Perfecting the Life and the Work

William Butler Yeats famously 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, with the former inevitably sacrificed for the latter. Yet meet young Sri Lankan painter Rahju, who for the past decade has been perfecting the one by perfecting the other.

His combination of art and life appears to be simplicity itself, yet if it were so easy, wouldn’t we all do it? Apart from using a motorcycle to bring goods home from the market, his spare, unmechanized life in a Kandyan village, with its unselfconscious integration of being and doing, recalls the natural, harmonious, down-to-earth ways of decades or even centuries ago. He seems effortlessly to have made for himself the tropical Edenesque existence that Paul Gauguin so notoriously sought and ultimately failed to find in the South Seas a century ago.

Rahju (who has for most purposes dropped his other birth names as he has shed other superfluities) is of mixed Sri Lankan-Norwegian heritage. His parents chose to live during his first ten years in Kandy, then moved the family for the next ten years close to Oslo, returning again to Sri Lanka in 1982. This migration from east to west and back again has allowed Rahju, unlike most other artists working in Sri Lanka today, to acquire a deep-dyed appreciation of traditional Eastern values and life (now forsaken by many of his countrymen) as well as a western knowledge of both the practice and problems of contemporary art. Perhaps his seamless integration of life and art has something to do with his natural familiarity with both eastern and western ways. (It seems appropriate to recall that three of this century’s most notable contributors to the appreciation or practice of Sri Lankan art, Ananda Coomaraswamy, George Keyt, and David Paynter, also came from mixed South Asian and European backgrounds.)

In addition to an enhanced understanding of each, belonging to both east and west is also a recipe for feeling like an outsider in both cultures, especially as a child. Nothing is clearcut; one response it to become both observant and shy. Rahju admits that he was an introverted, introspective child. He also remembers a spontaneous attraction to Buddhist temple ceremony, which he attended with his grandmother. He remembers the multimedia sensorium of hypnotic chanting, the fragrance of flowers and oil lamps, the feeling of the cool floor on bare feet, the white and orange garb of worshipers and monks.

Going to Norway with his family at age ten, he discovered a modern society full of the consumer items that had been unavailable in Sri Lanka in the early 1970’s. But eventually, in the spirit of the times, he again had the opportunity to investigate Eastern mysticism, although in the Western style of flower power, psychedelia, and the Danish Swami Janakananda. At the Einar Granum School of Art in Oslo, he found that hhis temperament and talent were most susceptible to the influence of Salvador Dali. When he returned to Sri Lanka in 1982, at the age of nineteen, he was an accomplished surrealist.

In 1984, I had occasion to review one of Rahju’s first exhibitions after returning to his homeland. As young artists will, he then affected an outlandish persona (of a Hindu holy man) and his work showed bizarre subject matter in a Daliesque manner. I noted then that his natural inclination towards technical precision and structural balance belied some of the wilder pre-exhibition publicity that claimed the artist to be “half Sri Lankan, half Norwegian, and fully mad.” I pointed out that his self-preoccupation and interest in dreams, visions, and make-believe was a not uncommon response in young artists who work in a society that no longer provides consistent inspiring or widely-share values for them to reflect or transmit.

Now in his early thirties, Rahju has dropped the pretension, but has held onto and developed the concerns that were nascent in his early work and in his posturings. The “holy man” garb and surreal style were indications of a genuine inherent tendency to seek wisdom and a leaning towards solitude, simplicity, and inward experience that now mark the mature artist. Yet this self-recognition did not come all at once. In 1986, admitting “that everything I was doing was done only to impress others rather than overflowing from my own source,” he gave up painting for what was to be three years. During this period he experimented with various paths to enlightenment- yoga techniques, gurus, psychedelic drugs- while living at first with others but eventually alone in remote, lonely, and beautiful places: the island of Taprobane off the south coast, a small house in the mountains near Haputale, and an unoccupied walauwwa (traditional rural manor house) near Kandy.

None of the “truths” he was exposed to seemed to satisfy: eventually they all seemed to be “only so much guesswork,” and he temporarily gave up his search, along with his art. When he heard the words and vision of Bhagwan Shree Osho Rajneesh, whom for some reason he had not come across earlier, his former disappointments made him reluctant to recognize their power. However, he says “when my mind finally gave in, he flooded me, and the shift happened.” His life took on its present harmony and integration.

