In An Iridescent Land, Tao Art Gallery, Mumbai
Senaka Senayake, critics say, is a painter of our vanishing environment. Collectors say he paints rainforests. Both miss the point – for Senaka is, first and foremost, a painter of colours. Overlook for a moment that he happens to paint birds and trees, fish, foliage and gardens. Mostly, he blends colours, seeing each with an enhanced intensity that captures our attention. Is a paradise flycatcher really so vibrant? Is the macaw’s crimson really as red? The fluorescent flutter of butterflies, the lazy swimming of fish – these colours, his colours, are they truly reflections of nature?
To our jaded palettes, Senaka’s hues appear exaggerated. A yellow so bright, it hurts our eyes. Lush greens, fluorescent pinks, the moonlight inking lilies the blue of the Aegean; pomegranate reds and flamboyant , fertile greens; the deepening hues of mauve, indigo and purple. These are Senaka’s tools of trade. Guided as much by an artist’s instinct as by his own experience, he arranges colours to balance his canvases so that the eye falls evenly across his paintings, never drawn to a particular corner. For, in Senaka-land, nature is pervasive, evocative and profuse.
The outcome of his efforts is a powerful, enchanting, perhaps even hypnotic, world of birds, beasts and beings. In this magical world of tropical rainforests, there is a sense of harmony – nature’s own, among her creatures, and Senaka’s, as an artist who can startle but also soothe with his choice of tones. You are drawn into his web of hues till, helplessly, you watch, seduced into submission and compliance. Escape is impossible; the colours inhabit your dreams; they surround you.
He may be no bleeding heart but make no mistake, Senaka is nature’s evangelist. He wears his concerns lightly, but on his sleeve. His native Sri Lanka is his muse, but the world he recreates as a painter is rapidly shrinking to the confines, alas, of his canvas. Like a conductor, he plucks out a memory – a pandemonium of parrots he saw once, a corner of his own garden where the heliconias bloom in abundance, attracting a bevy of winged insects, while butterflies drift past on the currents of a light breeze. In that teeming, lively jungle, there’s twittering and squawks, the croaking of frogs and the chirping of cicadas, the rustle of beasts unseen, the whirr of dragonflies. Do the eyes hear? Surrender yourself to Senaka’s planet and you’ll have your answer.
It becomes almost necessary, then, to ask: What space does Senaka inhabit in the twenty-first century, this painter of nature and the natural world? When art is about distortion and disassembling, his fantastical realm seems far removed from his peers, a love song, almost, to a vanishing world. Where is his place? What does he say to us?
Senaka’s painterly language is about decency and tolerance, humanity and existence, beauty and balance. He teaches us about the values we are rapidly losing as we turn our backs on the earth that we inhabit, to create artificial islands of selfish prosperity, ignoring what we see around us – and, need I daresay, at our own peril. The planet lies plundered as the rapacious among us loot her. Tomorrow is an endangered concept. The future is upon us; it lies in today. Senaka could have chosen to paint that violence. Instead, he chooses to remind us of the beauty that is an important ingredient of our lives. It is what we must preserve, for ourselves and for our future generations.
This endangered, enchanted, iridescent land, is it, one is tempted to ask, real? Senaka’s painted truths are no myth, they emerge from what he sees around him (and which we in our blind haste and greed do not). In drawing our attention to it, he reminds us of what is rapidly diminishing, what we are losing as we chase mirages, the illusion of fantasy, when reality is more mesmerising. This documentation of a shrinking world is his tribute to a natural wilderness as well as a record of its existence. Anguish might have been an expected response; in choosing the beautiful over its degradation, Senaka has shown an alternate way, flagging a reaction that is aesthetic as well as overwhelming.
It is this universal language that finds him his appeal around the globe. His vocabulary requires no translation. Arising, as though from the mists of time past, is his forest of enchanted reality. The depths of that jungle are dappled with light. Greens provide a background in a variety that would be impossible to imagine. Leaves small and large, giant begonias, delicate creepers, translucent petals, they beguile one into a timeless tapestry. It is impossible to simply observe Senaka’s paintings as paeans to loss, yet that’s what they are. Nostalgia? Perhaps. But more urgently – an archive of lost treasures that can yet be saved.
Senaka beguiles, of course. His representation of nature is a gentle but incandescent exploration of colour. In real life, nature can and often is violent. Creatures kill, seasons wreak havoc, plants die, species become endangered. Why is Senaka’s fecund imagination then so peaceful? Perhaps the answers lie within each of us. As our day-to-day existence rises to a stressed pitch, as we observe and are even drawn into small circles of brutality and anger, Senaka permits us the grace of an escapist’s fantasy to find an exit for our pent-up emotions. The more we struggle to survive the rat race of modern civilisations, the more our past draws us, the more relief we seek in an imagined reality and its soothing presence.
Mostly, though, maybe even without realising it, it is Senaka’s colours we are drawn to – colours that are therapeutic and apply a healing balm to our lacerated souls. We respond instinctively, submerging ourselves into them, letting them wash into our inner being as he uplifts us, driving out negative energies, offering us brimming possibilities and positive spirits. It is a world you and I miss; it is a world you and I long to wake up to. Thanks to Senaka, we can.
– Kishore Singh