English name: ‘Jaffna Doors and Windows’
Concept, Design, Editing: Sarath Chandrajeeva
Layout: Kanishka Vijayapura
Printed and bound by Neo Graphics Pvt (Ltd)
Sales points: Barefoot Book shop Galle road Colombo 03, Sarasavi Book shops, Sakura agencies Colombo 04, Plate Pvt. (Ltd) Colombo 03.
Selling price: Rs.10,000.00 (below cost)
by Laleen Jayamanne
Jaffna Doors and Windows is the blunt English title of a large book of multilingual poems, each written in relation to a specific photograph of bomb-blasted buildings of Jaffna during the civil war. Each poem is printed on the partnered photographic image which covers an entire page or two. At a glance the Jaffna ruins feel like a vast overgrown archaeological site, intertwined with wild creepers, tangled roots, green foliage, trees, teeming with vitality.
The project was born on the 31st January 2021 when the Sinhala poet Lal Hegoda sent his friend Hiniduma Sunil Senevi a poem and the latter responded with one himself, within 45 minutes! (I love this innate skill and impulse, which I have observed on FaceBook as well, among Sinhala poets). Then, Lal sent both poems to several friends, including Sarath Chandrajeewa.
Sarath, in turn, then decided to send a photograph from his collection of destroyed buildings of Jaffna and asked each recipient to write a poem (in any of our three languages), in relation to the image. While there are wonderful Muslim, Tamil and Sinhala poets among them, many are not poets but have felt impelled to write a poem when the request came with an image that moved them, spoke to them, perhaps even with a ‘foreign’ script like Brahmi. As the project expanded, many other photographers contributed their own images of destroyed buildings, houses, kovils, mosques, churches, etc. Fourteen photographers and 86 writers participated in the project creating 108 poems.
Thus was born, not quite a Kavi Maduwa (poetry-shed), nor exactly a Raga Mala (garland of melody), but what I like to imagine as an electronic, wild Mycelial Network (a fungal web), growing under the rubble, entwined with human bones in that blood-soaked earth of Jaffna, emerging into the sunlight like fungi (mushrooms, hathu), in all their colourful variety of shapes and sizes. Such was the chance beginnings of this interethnic, networked collective project of friendship and solidarity, expressed in this singular book, coordinated and edited by Sarath and published by The Contemporary Art & Crafts Association of Sri Lanka in October 2022.
It’s been launched in Jaffna but not in Colombo, nor even reviewed as yet. The Jaffna Doors and Windows have stories to tell, stories of fear, terror, death and destruction and systematic, well-planned theft, during the civil war years, of these valued, detachable artefacts from Tamil and Muslim homes. The Tamil title, ‘Displaced Doors and Windows’, captures this history precisely. It is this aspect of war profiteering that has galvanised many to reflect and write a poem, even though some have never done that before.
This carefully crafted ‘Artists’ Book’, must surely be of interest to institutions such as the International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art and the Geoffrey Bawa Foundation, in particular. A book launch and a moderated discussion at any of these institutions (at the forefront of work on the cultural intersection of ethnicity with photography, poetry, art & crafts, art history and architecture), could provide a hospitable forum for ‘Truth-Telling’, enhancing the ongoing processes of ‘Reconciliation,’ after the long civil war (1983-2009).
These Doors and Windows are booty, and might well haunt the conscience of the good folk sleeping in houses well secured with them, if they did know the full story. A Southern book launch would be something of an exorcism I imagine, leading to reparation through a return of the looted precious objects, laden with generational family memories and scarred with historical trauma, varnished and polished over no doubt.
The looted Jaffna Doors and Windows are made of hardwood and crafted with traditional decorative patterns such as I have not seen in the South. Some are painted. They are palpable evidence of traditions of craft practices of Jaffna. Who were these craftsmen? Are they still alive? Are they both Muslim and Tamil? I imagine Geoffrey Bawa would have been interested in answers to these questions. I heard a formal discussion at an exhibition of Bawa’s architectural drawings once (accessed on YouTube), where Channa Daswatte mentioned pointedly that Bawa hired Muslim builders for his projects.
Clearly, these doors and windows were made to last generations, like Kandalama. And no doubt, these sturdy antique artefacts must now grace architect-designed houses in the South, especially in Colombo. These items, along with the sturdy cross beams (uluwahu), were wrenched out and transported to Colombo during the war, openly sold at a brisk pace and bought by eager architects and other middle-class folk with antiquarian interest in craft, for their cool new houses. There is a recorded instance where shop owners prevented Hegoda from photographing a stack of these doors on display at a store front, on the outskirts of Colombo with the signage, ‘Jaffna Doors and Windoors’. This was to be the impetus for Hegoda’s inaugural poem sent to Sunil, which then led to the long process of creating this collaborative and moving book.
