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Restoration of Sigiriya frescoes vandalized in 1967

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Excerpted from SIGIRIYA PAINTINGS by

Raja de Silva , Retired Commissioner of Archaeology

On the morning of October 15, 1967, the Archaeology Commissionner, Dr. CE Godakumbure, instructed me to go immediately to Sigiriya and take necessary action to remove the green ink (S. theentha), which, according to an incoherent message received from the Overseer, was understood to have been splashed on the paintings in the fresco pocket by vandals during the previous night.

I arrived that evening at Sigiriya with my conservation staff and the onset of the rainy season of the North-East Monsoon, and with liberal quantities of chemicals for the removal of ink. I was informed that the priceless paintings had been daubed not with ink but with a green paint. The paintings were inspected the next morning in the company of the Police, who had locked with a new padlock, the door leading to the fresco pockets at the head of the spiral staircase, after their investigations the previous day. It appeared from the police investigations that the vandals had surmounted two locked gates and opened the final padlocked door of the fresco pocket with a key.

The greatest problems of conservation and restoration that were faced at Sigiriya were those attendant on the vandalism that took place in October, 1967 when a commercial green paint was daubed on 14 of the 19 paintings extant in the fresco pockets (five in pocket A and 14 in pocket B). 12(a). In addition two of the disfigured paintings had been physically damaged beyond repair, by hacking away the head of one figure (pocket B, No. 3) and the portion above the waist of the next (pocket B. No. 4). 7(a), 10, 10(a). The very next painting (pocket B, No.5) was stabbed at with a pointed instrument – “the most unkindest cut of all”.

The paintings in pocket A which had been covered by the daubing of green paint were Nos. 3 and 4; the panels in pocket B which had been similarly disfigured were Nos. 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 and 13. Broken fragments of the painted plaster were strewn on the floor of pocket B and the paint had trickled on to the lower parts of the ground and the floor of the other pocket as well. Much of the paint had not dried and the cool weather due to the monsoonal rains had inhibited the drying process. No test for the removal of the paint were possible as the chemicals brought from Colombo were for the purpose of removing ink stains, misconstrued as the material strewn on the paintings (the Sinhalese word for ink being the same as that for paint). A full photographic record in black and white and in colour was taken together with samples of the paint and the broken plaster, and conservation team returned to Colombo on 16 October.

No time was lost in conducting experiments for the expeditious removal of dry and drying paint from the fragments of the Sigiriya plaster (without damage to the original painted surface) and from similar wall surfaces in the laboratory. The keystone of the tests was to devise a method of dissolving the paint and removing it from the surface of the wall before the dissolved paint solution had time to penetrate into the lime plaster (intonaco). A suitable method of treatment was successfully devised in Colombo, and the conservation party left for Sigiriya on October 19.

On October 20, a successful method of cleaning the greater part of the vandals’ paint was devised in the fresco pockets and by end of the day about half the area of pocket B, No. 10 was cleaned. In patches where the original paint layer had fallen off in the past revealing the intonaco, there was a light blue colour due to the constituent of the paint of this colour; which turned out to be Prussian Blue, being absorbed in such areas. On returning to Colombo on October 21 a conference was held the next day chaired by the Minister of Education and Cultural Affairs; in immediate response to a Government request from the International Centre for the Study and Preservation of Cultural Property, Rome, for the services of the best available expert to restore the paintings, Luciano Maranzi, an alumnus of this Centre was selected and had arrived in the Island for a period of two weeks.

The Smithsonian Institution, Washington, had readily agreed to bear the expenses involved. After briefing the Minister and discussing the problems involved whilst in Colombo, Maranzi, Raja de Silva and his technical staff left for Sigiriya the next day with materials for restoration from the Archaeological Laboratory as well as from Italy. Maranzi conducted experiments for two days and devised a quicker method of cleaning the paintings than had been used a few days earlier by de Silva, with the use of the same solvent, trilene. Maranzi expressed no great surprise at this coincidence as he recalled seeing me at the Rome Centre in 1956 when I was on a short training course there.

Maranzi, however, used to good effect other materials too that had been brought by him, and adopted a faster and more efficient method of cleaning the paintings than we had used. Maranzi and the Archaelogical Survey Department (ASD) staff worked in the fresco pockets from early morning till fading light of the evening (food being brought up daily) until November 3, 1967; he left the Island on November 4 after completing the initial part of his programme of work and advising us on how to continue the restoration work pending his return in 1968.