Now, for Rahju, the influences of the past on his life and art are irrelevancies: his art teacher in Oslo was “a detour,” Dali appears “simply silly,” and even Krishnamurti has been eclipsed. He finds that Osho’s vision and teaching go into every detail of life, so that the usual problems between life and spirituality that traditional religion has never been able to reconcile are dissolved and transcended. Many of his fellow sannyasins are painters, musicians, dancers, and writers who, like Rahju, dedicate their work to the vision of Osho Rajneesh, in which creativity is one of the main ingredients.

After returning to his art in 1989, the imagery in Rahju’s paintings has become more simple, refined and striking. As in his early surrealistic paintings, the illusory appears real, but now reality also appears illusory- that is, realer than real. In these later, more meditative stages, Rahju has painted close ups of the most simple, ordinary things: a temple wall, parts of plants, waterlily leaves, a piece of cadjan (interwoven, coconut palmleaf strands used for house walls, fences etc.), the tops of tablas, a Buddhist priest’s fan, the Buddhist flag. This typically “Asian” meditative focus on one subject is combined with a meticulous veristic “Western” technique for rendering its appearance. The result is a minimalist/essentialist composition of resonant simplicity that adds an Eastern voice to the contemporary Western art world’s discourses about the relationship between reality and representation, art and life.

His anti-materialistic stance is no mere affectation. Although Rahju is now the father of two small children, the family of four live without telephone or electricity- though with solar power- in a Kandyan village. To visit them, one walks half a mile from the country road to the house, passing little mixed gardens of coconut, jak, and other fruit trees that resound with the cries and calls of kingfishers and magpies. Going past a small village brickworks, the path winds to the ridge of a hill that looks out across the Dumbara Valley to the peak of Hunnasgiriya and the Knuckles range beyond.

The house is clean, spare and open. In addition to a small sitting room and bedroom, there is also a shrine room and an adjoining music room. (After his return to Sri Lanka, Rahju has been practicing sitar and other Indian musical instruments). Hand washed nappies dry in the sun on the verandah; in the kitchen, Rahju and Rasika cook their meals together on a woodfired open hearth. They live a self-contained simple life that high-pressured urbanities might profess to envy but after a week would probably find deprived and boring. However, though simple, the life is hardly ascetic. The setting alone indulges every sense. Natural rhythms of activity and rest fit into the natural cycles of day and night, of seasons where different varieties of trees bear their blossoms or fruits, where the moon waxes and wanes, and the movements of clouds in the sky change direction every half year.

One is reminded of the admonition by an earlier Western visionary, William Blake: “Show that peace and plenty and domestic happiness are the source of sublime art, and prove to the abstract philosophers that enjoyment and not abstinence is the food of the intellect.”

Despite his isolation, Rahju has been and still is part of an “art world,” although he exhibits his work rarely. Cognoscenti make the pilgrimage to his village studio, much as they did to that of the young George Keyt in another isolated Kandyan village long before Rahju was born. He belongs to a group at the University of Peradeniya that plays Indian classical music together or for each other. He knows other artists, even though they may meet infrequently. Friends from Europe and America send him occasional art magazines, and he is more aware than most Sri Lankans of the arts and artists of ancient and contemporary India.

Rahju distinguishes between “painters” and “artists,” and claims that although he used to consider himself to be one of the latter, he is now the former, that is “in love with just the paint and the canvas surface.” This seemed initially surprising to me, because I think of such people as producing thickly smeared canvases where the paint itself is the subject. Rahju explained what he meant. To his view, “artists” manipulate the medium for their own ends, their expression, message, idea, or style, while “painters” are interested to find what can happen through the medium. Painters find themselves to be less than the things they deal with, and try to put themselves aside in order to allow something of the beyond to enter the medium. “Actually,” he added, “the ‘beyond’ means what is already there if we didn’t interfere with it with our minds.”

