Sri Lanka

If there is a takeaway from the below piece, consider this.  Watch Mani Ratnam’s movie, Kannathil Muthamittal (She kissed my cheek).  Read Romesh Gunasekhara’s (spelling?) books.

Sri Lanka: fantasy island

There are some places that seem familiar even though you haven’t actually visited them. Paris is like that for Europeans and Sri Lanka is like that for me. Thanks to myth, movies, politics, geographical proximity, and a shared language, Sri Lanka was part of my mindset while growing up in Chennai in the 80s.

Lanka-puri was the golden land described in the Hindu epic, Ramayana, where the demon Ravana spirited away princess Sita. An army of monkeys built a stone bridge, waged a war, and rescued the princess. Some Hindus, my relatives amongst them, believe that the bridge still exists, submerged under the ocean. I can’t help looking for it from my winged chariot— Flight UL 122—but the water is as gray as a turtle’s back.

There was the Eelam depicted in the phenomenal 2002 Tamil movie, “Kannathil Muthamittal,” in which an Indian couple adopts a girl whose biological mother is a Tamil Tiger: a terrorist group. The family sets out to find the birth mother leading to a climactic scene where the mother chooses between her biological daughter and staying with her secessionist cause.

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A lush, tropical island shaped like a teardrop in the sea of time, this is a land of many musical names: Serendib, Taprobane, Ceylon, Eelam, and finally, the official Sri Lanka. Smaller than Tasmania, Sri Lanka is both fertile and prosperous. It’s per capita of $6531 is higher than neighboring India’s $4077. The flash of its gems, blue sapphire and moonstone are as well known as the flush of its teas. Also known are its internal conflicts. For 25 years since Black July 1983, Sri Lanka was caught in a civil war that took an estimated 100,000 lives. Since 2009, the country has been coming back to normalcy and tourism is on the verge of taking off.

Locals are optimistic. “Things have changed in the last five years,” says France-educated diplomat, Saroja Siresena. “While retaining old world values, we have modernized. Compared to Bangkok or Mumbai, our cities are liveable and cosmopolitan. Nobody stares at you if you dress differently.”


I am taking two children– my daughter, 12 and nephew, 13—on a trip to a land that I ‘know’ but have never visited. This is their first visit too; one that is unclouded by history and known only through cricket players like Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardane, both of whom are partners in the popular Ministry of Crab restaurant. Its celebrity chef, Dharshan Munidasa, plans to open Kaemasutra, serving contemporary Sri Lankan cuisine in July (Kaema means food in Sinhalese). “We all grew up with the war. We didn’t know a different life,” he says when we visit him. “Now that we have peace, I worry less about sending my child to school. I take more risks.”

The trick with travelling with kids is to keep moving. This we do after checking into the aptly named Taj Samudra (meaning sea in Sanskrit), scarfing down the complimentary chocolates and a pasta-lunch.

Colombo, everyone says, is a business city, known for shopping but not much else. The kids have lists from friends back home and are quite chuffed about shopping. I take them to the Gangaramaya Buddhist temple instead. I want them to engage with a clean slate– unpolluted by Sri Lanka’s politics and bloody history, but I am not sure how to engineer it. We hire a hotel car. Our driver, Hussein shows us layers of Sri Lanka’s colonial history: the Dutch hospital; Cargill’s, an English department store, now leased by an Indian bank; Portuguese outcrops and the mosque where he worships along the way. He accompanies us into the temple, pointing out the Buddha’s mudras or hand gestures that depict various moods. He explains the murals on the ceiling. I grin at the serendipity of having a Muslim explaining Buddhism to us Hindus. This, I think, is the magic of Sri Lanka. We stand before an ancient Bodhi tree (Ficus religiosa) and fold our hands. Finally, we go to the museum inside the temple: a kitschy assortment of watches, swords, combs, jewellery, and seemingly everything that the temple has received as a gift.

We visit a few other religious sites during our stay in Colombo: the Seema Malaka Buddhist temple, designed by acclaimed architect, Geoffrey Bawa; the Dutch-style St. Antony’s church; and the colorful Hindu temple across the street. The children like the Gangaramaya temple best, mostly because there is a lifelike elephant that they can hug, and a Buddha image painted in such a way that the eyes move to stare at you wherever you go. We spend a giddy ten minutes trying to escape Buddha’s eyes but to no avail. The golden Buddha’s eyes resolutely stare at us. We can run but we cannot hide.

