By Ellen Dissanayake
For habitual exhibition-goers in Colombo and for those who write about contemporary art, Sri Lankan painting during the past half-century has been largely dominated by the artists of the ’43 Group, gentlemen of almost exclusively Sinhalese or Burgher Christian backgrounds, some from privileged circumstances.
Although as artists they were at first marginal, little known, and little noticed even by their families, over time they have become establishment figures. As a Group, they automatically represent a movement or period in Sri Lankan art history – the beginning of modern painting in this country.
If the ’43 Group has become a monolith that at times tends to subsume the separate voices and styles of its members, what then of other modern artists of the period who were not part of the Group at all? It is ironic that merely belonging to this once rebellious group confers an automatic seal of approval and interest today, whereas other equally modern artists who did not belong for whatever reason risk being erased from attention altogether. Yet we must certainly recognise that alongside the fortunate few who are today’s acknowledged and revered old masters, other painters were also making pictures of aesthetic interest and worth.
Such a painter was Fareed Uduman (1917-1985), a Hansard reporter and later a pensioner, who for his own compelling reasons, and without encouragement or even recognition from the public or an artistic brotherhood, over his lifetime made dozens of highly original paintings. Some of these were on display at Gallery 706, thanks to the efforts of one of Uduman’s sons who recovered around 30 of the pictures and arranged for their public exhibition.
In the leaflet distributed at the gallery, Uduman is characterised as a zealous nonconformist to the end, ‘someone who remained an enigma to most of his family and friends, who could not reach out enough to free him’. One is reminded of countless other creative but ultimately obscure individuals, burning with their private obsessions, and without resonances in the larger world, mute inglorious Miltons who through accidents of timing or circumstances do not reach the receptive audience that is their due.
Yet both the subjects of Uduman’s painting and the treatment of them reward our attention. His was a painterly or expressionist approach rather than draughtsman-like or classical one and the works strike the viewer first of all as statements in paint of varying degrees of eloquence and as records of the search or that kind of expressive statement.
In ‘Old Man in Storm,’ for example, the agitated brushstrokes delineating the leaves of pandanus plants embody in themselves the lashings of the wind, a tumult of natural force, while the roots that hold the trees firm are neater and patterned, hence more stable brushstrokes, and the background lagoon is like a wash of pale colour. The commotion of the storm is further emphasised by the use of complementary colours, orange and blue, that do not calm but excite the eye. Although the painting appears clumsy, even raw, the energy of the storm is unmistakable (although the old man, curiously, seems not to be affected by it, and carries on with his work). The treatment of the subject is here itself the subject.
Uduman’s works portray a fascinating combination of the familiar and the purely private. One of his greatest strengths in my view is the unselfconscious use of truly local Lankan details, without in the least lapsing into sentimental cliched local colours and scenes.
One work, ‘Child with Coconut,’ unobtrusively depicts a youngster wearing a sarong, holding a thambili, amidst Alocasia (habarala) leaves, with an unmistakably coucal (atti kukula) at one edge and even parts of an elephant in the background. Yet these various common items of Lankan life do not seem gratuitous or incongruous, even though they are rarely if ever seen all together at one time. Rather, they are combined and orchestrated into a satisfying composition. Indeed one has to look carefully to identify all these elements, and then marvel at their juxtaposition that seems so right.
‘Podi Cutting Kankun’ shows an obviously local woman, no longer young, from behind, wearing a cloth and jacket. ‘Woman in Flight’ carries under her arm and on her hip a water pot or perhaps a gourd container (‘labu gediya’) as she runs. Such details are quite unlike the cleverly-introduced exotic paraphernalia that many local painters use to give an authentic ‘flavour’ to tempt prospective buyers. In Uduman’s paintings one feels that these serve to root the artist’s private imaginings in his actual lived life, as one dreams of strange rooms or landscapes that nevertheless contain familiar types of objects, plants, or people.
And there are glimpses into an almost pure private world. ‘Bird in the Soul’ and ‘Demon with Many Phalluses’ lure us into fantasies that are not ours. The latter is hard to decipher; perhaps it is unfinished. The spiky fingernails and pointed tail and carefully-rendered sanniya mask are oddly precise, combined with the amorphous, almost undifferentiated, brown blobbiness of the demon. Jesus shows a disturbing face with a moustache, goatee, and dishevelled hair and one staring white eye – not a man of sorrows so much as a mad man, unheeded by the world.
In ‘Girl by Street Tap,’ I was reminded of not only the once-common sight of a young woman at a public sidewalk water outlet, but of the depictions in Indian sculpture of women worshipping a Siva Lingam. This suggestion of the divine in the mundane world may not have been intended by the painter, but it coexists in the painting along with the not inappropriate eroticism of the girl’s bare breasts. Incidentally, in this work, the quite unexpected lavender and gold flower appearing like an apparition hovering on an everyday street, is like a visitation or blessing, a wonderful imaginative touch that also lifts the ordinary subject into an unforgettable extraordinary plane.
Of the Sri Lankan painters, Uduman’s work reminds me most in certain respects of that of Justin Deraniyagala. Both are expressionistic in their concern with emotional expression; both use paint as a language, both are more concerned with their own vision than with pleasing presumptive viewers, and thus make bold use of paint and of formal distortions that may or may not succeed. Neither signed nor dated their works, nor were interested in selling them (interestingly, the displayed works were not for sale, although excellent reproductions of any work could be ordered).
Both artists show a predilection for single figures with animals or objects, or for animals (especially bulls and birds). Both artists convey a personality that could perhaps be described as turbulent, introverted, and sensitive, no doubt finding in the art of painting a kind of release from the torments of self imprisonment and certainly the satisfactions of giving some shape and external expression to their inner worlds. Uduman’s works do not have the sophistication of Deraniyagala; in any case, he did not have the opportunity to learn painting in foreign art academies nor to devote his entire life to his art.
Yet in Uduman’s best work is a sensitivity and expressivity in the use of paint that I think Deraniyagala would have recognised and admired. I speak, for example, of the fluttering garment of ‘Pregnant Woman in Flight, or the overall treatment in ‘Carter Washing Bull’.
Another work that uncannily recalls Deraniyagala is ‘Girl with Bananas,’ which could almost have been painted by the older artist. Yet I do not have the impression that Uduman was consciously or even unconsciously imitating Deraniyagala. Perhaps it is that both were aware of the same European modern painters and also were both giving voice to similar personal predilections and artistic concerns, thereby achieving a family resemblance in one of the works. To my mind, the comparison is high praise indeed.
Uduman’s paintings on display are not uniformly successful, which is not surprising considering that only 30 examples have been retrieved from his life’s work. Yet it is surprising how many of the paintings repay our close attention, setting his work apart from many more publicly-recognised artists whose folksy peraheras or bucolic village damsels make no demands on us (or their creators) and hence find their aptest place as elements of interior decoration.
I would hope that in the history of Sri Lankan art, painters of such intense and original accomplishment as Fareed Uduman will not be overlooked or dismissed simply because they did not happen to be part of the acknowledged avant-garde of their time. Indeed, it is important to rescue and preserve works like his in order someday to chart comprehensively the course of 20th century painting here. Though a self-styled ‘odd man out,’ Uduman deserves his place in that history, and his family honours him by making us aware of his inwardly intense life and outwardly striking art.
(The writer is a Fulbright Senior Scholar in Sri Lanka – June 1992-93 and the author of ‘What is Art For? Homo Aestheticus, and Art and Intimacy’).
An exhibition of the works of Fareed Uduman (1917-1985) will be held at the Barefoot Gallery from 25 March-16 April 2022, 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Monday to Saturday.