Written by Yasas Ratnayake, Photos by Yasas Ratnayake and Nuwan Attanayake
When we said we were going to be going to India to shoot pictures for Project Angampora, a lot of people were bewildered. “Weren’t you going to take pictures of Sri Lanka’s martial art?” “What’s India got to do with your project?” “Isn’t there a heat-wave killing people out there?” All quite reasonable questions. But if we are to do justice to the grand history and fables of our nation’s martial art, then, we invariably have to do things differently and face the challenges of stepping into the unknown.
We have already done meticulous research in order to create a thought provoking pictorial narrative. This narrative will explore history and time and piece together scattered fragments of an exotic past to create a story that has not been told before. But in order to tell this tale, we needed to research India. It wasn’t going to cut it to just sit at a desk and go through secondary research; we had to go there. We had to go there to find out a different perspective of our history and observe the art of Kalaripayattu, the traditional martial art of Kerala that many say is closely related to Angampora.
Sri Lankan history has an intimate connection with India and if Angampora were as old as we believe, it would have a past that runs parallel with Indian history. Ancient Sri Lanka had frequent interactions with India. From the arrivals of Vijaya, Arahath Mahinda, and Sangamitta, to the marauding invaders of the Chola dynasty and the marriage of Indian princesses and Sri Lankan princes; Sri Lanka’s socio-political history has been influenced by the culture and society of our bigger and more powerful neighbour.
But, that is simply the conventional form of history we are talking about. There is a far more fabled and mythic history that connects Sri Lanka and India. The great Indian fables, the Mahabharatha and Ramayanaya, describe an exotic past of Sri Lanka where the great King Ravana ruled India from his abode in the land of Lanka. Angampora lore holds Ravana as a key figure in its mythic past and it was essential that we capture this fact in photographs to do justice to the history of Angampora in our book.
But, images of Ravana are scarcely found in Sri Lanka. What is there is limited to the paintings on a few ancient fabrics found at the Colombo museum. What else that remains is probably limited to folktales or still hidden in the dense wilderness and the depths of the seas of Sri Lanka. Yet, the Ellora cave complex in Aurangabad, Maharashtra contained exquisite stone carvings of this fabled past and held clues to the mythic persona of Ravana. The Ajanta cave complex and its legendary sculptures and frescoes too, held indications of what we sought to discover about our martial art.
Further to the historic evidence, we also needed to see whether the martial art of Kalaripayattu from Kerala (the land also known as Malaya Rata in Sri Lankan historic sources) had any kind of influence on Angampora. For this, we had to locate traditional Kalaripayattu practitioners scattered throughout the vast expanse of Kerala. Establishing contact was difficult. We spoke English. They spoke Malayalam. No phone conversation could bridge that gap, but we nevertheless located some Kalari practitioners using the resources of The Indian Cultural Center and the messiah of our times, Google.
Once everything had been tallied, we woke up to a stark and very real bunch of facts. We had 10 days to finish our work (because deadlines wait for nobody). We had to travel more than 2,000km in 2 states (both larger than Sri Lanka). We had to seek permission to shoot photographs in Maharashtra, and we had to find traditional practitioners of a martial art in the remote expanses of Kerala (good luck!). AND, unlike many Sri Lankans, we didn’t watch enough Hindi movies to have a clue about how to communicate with non-English speakers in India. This was going to be a challenging trip with much unpredictability to expect.
So, we had a task on our hands. It was necessary that we researched India prior to constructing our narrative about Sri Lanka’s martial art. How could we claim to be a unique martial art if our discipline was an imitation of Kalaripayattu? Capturing the grand sculptures of Ellora and the beautiful frescoes of Ajanta would give our narrative a powerful and stimulating vigor that would help us tell a timeless tale. Nobody in Sri Lanka would go to the lengths of traveling to these places to capture photographs to prove a point, but a potent cocktail of youth, energy, and passion was enough to set us straight.
We’re going to India.
To be continued in Part 2: Maharashtra