Fruit as soap and other ‘histories of resistance’ at KMB 2016

Artist T. Shanaathanan’s exhibit presents forgotten, personal takes on Sri Lanka’s civil war canon
T Shanaathanan:- Artist T Shanaathanan with his installation 'Cabinet of Resisitance - 2 at KMB 2016 in  Anand Warehouse,Mattancherry.
T Shanaathanan:- Artist T Shanaathanan with his installation 'Cabinet of Resisitance - 2 at KMB 2016 in  Anand Warehouse,Mattancherry.


There was a time in Sri Lanka when – to let their families know that they had made the four-day, 400-km journey from Jaffna to Colombo safely – people would write their own obituaries to be broadcast on radio and television.

“Today, the trip takes hardly six hours by bus. During the war, since most of the routes were blocked or barred, one had to go through no man’s zones. There was no certainty about whether you would reach,” said Sri Lankan artist T. Shanaathanan.

Rather than send a letter or postcard – which could take two-three months to reach home, an appearance on the ‘death notices’ that were read out as a paid service following a news programme was the preferred method of updating loved ones.

Shanaathanan’s ‘Cabinet of resistance No. 2’, on display at Anand warehouse, Mattancherry, stores 25 such histories of resistance – collected over three and a half decades of civil war – in a library card cabinet. The method and mode of presentation and ‘cataloguing’ are in themselves references to Sri Lanka’s colonial legacy – both its structures and its strife.

“The stories we usually heard were about military operations or rebel attacks and statistics on how many people were killed. Personal stories of the hardships faced and how they were handled, like the ones told here, were not heard. I talk about a story of resistance from a civilian point of view,” said Shanaathanan, who terms himself a “facilitator of memory”.

“We never talk about the civilians affected by the 30-plus years of war and economic blockade. There are government and victory memorials. There is no civilian history. It’s a crucial issue in post-war Sri Lanka. I work with memory and archive, presenting these ordinary people as being made artists and innovators by duress and circumstance,” he said.

There are stories of innovations and workarounds such as the use of Palmyra fruit as soap – after the government banned the sale of soap in the North or the people who resorted to using his fridge as a bookcase for 25 years because there was no electricity.

Shanaathanan finds meaning in everyday household goods, seeing in such overlooked pieces museum objects on a par with artifacts like the debris and rubble. In showcasing this forgotten or ‘alternate’ history, his work resists against what the winner has put up as ‘canonical’.

Since 2004, the Jaffna native has worked to collect firsthand experiences of individual tragedies in the hope of coming to terms with his own trauma. “It is not just physical pain, but also the hardships the common man has to face daily in war-torn areas that causes mental trauma. I found that my experiences were not unique. They were shared by a people,” he said.

Fruit as soap and other ‘histories of resistance’ at KMB 2016 Fruit as soap and other ‘histories of resistance’ at KMB 2016 Reviewed by Welcome Kerala on 02:18:00 Rating: 5

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