In Conversation with Radhika Coomaraswamy

Anjalendran’s persona is a composition of his ancestry in the culturally rich Northern region of Nallur, Jaffna, and his creative pursuits in the performance arts. Anjalendran’s innate creative sentimentalities seep into his work strongly and celebrate the authenticity of a true Sri Lanka. The landscapes of the North and its culture influence the artistry that run through his veins, from his movements and choreographic motion, embodying that of dance forms. The architect’s vast education in the Eastern influences from Bharathanatyam to his knowledge of Carnatic music is significant aspects of his upbringing, which have influenced his approach to architecture. As we celebrate the life and works of Anjalendran on ARTRA’s Architecture of Anjalendran Edition celebrating ARTRA’s decennium, we sat down with the architect’s cousin & prolific former diplomat Radhika Coomaraswamy. As she recollected days of museum visits and tours with Anjaledran across the globe, Radhika delved into the nuances that make up Anjalendran’s loud and robust personality.

Q | What of Anjalendran’s cultural and artistic pursuits do you believe have influenced his work?

A | Anjalendran has an extraordinary knowledge of Eastern music. He pursued dance and had his Arangetram in the 1960s before he went to University despite being told not to pursue it. Even at this age, Bharathanatyam is his exercise. Culture is a big part of him, you cannot understand Anjalendran unless you understand that strong and sensitive Eastern culture including that of Bharathanatyam, Carnatic music and Kandyan dance. It was also very much a part of asserting his identity and proclaiming it proudly. His extensive knowledge of the Eastern culture and that of art and architecture inspired me by the end, and enjoyed the music of musicians such M. S. Subramaniam thoroughly. Culture was and is a huge part of him and I personally feel it defines his work.

Anjalendran in fact is a combination of the modern minimalist tradition and the strong cultural component of Asia which is reflected through his work heavily. In his interior, you will notice traditional sculptures and motifs drawn from Sri Lanka and Buddhist heritage. He is a child of all of Sri Lanka. It’s this love of the cultural heritage, the music, and dance that give him a different sensibility to modern minimalism. We also came from a family that was very temple-going and I believe that’s something else that inspired him, from the colours to the music to the dance. It was very much a part of our upbringing.

Q | Can you share with us some of your most memorable encounters with Anjalendran?

In 2009 Anjalendran spoke at the Asia Society in New York, a platform that forges ties between Asia and the West through the arts during which his talk on ‘Architecture for Humanity’, discussed his identity as a Sri Lankan and a Tamil, as well as architecture’s ability to create unique experiences. It was the most authentic Sri Lankan talk I’d ever heard. Anjalendran spoke with love for the whole country and he came from an earnest space. In a place like New York, everyone has an agenda, someone is always advocating for something. Anjalendran spoke with the love for the whole country and he came from an authentic space. There was no agenda. I appreciated that talk and I believe everyone else did too. In my opinion, he’s the best Ambassador for Sri Lanka.

Q | Is there a particular building of his that you admire and find more significant?

Anjalendran was the one who built my house, in 2000. I was a little spoiled growing up, I spent a lot of time in New York. I didn’t want my house to have trees growing in the middle and I had to have an air-conditioned space. He built my house with each floor un-partitioned. It’s an open space, almost like a terrace and it’s walled in. It was such that I didn’t feel the chaos caused by the pandemic, I loved the solitude. Anjalendran told me that there are two kinds of sensibilities. There’s the Buddhist sensibility where the walls are built monastically, where you’re cut off from life and it’s a detached space and everything happens within these walls. That’s how my house was built. And then he said that there’s the Hindu sensibility which is more open. Hindu temples are often more open where you have crowds coming in and out. That’s the sort of house that allows you interaction with one another and would be ideal for someone who likes that kind of environment. That’s something I learnt from him.

Q | Can you share with us your relationship with Anjalendran?

Anjalendran and I were brought up together as our families originated from Nallur, Jaffna. We were very close as children and I watched him grow through his different phases. He was a rebel from the very beginning, he didn’t fit into mainstream behavioural patterns and he tells me even now, he found life difficult as our family was very much a family of cricketers. Anjalendran always introduces me to people as his cousin-sister. Although, I think we got to know each other better once I returned to Sri Lanka and entered my retirement in 2012. I had more time to see his work and understand it, and we found things of similar interest. And in that sense, I found an artistic sensibility – although he doesn’t often agree with me. But I suppose since we come from a family of economists, lawyers and accountants, the both of us are a little eccentric and have become friends who are quite close. Anjalendran has always been the cultural arbiter of our family. He’s the kind of person who would, if he was very fond of you, take you to museums and he would say, ‘look at these, but don’t look at that’. He once took me watch a play and showed me one half in one place and another somewhere else, just to experience it. That’s the kind of person Anjalendran is.

A close relative of C. Anjalendran, Radhika Coomaraswamy was the former Under Secretary General and The Special Representative on Children and Armed Conflict. As a lawyer and former Chairperson of the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission, Radhika has played a significant role in advocating for Violence Against Women. She received her Bachelor of Arts from Yale University, J.D. from Columbia University, an LLM from Harvard University and honorary PhDs from Amherst College, the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, the University of Edinburgh, the University of Essex and the CUNY School of Law. She was the lead author of the Global Study on the Implementation of Resolution 1325 published in 2015. She began her life as an academic at The International Centre for Ethnic Studies in Colombo and has also taught at the New York University School Of law in New York.

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8th April, 2022 Performance Art