William Butler Yeats declared that a person could spend time perfecting “the life or the work”. Certainly it is part of the Western Romantic myth of the artist that life and art are incompatible, the former inevitably sacrificed for the latter. Yet the Sri Lankan painter Rahju has dedicated himself to perfecting the one by perfecting the other.


Rahju leads a spare, unmechanized life in a Kandyan village that, with it’s unselfconscious integration of being and doing, recalls the natural, harmonious, down to earth ways of decades or even centuries ago. Rahju is of mixed Sri Lankan-Norwegian heritage. He spent his first ten years in Kandy, then moved close to Oslo for the next ten years, returning to Sri Lanka in 1982. This migration from East to West and back again has allowed Rahju to acquire a deep-dyed appreciation of traditional Eastern values and life, and a Western knowledge of the practice and problems of contemporary art. Perhaps his seamless integration of life and art stems from his natural familiarity with both Eastern and Western ways. Like modern Western painters from Monet and Cezanne to Jasper Johns, Rahju has found stimulation in painting the same thing over and over again. This seems less to be in order to document it’s many moods or changing aspects than to know it over and over again, as one repeatedly embraces a beloved.


Despite Rahju’s characteristic precise, pure technique; his close up views of temple walls and doors, the folds of a carved Buddha’s robe or other architectural and sculptural features, confound our usual perspective on these things. At first we may not know what we are supposed to see: an off-center partial view of a Siva Nataraj in silhouette, the curve of part of a dagoba filling one-third of an otherwise “empty” canvas, or a distant wall seen through a doorway are abstract forms before we recognize their referents. Whatever the view, one feels an unmistakable yet indefinable poetic quality that is unlike any other painter’s work in Sri Lanka. This quality resides in a sort of “presence” that the works both portray and achieve. It is as if they are there, in their being, whether we look and participate with them or not.


Rahju’s residence in a Kandyan village brings to mind his great predecessor and close friend, George Keyt. Also of mixed South Asian and European background, Keyt shocked the Colombo society of the 1930’s when he forsook the city’s pleasures in order to live as a villager in the Kandyan countryside. In the intervening half century, however, Sri Lanka has changed enormously. Today, even in remote villages, traditional life is increasingly difficult to find. In contrast to Keyt Rahju does not affect to "live like a villager", but rather to create and perfect his life and art in harmony with his surroundings, and to embody Sri Lanka’s most enduring and sustaining contribution to the life of it’s people; embeddedness in nature and adherence to the Buddhist-Hindu worldview.

                                                                                                                Ellen Dissanayake 

                                                                                                                  exerpt from a catalogue essay 

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