Lost Horizons

Lost Horizons, Mumbai

January 2011

If rainforests were to have a colour in our imagination, they would be a dense, moss green, somewhat wet, clammy with the decay of rot and decomposition, mottled with spots of light breaking through an impenetrable canopy that serves more often than not to keep the daylight out, leaving everything limned in the eerie twilight of shadows.

Senaka Senanayake’s stomach laughs when you tell him this. He is a large man but not a formidable one. His eyes twinkle, his mouth twists into a grin, he sits back, hands locked, puzzled at this interpretation. “Rainforests,” he tells you then, “are the most beautiful places in the world.”

Of course, it is his rainforests, his world. And they are not just colourful but dazzle you with a circadian rhythm. Iridescent dragonflies wink as shafts of sunlight break into prisms of colour off their dazzling wings, moonbeams bounce off the forest floor, green foliage plays peek-a-boo with exotic flowers, their petals a flaming crimson. Long-legged birds dip their elegant necks amidst lily pools, leaves in extraordinary hues and of astounding lengths, ribbed, veined and spored, provide a panoply of images. Daylight is sharp and crisp and but also enchanted, the night calm and blued with the reflection of the moon.

It is a falsity, you reiterate, this fantasy that makes the natural almost loveable, as comforting as a teddy bear at night. Senanayake belly-laughs again, tells you he will welcome you to his studio in Colombo where hundreds of thousands of photographs – taken by him in the heart of some of the most primeval forests known to mankind – will illustrate the truth of each leaf and plant, shrub and tree, bird and beast, ever painted by him. “The rainforests are shrinking, the foliage is changing, the wildlife is diminishing, true,” he acknowledges, but his brush has painted no lie, glossed over no untruth.

To that extent, he could be called a documenter, someone who is recording an increasingly rapidly changing environment, but to limit Senanayake to just that would be to do him injustice. For there is no getting away from the verity that he does generate an escapist reality, a world which records truths, though that veracity is just the slightest bit exaggerated, even idealised. His enchanted forests inhabit the realm of the mind and are blessed with the ability to exude a harmless vision of – perfection? whimsy? imagination? This is a universe of his crafting, one of which he is in control, where the buttons and switches, as it were, are operated from a palette dipped in an obsession with a natural order that perhaps never was.

Across the subcontinent, with a few exceptions such as the landscape painter Paramjit Singh (and even he tends to abstract these, though not to the same extent as Ram Kumar), almost no other artist has devoted as much energy to recording horizons, or landscapes. Unlike the Western concept of landscape art, there existed no such parallel in Indian art, where the horizon remained strictly in the background as a setting, or framework, for the action conceived around figures set in the foreground. Whether it was in the rock fortress frescoes of Sigiriya in Sri Lanka or their parallels in Ajanta and Ellora, or the miniatures of the subcontinent, the European concept of landscape for its own sake enjoyed little interest here. Even the bowers of the pahari miniatures served the purpose of creating a magical space for Radha and Krishna and were never seen in isolation. The Mughal Emperor Jehangir commissioned court artists to observe and record the subcontinent’s flora and fauna, but these were by their very nature individual studies. But imagine them all coming together on a single canvas and you have some idea of the extent of Senanayake’s distinctive oeuvre.

It is true that Senanayake has often been accused of appropriating the innocent – romantic, even – aspect of the landscape of the rainforests, their very environment and air and feel, to suit his requirements, but in juxtaposing them in proximity and haloing them with a magical quality of light, he ends up serving his purpose as both environmentalist and artist by drawing attention to their fragility, to the delicate balance they have managed to achieve, but which is in danger of being lost in a rapidly changing world’s equally rapidly diminishing eco-system.

It is a concern with which Senanayake has involved himself all his life. As a resident of a country where he has seen such rainforests in close proximity, he has been alarmed at the rapaciousness with which development has ignored their capacity to scrub clean the air and give the planet some little harmony and resilience. And yet, his canvases are rich with the imagery of rainforests; there is no looming sense of despair – these are environments as they are meant to be, even as they are imagined to be. The rot may have begun, but Senanayake is concerned not with recording the avarice and greed of mankind, but of the beauty of nature before the pillage and plundering began.

