Where Bauhaus Meets Coomaraswamy – Ode To Tilak Samarawickrema


By Danya Udukumbure

Youthful, exuberant and fresh in design and in thinking and yet somehow my dear friend and mentor, Architect Tilak Samarawickrema celebrated his 75th birthday on the 01st of September this year. This occasion inspired me to look back at the unique artistic contributions he has gifted us throughout his vibrantly colourful career and the interesting context in which he worked that brought about these masterly creations.

Tilak’s artistic genius is multi faceted. Amongst the many different types of art forms that he has worked on, in my opinion, three aspects makes him especially remarkable. The first two are his signature creations with his own distinctive style -his line drawings and tapestry designs and the third, his contribution to the arts and crafts industry of Sri Lanka. The other talents he has excelled in, extends to architecture, wire and brass sculptures, fashion design and animated film production to name a few.

It was the doodling habit he had, to while away his time at Geofrey Bawa’s office as a student that ultimately evolved into a unique art form of his own. His sensual curling lines, thickening and thinning, being plain and detailed as the rhythm requires, almost resembles the Singhala calligraphy. It tells rich stories of predominantly Sri Lankan culture, traditions and activities of daily life giving form and animation to stories in an expressive, harmonious, and skilful manner.

His art not only resembles the Singhala calligraphy but also has the ambiguous style of Singhalese communication in getting to the point in a gentle roundabout fashion than being cut and dry straight forward. It leaves room to guess and anticipate the intention of the subtle nuances of the story- where your mind understands, not what the eyes see. In Bruno Munari’s words "This type of visual communication acts on the memory of the spectator, so that if Tilak suggests the head of an ox with a decorated horn and then depicts only a part of the back and then disappears, I see all the ox and I also know that it is decorated and so I can think of a festivity. This mode of drawing of Tilak’s is therefore a very essential mode, not boring and pedantic, but stimulating so that also those who look at the drawing are compelled to participate with pleasure in the reading of the visual message". *[2]

The characters that animate the stories in his drawings have unnatural facial and body features and exaggerated proportions that can only manifest in Tilak’s mind and yet you are able to distinguish the facial features of a Singhalese from a Tamil or a French and even clearly recognize their emotions through the expressions- all this through an abstract single line that reverberate between fantasy and reality.

Just as smoothly as he can shift the conversations over the dinner table from Singhalese to English or Italian, he can as easily change his artistic gear from black and white strictly curving native line drawings to brightly coloured Bauhaus style clean geometric compositions of the tapestry designs. In 1990 Tilak revolutionized the works of the traditional weavers of Talagune, Uda Dumbara by introducing modern colour schemes and unique contemporary design compositions in place of the traditional repetitive design motifs. Thereby the works of the humble weavers of Talaguney who from time immemorial provided cloth to kings and feudal chieftains travelled to the SHED design gallery in Milan (1992), Norsk Form design museum in Oslo (1998), Casa Tessuti (1992) and Schweizer Galerie (1993) in Switzerland, Galerie Smend (1994) and Deutsches Textile museum (1995) in Germany and MOMA design store in New York (1992-2000) to name a few. His line drawings and tapestries are testimony to the fact that he has mastered the curved line of the Singhalese culture and the straight line of the western culture and has seamlessly blended the influences of both the cultures to give birth to two very unique hybrid art forms of his own.

When the Ceylonese philosopher, metaphysicist and pioneering historian Ananda Coomaraswamy with his wife Ethel, produced the groundbreaking study of Ceylonese crafts and culture the "Mediaeval Sinhalese Art’ in 1907, he had an ambition and a vision. In his own words "This book is a record of the work and the life of the craftsman in a feudal society not unlike that of Early Mediaeval Europe…...It is however, only in an effort to realise the ideals of this very past ….that there lies the possibility of a true regeneration and revitalising of the national life of the Sinhalese people." *[1] Coomaraswamy saw the fast degeneration of our traditional arts and crafts culture because of colonisation, an education system that completely ignored the national culture and the effects of industrialization and commercialism. He believed that to protect the intellectual and imaginative forces of the skilled craftsmen and for them to compete with the machine made products, the governments should take the role of the kings of the feudal system and provide the patronage.