The programme of restoration and conservation was phased out as follows:

 

1

. Removal of the yellow and green constituents of the vandals’ paint

 

In this process, the modern restorations carried out by the ASD were also largely removed, the exception being the resistant green paint, easily recognizable as not original from slight impasto nature, that may have been done by the “lasting spirit fresco medium” recorded by Bell.

The method adopted by Maranzi was the application of Decapex (Nitrosmalti, Via Quattro Novembre, Roma) a jelly like proprietary brand of mild paint remover. A small pad of cotton wool was then dipped in trilene, firmly held with the fingers and thumb and drawn across the painted area already treated with Decapex. By repetition of this procedure, the green and yellow constituents of the vandals’ paint were removed. On conducting this part of the cleaning operation, it was found that in certain areas where the original paint had fallen off in the past (and the intonaco had been exposed) the blue constituent of the vandals’ paint had been absorbed on the intonaco, and was resistant to the paint remover. However, dark growths of algae around some of the panels as well as most of the restorations of the ASD were removed.

 

2. Consolidation of the plaster of the physically damaged figures

An emulsion of polyvinyl acetate, Vinamul (ICI, London), known locally as Chemifix, further diluted with water was introduced using a hypodermic syringe and needle at the broken edge formed by the destruction of parts of B3 and B4. The exposed rock surface (seen to be pitted all over as a “key” for the laying of the ground) resulting from the vandalism on panels B3 and B4 was plastered with a mixture of sand, lime and polyvinyl acetate emulsion. Before the work was completed on B5, a memento in the form of two coins of the day engraved with the names of Maranzi and de Silva and dated March 25, 1967, were inserted in the fresh plaster mix at the edge of the broken ground of the wall painting, to be found at some distant date when the applied plaster is removed or falls away.

 

3. Removal of the resistant Prussian Blue

 

This constituent of the vandals’ paint can be decolorized by the use of alkalies. The application of inorganic alkalies such as even very dilute sodium hydroxide can lead to complications later due to the conversion of any excess into sodium carbonate. The Rome Centre advised the use of a volatile organic base, normal butyl amine, which was found to be satisfactory for our purpose. The application of the amine entailed the use of a cotton-wool padded glass rod.

 

4. Restoration by Maranzi of the areas exposed by the removal of modern restoration work by the ASD.

 

The “many lamentable pitting” on the paintings found by Bell had been modeled in and touched up in his time by using modern colours that extended beyond the repaired areas. The white frame left on the removal of Murray’s tissue papers had been restored using colours that did not blend well with the background colour laid on the plaster in ancient times. All these having been removed in the cleaning process of 1967, Maranzi did the minimum amount of restoration necessary, using emulsion paints (Reeves polymer colours) and Aqua Tee acrylic polymer emulsions (Bocour Artists, Colombo, New York). This work was done in an acceptable manner. so as to enable the viewer to recognize which areas had been restored. SM Seneviratne, Draughtsman and MWE Karunaratne, Photographer, assisted Maranzi in this part of the programme.

 

5. Application of a Preservative Coating

 

The painstaking and unstinted assistance given by SM Seneviratne, MWE Karunaratne, and RA Wilson, WK Samaranayake and Lokubanda of the Archaeological Laboratory, is placed on record.

Maranzi returned to the country on March 4. 1968 to personally undertake the remaining phases of the restoration work, i.e., touching up, and the application of a preservative coating of an easily removable synthetic resin, Paraloid B72, dissolved in trilene. This served also to enhance the clarity of the paintings. Maranzi copied (from existing photographs) in the fresco technique, the damaged panels B3 and B4, on an asbestos sheet plastered with a lime mix – the only example of a fresco painting in the country, which is exhibited in the archaeological museum, Sigiriya. He left Sri Lanka on April 11, 1968. It may be noted here that we were able to obtain Maranzi’s services on several later occasions, when he trained our conservation staff, and restored our paintings elsewhere in the country.

Maranzi had come, revivified the divine females of the fresco pocket to their pristine beauty, and had departed, leaving these specimens of ancient pictorial art for present and future generations to delight in. The entire nation and lovers of art outside our shores are surely indebted to him for the excellence of his restoration work.

On May 8, 1968, the fresco pocket was ceremonially opened to the public by the Minister of Education and Cultural Affairs in the presence of a distinguished gathering and thousands of citizens, after a historic meeting held at the Audience Hall Rock.



