This Sri Lankan artist hails from the Northern capital of Jaffna, a town that has witnessed much violence during the civil war in Sri Lanka from early 1980s to 2009. Although the artist did not intend to produce them as a series, together they make a collection of visual poetry on displacement, loss of home, childhood and innocence.
Most of these paintings were drawn during Sanathanan’s student years in Delhi. The artist recalls the experience being that of loneliness and exile, not knowing what was actually happening back home. Months would pass without any news from home. However, as a Sri Lankan Tamil, he could not express himself freely in Delhi, and he turned to his canvases instead.
Sanathanan mentions that ‘Grandmother’s Courtyard’ was his first painting based on memory. During the war, his grand mothers house and several other family properties were taken over by the militants and turned into hide-outs and bunkers. Most of them got destroyed during the air raids. Sanathanan draws the map of the neighbourhood from his memory. The mango tree in grandmother’s court yard, and the swing attached to one of its branches is a place where the artist shared many lovely childhood moments with his cousins, relatives and friends. The war erased all these locations, relationships and people. In his painting, a lonely man sits on the swing.
The other paintings in the series follow a similar theme. The idea of the ariel view that the artist experienced while leaving Jaffna by a flight gave rise to a series of maps that capture the longing and ‘gazing from above’. It is a point of view that simultaneously gives you a birds eye view by pulling back, but creates longing and attachment by pulling you in.
One map recreates a fertile area now rendered inaccessible due to mining. Sanathanan superimposes the image of a womb to symbolize this fertility. The figure of many breasts in the next painting is in itself a metaphor for the mother earth that nourished its people, now turned into a mine field. In yet another painting the artist depicts a man juggling many houses in his hands. These houses represent the many houses one relocated in each time the encroaching war dispelled people from their land.
Santhanan’s work embody powerful metaphors and difficult memories. He documents neighbourhoods that would never be the same.