Sri Lankan art collectors could give their Indian peers a run for their money
Mohan Tissainayagam is probably Sri Lanka’s foremost collector and his sprawling 1940s mansion in Colombo is an ode to the island’s principal modern master, George Keyt, and its current legend, Senaka Senanayake. Several walls are taken over completely by these two artists. A huge library is full of rare books (the oldest tome in his collection is a 17th century account of an Englishman held prisoner in Ceylon), there are Chinese vases, more paintings by a variety of other artists including a grand-nephew of Raja Ravi Varma that is rare rather than good and canvas rolls lie atop cupboards. He also has a flat close by that he uses almost exclusively for the storage of art.
Like him, B H “Buggy” Surtani, who lives and works in Singapore, is an ardent collector of Senaka Senanayake, making it a point to travel to whichever part of the world the artist is exhibiting in. But these days his interest, egged on by Senanayake himself, is piqued by Indian artists. On his BlackBerry, he has an image, recently acquired, of an oil by F N Souza, large and celebratory in its reds and yellows with his characteristic brushwork. “I tell him,” Senanayake says, “he must collect Indian artists now.” It’s the same advice he had been doling out to Tissainayagam, whose walls already have some distinctive works by Jamini Roy.
Art – and artists – in Sri Lanka have tended to have a somewhat limited oeuvre. There are the modernist experiments of Ananada Samarakoon and H A Karunaratne, the nineties’ angst of Jagath Weerasinghe, Nimal Mendis, Chandraguptha Thenuwara and Kingsley Gunatillake, the contemporary practice of Muhanned Carder, Anoli Pereira and G R Constentine, the popularity of S H Sarath, D R Segar or sculptor A Kalugalla, and some efforts seem to be underway to promote abstract art. But in real terms, the availability of high quality, investible art is extremely limited, with collectors unable to look beyond the reach of George Keyt or the success of Senaka Senanayake.
That Indian artists should be on their radar is, therefore, natural. For Sri Lankans trained to look at art through the canvases of Keyt, those resonances are all too natural. Keyt lived on and off in India for over four decades, was influenced by the Bengal School and the Bombay Progressives. There is a hint of Cubism in his work, which impacted both centres in India and a sense of belonging to the modernist ideas in practice at the time. His themes range across mythology, though like Akbar Padamsee, or even Chittaprosad, he was not above choosing and repeatedly painting such subjects as “Lovers”.
Unfortunately, the number of Keyts in circulation are limited since he also has his share of collectors in India (though, like Jamini Roy, he is also frequently faked). Senanayake’s works are picked up almost as soon as he can produce them, leaving Sri Lankan collectors who want to escape the morbidity of recent Sri Lankan art with no choice but to look at India — especially when it comes to putting big money on masters or at least well-known senior artists, rather than more contemporary artists. It is this that offers Indian artists and their promoters an opportunity to explore new markets.
But how does one get across to the Sri Lankan collector? Some, like Tissainayagam, may live in Colombo, but many others stay in different parts of the world — in Singapore (like Surtani), but also in Malaysia, the West Asia and in the West. With more money – including Indian money – pouring into the building (or re-building) of Sri Lanka, casinos, hotels and retail ventures will take off anew. This demand for art will probably be new and edgy, but for the collectors alluded to earlier, their eye is determinedly on the well-established artist. For now, they seem keen to be guided by those willing to volunteer any help, but the time does not seem too far when the red dots at exhibitions, and the paddles being held up at auctions of Indian art, will be in Sri Lankan hands. Indian collectors will then find themselves increasingly under pressure — but before that happens, are Indian art promoters up to the challenge?
These views are personal and do not reflect those of the organisation with which the writer is associated.