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Features

President picks up the gauntlet

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by Jehan Perera

By proroguing parliament President Ranil Wickremesinghe has given the parliamentarians, and the country at large, a reminder of the power of the presidency. There was no evident reason for the president to suddenly decide to prorogue parliament. More than 40 parliamentary committees, including important ones concerning public finances, enterprises and accounts have ceased to function. The president’s office has said that when parliament reconvenes on February 8, after the celebration of the country’s 75th Independence Day on February 4, the president will announce new policies and laws, which will be implemented until the centenary celebrations of Sri Lanka’s independence in 2048. Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew transformed Singapore from a relatively underdeveloped and impoverished agrarian society into one of the world’s most developed countries in the same 25 years that the president has set for Sri Lanka.

President Wickremesinghe has been getting increasingly assertive regarding his position on issues. Recently he attended a large gathering of Muslim clerics, where he was firm in saying that society needs to modernise, and so do religious practices. He has also held fast to his positions on reviving the economy and resolving the economy. There have been widespread protests against the tax hikes being implemented which have eroded the purchasing power of taxpayers. First they had to absorb the impact of inflation that rose to a rate of 80 percent at the time the country reneged on its foreign debt repayments and declared bankruptcy. Now they find their much diminished real incomes being further reduced by a tax rate that reaches 36 percent.

But the government is not relenting. President Wickremesinghe, who holds the finance minister’s portfolio, is going against popular sentiment in being unyielding on the matter of taxes. He appears determined to force the country away from decades of government policies that took the easy route of offering subsidies rather than imposing taxes to use for government expenses and development purposes. In Sri Lanka, the government’s tax revenue is less than 8 percent, whereas in comparable countries the tax revenue is around 20 to 25 percent. The long term cost of living off foreign borrowings rather than generating resources domestically through taxation has been evident for a long while in the slow growth of the economy even prior to the economic collapse.

13TH AMENDMENT

Another area in which the president appears to have taken the decision to stand firm is the issue of finding a solution to the ethnic conflict. This problem has proven to be unresolvable by governments and political leaders who give deference to ethnic nationalism. Being an ethnic nationalist in the context of Sri Lanka’s ethnic and religious divisions has been a sure way of gaining votes and securing election victories. No leader in Sri Lanka has to date been able to implement the compromise solutions that they periodically arrived at, the last being the 13th Amendment. Earlier ones included the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1957 and the Dudley Senanayake-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1965 which could not even be started to be implemented.

At the All Party meeting that he summoned to discuss the ethnic conflict and national reconciliation, President Wickremesinghe took the bull by the horns. He exchanged words with ethnic nationalist parliamentarians who sought to challenge his legitimacy to be making changes. He said, “It is my responsibility as the Executive to carry out the current law. For approximately 37 years, the 13th Amendment has been a part of the constitution. I must implement or someone has to abolish it by way of a 22nd amendment to the constitution by moving a private member’s bill. If the bill was voted against by the majority in the House, then the 13th amendment would have to be implemented. We can’t remain in a middle position saying that either we don’t implement the 13th amendment or abolish it.”

The 13th Amendment has not been fully implemented since it was passed by parliament with a 2/3 majority in 1987. Successive governments, including ones the president has been a member of variously as a minister or prime minister, have failed to implement it in a significant manner, especially as regards the devolution of police and land powers. When parliament reconvenes on February 8 after prorogation, President Wickremesinghe will be provided the opportunity to address both the parliament and the country on the way forward. Having demonstrated the power of the presidency to prorogue parliament at his discretion, he will be able to set forth his vision of the solution to the ethnic conflict and the roadmap that needs to be followed to get to national reconciliation.

IRONIC PERSECUTION

It is significant that on February 20, the president will also acquire the power to dissolve parliament at his discretion. By proroguing parliament, the president has sent a message to both parliamentarians and the larger society that he will soon have the power to dissolve parliament with the same suddenness that he prorogued parliament. On February 20, the parliament would have been in existence for two and a half years. The 21st Amendment empowers the president to dissolve parliament after two and a half years. Most of the parliamentarians belonging to the ruling party are no longer in a position to go to their electorates let alone canvass for votes among the people. Under these fraught circumstances, they would not wish to challenge the president or his commitment to implementing the 13th Amendment in full.

On the other hand, the taming of parliament by the president does not guarantee the success of an accommodation on the ethnic conflict and a sustainable political solution. The ethnic conflict evokes the primordial sentiments of the different ethnic and religious communities. Political parties and politicians are often portrayed as the villains who led the country to decades of ethnic conflict and to war. However, the conflict in the country predates the political parties. In 1928, in response to demands from community leaders in Ceylon as it was then known, the British colonial rulers sent a commission to the country to ascertain whether it was ready for self-rule. The assessment was negative—the Donoughmore commission wrote that the representatives of the biggest community held to the position that their interest was the national interest. All the representatives of the smaller communities who were divided one against the other were united against the biggest.