Sundarampuram Janel Piyanpath
, the poetic title in Sinhala, is taken from Hegoda’s own poem called Hogana Pokuna (a beautiful vernacular phrase for the ocean, to those from inland who have never heard the ‘roaring’ ocean and imagine it to be a ‘pond’!). The poet muses, where the doors and windows of Jaffna might have gone to, and responds, perchance to see the Hogana Pokuna in Colombo!
Restitution of Stolen Artefacts
It would be an interesting art-historical based activist project of reclamation of a lost tradition, to try to find these doors and windows and photograph them if visible from outside. The photographs can then be components of an installation and/or the matrix for another book of trilingual poetry. Such a project would excite poets and others keen to work across the three languages and cultures and media, to create robust networks of exchange across wounding divides. Perhaps, even, the owners can be persuaded to return the stolen artefacts, which is now global best practice in art institutions and among respectable ethical collectors.
This issue reminds me of the paintings stolen by the Nazis from wealthy Jewish homes and the struggles to reclaim them by the descendants. There was a film recently about one of Klimt’s most famous paintings which, after a legal drama, was finally given to its rightful inheritor. Of course, these beautifully crafted or even purely functional solid doors don’t share the aesthetic and monetary values of high modernist European art, but given the revival of Lankan arts & crafts in the wake of Bawa’s visionary, celebrated project, those astute architects who formulated and activated the idea of ‘Tropical Modernism’ might take up this activist project as a challenge in Lanka now. It could take the once radical idea out of its comfort zone of South Asian cool and give it a further ethical resonance for the region too.
When flicking through the book full of colour, with the profuse green foliage, the splashes of abstract colours on the pages, the intensity of sun- light, the blue sky and randomly reading a stanza or two that caught my eye, one sees the empty holes on walls, a recurring visual motif. Then, the memory of reading accounts of how Richard de Zoysa, the Lankan journalist, was taken away by government law enforcement officials, from his home one night, never to return, came to mind. Was there a knock on his door late that night? I wondered. Richard’s abduction, torture and murder brought home to the Sinhala middle classes in Colombo and those of us living outside the country, what had in fact been happening to countless unknown young persons, right across the country. Many knew Richard as a charismatic actor and fearless journalist.
I remember hearing Richard’s mother, Dr Manorani Saravanamuttu, talk about the state of terror in Sri Lanka (that of the state, the LTTE and JVP), and also about Richard’s death, at an Amnesty International meeting in Sydney in 1991 perhaps. I still remember Richard and his mother playing as mother and son in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon in Colombo, in the late 70s, in the open, perhaps at the British Council. Manorani was Clytemnestra and Richard Orestes, duty bound to kill his mother, because she killed his father, because he killed their daughter, so as to placate the wind god to set sail to sack Troy. This cycle of relentless mythic violence the mother and son enacted in the Greek tragedy, appeared to have gripped Lanka too. But the play is a part of a trilogy, which concludes with the establishment of trial by jury where the principle of Justice, rather than vengeance, is established in Athens, through argument and a spirit of reconciliation led by Athena, governed by reason. This too appears relevant to Lanka now where the state enacts vengeful violence on peaceful protestors and journalists and the independence of the judiciary is eroded.
is dedicated to Dr Rajani Thiranagama, Professor of Anatomy at the University of Jaffna, also a well-known human rights activist, who was gunned down by a member of the LTTE. There is an image in the book of her smiling at us and her long poem ‘Letter from Jaffna’, printed beside it in the three languages. Her poem describes the quotidian, ceaseless mass violence and sense of terror they all experienced caught between the IPKF, LTTE and the Lankan Army. She speaks on behalf of the nameless victims. Her sister Sumathy writes of the mass eviction of Muslims from Jaffna by the LTTE, and of their abandoned homes then subject to acts of vandalism.
Hiniduma Sunil’s poem describes the interior of a posh Colombo home where a Tamil servant-girl finds herself alone in the living room where one of those Jaffna windows and doors have landed. Her silent thoughts are given poetic expression. Priyantha Fonseka apostrophises a Jaffna window in happier times, when it opened on its intact hinges, to let in a gentle breeze in a moonlit night and the beloved. Readers will no doubt pick up poems that appeal to them from its large selection and the images themselves will lure us despite all, because they have become allegorical, like all ruins, and as such, have the power to address us with the injunction, ‘Read Me!’ ‘Say something,’ they whisper to our ears. (To be continued)