Monday, November 30, 2015

Sri Lankan journey: an afternoon in Moratumulla

My friend Gihan is leaving for London so he asked me to come out to Moratumulla with him. He's been working on a project there for the last couple of years, hiring traditional wood carvers to build boxes for him. His goal seems to be to revive and record the ancient practice of screen-making while "rebranding" the craft into a high-art statement he can market to the London art cognoscenti. It's an interesting concept and certainly the results are beautiful. 

So he came by to pick me up at the guesthouse just a few minutes after Janet and I had gotten home. It was the heat of the day and we'd just had a bit of a wild goose chase trying to find me a Kurta for the Fulbright bash this Friday night. Dress is supposed to be "smart casual" and that means wearing more than a pair of eyeglasses I suppose. We would have been in the pool when he called but all the beds were being replaced in the guesthouse rooms for new ones so there was no way to get beyond our open-air lobby. 

A few friendly-happies between Gihan and Janet (he's about to have twins and ours are all grown up) and we were on our way. 

Moratumulla is a few miles south of Mt. Lavinia where we're staying ("Galkessa," the Singhala name for our community is the word you use if you want to be understood). Moratumulla is adjacent to Moratuwa, the home of Moratuwa University, where I'm discharging my official Fulbright responsibilities. Since I mentioned Galkessa I might as well add that to go to campus on a bus you don't say "university" or "Moratuwa University." "Campus" is universally understood and it works as far away as several miles from the university, even though there are several other types of campus between here and there. Small surprises that make up the pastiche of this experience, linguistically and culturally. 

Moratumulla is a tight-knit settlement of wood carvers that has been around at least since medieval times. It's the center of wood carving in Sri Lanka and its products are quite varied. Mostly unfortunately, beautiful teak timber is converted here into not very beautiful bedroom sets. I wonder of our new beds came from there! But in addition to furniture the carvers produce-- almost mass-produce floral screens. The screens are not gorgeous but they are hand done and they do carry the stamp of an ancient craft that was apparently influenced by the Dutch colonizers. They reflect a mostly European style but one that was fused onto earlier Buddhist patterns. My host showed me a large Vesak lamp that he's been working on that combines both influences. Anyway, as part of the "rebranding" Gihan's vision repurposes the screens and reinterprets their basic design into a contemporary look that appears at a glance as laser-printed. 

I found myself in a sort of carport in front of the carver's house in a crowded neighborhood at the base of a hill. The carport is a garage for his van and his workshop too. 

People here are not poor. But it's hard to read that when you see the outer state of their houses, the crowding, the open gutters and mangy dogs. But it's like Wellawatta. When we mentioned to our fellow Fulbrighters that we'd walked around there the response was "eew-you walked through the slums?!"

Moratumulla is not a slum and neither is Wellawatta. These are deeply historical communities that are part of greater Colombo, and which represent important ethnic and occupational enclaves. There are as a matter of fact a number of churches in Moratumulla and outward signs of Christian beliefs here. Maybe the "carpenter" analogy made these people more or less natural adherents of the colonizers' faith. 

The boxes themselves were not perfect, not the eye candy Gihan has been showing me the past couple of years through his photoshop-generated designs. I'm glad I wasn't there as a buyer. There were imperfect fittings, blemishes in the wood, a door that didn't close, crude hinges. The carvings are perfect as coverings for transoms. They let air into houses. They are decorative. They are mostly placed above eye level in dark places. They have a way to go before they reach the kind of technical perfection that merits gallery space. 

But I didn't say this to Gihan. Why rain on his parade? He was having the panels, which did fit together cleverly, packed and wrapped to take to his parents' house. They won't be shown in London for awhile I think, since he's expecting twins in just a few weeks. 

Life will be different for Gihan but life will go on in here in Moratumulla. The son of our carver, who supposedly will not go into his father's profession, has a remarkable artistic bent. The hours I spent there babbling with the family's baby were also spent with  their seven year old. Gihan fussed with the panels and took video footage. I fussed with the kids. The baby went after my iPhone with a vengeance. The big kids played with plastic toys and showed me their projects. I showed them photos of Boston and of my house and kids, using my puny but growing Singhala vocabulary. 

The afternoon waned. Mosquitoes buzzed. A dog scratched at his thin fur. The car we came in filled up with carved panels. I didn't ask what was happening because I knew. 

A lot of Singhala was spoken. I heard the word "Galkessa" mentioned. A tuktuk pulled up. Gihan gave him a thousand rupees and instructions. We hugged goodbye. And for the hundredth time I wished Gihan good luck and blessed him for a good future with his new twins. 

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