life in New Delhi, one evening I was strangely homesick for Colombo. I wrote to a friend back there, and he laughed it off – “Colombo has that effect on its visitors”. I am glad to have caught that bug.