It was the time that the effects of the industrial revolution were sweeping the globe. It was the time the ‘Modern Movement’ was taking place with the idea that mass production was reconcilable with the individual artistic spirit. Coomaraswamy recognized very early the threat of the machine to the skill of the craftsman where it forbade the union of art with labour. "A less direct, but equally sure and certain, cause of the decline of the arts has been the growth of commercialism- the system of production under which the work of European machines and machine-like men has in the East driven the village weaver from his loom, the craftsman from his tools, the ploughman from his songs, and has divorced art from labour." "It appears therefore, that it is absolutely essential that mechanical production should in the future be, not abandoned, but controlled in the real interest of humanity. If this appears to be impossible, as I am unwilling to believe, it must be admitted that civilization is not much better than a failure; for it is not much good being more ingenious than our forefathers if we cannot be either happier or better." *[1]

In 1986 a young Tilak Samarawickrema stepped up to take up the challenge left by Coomaraswamy. Coomaraswamy and the ‘Mediaeval Sinhalese Art’ has always been a guiding light to Tilak from his student days throughout his professional career and its influence is evident in all his work. He had just returned to Sri Lanka after spending twelve years in Italy where he went as a student on a scholarship from the Italian government and had briefly lived in New York as well, promoting his art. With international and contemporary design experience and exposure, by then he was a well established successful professional who was internationally recognized. He has had the rare fortune to have held many exhibitions of his work in prestigious galleries throughout Europe and New York.

On his return, he was appointed Design Consultant to the National Design Centre of Sri Lanka on an ILO assignment. His task was to establish a Design Unit in the NDC and execute a rapid crafts development programme. With his design team Tilak travelled far and wide scouring the countryside for skilled artisans and found them in little pockets of villages scattered across the country. Tilak worked closely with these different craftsmen encouraging them to retrieve the long forgotten traditions and skills and at the same time imparting his design knowledge and experimented with new design ideas. The challenge was immense. In Coomaraswamy’s words "One of the most interesting and difficult distinctions that can be drawn is that between a tool and a machine….….. It is essential then, for a re-union of art with labour, that machinery should be controlled;. the technical perfection of the surface in the one case is simply uninteresting, in the other varied." "So far as Ceylon is concerned, it is of course true, that as in later India, a too conclusive reliance on traditional practice has led to a mental stagnation which deprives Indian art of its former vitality." *[1] In spite of this fact, competing with the mass produced commercial market was inevitable.

But this time the right man was on the job, who has had the training to overcome exactly that problem- a man who has trained in the machine inspired school of thought. Tilak set up his own Bauhaus with a local twist. At around the same time Coomaraswamy was fighting against the ill effects of the machine, Bauhaus – a German art school founded by architect Walter Gropius in Weimar, that combined crafts and the fine arts, was changing the course of international design thinking by introducing the "Bauhaus Style’ or the ‘International Style’. The school's philosophy stated that the artist should be trained to work with the industry-the simple engineering-oriented functionalism of stripped-down modernism. "We want an architecture adapted to our world of machines, radios and fast cars." Gropius argued. His style in architecture and consumer goods was to be functional, cheap and consistent with mass production. To these ends, Gropius wanted to reunite art and craft to arrive at high-end functional products with artistic merit. And that is exactly what Tilak achieved when the fruits of this labour culminated in the inaugural ‘SILPA’ exhibition held in 1987 which then became an annual event organized by the Ministry of Traditional Industries and small Enterprise Development. Thereby Tilak’s ability to bring about modern sophistication to the local crafts industry while preserving the traditional roots at its core saw a transcending of the traditional crafts to a contemporary aesthetic order.

A living tradition has to grow. Grow beyond a mere historical repetition in to something that represents our present way of thinking and expression with contemporary sensibility. A tree that rises high up into the sky will have its roots go deep into the earth. With the cross fertilization of two different cultures and two different lines of thinking Tilak was able to join these two cultures together mixing the best of the both worlds. Thereby he is a catalyst that epitomized and updated the Singhalese culture while embodying the most genuine spirit of the place.

Sir, may you, with your insatiable zest for life, art, architecture, country, family and friends continue to inspire generations to come to carry forward the work in your footsteps so that someday we may be -ingenious than our forefathers and also be happier and better!

(The writer is a chartered architect)


*[1] Mediaeval Sinhalese Art – Ananda K. Coomaraswamy

*[2] Ink of Lanka – Tilak Samarawickrema

*[3]A Voyage in Sri Lankan Design - Tilak Samarawickrema

(The writer, a Chartered Architect, can be contacted at danyaudu@yahoo.com)

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