Smriti Daniel

T. Shanaathanan: Mapping Displacement

In Academics, Painters on January 13, 2015 at 11:18 am

“When I am narrating this story to you, I am thinking of how the Indian army [the IPKF] burned our house,” says Thamotharampillai Shanaathanan, his voice strong as it comes over a phone call from Jaffna. “That itself was not the most painful thing – it was what was left behind. A cup, but the saucer is missing, the book is burned but the cover is there.” To Shanaathanan these fragments are a nagging reminder of incompleteness, of what was lost. Without it, forgetting might at least be an option. Now a broken chair is part accusation, part verdict: “you have failed, you realise it cannot be fixed.”

It is this utter fragmentation that the Jaffna artist sets out to capture in DIS/PLACEMENT, his latest exhibition at the Saskia Fernando Gallery. Divided unequally between two series – one titled ‘Landscapes’ running from I through IV, and the other ‘Place’ from I through XX – the collection both builds on themes that have obsessed the painter and simultaneously marks a decided deviation from what was recognisably his style. Shanaathanan freely acknowledges the former, and seems intrigued and amused by responses to the latter.

He knows for the serious collector, this dilution of his aesthetic could be an issue, but Shanaathanan seems less interested in selling paintings and more interested in excavating truths. In the four ‘Landscape’ paintings he returns to his fascination with maps, which in his hands have long had a multi-dimensional quality.

Physically they are fascinating collages: the terrain crumples into hills and valleys of papier-mâché and sutures make for crude surgery that do little to hide the wounds in the earth beneath. Raw geography is overlaid with myth and memory: here the four rivers meet; the earth spirits pray, the walls and courtyards of demolished homes and temples still stand, and the bodies of the fallen throw their shadowy outlines on the land.These maps on their mottled and stained canvases seem to have the authority of age, and yet migration and war have made their borders unreliable; unrecognizable to those who once called it home. “This experience of displacement, of a feeling of loss, that actually becomes a common identity,” says Shanaathanan.

The artist created the ‘Place’ series in a process he describes as “different hands operating,” and in succeeding reminds us that he was also trained as an art historian. There is an impressive diversity of technique here – inspired by everything from the Renaissance to temple paintings and the traditions of realism and miniature canvases.

In one fragment, a richly dressed woman averts her doe-like eyes, in another the twin beams of a car’s headlights illuminate a bad road. There’s a shot of a helicopter hovering, ominous and black; the torso of a naked woman, the scales of a fish, a tractor in a field, an aerial view of a house. There are tiny, white flowers on the vine, a statue on a plinth, a mermaid, a hospital bed abandoned to the elements, a set of dentures that even minus its owner still manages to grit its teeth.

Over 200 jigsaw pieces were created for these 20 ‘Place’ paintings – the layout of which were inspired in part by the insect boxes the artist was fascinated by in the Natural History Museum. The splintered presence of each piece serves only more strongly to underline what is absent and the seeming impossibility of completeness.

“Some of my viewers are not happy with this exhibition,” Shanaathanan admits. He has been told that his signature style is not visible here. While this is true to some degree, it is equally obvious that DIS/PLACEMENT is an iteration of the artist’s long engagement not just with themes of identity and belonging but with jigsaws.

They first appeared in his 2006 exhibition ‘Locating the Self’ where the headless torso of a man held five or six pieces. Shanaathanan used the work to explore how location and identity were so entangled, that to disconnect one was to mount a profound challenge to the other. Then again he returned to jigsaws with his extraordinary book ‘The Incomplete Thombu’ the very last page of which featured the story of a woman made a stranger in her own street because none of her community remained. For Shanaathanan, the jigsaw he created in response to her story reflected the plight of the Muslims from the North and the East who had seen violence and eviction strew their people across the island.

He says now that that story became the starting point for ‘Mismatches,’ his next exhibition in 2012. There he created nine individual jigsaws, each representing the nine planets or navagraha of Hindu mythology. They represented different memories, incidents and experiences, says Shanaathanan.

With ‘Mismatches’ he knew what appealed to his audience: “It worked very well in the exhibition space. People, they will buy that – they will not buy the tensions, they will buy a beautiful jigsaw piece.” The exhibition seems to have made two things clear to Shanaathanan: he was not done with jigsaws and he was keen that his work represent the political violence and social complexity of his context. They should not be easy to treat as merely decorative.