Temples should always be alternated with chocolate. We go to Paradise Road café for coffee and a nut-filled chocolate cake. The well-proportioned space used to be Geoffrey Bawa’s office and is now where Colombo’s swish-set comes for sundowners or lunch. I eye the paintings by Sri Lankan artists along the walls; the children read Sumitha Publishers’ illustrated children’s books that retell Sinhalese myths in English. “The Great Flood and the Gourd,” is one title. Opposite is a store called Rithihi, which to my surprise, has a colourful selection of silk saris from all across India. We end the day with a swim at the hotel. Counterintuitive as it seems for a tropical country, Taj Samudra’s heated pool is heavenly and removes all the knots from my shoulders.

Breakfast is the usual sumptuous spread. I choose red string-hoppers with the famous trio of sambal powders: pol sambol which is mostly coconut, seeni sambol made of carmelized onions and katta sambol made of ground red chilies. I douse the fiery powders with a stew made of coconut milk. The children stick to pancakes and eggs. Where’s your sense of adventure, I chide. That was before my eyes start watering.

On day 2, we hire a tuk-tuk and go to Barefoot Gallery and Café (for me) where I buy a colorful cotton dresses; and A&M cupcakes across the street (for them); to Saskia Fernando Gallery (for me) and to Odel department store where they buy yellow sandals, muffins decorated with Spongebob icing; string necklaces and souvenirs. As the sun climbs, we duck into The National Museum and wander through 5th century Buddha images. The children protest at the sameness of the century-old statues, but are engaged by accounts of prehistoric Sri Lanka beginning with Balagoda Man. Wall plaques neatly describe how Prince Vijaya journeyed through the seas from North India in the 3rd century; married a local princess and founded Sri Lanka as it were. On the way back, we spot a procession of protesting monks, who want the freedom to pursue Buddhist education. So says Hussein, even though I don’t understand why ordained monks who have presumably had a Buddhist education would have that particular demand. Discontent, it seems, simmers under the island’s placid façade. Even though Buddhism is the majority religion, Sri Lankans are warriors by nature, says a veteran journalist who didn’t want to be named. “Look at their names. Simha means lion and Raja means kings.   This is a country with robust warrior-names.”

The next day goes by in a blur. I try to keep it action-packed and fast-paced. We ride tuk-tuks, chatting with the English-speaking locals. We go in and out of temples, “just for you,” as the kids say. We eat rice and curry like the locals. We try out the spare but charming local trains, less crowded than in India. We go to Pettah market and haggle for umbrellas. Soon it is time to go to Bentota, our next stop.

The best way to go from Colombo to Bentota and further down to Galle is by the train, which hugs the ocean all the way. Not having the foresight or knowledge to buy train tickets, we arrive at the Taj’s sister property, Vivanta by Taj by car.

The pleasures of Bentota are more rural. There are turtle hatcheries where Leatherback, Green, Loggerhead, Hawksbill, and Olive Ridley turtles are rescued and rehabilitated. Funded by donors, these hatcheries buy turtle eggs from fishermen, hatch them and release them back to sea, where they can mate and hopefully thrive. The children get to carry a 10 kg green turtle, which can live for 300 years, according to owner Amarasena Fernando of the Kosgoda Turtle Hatchery. In the evening, we join a boisterous game of cricket in the hotel’s grounds, followed by a swim in the sea under the watchful gaze of a lifeguard.

On Day 4, we drive to Galle, stopping at a mask factory and a moonstone mine along the way. The wares may be real but the ethos reek of tourist traps. Our boat ride through the mangroves is better. It costs Rs. 5000 (Sri Lankan Rupees) for two hours on the water. We spot giant squirrels, three monitor lizards swimming after prey and spend half an hour at a fish farm dipping our feet into a tank and enjoying the nip of hundreds of fish. We hold a baby crocodile, sea snake, and tap some river crabs. We walk through cinnamon trees on an island, where an elderly man shows us how to smell and cut fragrant cinnamon bark. It is 2 PM when we reach Galle. I am eager to explore Galle Fort, but the children want none of it. A bribe of limp French Fries at Rampart View Guest House (our driver insists on taking us there perhaps because drivers get free lunch) buys me some time to buy locally crocheted lace on Galle’s streets. It would have been charming were it not for the blazing heat.