“People need to see their splendour, to realise that nature is inherently beautiful,” he insists. It is to this extraordinary vision that he devotes his energies. Part-imagined and part-real, he maneuvers size and scale to fit into his scheme of things. So the dragonflies and butterflies that hover over his canvases loom gigantic while the stealthily advancing panther that he cleverly camouflages is somewhat minuscule by comparison. The peacock with its incredible radiance and trail of colours is almost absorbed into an environment that seems to have hues richer by far, almost to make the bird appear drab by comparison. Like the lord of a universe of his making, Senanayake changes perspectives, pointing to the exquisiteness of nature’s smaller beasts, its insects and lesser beings.

But it is when he paints leaves and flowers that you imagine him exulting in his power as an artist. As much as his rainforests, Senanayake has been identified as a painter of heliconias, painting odes to its magnificent prettiness, observing it at almost every hour, devoting to it the attentions of a lover and imbuing it with a passion that you can almost sense. In dawn and by day, by dusk or moonlight, he returns to these flowers, his favourite blooms, to paint them in isolation, or in clusters with other foliage. There are rafelasias with their magnificent size and form and colour but also the sacred austerity of lotuses in bud and bloom, there are birds of paradise rearing their stalks and pitcher plants with their treacherous beauty. Branches of trees and vines twist through these flowers and foliage, moss and mushrooms and unknown, unnamed fungi keep them company, leaves of the most amazing colours – of many, many different greens, true, but also a flaming orange or a royal purple – share the light of these forest gardens. This is a theatre where everything has a place, yet that spot keeps changing so the eyes dart from one spectacle of variegated leaves to another of radiant petals, from ground to air and back. In a painter’s universe, this is fiction and fantasy melding with truth and reality, the known and less-known coming together to create indelible images.

Senanayake’s story is often told and well enough known. Born in 1951, the sixty-year-old artist was first acknowledged as an emerging talent by his teacher at the very young age of six, held an exhibition of his work at the age of eight, and received both critical and popular acclaim at an international exhibition in New York when he was barely ten. He went on to study art at Yale and has since devoted himself to a career that has resulted in over a hundred solo exhibitions in Sri Lanka and around the world.

Well respected as an artist with three earlier shows in India, his debut in Mumbai marks an exciting engagement for an artist who, in spite of seeing the canker that is steadily eating into the natural world, has made it his mission to paint its exquisiteness and magnificence and hold up a mirror to a world spinning away from its known horizons. But the Mumbai show also marks two levels of progression in his work, hitherto only hinted at, but now in full evidence.

The first of these is complicit with his concern as narrator. It has been pointed out in the past that Senanayake paints only what is lyrical, leaving the more dramatic but also the more dangerous out of his narrative. As in most things, there is some truth, and some untruth, in this. But certainly, Senanayake has brought with him a fresh focus on birds and animals that prey in these rainforests – so there is the silky presence of the panther as it moves almost sinuously through the undergrowth, but also of raptors, birds moving in to the kill, their talons drawn, eyes sharply focused, wings aquiver in anticipation of suggested action. These birds, as opposed to those that feed off the forest floor or ferret about in the lakes and ponds, is a reminder that these rainforests aren’t the gentle landscapes he has portrayed for years, and that as they shrink, they will bring the increasing conflict this will impose on mankind out into the open. The background to these more obviously realistic renditions is equally dramatic – the sky is charged with the crimson of the hunt and is boldly theatrical, as if in that moment the forest has vanished and all that is left is that most primal element at play, of the hunter and the hunted. But once again, Senanayake does not take the moralistic approach, but one where he is recording the presence of these wild creatures in what is their environment, but painting also their magnificence with a fervour as fierce as these creatures themselves.

The other deviance actually takes him back to a time long ago when Senanayake, like most artists of his generation, experimented with abstraction. That muddying of line and form did not feed his artistic soul, however, and the artist chose to concentrate on the suspended realism that he had made part of his enchanted world. But he began, some while ago, if not to actually abstract, to at least leave as a mere suggestion the unfolding parable of his rainforests. Highlighted as mere outlines, with splashes of colour hinting at the density with which he approaches them on his other canvases, Senanayake has ended up not so much simplifying their content as much as pointing to their dramatic content. The unfinished image has more power over the mind, and leaves it to the viewer to judge for himself whether it is a nod to Senanayake’s attempts to recreate what one fears are rapidly becoming a documentative – and last – record of this planet’s lost horizons.

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