Though in this case intensely personal, this exhibition also harks back to ‘History of Histories’ (2004), in which the artist curated an installation of everyday objects ‘representing the memory of home,’ collected from 500 people from across the Jaffna peninsula. The exhibit was installed in the newly restored Jaffna Library but was unaccompanied by any form of registry, labels or explanations. Donors who could not tell their pieces of barbed wire, broken dolls and bullets apart from those others had contributed were forced to confront the enormity of their shared suffering and often broke down, remembers Shanaathanan.

He would later recreate the project for the Vancouver Museum of Anthropology, working with the Sri Lankan diaspora in Canada. (Initial plans for a tour of the original exhibit were shelved when faced with the troublesome process of gaining exit permits for the objects, the possession of some of which, such as passports and bullets, was actually illegal.)

Shanaathanan’s portfolio of work is best appreciated in his personal context. The artist is not removed from the violence and sorrow he documents with such effective subversion. He lives and works in Jaffna, where he teaches art at the University and when he is not there, he must still contend with the knowledge that his parents are. (In fact, his family were among the hundreds of thousands forced out of Jaffna by the LTTE in the 1995 Exodus.)

Though he admits he once toyed with the idea of leaving to try his fortunes abroad, like so many already have, Shanaathanan has long since consciously chosen to remain. It is because his art is so much of this place, and of this time that he would not recognize himself elsewhere. In remaining, he has given us a unique voice that records and responds to the suffering of a people. In successfully subverting censorship in his art, he has made room for dissent and sorrow, where seemingly none existed.

Published in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on January 11, 2015. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix courtesy Saskia Fernando.

Rohini Mohan and Sharika Thiranagama: The Seasons of Trouble + In My Mother’s House

In Academics, Anthropologists, Journalists, Open Magazine, Writers on January 9, 2015 at 7:58 am

I was only eight years old when Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated, but I remember the shock on my father’s face as he told me the news. The other night, my friends and I found ourselves swapping stories about the assassination and other moments that loomed large in the minds of Sri Lankans who lived through them—the 1983 riots and the air strike on Colombo, the death of Prabhakaran and the end of the war. We spoke of where we were then and, often, just how little we knew about what was really going on. At the back of my mind, throughout that conversation, were the people in Rohini Mohan’s The Seasons of Trouble: Life Amid the Ruins of Sri Lanka’s Civil War, and where they had been on those days

Mugil was in a camp for the internally displaced in May 2009 when she heard that the leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Velupillai Prabhakaran, whom she once idolised, was dead. ‘For her, the news was like the shattering of glass on a silent night,’ writes Mohan. ‘All the decisions she thought she had made of her own volition— her proud rebellion—were made for the dream he had designed. She told her father, without reserve, that she felt orphaned. He understood; it was likely he felt the same way.’

Mohan and Sharika Thiranagama, the author of In My Mother’s House: Civil War in Sri Lanka (published in 2013 in India and by University of Pennsylvania Press in the US), have written books that will linger in our thoughts for a while to come; different beasts altogether, yet remarkable in their own ways. Mohan’s is a work of literary non-fiction narrated by an award-winning Indian journalist; an intimate portrayal of three lives researched over five years. Sri Lankan Thiranagama’s is an ethnography, written with an anthropologist’s eye and an insider’s heart. What makes both books so worth reading is that in the telling, neither woman flinches from the complex reality of life in Sri Lanka.

The reader is likely to find Mohan’s more accessible. She has confined herself largely to three lives, selected because the ‘words, decisions and silences of these three articulated better than most how the effects of a conflict can persist for a year, five or decades after’.

In July 1983, Indra and Sarva, mother and son, fled Colombo—only to meet the mobs in the plantations of Nuwara Eliya. While Indra hid in the tea bushes, covering her infant son with her own body, Tamils were slaughtered around them, their homes looted. Years later, Sarva is dragged off the streets by state forces because of a secret in his past. When he attempts to escape, he finds his way forward fraught with challenges, perhaps the most unexpected of which is to win the hand of the woman he loves.