The best is saved for our last day. We visit Sri Sunshine Divers, owned by a strapping windsurfing champion, Thusal Gunawardhane, who lavishes praise on current President Mahinda Rajyapaksha (named after Emperor Ashoka’s son, Mahinda, who brought Buddhism from India to Sri Lanka). We scream through a banana boat ride; and take waterskiing lessons—much harder than I thought.

After lunching on Sri Lankan wild mango curry and red rice, we leave for the airport. The children discuss high points (waterskiing, turtles, snakes, fish, crocodile) and low points (temples, museums, more temples). “But what about the war that everyone keeps talking about?” asks my 12-year-old daughter. “It’s like this,” replies her cousin. “The Tamils wanted a separate state from the Sinhalese. They kept fighting for years and finally the Sinhalese defeated the Tamils.” Seeing my raised eyebrows, he adds, “I read it in my history book.”

That’s all it is to them young ones: history.


Fact Box:

Etihaad flies everyday from Abu Dhabi to Colombo. Fares range from AED 720 to 830 outbound. AED 745 upwards inbound.

Taj Samudra in Colombo overlooks the beach and has the best no-frills hotel pool on the island. The hotel organizes day-trips to Kandy and the Pinnawala elephant orphanage. Doubles from AED 640 including taxes.

Vivanta by Taj Bentota is halfway between Galle and Colombo, making it a central access point to the Northern part of the island. Doubles from AED 890 including taxes.

Music and Art

  • Columns
  • Posted: Fri, Mar 30 2012. 9:17 PM IST
‘You have to hold your audience through your ability to elaborate on what you are thinking and playing’

The Good Life | Shoba Narayan

 Artist Sudarshan Shetty and I are sitting on the steps of the Pushya Mahal ghat in Thiruvaiyaru town and chatting. The river Cauvery, so resonant to us south Indians, is flowing in front of us. Flowing is an overstatement. There are islands of sand in between large puddles of water.

Behind us, art collector Lekha Poddar sits on the steps and photographs the scene. Shetty’s wife, Seema, a Bharatanatyam dancer, is beside her. Art critic S. Kalidas is standing nearby. The group has spent the day visiting the nearby temples, including Darasuram, which in my view is one of the best-preserved temples in Tamil Nadu.

Shetty waxes eloquent about the stone carvings in the temple and the fine examples of Chola architecture. “You know what I felt when I saw Darasuram temple?” he asks. “I felt proud. Because it is mine.”


Dual approach: The Festival of Sacred Music is attempting to revive the temple town of Thiruvaiyaru. Photo: C Ganesan

Dual approach: The Festival of Sacred Music is attempting to revive the temple town of Thiruvaiyaru. Photo: C Ganesan


“Ours,” I correct automatically. We smile. The Darasuram temple is as much mine as it is Shetty’s. 

“So what are you looking at these days?” I ask Poddar.

“Indian terracotta,” she replies. Can I print this, I ask, imagining hordes of collectors veering towards terracotta simply because India’s grand dame of art is collecting it. Poddar nods off-handedly. “Sure,” she says. We break off because a woman from Coorg is giving an inspired speech in front of us.

Standing knee-deep in the water and holding aloft a plastic bottle like the Statue of Liberty, or Bharat Mata, she urges the gathered crowd not to pollute the Cauvery.

“I come from Kodagu, where the Cauvery is born,” she says in a choked voice. “So please, don’t pollute this holy river.”

It is about 9pm. We walk up the steps to view the performance behind us. A tall lanky man gives an introduction in a faint Australian accent. Kalidas tells me that he is Devissaro, a classical pianist married to dancer Daksha Sheth. Devissaro has brought Asima, an all-male vocal and percussion troupe from Kerala to perform for the Festival of Sacred Music (2-4 March)—which is the reason we are all there.

