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White is a color we forget too often


Shantha K Herrath, well-known artist, who worked for decades for the Divaina newspaper was the one who drove the point home. Shantha Aiya helped with the layout design of the ‘Sunday Island’ and was patient enough to answer all the questions put to him by someone who was absolutely new to newspapers. 

‘White is a color,’ he once said, explaining open spaces. He demonstrated the important of letting the illustration breathe; well, the key elements of it at least. Years later, in sporadic stints in advertising, I had opportunity to meet and learn from others the importance of ‘white’.  

The color came a-visiting on account of the recent trend of illustrating walls, in particular the discussion pertaining to painting the famed ‘valakul bemma’ or the ‘Cloud Parapet’ around the Kandy Lake. White is a color we forget too often. 

Now the painting frenzy has generated quite a debate. Some have complained about the quality of the illustrations. Some have said that it’s all about insane nationalism and even racism. True, there have been a few which insulted communities of certain faiths. Relevant authorities moved quickly to have these painted over. 

Interestingly, the skeptics have largely come from groups that frequently champion the freedom of expression. They’ve posed as secularists and have rarely let slip any opportunity to insult the Buddhist Order. Tradition, history and heritage are things they love to rant and rave against. And yet, they are upset about the ‘walakul bemma’ being ‘desecrated’! They, let us not forget, are quick to cite ‘freedom of expression’ if anyone raises objection to anything that clearly attacks Buddhists and the Buddhist Order.  That’s a side-story of course. Needs to be flagged.

People talking over the walls is not exactly people taking over the government. And yet, to the extent that the city is political, in its design, its elements, the processes within in and its architecture, this painting frenzy does indicate a sense of being empowered, a need to affirm citizenship and of course taking possession. Makes for belonging, albeit in a mild sense — the artists, their backers and admirers, do not own the political apparatus and typically quite a distance away from the high seats of economic, political and cultural power. An affirmation, then, of ‘The Right to the City,’ the title of a book by the French Marxist philosopher Henri Lefebvre.

Well, it’s not just the city. Last night, young people in a village called Kudamaduwa which lies between the Kottawa-Piliyandala and the Kottawa-Polgasovita roads, were at it. There are no public walls down Kudamaduwa Road. However the road runs through an extensive but rarely cultivated tract of paddy fields. On one side of the road, down this stretch, there are short, white, concrete blocks marking the edge of the shoulder. 

It’s not possible to paint elaborate murals on such relatively tiny spaces. They were, however, making the best of the modest spaces available. Just smileys. How lovely, though! If these were put up to indicate something, especially at night, then the functionality has not been compromised. It’s just yellow with a dash of red in certain images. And there’s white.

White, they know, is a color. Sometimes it complements. It helps enhance what’s not in white. It allows elements to breathe, as mentioned. And sometimes, white needs to be the one and only color. It’s all subjective of course, beauty being in the eyes of the beholder and all that, but aesthetics draws from many things including history, tradition and purpose. A ‘batiked’ Ruwanweliseya, for example would be at odds with the reflective focus of Buddhism. The cloud-parapet, likewise, enhances the beauty of the Kandy Lake. It must look like a white cloud and whatever color is used in whatever illustration should not rob the landscape of its signature serenity. 

Nothing, however, is permanent. There’s dukkha and anathma. As important, there’s anicca.

‘The old order changeth, yielding place to new and god fulfills himself in many ways — lest one good custom should corrupt the world,’ Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote in ‘Idylls of the King.’ Things change and that’s not necessarily good or bad. This change we are talking about, that of the people expressing themselves, is good.

A splash of color delights. A trace of white can, at times, can enhance. And there there can be contexts where white makes absolute sense and other colors superfluous or even constitute an unnecessary distraction. ‘Extra,’ as young people these days might put it.


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S.A. Dissanayake taught children to walk in the clouds

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