IMMORTALIZING A CULTURED FORM OF LIVING
In Conversation with Sunethra Bandaranaike
Those who promote art have an eclectic mind and a deeper appreciation of beauty, of which they incorporate in their daily lives. From recognizing raw talent to celebrating its magnetic appeal, they revel in the vitality of life through vigorous endeavours of which art patron and collector Sunethra Bandaranaike is no exception. Presently chairing the Sunera Foundation, and having chaired the Geoffrey Bawa and Lunuganga Trusts, Sunethra has been instrumental in distinguishing spirited artists and architects, encapsulating a wondrous way of living.
The works of prolific modern and contemporary artists of Sri Lanka adorn the walls of Sunethra’s home in Colombo. As we entered, we witnessed two photographs of Lionel Wendt placed across each other tastefully, while her living room seemingly sets the centre stage to artist Chamila Gamage’s ecstatic work of mysterious faces. In conversation, we questioned Sunethra on her personal collection and the premise through which she chooses the works to which she explained the way she feels upon observing an artwork is what determines her purchase. For Sunethra, visual art enriches a space, rejuvenates the mind and probes stimulating thoughts while presenting refreshing perspectives. She surrounds herself with stirring works of art in the effort to enhance her life while partaking in cultural encounters of significance. Throughout her life, Sunethra has built kinships with like-minded individuals, artists and performers of whom she noted Geoffrey Bawa, in particular, to have contributed to her appreciation for artistic sensibilities.
“Geoffrey Bawa became my friend first, and then we gravitated to each other more and more as time passed by. I used to often spend evenings with him at his home, and we used to talk about everything. Of course, he was a great architect, and when he was building Kandalama, Light House and Blue water, I used to go trailing behind him when he used to give instructions to the contractors and young architects. And during those encounters, I found him to be incredibly riveting for his unique insights. He always said “when you are inside a space, you should always look at it from the outside, rather than in from the outside.” I admired all of his buildings, particularly that of Kandalama, as every space was uniquely positioned. One can see the Sigiriya Fortress from the loo. When he was taken to a land, he would look at it – smoking his cigarette, and envision what he would do there to precision, which very few architects could do – then or now. If he didn’t like what he saw, he would shun it without dismay – no matter the cost” she shared.
To our curiosity, Sunethra illustrated what she was saying with a wonderful story that kept us at the edge of our seats to unravel the muse behind her artistic stimulus. “Aitken Spence wanted to build a hotel next to Sigiriya, so they surveyed the land and picked an area of which they got the approval from the President of the time, Premedasa. Though the head of Aitken Spence at the time, Michael Mack was a dear friend of Geoffrey’s, after having one look at the land he said ‘Sorry, I cannot build here, to which Michael said, ‘oh dear, but I got approval from the President!’. Geoffrey replied without hesitance and said ‘well, I don’t care.’ While they were still surveying the land from the helicopter, Geoffrey saw a huge rock on a land dropping into the lake, and said ‘this is where I will build. Nowhere else.’ So Michael got the approval, and then he started building the most wonderful hotel. Sitting on the rock and coming out of the rock – all the balconies were filled with plants that go right down, and finally the whole building will be covered by plants, and still is. And that is how he created it. Wherever you are in the hotel, you are looking out, which is incredible”.Spence at the time, Michael Mak was a dear friend of Geoffrey’s, after having one look at the land he said ‘Sorry, I cannot build here, to which Michael said, ‘oh dear, but I got approval from the President!’. Geoffrey replied without hesitance and said ‘well, I don’t care.’ While they were still surveying the land from the helicopter, Geoffrey saw a huge rock on a land dropping into the lake, and said ‘this is where I will build. Nowhere else.’ So Michael got the approval, and then he started building the most wonderful hotel. Sitting on the rock and coming out of the rock – all the balconies were filled with plants that go right down, and finally the whole building will be covered by plants, and still is. And that is how he created it. Wherever you are in the hotel, you are looking out, which is incredible”.
Enthralled and inspired by Geoffrey’s approach to living, Sunethra requested the esteemed architect to renovate her family home in Horagolla. In its completion after four and half years, the building was festooned in all grandeur with Burma Teak and a magnificent Dutch wooden door. She recalls having greatly enjoyed this experience and witnessed much of Bawa’s techniques and teachings. “Having worked with him on my house for a significant amount of time, I could see how he was thinking every step of the way as I would question him if I couldn’t understand why he was doing something. I used to say ‘Geoffrey, tell me, why are you doing that? I just want to understand’, and he would tell me,” she said with much alacrity. Their affinity influenced the growth of the local arts while building an awareness to inspired living.
Sunethra indulges herself in the landscape of art through literature and performance, architecture and film contributing to her emotive artistic living. As an active patron of the performance arts, she founded the Sunera Foundation. Its objective is to create a space of ultimate dynamism, for individuals with disabilities and impairments, employing the practices of the performing arts from dance to theatre. The Sunera Foundation allows these praxes, in its journey of shedding light into voids and potholes in humanity’s fabric, teaching communities to bridge the gap between social, ethical and political concerns. Having celebrated its 20 years with the coffee table book ‘Wings’, recollecting the days of Sunethra’s encounter with artist Wolfgang and their contribution to the sphere of the performance arts, providing a space for artists with disabilities of which the proceeds from the sale of these books are used for the upliftment of the underprivileged students of the Foundation. Sunethra has been captivated by the arts and its intrinsic capacity to fulfil the soul’s purpose while developing the minds and bodies of those who both require and want the same. She said, “Performance really works, it gives them such joy. We bring about twenty to thirty people together, so they are all working together, and they developed naturally,” as she spoke about the noble work done by the Sunera Foundation.
We find Sunethra’s relationship with the arts to be one of profound significance, and admire the gallantry by which she celebrates life while living with art. Sunethra’s active involvement in the performance arts and camaraderie with artists alike is undeniably fluent in the stimulants of artistic reverence. Susanne K. Langer writes, ‘The ancient ubiquitous character of art contrasts sharply with the prevalent idea that art is a luxury product of civilization, a cultural frill, a piece of social veneer. It fits better with the conviction held by most artists, that art is the epitome of human life, the truest record of insight and feeling.’ Langer further states ‘Wherever a society has really achieved culture, it has begotten art, not late in its career but at the very inception of it.’ Sunethra Bandaranaike’s active involvement in the arts is certainly a testimony to living with art; for, and in living with art, one experiences ascension in mind and thought.