An important role therefore devolves upon civil society not to fall prey to the divisions that come down the years. There is a need for enlightened leaders of civil society to work with commitment to explain to the people the need for a political solution and inter-ethnic power sharing that the 13th Amendment makes possible. There were signs of this during the height of the Aragalaya when the youth leading the protests called publicly for equal citizenship and non-discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, religion and caste. They pledged not to be divided by ethnic nationalist politicians for their narrow electoral purposes. It is ironic that the government led by President Wickremesinghe has made these enlightened youth leaders the target of a campaign of persecution instead of making them a part of the solution by constructively engaging with them and issuing a general amnesty.

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Privatisation of education and demonising of students of Lanka

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Student union leader Wasantha Mudalige with prison guards

by Anushka Kahandagamage

Sri Lanka is trapped in debt due to decades of corruption and short-sighted economic policies. To come out of the trap or, I would say, escape the moment, the government is seeking loans from the IMF, or anybody else who is willing to lend, no matter the conditions. To this end, under the IMF’s tutelage, the government is seeking to privatise education, aware that it will face the wrath of the people. In this setting, to suppress the protests, the government has adopted a strategy of demonising students, in the public education system.

School children as “drug addicts”

A media empire, which has strong ties with the current Lankan regime, recently sent shockwaves through schools, and their communities, by reporting cases of school children hooked on harmful narcotics. Following these reports, there were many write ups, social media content and stories published on the menace of drug addiction, among Sri Lankan students. That media network even released a video, interviewing two schoolgirls who claimed to be addicted to harmful substances. In the midst of the media frenzy, the police carried out surprise checks in schools, searching students’ bags. The state humiliated and terrified school children by using the police to conduct surprise checks in the schools and peek into the students’ backpacks, instead of investigating the avenues through which dangerous drugs enter the country. After a week, the Minister of Education claimed he was unaware that the police were conducting surprise checks in schools, with sniffer dogs, adding that there was no need to deploy the police force for this purpose. If the Minister was not aware that the police raided schools, it is not surprising that the state would also turn a blind eye to how narcotics enter the country. While there is a risk of students addicting to dangerous drugs, the state cannot place all the blame on students. Instead of taking responsibility for the state of affairs, and acting to keep harmful substances off the island, the state places the burden on schoolchildren and simply refers to them as “drug addicts.”

Bhikku students as “alcoholics”

The next example is from the Buddhist and Pali University, in Homagama. Similar to the first story, the same media network reported some irregularities occurring in the University. Those irregularities included the student monks forcing incoming students, also monks, to consume weed, liquor and party. Following this news report, some investigations were conducted in the University and empty liquor bottles were found in an abandoned well. Then we witnessed several press conferences where University authorities questioned the student monk leaders. While one cannot and should not disregard students’ violence upon another student, it is interesting to note the way the government is taking up the particular incident, at this particular point of time. There was a massive social media campaign to show that the student-monks are immoral and unworthy of education. It cannot be a coincidence that the student monks, at this University, were actively involved in the Aragalaya. In other words, the government was trying to defame the University, and the students, by labelling them as oppressors and alcoholics.

The Rajapaksa regime continuously used Buddhist monks, in their political operations, especially to incite conflict and win elections. The state has frequently deployed Buddhist monks to further its nationalist agendas. When the state used monks for their agendas, including to instigate violence, the monks were not framed as ‘immoral.’ The higher Buddhist authorities did not take action against groups, like Bodu Bala Sena, or Ravana Balaya, or their violent activities. It is ironic that the Government seems to be concerned about the ‘morality’ or ‘discipline’ of Bhikkus at this moment when many student Bhikkus have joined hands with the people to protest against the state.

University students as “terrorists”

The last example is the most pressing at this moment. On 18th of August, 2022, the police arrested Wasantha Mudalige, the Convenor of the Inter-University Students Federation, under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). Along with him, the authorities detained Hashan Jeewantha and the convener of the Inter University Bhikku Federation (IUBF), Galwewa Siridhamma Thera. The state labelled the politically active university students as “terrorists”. Again, this cannot have happened by chance; we all know the Aragalaya against the Rajapaksa dictatorship was heavily influenced by the Inter-University Students Federation and the Inter University Bhikku Federation. The student unions were the muscle of the people’s protests against the oppressive and corrupt regime. The Ranil-Rajapaksa regime labelled the student leaders’ terrorists and started arresting them.