Indra, in many ways the most extraordinary character in this book, braves both the famously ruthless LTTE leadership and a cruel Sri Lankan bureaucracy as she fights with ferocity for Sarva’s liberty: ‘She had never raised a hand to him, so who were these people to hit her son?’ Her amazing courage is fuelled in equal parts by indignation and love.

Meanwhile, disillusioned former child soldier Mugil deserts the Tigers in the final days of the war, and returns to her family. ‘In a series of impulses’, she sheds her ‘façade’— first the gun, then the cyanide, the tiger tooth and finally the uniform—before disappearing into the role of an ordinary wife and mother. She soon finds her new disguise is only as strong as the courage of those who know her secret.

Seasons of Trouble

Mohan absents her own voice from the book, and instead chooses to tell the stories of her protagonists, with a pleasing directness. She offers context where appropriate, but clever pacing ensures we always return again and again to the people at the heart of the book. Their stories challenge the official narrative at every turn.


Thiranagama is an assistant professor of anthropology at Stanford University, so it’s no surprise that In My Mother’s House appeals particularly in her considered analysis, building on the research she references in her six chapters. It is worth noting that she is the daughter of Dr Rajini Thiranagama, a Tamil human rights activist. Rajini was openly critical of the LTTE, for which she paid with her life. Consequently, as a young child, Thiranagama was transplanted to London, where she grew up in the Sri Lankan diaspora. Though she occasionally draws on her own memories, the book is not about her. She relies on many different voices, using interviews as points from which to embark on explorations of kinship, displacement, militancy, caste and marriage traditions, among many other things.

Identifying the need to reframe conventional accounts of the Sri Lankan war as one of the major aims of the book, Thiranagama dedicates pages to discussing the history of Tamil militancy in Sri Lanka, quickly reminding her readers of the early challenges to Prabhakaran’s extremism from other militant groups and bitter infighting.

In exploring how a generation answered the call to militancy, she establishes social reform as a driving motivation— not only was there a growing dislike of casteism, but young people were rebelling against social expectations and traditions around marriage and dowry. Unfortunately, this movement was subverted by the LTTE, who for instance, while overthrowing gender constructs within their ranks, enforced them strictly outside.

Thiranagama’s ability to name her ur (hometown) and thereby give her interviewees a sense of her history and loyalties, gives her a clear advantage. Her format renders her tone formal, her commentary bristling with references. In contrast, her interviews are often achingly poignant, allowing us to join her among a gathering of Northern Muslims in the IDP camps of Puttalam (‘Little sister, do you want to know how we arrived here? My wife came with her blouse torn and her sari streaming behind’) or in the kitchen of a woman raising her girls in their newly rebuilt family home; the same space in which her father was murdered during the 1983 riots, and where her neighbours now avoid her, evidence of their culpability present in the form of her looted belongings in their house.

In My Mother's House

Thiranagama’s writing on the travails of Northern Muslims—a subject seldom given enough column space—is of particular interest. For a period, there were many Muslim cadres in the LTTE, I discover. In fact, the organisation survived the offensive of the Indian Peace Keeping Forces (IPKF) in the east in the 1980s ‘chiefly because eastern Muslims maintained supply lines through Muslim areas to feed guerrillas in the jungle’. Thiranagama establishes that Muslims of the north and east were once considered natural allies of the Tamils, particularly since they spoke the same language. However, their presence inevitably threatened the LTTE’s visions of a ‘pure’ Tamil homeland: ‘They are the hidden other side of Tamil nationalism, the intimate but refused other,’ she writes.

In the end, both groups share the experience of displacement. Noting that ‘the most common experience of war related by all Tamils is movement’, Thiranagama talks about two of the largest forced movements in Sri Lankan history; the 1990 Eviction of Muslims from the north, which affected an estimated 70,000–80,000 people, and the 1995 Exodus of Tamils from Jaffna city, which moved another 450,000– 500,000 people, both instigated by the LTTE. As with the Eviction, the Exodus too is an ‘unforgettable event for Jaffna Tamils’, writes Thiranagama. ‘Every family has an Exodus story… They talk with the same intensity of walking, of violence, hunger, fear, and anger.’