Like modern Western painters from Monet and Cezanne to Jasper Johns, Rahju has found stimulation in painting the same thing over and over again. However, this seems to be less in order to exhaustively document its many moods or changing aspects than to know it over and over again, as one repeatedly embraces a beloved. One recent “series” is of a subject that few serious painters in tropical countries these days would attempt: coconut trees against a tropical sky. This is of course a stereotypical subject of countless hackneyed “tourist art” pictures churned out by impecunious artists in order to make a few bucks. Yet, Rahju seems to say, why not look at these freshly and with wonder, not as stereotypes, not as symbolic, not as essences of some inner reality, but as they are. Being a person with a favourite coconut tree that I have communed with on and off for over twenty-five years, I am perhaps more receptive to Rahju’s choice than others might be. At the same time, I admire his courageous disdain for the fashionable attitude-of-disdaining-palm-trees-as-correct-subject-matter-for-paintings. Perhaps this is something that only “painters,” as opposed to “artists,” can afford to do.

I find it interesting that although Rahju has relinquished the symbolic subjects of his early surrealist mode, some of the residue of their structure has remained. Indeed, one can point to a continuing preoccupation with form, especially balancing rectangles and other geometric shapes. Such a predilection leads easily to his ongoing interest in depicting architectural subjects, like the temples, shrines, and sacred sites of his current exhibition.

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 and allow us to appreciate their spare or detailed distinctiveness. We may at first 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 dagaba filling one-third of an otherwise “empty” painted canvas, or a distinct wall seen through a window that is itself seen through a doorway are abstract forms before we recognize their referents in the actual world. A close view of a monochromatic brick wall appears to be a geometric composition of rectangles and triangles, until we realize that this form was a traditional way of constructing niches for oil lamps. A plaster elephant emerging from a wall, as in Rahju’s triptych of the Lankatilleke temple near Kandy, is rendered in patterned white and pastel shades of gray and blue. The impression is of sunlight effacing the scene from our view and the effect is of a timeless frozen instant.

Other works present their subjects from a distance or from an unexpected angle. In one canvas we seem to look down upon an ancient monochrome Sivalingam, which is the center of a mandala form with four radiating spokes; in another, it is depicted straight on as a truncated column against a ruined brick wall, viewed through the frame of an open doorway. Yet another carved, framed, and open temple doorway surrounds a large central space that might be the reverberating radiance at the heart of the religious experience.

As in his earliest works, also, some of his subjects occur as diptychs, triptychs, or series. In most, a concern with balance, even stasis, predominates. The passion for looking and understanding has been refined, transmuted, internalized, stilled; whether the view is close up or distant, one feels an unmistakable yet indefinable poetic quality that is unlike any other painter’s work in Sri Lanka today.

This quality resides in a sort of “presence” that the works both portray and achieve. The “superrealism” of Rahju’s painting technique and the unexpected vantage point he often chooses serve less to make his subjects strange (as one might expect) or tangible “real” than imbued with an eloquent fullness. It is as if they are there, “in their being,” whether we look and participate with them or not. Their reality is not palpably material, but nevertheless present and entire. Even when places or objects are depicted from a distance, a similar effect to the close-up is achieved, perhaps describable as a concentrated indwellingness.

Rahju’s residence in a remote Kandyan village brings to mind his great predecessor, George Keyt, who in the 1930s shocked Colombo society 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, and today, even in remote villages, traditional life is more and more difficult to find. In contrast to Keyt, Rahju does not affect to live “like a villager,” but rather, with Rasika and the children, to create and perfect his life and art in harmony with the surroundings and Osho’s teachings.

When 43 Group painters like Keyt and W. J. G. Beling depicted village subjects in a Westernized style, it was a bold attempt to synthesize the traditional and modern, the Asian and Western, to make use of the best of both worlds. Today such an artistic aim would seem naively nostalgic, pining after an unrecoverable, romanticized past. In former colonial countries of today, the bold artistic project has been to explore questions of personal or national identity, using one’s art as political engagement and statement to challenge the inequities and articulate the aspirations of individuals in a modernizing society.

Though it is very different, I find Rahju’s path to be equally legitimate, equally bold, and even equally or more appropriate in a land with such a rich spiritual heritage. Rather than challenge present circumstances and display their inherent cruelties and contradictions, one can also go inward, seeking to distill the subject matter of a now forsworn past. That past survives today, when it does, in the inner vision of people, like Rahju, who are not seduced by the blandishments or homilies of late twentieth-century materialism. Instead, his life and art embody Sri Lanka’s most enduring and sustaining contributions to the life of its people, embeddedness in nature and adherence to the Buddhist-Hindu worldview.