Sri Lanka is ‘old’, (even though the use of the name ‘Sri Lanka’ itself dates no earlier than forty-four years ago), with a history of some millennia. Has there been an Art Market here, or has there been a ‘market for Art’? The two expressions are not the same, are they?
If (as believed) the ‘first Kingdom’ was located in the north central plains of the island’s dry zone with its capital in Anuradhapura, more than two thousand years ago, whatever remains of the ancient city today betrays a serious and sustained attempt to include art and sculpture in the fabric of life in general. Even though the focus of the kingdom seems to have rested on the twin fulcrum of religion and agrarian pursuits, the royal patronage granted to creative works of art and design was palpable.
Those artisans who were responsible for what we still discern, rather dimly, in the Sigiriya area, and in the designs that were executed in the construction of palaces, places of worship and ritual, or even inside decorated caves, were never acknowledged in any literature. Persons unnamed accomplished much, whether slight or consequential, in terms of quality and craftsmanship. All was done for the glory of the king and the kingdom. There appears to have been a ‘market for Art’, even though the creators thereof are anonymous.
Thanks to the efforts of the late Dr. Senarath Paranavitane, the graffiti that adorns the mirror-wall in Sigiriya can be comprehended today some hundreds of years after they were etched on that plaster. Those comments, and some as poetry, indicate that individuals who passed by were able to appreciate such art. They were touched by the depictions of the female form; they felt the very tremor of passion within their being, according to what is frankly admitted in some of those verses.
Prof. Senake Dias Bandaranaike opines that figurines of clay depicting the same two dimensional images painted on the walls, were part of the ‘merchandise’ that visitors in the period of the Kandyan Kingdom could obtain, if they were desirous of taking with them a three dimensional ‘memento’ of their visit to the enigmatic rock outcrop. Clearly, art was accessible, even as people of any walk of life could pay obeisance at the different temples and complexes where religious art (some of the samples are purely decorative and beautifully designed and in fine taste and may have had no symbolic reference) was compellingly present.
In the modern times and during much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, aside from the religious art, which still remained to be seen and admired in far-flung places, the market for art has become largely an elitist preserve. The European styles and works of those masters from such climes were obtained in prints and adorned the homes of people who were able to ‘identify’ with them. In the middle of the twentieth century, a national consciousness was awoken among the artists in Ceylon. One of several prime ‘movers’ in this direction was George Keyt of Kandy.
For almost two and a half decades, The George Keyt Foundation has democratised the market for art, by organising an ‘art market’ with a view to identifying and promoting indigenous talent within the island. No more are the creators anonymous, rather, the emphasis is very much on making people aware of these gifted persons, inviting the general public to engage with and respond immediately to what they do and are trying to convey via their imagination and expression thereof.
The Foundation has benefited from the largesse and active event organisation and sponsorship of John Keells Foundation, which by its very nature of being a CSR venture, are able to match the resolve of The George Keyt Foundation in assisting yet not widely known artists to be presented in the right context, and bringing the buyers to them. These interested patrons purchase works that are on offer and which are brought to the venue in Colombo by the artists and sculptors themselves, from wherever in the country they originate.
Hundreds of prospective artists and buyers have a capital opportunity to ‘meet’ and be known to each other. What a wondrous idea this has been! It was an idea that germinated, not in the mind of the late artist George Keyt, who earned renown all over the world from London, to Paris, to India, to Australia and so on; it was an idea conceived by Keyt’s very close friends Mr. and Mrs. Cedric de Silva.
Even to date, this couple maintain a vital and laudable interest in carrying on the good work ushered in so many years ago, with the permission of Keyt to have his name affixed to the Foundation, and, we can only imagine the joy that must reside within Cedric and Sita, in seeing, literally, hundreds of artists, using the annual ‘Kala Pola’ as their ‘launch pad’ in fulfilling their aspiration to be seen and known and not remain anonymous in some quiet forgotten corner of the country!
(The writer is a Trustee of The George Keyt Foundation.)