Like Mohan, Thiranagama explores the lingering devastation wrought by losses during the war, in particular how quickly and completely people were stripped of everything they owned—Muslims in Jaffna were given only two hours to leave. Families who had saved for years saw their daughter’s dowries systematically whittled down at checkpoints. Arriving in the camps penniless, a generation struggled to overcome impoverishment, interrupted education and isolation from the local populace and administration because of language, eventually facing alienation from their own descendents, who gave no thought to returning. Instead, the latter embraced the place they were born into as their ur, claiming a landscape that was once alien as their home.

Both books have this too in common: they address frankly what it has meant and what it means to be a minority in Sri Lanka. They acknowledge the loose ends, the unsatisfactory compromises, the multiplying injustices, the way in which the past haunts the present, in which sorrow passes from one generation to the next, transmitted in fear, silence and unnamed grief.

Reports of violence instigated by Buddhist monks against Sri Lanka’s Muslims became common knowledge last year; it seems some are yet to weary of the endless spiral of violence and hate-mongering. As vested interests battle it out, the peace and prosperity of everyday civilian lives is, as always, collateral damage. As Thiranagama notes at one point: ‘The battle for hearts and minds of Tamil civilians was lost by the LTTE, and, sadly, remains the only battle the current Sri Lankan state is reluctant to initiate.’

Published in Open Magazine on January 9, 2014. Words by Smriti Daniel.

Amal De Chickera: A Right to a Nationality

In Academics, Activists, Researchers on December 31, 2014 at 9:12 am

You are stateless – you can lay claim to no nationality, and no nation claims you.

You may have been born into anonymity as one of the persecuted Rohingya in Myanmar, your life encircled by fences of camps for the internally displaced, your only option to flee across the border to another refugee camp in Bangladesh. Perhaps your parents were Kurds, stripped of their nationality in Syria, or Roma in Eastern Europe rendered stateless in the messy dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Perhaps you are the child of a migrant worker on a palm oil plantation in Malaysia or were born to a Nepalese mother who, like mothers in more than 20 other countries, cannot legally bequeath their nationalities to their children. You could be in Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe, Iraq, Kuwait, Thailand or any of a dozen other places. No one can be quite certain how many share your fate but it’s estimated that there are millions of stateless people. Fortunately, exact numbers aren’t a prerequisite for finding a solution – the goal is instead to eradicate statelessness in a decade.
In many ways, our understanding of the issue is still in its infancy, but among the 20 or so pre-eminent experts in the field is a Sri Lankan. Amal de Chickera co-founded the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion with Laura van Waas and Zahra Albarazi in 2014. With offices in London, it is the first global NGO dedicated to addressing statelessness. They made the announcement at the Global Forum on Statelessness in The Hague in September, and have since found funds to cover their early running costs through a crowd-funding campaign on the website Indiegogo. The institute’s stated goal is to help shape ‘an inter-disciplinary response to the injustice of statelessness and exclusion by serving as an expert, partner and catalyst for change.’

An international campaign, launched by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and promoted by its special envoy Angelina Jolie, is gunning for 10 million signatures in 10 years, and thanks to this concerted drive, a once unknown issue has suddenly found itself in the spotlight. Each signature will represent the 10 million people the UNHCR says are stateless. Denied a nationality and along with it a slew of basic rights including access to health care, the right to vote or even freedom of movement, theirs has been a life of tremendous hardship and almost complete alienation.

In a domino effect, life only gets harder for the stateless – if one does not have a birth certificate, one cannot apply for any form of identity card, cannot open a bank account, or own property, go to school or hold down a legal job or have a marriage registered. It is why, over his years in the field, Amal has come to believe that statelessness should be treated as a multi-disciplinary human rights issue and not a legal conundrum requiring only a technical solution.

It’s a cold December morning and Amal is a familiar face walking down a street in Central London. Our interview is a long one, held in multiple locations as we try to find a quiet spot – first in the café, then on a chilly park bench and finally in another café. “I didn’t know what statelessness was,” Amal says, remembering himself as a student of the Master of Laws (LLM) programme at the University College of London. Amal learned much of what he knows on the job at the Equal Rights Trust (ERT), where he is presently a senior consultant on statelessness.

