Sea, the Secrets | Daily News

Sea, the Secrets

Sri Lanka’s Underwater Sculpture Gallery

Janaka De Silva, the creator and curator of The Galle Fort Gallery, has, since being a small boy, had a love affair with the sea having grown up in Ambalangoda by the ocean; a place where the colour palette of the coral is infinite and real peace and true freedom can be found, when you dive into a world of fish and mysterious shipwrecks from past ages brought to life by shoals of fish. Each sunken trading boat reveals how Sri Lanka, through the ages, connected with different parts of the world and how both objects and materials that were traded, help us understand the culture and thinking of the time. After all, a shipwreck at the bottom of the ocean is like a time capsule, as history stands still in a sunken vessel. There are over 100 wrecked ships to be found around Sri Lanka, some possibly dating to the 10th century, and one Roman galleon.

Janaka says, as he chips away at one of his life size chess pieces, inspired from ancient paintings of the great Kings, “Since I was small, I have painted images from our ancient history and great temple traditions.” Pictures that show how important water is and its, right down to conserving the very last drop of water. In the Galle Fort, Janaka says “I personally feel very close to the oceanic world, as a lot of the historic colonial buildings, including my art gallery, are made from coral and shells, used as ballast in the old trading ships that came to trade with Sri Lanka.”

Janaka has spent the last six years of his life researching and sketching ideas for the underwater gallery chess pieces, which has also involved holding meetings with other artists, and planning out in detail how to create a curated underwater experience, which included teaching himself to dive, and understand how creative materials work symbiotically with the ocean. He went around the country talking to environmental and marine experts so that he could create underwater sculptures that will have a zero impact on ocean life, except to raise global environmental awareness about its importance. His main aim is to change the terrible habits of people around the world, who throw rubbish into the sea without thinking about its long term extremely serious impacts on marine and coral life and in turn our own. Janaka explains, “I do not want my wife when making fish curry to open up a fresh catch of the day and find plastic bottle tops inside it, putting us off from eating the fish, that has unsuspectingly eaten plastic lids thinking it was food. “I want people to better understand and love the ocean and, through it, care about what happens to all marine life and Sri Lanka’s beautiful coral parks, which I hope will grow on my life-size chess pieces and become an organic living art form that art enthusiasts can enjoy as it changes with the marine way of life.”

Janaka, sitting in his workshop with dyes made from nature and materials that blend with the deep blue sea, enthuses, “The ocean is one of the last great mysteries, revealed in programmes like the BBC’s Blue Planet series. The more I learn, the more I realise how little we know about the ocean that brought so many of us to this magical island to trade.” His long-term aim is to educate people about the importance of the sea beyond its use for travel or food, by having underwater galleries around the island. He wants to highlight the huge differences in marine life, from one area to the next and, like his international artistic counterparts in Mexico, Bali and Thailand, Janaka wants Sri Lanka to join the conversation about border crossings that force people to flee their homelands owing to war, and famine caused by climate change and, most importantly of all, make us all part of the change we need to see in the world. By creating an underwater art gallery of sculptures, making it worthwhile for all people to take that plunge into the ocean, and learn from his giant chess board and thought provoking sculptures that might help us all understand better what still remains the greatest mystery of all, the sea.

The Sri Lankan Tourist Board see this as a great way to bring people back to the island, recognising the boom, in recent years, of surfing the waves and the increasing fascination with underwater tourism. Initiatives such as Janaka’s gallery concept, is increasingly making the oceans more accessible to travellers, offering them the chance to see the marine world that encompasses about 70% of the planet. Sri Lanka possesses immense potential in this sphere due to having crystal clear warm water for all year round swimming, plentiful and varied marine life, and fascinating landscapes that can be found by diving just off the coastline among the coral reefs – often referred to as the Indian Oceans ‘rainforests of the sea.’

According to recent research, there are more than six million active scuba divers worldwide, engaging in various forms of diving. This includes exploring shipwrecks and underwater caves, and observing aquatic plants, sea animals like dolphins, whales and giant turtles surfing the waves making love. The Maldives, as always, ahead of the game, provide fascinating submarine tours and Conrad Maldives Rangali Island has created an amazing James Bond style underwater hotel, which was opened in 2018. On board a submarine, the traveller descends to a submerged reef 45 metres beneath the surface. The popularisation of diving in Sri Lanka and exploring the ocean followed World War II with the arrival of now world famous writer Sir Arthur C. Clarke and Mike Wilson (later Swami Siva Kalki) who were so inspired by an expedition to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Like so many visitors to the island they fell in love with the place and encouraged international and local tourism to engage in this fascinating silent and little known about world the sea. It was this love affair with the Ocean that resulted in the writing of ‘The Reefs of Taprobane: Underwater Adventures Around Ceylon.’ In 1964, Clarke and Wilson among other things discovered a 17th century wreck of a Dutch vessel with a cargo of silver coins and bronze cannons; this was the advent of Sri Lanka’s maritime archaeology and world famous news stories about finding the silver from one shipwreck that was meant for the building of the Taj Mahal.

These magical moments brought to life by Clark encouraged people like artist Janaka De Silva to look deeper into the deep blue sea and what he saw was both beauty and great ugliness “I feel sad when I see rubbish in the sea from the old city walls,” laments Janaka, “as the whales and turtles think that plastic bags are jellyfish and therefore eat them. Eventually, they die painful deaths and when cut open hundreds of bags, in the case of whales, and water drinking bottles are found inside them.” To be in harmony with our oceans, Janaka firmly believes we need to take care of this amazing watery paradise and, unless we all understand and are a part of it, we will not see why we must save it from turning into a sea of plastic waste. “It is for this reason he joined with a group of amazing artists like Prageeth Manohansa and Chamila Gamage to make this vision a reality. There aim being to use environmental materials that will help corals grow and not hinder marine life,” explains Janaka.

He says he wants to create underwater experiences with which people can learn and interact. Back in his studio in Ambalangoda, he is doing sketches for his Leonardo da Vinci style naked statue of a man with his private parts covered by hanging corals, which, if left alone, will grow and turn into natural works of art, as he proved with an experiment earlier in the year.

In short, Janaka’s long term aim is to educate people about the importance of the ocean, not using plastic and protecting the marine life, “We are linked to the sea for our food and I hope in the future that people will learn from the gallery sites for scuba diving and snorkelling experiences.

As a consequence of climate change, corals dying and the desperate need to help re-grow these beautiful marine areas, as a form of protection and barrier against tsunamis, he feels, with experts of the natural world advising him, and the Tourism Board supporting the initiative, that this will not only be achieved, but help people care more, by connecting them with the marine world. We also need to educate people to understand that some sun screens are poisonous to marine life and that even what they wear in the ocean can damage marine wild life, as cheap swimwear can leak poisons from unfixed chemicals. After all, we only truly care for what our heart cares about and our minds, through seeing more of the sea’s stunning beauty, will want to protect even the monsters of the deep.