An artistic bridge

An artistic bridge

different strokes

An artistic bridge

The Sethusamudram Art Project was developed by Indian and Sri Lankan artists to highlight the issues of intercultural artistic transactions, writes Giridhar Khasnis .

Notwithstanding sporadic skirmishes and political standoffs between Sri Lanka and India, several artists from the two neighbouring countries got involved in a unique collaborative project to promote art and culture through people-to-people contact and understanding.

The Sethusamudram Art Project (SAP) was conceived jointly by Theertha International Artists Collective, Colombo and 1.Shanthiroad Studio/Gallery, Bangalore. The two entities not only developed a broad vision for the project but also enabled a series of activities involving artists from both the countries.

According to Suresh Jayaram, founder-director of 1.Shanthiroad Studio/Gallery, Bangalore, the name of the project was derived and inspired by the ‘mythical’ bridge built to connect India with Sri Lanka. “Sethusamudram occupies a space between myth and reality, fact and fiction,” says Jayaram. “The ambiguity about the issue has occupied the imagination from the Ramayana.

In both countries, myth and history co-exist; apart of the public imagination, they have influenced the way we look at our collective histories. This project has been built by artists and young minds from India and Sri Lanka to think and create new visions, ideas and concepts that are contemporary as well as relevant in addressing the crucial point of intercultural artistic transactions.”

Artist and curator Jagath Weersinghe of Teertha recalls that SAP used the metaphor of bridge to engage with the contemporary dynamics of art and politics “by traversing wide expanses of thoughts that included social, political, historical, religious and mythological domains as relevant to our lived experiences as visual chroniclers and interrogators living in the ‘south’” of Sri Lanka and India.

Exchange residencies

All the programmes under the project were reciprocal in nature between 1.Shanthiroad and Theertha. The three-year collaborative project, in which nearly 50 artists took part, had several components such as exchange residencies, research projects, book art, catalogue launches, public performances and exhibitions in Colombo and Bangalore. 

During the course of the project, the participating artists were able to reflect on social realities of their respective homelands through varied mediums of contemporary art practices. They also used the opportunity to share their concerns and anxieties of their cities through varied artworks.

At the heart of SAP was the exchange residency programme where the principal act of collaboration happened through conversation between artists. Residencies provided space and chance to each artist to reach out, help each other and discuss about contemporary issues that affected them personally and collectively. Thoughts and ideas about art education, gallery systems and market forces were explored, while issues of political ideologies, social activism and interconnections were deliberated upon. Most importantly, the residency programmes helped dismantle the ghosts about each other’s social, political and artistic interests and motivations.

For many artists the focus was firmly on life in a big city. It did not take long for them to realise that both Colombo and Bangalore had faced many changes and challenges during the recent past. Cultural, historical and environmental issues apart, new patterns of social/ethical behaviour and power shifts were emerging in the cities and raising some troubling questions. 

“The changing city is a ubiquitous motif in Bangalore and Colombo,” says Jayaram. “Each artist responded to it as citizen, voyeur and migrant to his/her own city. Along with the accelerated change that the two cities are faced with, they also looked at globalisation, economic and social changes that are dominant in the contemporary context. They explored the urban phenomenon of location, nation’s vision of city as showcase for development and also the critique of such unplanned development without a conscious effort to retain local/vernacular identities.”

Letting one be

Bangalore-based artist V G Venugopal, who visited Teertha as part of SAP, recalls that the interactions between artists and curators were interesting. “It was unlike a normal art camp where the pressure to produce artwork in a limited time frame prevails over everything. But there were no such issues here. The thrust was more on understanding each other. We were encouraged to explore alternate modes of expression keeping in view the social and artistic traditions and practices of the two countries. If artworks got created, they happened organically.

Of course, there were some constraints in terms of financial support and organisational inadequacies.”

The organisers tried their best to keep the activities as open as possible and imposed no restrictions on the artists. “They were allowed to work independently and also interact freely,” says Jayaram. 

“Our conviction was firmly rooted in the fact that art connects, heals, dispels wrong impressions and provides a foundation for change. In a nutshell, artist-to-artist contact was the backbone on which the project was built upon. What this project proved to us was that artists of both nations shared deep affinities; it also showed how artistic efforts could be constructed and intermingled into a new and optimistic narrative. I might also add that this could possibly be the long
est-duration collaborative project ever in the entire South Asian region.”

Artistic imprints

The SAP produced a variety of artistic outpouring — paintings, drawings, sculptures, installations, performances, photography, video, films and so on. “The residencies, scheduled and unscheduled exhibitions, and events that the SAP artists took part in the two cities — Bangalore and Colombo — have brought about an amazing body of work, processes and memories filled with insights and intuitions,” says Weerasinghe.

Technically, the project concluded in December 2013. A handsome publication titled Sethu Book Art Project has been released recently. “The learnings from the project have been many for the artists, curators and organisers,” says Jayaram. “Thanks to the success of the project and the rapport built with each other, more collaborative efforts are sure to come by.”

On his part, Weerasinghe asserts that Theertha and 1.Shanti Road have developed and nurtured camaraderie that has gone beyond the programmed art exchanges. “The SAP has come to an end but the multiplier effects that the project produced continue to define, inform and enrich the art practices of both parties.”