The state’s stamping of University students as terrorists is a folly. If the state labels its own youth as “terrorists,” it means that the state has failed miserably because it is its own actions that have pushed them toward what is labelled as “terrorism.” The state should take a step back and reconsider its decisions.

Privatization of Education

The government and the government-validating media demonize students, labelling them as drug addicts, alcoholics and terrorists. The government undermines and defames the country’s student body. By doing so, the government is strategically isolating the students from the larger society and eroding public faith in them. Ironically, drug addicts, alcoholics, and terrorists are all confined to the public school and state university system, not private educational institutions. The media propagates the idea that students enrolled in the state education system are ‘immoral’ and ‘disobedient’. Meanwhile, Ranil Wickremesinghe, the puppet President of the Rajapaksa allies, proposes a new economic system which he thinks will counter the current balance of payment crisis. The proposal includes establishing an educational hub in Sri Lanka, which promises to privatise higher education in the long-term.

The state agenda of privatizing education is not a recent one, but it has been reenergized by the Ranil-Rajapaksa government in the context of crisis. Well before demonising the students, in the public education system, in June 2022 the government, national education commission, came up with an education policy framework.

Biased towards Rajapaksa ideologies, the national education commission that developed the policy, proposed to expand the privatization of higher education. In their report, the committee presents a table demonstrating how Sri Lanka allocates less money on higher education compared with the other middle-income countries. The next section outlines the way Sri Lanka relies more on government grants for higher education than other middle-income countries, which is confusing and contradictory, perhaps reflecting the grossly inadequate overall investment in higher education in the country. Then the report goes on to analyse how the poor school education system creates an unskillful student who is unable to think critically. It finally recommends promoting private participation in higher education, not only through funding but also by matching the curricula to fit the market and increase the “employability” of students. While on the one hand government pushes for privatising higher education, on the other, it demonizes the students in the public educational system. The State has seized the problem by its tail. The government is unable to perceive its own flaws in short-sighted policymaking, law enforcement, and corruption, and instead accuses and defames students, to distract them from its concerted effort to privatise education.

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.

(Anushka Kahandagamage is reading for her PhD in the School of Social Sciences, University of Otago)

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Janaka…Keeping the Elvis scene alive

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Janaka Palapathwala: Recreating the Presley era…through song.......

For the past three years, local performers have certainly felt the heat, where work is concerned, beginning with the Easter Sunday tragedy, followed by Covid-19 restrictions, and then the political situation

Right now, there seems to be a glimmer of light, at the end of the tunnel, and musicians are hoping that, finally, the scene would brighten up for the entertainment industry.

Janaka Palapathwala, whose singing style, and repertoire, is reminiscent of the late Elvis Presley, says he was so sad and disappointed that he could not reach out to his fans, around the world, because of the situation that cropped up in the country.

However, he did the next best thing possible – a Virtual Concert, early last year, and had this to say about it:

“The concert was witnessed by so many people around the world, in 12 different countries, and I take this opportunity to thank all those who showed a great interest, around the world, to make the show a mighty success. Lasantha Fernando of Minneapolis, Minnesota, in the USA, went out of the way to pull a huge crowd, in the States, to make the concert a massive success. Lasantha, by the way, has done many shows, in Minnesota, including a concert of mine, four years ago.”

Toward the end of 2022, the showbiz scene started to look good, with musicians having work coming their way – shows, sing-alongs, events, overseas tours, recordings, etc.

Janaka added that the Gold FM ’70s show was back after six years, and that the music industry is grateful to Gold FM for supporting musicians with such an awesome event.

“Also, the unity and the togetherness of the Sri Lankan western musicians, scattered around the globe, were brought together, once again, by the guidance of Melantha Perera.

“The song ‘Baby Jesus Is Fast Asleep’, written, composed and directed by Melantha, was a true Christmas gift to people around the world.”

Referring to his career, Janaka said that these days he is involved in a mega video production project.

“I intend to do a road show for a total Dinner Dance Promotion package, titled ‘Janaka with Melantha and the Sign’.

“Phase One of the project is already completed, and we are now heading for the second phase, where we plan to get Sohan Weerasinghe, Clifford Richards and Stephanie Siriwardane involved in the cast”.

Janaka also spoke excitedly about his forthcoming trip to the USA.

“I’m so excited to tour the USA, after three years. The ‘Spring Tour USA 2023′ is going to be different.

“I’ve done formal concerts, in the States, but this Spring Tour will be a series of Dinner Dances where I would be seen in action, along with the top ranked DJ of Washington D.C., Shawn Groove, and some of the best domestic bands in the States, and I can assure all my friends, and fans, in the US, that this new venture is going to be doubly exciting.”

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