Sunday, March 13, 2016

Sign of success

I teach my design students that design is an iterative process. The more you work at a problem the more new insights you gain. In the process, you replace your original set of questions with new ones. The new questions reflect new insights based on your hard work and critical thinking. The new questions carry the relevance of your project further. They enable better solutions because they are more sophisticated and they have a deeper relationship to the problem than your original questions. Developing new questions is usually frustrating and sometimes painful. It's a learning curve that is less onerous with each project as you teach yourself the way to analyze better and more quickly. New questions are a sign of success. 

In this maelstrom of feelings, relationships, and events that we call a Fulbright Fellowship it's arguable that we experience much the same process of iteration and question formation. It seems inevitable that the questions you entered with are altered through the process. As you shed the old questions, which may go unanswered, you replace them with new approaches and new understandings. You find and exercise new flexibilities as you grow with the project. This is part of the nature of the Fulbright, perhaps one of its goals, and in this I can say I've found success. 

I started this project as an inquiry into ancient irrigation systems that characterize rural agricultural practice here. The so-called "tanks," human-built lakes that transformed Sri Lanka's "Dry Zone" into a natural wonderland filled with productive fields and teeming with wildlife, were my focus. I came into the project with some idea of how I wanted to study the tanks. I wanted to walk along as many of them that I could, learn their shapes and their angles, their breezes and aromas. I wanted to take an intangible measure of each tank's personality. I wanted to build a library of impressions, at least initially. I hoped this would lead to further questions, which would lead to further research directions. I saw my project as apolitical and aesthetic. And I entered into it that way. 

On day one I realized that my study of "cultural landscape ecology" was inherently political. We were summoned to the self-appointed high priest of tank studies in Sri Lanka, a powerful man who commanded a coterie of like-minded academics. His iron grip was felt even before I arrived, when I was informed he didn't approve of the work of a tank researcher and activist whose background, training, and conclusions were different. My plan to take students into the field to study tank intangibles was quickly replaced, at his behest, into a study of soils and social structure. Not that I had anything against these. They just were not my focus. Nor were they to carry me very far in the project I had chosen. But experiencing the politicized nature of research here started me, consciously or unconsciously in a process of replacing my old questions with new ones. 

My fieldwork continued with extended visits to the north, on the Jaffna Peninsula and in the dry Vanni region, the town of Vavuniya. In these places I came into contact with new tank forms and new tank uses. Fascinating to me were the ritually connected "step tanks" connected to Hindu kovils, and which I learned on a trip to India were not only common there but extensively developed. So much for the myth of the Sinhalese "invention" of irrigation tanks and their presumed heights of creative land use. The tanks in Sri Lanka are very special but they are not unique. 

In studying the step tanks (they're called step wells in India) I familiarized myself somewhat with the concepts of Vasthu Shastra, an ancient Indian philosophy of building. Part of the philosophy considers the built environment as a reflection of the human body, its forms and functions reiterated in the placement of water bodies associated with architectural design. I began to muse on the design of tanks in Sri Lanka. 

So many tanks (30,000), so many of them tiny and remote, and so many of them still in operation. Had they been designed at some level to reflect the human body? In my fieldwork I had run across the age-old problem of tank silting. In ancient times there had been cultural and agricultural practices associated with repairing tanks and de-silting them. These had been abandoned in contemporary practice but the tanks still functioned with their surfaces buried under feet of silt, albeit with lowered capacity. This reminded me of something like a human body slowed by age, burdened by fat, or with clogged arteries. This wasn't enough evidence for the human origin of tank design but it provided a clue. 

As I studied more tanks and more maps and more literature I saw that many tanks are shaped like dagobas, Buddhist holy structures said to contain sacred relics. Dagobas are a signal indicator of Buddhist presence and hegemony in a landscape marked (or marred) by religious and ethnic ownership. This dimension of ownership manifests itself almost at every corner, every bend in the road, every clearing of a forest. Might the tanks themselves indicate ownership of and dominance over the landscape?

An unexpected blip in the history of Sri Lanka came up just before and during my stay. The surprise election of President Sirisena held promise of reform and greater fairness for minorities. But on the one-year anniversary of his election a promotional video commemorating his coming to power was released. The video placed him in the context of ancient god-kings and played heavily to a mentality of mythology and worship. A central image of the video was a rider on a white horse carrying the lion symbol of the Sinhalese. Predictably, he rode along a tank bund. Tanks as ownership, tanks as power, tanks as symbols of hegemony. My aesthetic study was being replaced by a new set of questions. 

Speaking of aesthetics, while poring over the work of Ananda Coomaraswamy in the National Library I became familiar with Kandyan design principles closely related to flow and tank shape. These principles were established in the centuries after most of the tanks in the Dry Zone were abandoned. Yet the central concepts of tank design were maintained and formalized through the centuries, transforming into principles of decorative arts, some sculpted and some two-dimensional. The tank held sway in my developing theory of a "national psyche."

I must stop here to mention the distinct paucity of literature I encountered in support of any of my hypotheses. At least in English, beyond poring over the work of Brohier and a few of his predecessors I was able to find almost nothing about village tanks, their design, or their cultural significance. Everything I built was based on conjecture and my personal observations. 

Around the halfway mark of my fellowship I discovered inadvertently a phenomenon I had not expected--a contemporary tank built nearly to the specifications of one of its ancient counterparts. This led me on the search for more recently-built tanks and soon enough I found myself conceptually and physically in the middle of the Mahaweli hydro scheme. The functions of the scheme were ostensibly to built hydropower and expand arable land in what had previously been "wasted" jungle. The accelerated Mahaweli project was accomplished in the mid-1980s, when scientists had already established the importance of old-growth rainforests. Not only was it an ecological debacle. The Mahaweli scheme brought hundreds of thousands of poor Sinhalese settlers into a region traditionally inhabited by the Tamil minority, with whom they were now at war. The transplanted "Dry Zone" landscape featured picture-perfect "tanks" that Sinhalese schoolchildren all over Sri Lanka were taught behaved just like the ancient ones. They were mis-taught and misguided. The new tanks were nothing like the ancient ones, something I documented with my own observations. 

Tanks and tank landscapes were used as a force of dominance and the contemporary iteration was a continuation of their ancient role in controlling the countryside. By the approximate midpoint of my Fulbright I had seen enough, perhaps too much, of tank landscapes. It was time to start exploring the underlying culture that used them as tools of dominance. A whole new set of questions ensued, a sign of success. 

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