Amal is an acknowledged expert on the subject and is credited for his research and authorship of notable publications including ERT’s ‘Unravelling Anomaly: Detention, Discrimination and the Protection Needs of Stateless Persons’ (2010) and ‘Guidelines to Protect Stateless Persons from Arbitrary Detention’ (2012). He is the manager of the Trust’s ongoing work on the human rights of stateless Rohingya and has conducted research in 12 countries. He is a co-founder and steering committee member of the influential European Network on Statelessness and an advisory committee member of the International Detention Coalition.

It’s a lot to pack into six years – he joined the ERT in 2008 – but in many ways they’re still very much at the early stages of solving what is, without doubt, a monumental challenge. “It’s a difficult issue to campaign on, there is no easy straightforward message,” says Amal. For instance, there are clear legal issues that need resolving – policies applied with prejudice by governments, loopholes in legal frameworks, communities that exist or have been forced outside the mainstream – but Amal’s understanding of the lingering consequences of statelessness evolved from when he made the connection to Sri Lanka’s Tamil plantation population.

The island’s upcountry Tamils, immigrants transported by the British from South India to serve as labour on the tea plantations account for an estimated 5% of Sri Lanka’s population. Threats of repatriation, privatisation of the plantations, repeated financial negotiations, shifting government policies, ethnic violence and years of trade union action kept the issue in the headlines, yet as of 1996 an estimated 150,000 people in those areas were still without Sri Lankan citizenship. The situation was only rectified fully in 2003, when a bill was passed to grant citizenship to 168,141 stateless plantation Tamils by the Sri Lanka Parliament.

Stateless people are usually alienated from the democratic process, but campaigning by the trade unions contributed greatly in this case to having their voices heard. Few other marginalised groups have such vociferous champions. Despite their now improved political leverage, the plantation community still faces significant socio-political, economic, health and education challenges. Many continue to lead a precarious existence, not unlike that of their ancestors.

As a lawyer (he passed the Bar Examination at the Sri Lanka Law College at the very top of his batch), Amal says he was surprised by his own ignorance of the problem. “Here I was a Sri Lankan lawyer, who was in many ways very aware of the situation of the hill country Tamils, yet I had seen it as a human rights issue alone rather than a statelessness issue.” Now he thinks many of the former stem from the latter. “It does shed light on why the hill country Tamils were excluded in Sri Lanka’s nation building process – it was because they were considered neither Sri Lankan nor Indian, even though they were in the country they had lived in all their lives.”

It’s why ‘inclusion’ is given a place of prominence in the new institute’s agenda. “It shouldn’t be seen as the end of the road to resolve it legally, a lot needs to be done to address generations of exclusion,” says Amal, using as an example the barriers that have to be overcome by communities which have not had access to education for decades. “Substantive programmes to address historical inequalities are called for,” he says, emphasising, “we really need some kind of shift in the attitudes of people around, there needs to be acceptance and tolerance and recognition that they belong.”

It’s interesting to note that he brings to this vision a deep respect for the role the arts can play in mobilising public opinion, giving statelessness a human face and communicating some of the complexities of this issue. Amal, who was a founding member of the Sri Lankan Stages Theatre Group along with siblings Ruwanthie de Chickera, Gihan de Chickera and several others, says “I think a lot of NGOs view the arts in a very limited way and they see it was a good way to simplify issues and get a message out.”

Though he acknowledges the usefulness of this, Amal adds, “For me it’s about developing a social discourse around the issue…creating a medium through which people are allowed to engage…This allows for a focal point through which we can relate to each other, and is important if we are to find or forge a creative response to this issue.”

December marked an important milestone for the fledgling NGO, with the release of its first report. Amal shares his hope that it will become an annual flagship publication, with each year giving them an opportunity to focus on different aspects of statelessness and to promote alliances between diverse groups who must be committed to helping the stateless for this to work.

So much hinges on transforming and then mobilising societal attitudes. In their forward to the report, the team make a moving case for changing how we perceive people without nationalities. They have the right to be defined by more than what is missing in their lives, to be seen as complete human beings with personal commitments, professional ambitions, character, identity and in many cases a deep sense of belonging to a place and a people that transcends the absence of an ID card.

Amal and his team see the need to fight on behalf of these ‘unrecognised citizens’ – “They have a place in this world, a country of their own, but this country does not recognise them as its nationals. This must change, because everyone has the right to a nationality.”

Published in The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on December 21, 2014. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix by Saiful Huq Omi.


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