Chennai-based Prakriti Foundation holds this festival every year. Friends from Bangalore have driven to Thanjavur. Others fly into Chennai or Trichy and motor down to Thanjavur. Most of us stayed at Hotel Gnanam, comfortable if soulless for Rs1,500 per night. The festival is held in Thiruvaiyaru, a holy town on the banks of the Cauvery where Saint Thyagaraja, one of the “divine trinity” of Carnatic music composers, lived and worked. Every January, thousands of musicians from Chennai, including heavyweights like T.M. Krishna, Bombay Jayashri, Aruna Sairam and Sudha Raghunathan (all of whom have sung at the Festival of Sacred Music, incidentally), gather for the Thyagaraja Aradhana and sing his Pancharatna Kritis in a group.

The Festival of Sacred Music is attempting to revive this temple town through rural tourism. The hope is to bring in more people and offer them music, temples and later, home stays. The audience that evening is both global and local. Delhi-based Michael Pelletier, the minister-counselor for public affairs at the US embassy in Delhi, has come with his wife Sujatha—a Chennai girl whose father, Manohar Devadoss, created wonderful pen-and-ink drawings for his affectionate book on Madurai. There is a tall Dutch man, Robert, who plans to ride to Amsterdam on his Enfield Bullet motorbike; musicians from France, London and Amsterdam; Shetty, Kalidas, and Poddar.

There is a young fashion crowd from Chennai: fashion-show choreographer Sunil Menon; a young model named Sahitya; fashion designers Venkat Nilakantan and Raji Anand, who make us all laugh with their acerbic observations and biting wit, all delivered in superb Chennai Tanglish, now made popular thanks to Kolaveri. There is V. R. Devika, whom we all worship from afar for her knowledge of history and crafts. At the Thanjavur museum, Devika makes the Nataraja statues come alive for us with her tales.

I used to look up to her while at college and here she is now, still clad in her khadi blouses and cotton saris, all bought from craftspeople in Kanchipuram. We take bus rides together, singing Tamil and Hindi songs, through the verdant paddy fields of Thanjavur. We drink at night and relive our college days.

The evening concerts are alive with pretty young local girls in long skirts, braided hair and jasmine flowers. They love Asima’s contemporary rendition of Kabir and Kerala folk songs. It is a nice change from the Carnatic music they are used to. Sitting in the back, Shetty, Kalidas and I are a bit less charitable. We spot mistakes in their sur as they sing the Darbari Kanada.

Earlier that week, Shetty and I had lunch together at GallerySKE in Bangalore.

Shetty’s gallerist, Sunitha Kumar Emmart, had sent over a home-cooked seven-course spread including delicacies like bisibele bhath,jowar rotis, and kosambari.

“Try the rotis,” says Shetty. “Sunitha’s cook does a terrific job.”

Shetty’s father, Adve Vasu Shetty, was an acclaimed Yakshagana artiste who could hold audiences spellbound with his renditions of Vali and Sugreeva. “I find the aesthetic strategies of that form—Yakshagana—compelling,” says Shetty. “You have to hold your audience through your ability to elaborate on what you are thinking and playing.”

In Mumbai, Shetty grew up in a culturally rich, if materially poor household, with visiting Yakshagana musicians and performers who interacted with him and his sisters. When I comment on his fluent Kannada, Shetty says he went to a Kannada-medium school and speaks Konkani with his wife Seema at home. Being poor while young was a gift, he says, because it allowed him to take risks. There was nothing to lose.

Shetty is the second person who has extolled the virtues of being poor while young to me. But money has its uses, he says, because it allows you to dream big.

Shetty’s monumental public installation, Flying Bus, now stands in the Maker Maxity complex at the mouth of the Bandra Kurla Complex in Mumbai. Over lunch, Shetty told me that his father had to confront philosophical questions about Ram’s deceit while killing Vali and make it come alive for his audience. What would Vali think and say, asks Shetty rhetorically. The same could apply to his bus: Why would a flying bus think?

Stuck in traffic, flying buses make eminent sense to Shoba Narayan. Write to her at

Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns

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Sudarshan Shetty Profile

The artist Sudarshan Shetty in Milan.

