Packiyanathan Ahilan

Language plays a critical role in revealing human potential while capturing individual unique human characteristics of expression. Whilst reflecting the standpoints of human society, author and educator Packiyanathan Ahilan writes in expression of ideas, encompassing stylistic poetic admission in the Tamil language. Born during the riotous era of the civil war, Ahilan’s poetry embeds morose recollections through a distinct style of expression that translates his experience of violence into counter-remembrance. 

The essence of Ahilan’s literary prowess and his poetic symbolisms is reflected strongly in his recent exposé of poetry installations, in the form of an exhibition titled ‘One & Many – Forms of Words and Silence’ that took place from the 18th of February to the 28th of February 2021 at 20, Kandy Road, Jaffna, which was organized by Kälam, a Space for Cultural Encounters in collaboration with Goethe-Institut Sri Lanka. The works showcased at the exhibition takes shape in objects wherein the significance of the theme was further amplified through visual means in a vigorous manner. This edition of ARTRA Magazine features selected works from the exhibition that exemplifies Ahilan’s most significant poetic installations that move poetry from its traditional written form into new models of expression. The creative process to these poetic installations involved the insights and expertise of architects, painters, glass workers and carpenters alongside musicians and theatre professionals to curate a space that unveiled and awakened the resonations of his poetry within the viewers and listeners. The significance of these visual symbols in parallel to his poetry is reflective of the poet’s capacity to align to the crests and crevices to the influences of each other. 

Packiyanathan Ahilan, was born in Jaffna, Sri Lanka. He is currently a senior lecturer in Art History at the University of Jaffna. He has published three poetry collections: ‘Pathunkukuzhi Naathkal’ (Bunker Days - 2001), ‘Saramakavigal’ (Elegies - 2011) and ‘Ammai’ (Mother - 2017). Mawenzi House, Canada also published his collection of poems, ‘Then There Were No Witnesses’ as an English translation in 2018. He writes critical essays on poetry, heritage, theatre & visual arts. His poetry, and reviews of poetry have appeared in various online magazines, journals and newspapers. 

Q| What determined the scale, breadth and the conceptual underpinnings of your poetry installations at ‘One & Many – Forms of Words and Silence’? 

A| Actually, I reacted to the house, which we used for the exhibition. First of all, I sketched my objects and located them in the ground plan of the house. Then I explained my idea to my team members working with me on my architectural projects.  Through that experience, we decided to do the measure drawing of the house, the exhibition space, to begin with and thereafter based on those measurements, we decided on the scale of the objects. Nichaloz, Austin, and Tilaxan worked with me on the project and then we approached the carpenters, welders, glass workers, painters, and related technicians to implement our creative idea. For the soundtracks of the poems installed in the visual objects, I worked with my friends, who are also professionals in the fields of theatre and music. 

Q | How has your background in art history influenced your work in poetry and the literary works? 

A | As a student of art history, I am always fascinated by the visual materials around me, which includes the art objects of historical narrations and the mundane objects that are produced by culture. At times the fascination is evoked from the characteristics of visual elements. And sometimes, the socio-historical context of art as a medium of representation stimulates me. Predominantly, teaching ‘Post object art’ practices all these years cultivated within me a tendency towards the conceptual practices of art making in terms of ‘idea becoming an artwork’. This is the main perspective that echoes through my work, which made me perceive poetry to be beyond its printed form. 

Q | What is the premise of your latest publication, 'Then There Were No Witnesses'? 

A | ‘Then There Were No Witnesses’ is a translation of my selected poems by Geetha Sukumaran in a bilingual format. The poems serve as witnesses for the unwitnessed realities of the ethnic minorities under the grand narratives of the state of Sri Lanka. The poet is placed in these poems as the historian and the marginalized in all the spheres of victory and defeat. For the most part, they are unpleasant, while speaking of morbidity with endless blood and oozing puss. This personal and collective trauma turned my language of poetry more towards the rawness of life combined with the bizarre and the surreal. 

Q| In your opinion, how should the role of an educator promote art, literature and culture? 

A | I think, especially in a country like Sri Lanka, the understanding of art and literature is predominantly influenced by the popular beliefs, operating mainly on the basis of themes and its moral values as opposed to the language of art and the aesthetic value of representations. I believe the latter should be the premise upon which art education stems from.  

Additionally, the writings and debates on art by educators should establish art and literature as critical components to the upliftment of a community, which in essence are by-products of socio historical conditions. This will negate the notion of art being a recreational activity, but a necessary discipline to the evolution of human ideologies, and a medium through which multiplicity in opinion is promoted.  

Q | What does poetry mean to you and in your opinion, how does it promulgate culture? 

A | For me, poetry is a matter of philosophy in its wider sense. Poetry is a journey of words found in a given socio-historical condition, which shifts words from their traditional settings and meanings. This is a practice of word tracing itself from the same word, metamorphosing into multiple layers of meaning. A practice that destabilizes or challenges the closed / single meaning of the word in use. In short, literature appears through and by words, but it always floats beyond the word. 

Culture is a complicated phenomenon and it has its own interconnected duality, I would say. One is literal and ideal in character while the other is more indirect and realistic. If you start to read culture beyond its popular framework, you are provided with an opening to experiencing the underlying pulse of society under the meta-narratives of history and culture. In my opinion, the artist responds to this underlying current in society.  Only through this, he/she plays the vital role of an artist as a witness of the unwitnessed and active voice of inactive speeches. I believe that the artist should play an alternative role against the popular and grand narratives of hegemony. 


21st April, 2021 Written Art | Prose