I find myself awakened by a sudden jerk and the ratchet of a handbrake. I look around the dark to find my colleagues sound asleep, still, snuggled up in their leather seats serving as make-shift beds. From my periphery, I sense Lakmal’s silhouette navigating his way towards me, past the heaps of camera bags dumped along the narrow aisle, the nimbleness of his feet matching his dexterity on the wheel. Both of us gesture for a smoke. He grins – milky teeth illuminating in the darkness like saltwater pearls. 

Reviewed by Ranga Chandrarathne

Decolonising Architecture

Title: Geoffrey Manning BAWA, Decolonising Architecture
Author: Shanti Jayewardene
Publisher: National Trust, Sri Lanka
Pages: 237
Price: LKR 4800

In the monograph titled Geoffrey Manning BAWA, Decolonising Architecture, the author, architect and historian, Shanti Jayewardene examines the enduring architectural legacy of Bawa and how he sought to decolonize architecture from within the tradition, incorporating indigenous Sri Lankan motifs and spirit into the existing corpus of western architecture.

It is Bawa’s attempt that culminated in the birth of Sri Lankan modern architecture, which is now also known as tropical architecture.  The author emphasizes, in no uncertain terms, that the term ‘decolonizing’ does not mean anti-colonial and that Bawa’s architectural legacy should be looked at from a broader perspective, perhaps, as a part of the process of indigenous knowledge production.

At the very beginning of the book the author points out that the field of architecture and study of architecture, like almost all other subjects, was a colonial legacy and the essential part of ‘colonising the mind’ was to look down on the indigenous knowledge as unscientific and obsolete.

‘The architectural “profession” in Sri Lanka has a colonial lineage. Its birth in the nineteenth century announced and affected a distinction in knowledge through apartheid policies of employment linked with knowledge. Only Western-trained individuals were recognised as architects or engineers. J. G Smither was appointed architect of the Public Works Department (PWD) around 1864. The post was held by Britons until independence. In Colonial institutions indigenous knowledge was officially subordinated to Western or so called modern “scientific” knowledge. Overlap between two systems of knowledge was suppressed in the colonial culture.’

It was obvious that the process of colonization was not confined to conceptual level of architecture.  The author observes that one has to understand the process of decolonization from a broader perspective to look back and re-read Bawa’s work. ‘De-colonization is not simple anti-colonialism – it is “the attempt of the previous colonized people to reflectively work out a historical relation with former colonizer, culturally, politically and economically”.’

The study has been carefully divided into several chapters covering Bawa’s birth, the socio-cultural backdrop against which Bawa grew up, his education and his practice in Sri Lanka. Early chapters of the book help readers to learn the myriad of influences of famous architects, diverse architectural traditions, works and books on Bawa and how his Western education shaped his early practice as an architect and how deeply he studied the Sri Lankan age-old architectural legacy, which the author has quite rightly emphasized, was not pan-Sinhalese architecture. In fact it was a tradition which was made up of diverse influences such as ancient Sri Lankan architecture, Dutch, Portuguese, Islam and Tamil architecture.

One of the prominent influences on Bawa was his wide reading over the years. Some of the major influences which shaped his world view were the work of Ananda Coomaraswamy and books such as The Wonder that was India by Arthur Basham and Senake Bandaranayake’s Sinhalese Monastic Architecture (1974).

As observed by the author, a prominent architect who influenced Bawa was Mexican architect Luis Barragán (1902 –1988).  Barragán developed his own vision with an inimitable Mexican spirit. The author observes a characteristic influence of Barragán work on Bawa’s creations in areas such as the stairs, courtyards, pools and spaces. However, both architects never met personally but it was obvious that Bawa had read about Barragán’s work featured in I.E Myers seminal work Mexico’s Modern Architecture (1952) that he possessed.

By Chandra Ganguly

calamities

How do you make sense of life when your friend dies? How do you make sense of life when thousands were washed away by waters in a tsunami or killed ruthlessly in a genocide? How do you make sense of lives lived in pain whether due to atrocities committed by other or genetic mutations that make every day living a study in pain and forbearance? Peter Trachtenberg’s The Book of Calamities examines the meaning of life through these occurrences while asking five questions, “Why me? How do I endure? What is just? What does my suffering say about me and about God? What do I owe those who suffer?”

The book is a compelling first hand account of not just the author’s own suffering due to substance abuse, the death of his friends and his parents but also a first hand account of other people’s pain as he travels to places of strife such as Rwanda and Sri Lanka, follows up with families who lost loved ones on September 11, and interviews those in grief, seeking an answer to his questions.

The beauty of the book lies in the author’s ardent and almost unflinching seeking. He intersperses his travels and experiences with philosophies and religious texts from the Bible and Buddhism mainly but those chapters and paragraphs are like supporting documents, almost theoretical in their references. It is his travels and walks through the trenches of human suffering that pulls the reader in. How many people do we know who have travelled to Rwanda after the genocide or Sri Lanka after the tsunami? How many brave the hostility of these climates to ask questions? Trachtenberg recounts his experiences in such places and interviews people such as the Daley twins who suffered from Epidermolysis Bullosa, a form of affliction that made living in your own skin literally almost possible. The author befriends the people he seeks out in his journey to find a meaning and makes his research into suffering an empathetic and intimate look into lives we read about and normally keep at a distance. By describing his own sufferings, Trachtenberg draws us further into his story and his own search for meaning — “. . . suicide suddenly appealed to me as something I could do . . . I used about fifty Fiorinal and a razor blade that I was too squeamish to do very much with.” ( p. 57)

2014 Gratiaen shortlisted writer Vihanga Perera talks about his works and the opportunities for writers in Sri Lanka: The Nation

He loves to call himself a writer; someone who writes and rewrites, working with manuscripts all year round. “I have been experimenting with my writing within and between genres for over ten years now since first being published – being lucky and generally, enjoying my work,” Vihanga Perera, 2014 Gratiaen shortlisted writer, said in an interview with The Nation.  He is a poet, novelist, short story writer, publisher, political and social commentator, critic, blogger and academic. His shortlisted poetry collection ‘Love and Protest’ was compiled by Paw Print Publishing. The collection contains poems written during October 2013 to November 2014.