Mar 27, 2012

 Standing outside the gleaming tower of the Maker Maxity building in suburban Mumbai is a fire-engine-red double-decker bus of the sort that used to ply the roads of Mumbai in the 1970s. This bus, however, sprouts two stainless steel wings and has its front wheel raised slightly off the ground as if it were about to take off into the sky. Beside it reads a plaque: “Sometimes when we travel, we forget who we are.” A whimsical creation by Mumbai-based artist, Sudarshan Shetty, 50, at an estimated cost of US$250,000 (Dh920,000), this Flying Bus sculpture is arguably India’s most significant public art project.

Its inception was fortuitous when Shetty bumped into real estate developer, Manish Maker of Maker Maxity, on a flight. After Maker commissioned the piece, Shetty had the automotive company Starline help him fabricate the 10 tonne sculpture in Belgaum, Karnataka. The piece was then brought 600 kilometres by road to Mumbai and unveiled to the public in late January, 2012. Inside, the bus is an exhibition space where Shetty invites young artists he admires to show their works. Currently, two videos by Amar Kanwar, a Delhi-based filmmaker, are on display, one on the upper and the other on the lower deck. Next, the kinetic art sculptures by Bangalore art duo; Pors & Rao will be on display. Shetty says that he doesn’t curate the works. Rather, he simply invites artists to show their work.

This notion of art-within-art reflects Shetty’s concern with drawing the viewing public into his world. His gallerist, Sunitha Kumar Emmart of Gallery Ske, Bangalore, calls his works “determinedly complicated,” signalling a refusal to “remain in the same position or repeat a gesture. In short, there is a rejection of a style or a signature and an insistence on the autonomy of the work itself. This separation of the work from the identity and image of the artist, tenaciously maintained by the constant shifts in the artist’s methods of production, allows for states of multiplicity. The works, if imagined as moments in a narrative, stubbornly remain as fragments pointing not back toward the artist but endlessly towards each other.” Emmart represents Shetty’s work exclusively within India and works with his galleries in New York, Paris and Vienna for global events such as Art Basel.

The son of a theatre actor father and a homemaker mother, Shetty grew up in a modest family in Mumbai. His father acted in yakshagana, or regional plays from Karnataka, and assumed the roles of many of the Gods who populate Hindu mythology. Visiting performers gathered at the Shetty home, where his father held long discussions about how to convey philosophical ideas from Hinduism through folk theatre. “The idea is to draw the viewer in through your ability to elaborate on what you are thinking,” says Shetty. “I find the aesthetic strategies of yakshagana very compelling; as opposed to the aesthetic strategy of, say, a gallery, which is to distance the viewer; to create a certain Brechtian disenchantment in the viewer.”

Shetty’s desire to draw the viewer into – quite literally – his work springs from growing up with performers whose first goal was to entertain. His first solo show was held- in 1995 – not at an art gallery, but at the Framjee Cawasjee Hall in Mumbai where, as he says, “discount sales of sweaters from Ludhiana” were held. Bargain hunters seeking cheap luggage found themselves confronting a life-size pink horse trying to mount a capsizing boat in his Paper Moon, project. Many of Shetty’s works are kinetic and mechanical—a shaking table, running shoes, falling hammers— and are vaguely reminiscent of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, both of whom Shetty cites as early influences. “What differentiates Sudarshan from the other artists in the Indian contemporary art scene is his simultaneous and intuitive engagement with both the timeless indigenous and the global contemporary,” says acclaimed art critic, S Kalidas.

Shetty’s recent works draw on themes of immigration, transit and living on the edge. His works display a spontaneity that belie the searching thought that have gone into their creation. “It is very important to me to allow objects to throw out a possibility of how they can be presented,” he says. “For that to happen, it is very important to keep your vulnerability on the surface; to stay on the edge and create works that may not be good works; works that may collapse under their own weight. It takes a lot of work to stay vulnerable.”

With his wife, Seema, a bharatanatyam dancer and television presenter, Shetty entertains visiting artists and friends in his spacious Mumbai home. He doesn’t go to parties, he says, preferring the intimacy of conversations around the dining table that allow him to question and collect the information and opinions that fuel his art. As the art collector Anupam Poddar says: “Sudarshan’s work is unique because it combines a sense of play, wonder, imagination with form and material. The way in which he thinks and creates leaves you wanting more, and interpreting his creations in your own unique way.”