By Dev N Pathak –
Pala Pothupitiye is known for experiments with materials and ideas in his artworks. Over a decade, he has created a range of works in sculptors, paintings, handicrafts, costumes, and performances winning critical acclaims almost in every part of the world. His works have featured in reputed exhibitions in Sri Lanka, Japan, India, Hong Cong, Sweden, Austria, and London. His map-series was a source for inspiration to reimagine South Asia for scholars at South Asian University, a University of SAARC Nations, located in New Delhi in India. Pala earned the credit of redefining the cartographic maps with artistic motifs and transformed them into a canvas of modern mythologies.
Continuing with his practice of making critical statements through art and performance, he is ready to make his new offering titled This is not A Performance. The sneak preview of this new work was available during a performance-evening organized by Theertha Artists’ Collective on 19 September, at Red Dot Gallery, Senanayake Road, Colombo. Pala appeared in a traditional dress decorated with intricately woven colorful beads. The dress includes a gown, a headgear, and a waist-belt. Inside the dress the performer is naked and the dress is not intended to be loosely ajar so as the body’s seams and curves are not entirely concealed. When somebody from the audience asked the performer Pala, whether it was his performance that evening, he replied with a pithy smile: This is Not A Perfrmance!
*Quite in tune with the title of the performance, the performer Pala Pothupitiye mingles with the audience as naturally and spontaneously as it could be. The profundity of subtext thus conquers the lusture of text – Photo by Dev Pathak
With the provocative title of the performance, Pala stresses that indeed this is not a performance as it does not adhere to the familiar notions of performing art. With various conceptual departures, aptly titled as This is Not a Performance, it offers the onlookers twofold critique. One is the critique of modern-colonial notion of an artist covered by an ornate gown, which distinguishes him/her from the craftsmen. The dress, a rich craftwork, worn by Pala subverts the colonial construction of art and craft, and proposes to see the two with equal respect. He emphasizes the intricate relation between the two and hence questions the distinctions. The second level of critique is about the man of achievements in this world, who eventually seeks refuge in his father’s craftwork. It is an illusion of the modern man and his mindset that one could be truly independent of the past, heritage, traditions, and legacies. In other words, modernity is never possible without traditions, as says Pala. The man never outgrows his father’s affectionate protection. As a naked child, thus, Pala wears the craftwork created by his father in This is Not a Performance. This is not true of the whole performance which has emerged due to a unique collaboration between the so-called artist and craftman, Pala Pothupitiye and his father Somasiri Pothupitiye.
Somasiri Pothupitiye is in his eighties and is a diehard artisan working with colorful beads to create various artifacts. His nimble fingers needle the beads into threads and create a colorful sacred cosmos on the fabrics. This will be hard to believe that gods do not come to reside in the sacred cosmos created by his mortal pair of limbs and unabated eyes piercing through the eye of the needling. He hears not, he feels not, while he is at his work walking the mundane entities to the acmes of aesthetics.
*A modest person, he seldom deems his work over, and thus perpetuates traditions in the cast of modernity. Photo by Dev Pathak
The unparallel craftsmanship comes from Somasiri Pothupitiye’s traditional caste occupation of making costumes for ritual healing performances in Deniyaya and other villages in southern Sri Lanka. The craftsmen from Navadana caste were renowned for making ornate costumes in the traditional performances for their community. These ritual dance performances invoked Hindu gods such as Kataragama, Vishnu and local gods such as Saman Vibhushana, Sunyan Daiyo. The colorful dresses, headgears, belts, shoes, armlets, etc were made and adorned by the mortals to invoke the proximity with the immortals. The same sense prevails today when Somasiri Pothupitiye creates a full costume which takes at least a year to get completed. Though it is no longer for community and ritual performance, Somasiri Pothupitiye still believes that it serves some sacred purpose. What could be more sacred a purpose than showing the relation of father and son, art and craft, and tradition and modernity, observes Pala Pothupitiye. He believes that the meaning of his art works which have won laurels all over the world is due to nuances his father has instilled in him.
Thus, This is Not Performance also adds a fillip to the old poetic proposition that a child is the father of the man (William Wordsworth). The man is actually always a child of the father, isn’t he? This could perhaps go a long way in the art scene of South Asia.
Dr. Dev N Pathak – Department of Sociology, South Asian University, New Delhi