Cosmopolitan marriage of civilisations

The greatest single collection created in ancient times was not the product of one culture. It was like a marriage of civilisations: Egyptian, Alexandrian and the Ptolomiac of Greece.
The Greeks, even at the height of their own supremacy, hadn’t thought much in the way of collectivity save for a few private collections, such being the property of scholars and philosophers that were quite exceptional. But the art collections were public property, displayed in temples, in gymnasiums, etc., for all to see.

You see, the citizens spent much time out-of-doors and their homes were constructed in a way which deterred their housing of works of art – so that even family portraits and monuments were set up in public meeting places and beside roads, while all relics and other pieces of religious art were exhibited in the temples.
To begin with, Greek temple collections were very like those in early Egypt and Mesopotamia, full of votive offerings and objects of religious significance. But soon this expanded to take in rare and strange objects of secular interest. Temple collections began to evolve as ‘art museums’ and what was exhibited could very well have found their way today into our anthropological and zoological displays. However, in the old days, specialisation was woefully lacking.

Just imagine what it would have been like: Piles of natural, carved or curious ivory objects; the costumes of ‘barbarians’; Indian jewellery: snake skins; the hides of bears; elephant skulls; skeletons of whales; gorilla skins (that were called the skins of “savage women”); reeds as thick as the trunks of trees; coconuts; distorting mirrors; old musical instruments, weapons.
These became helter-skelter museums and in time, visiting Romans would come, when on a ‘grand tour’ and were impressed by the venerable ‘association’ pieces that remained in full view. They appealed to their desire to be close to the great and sanctified.

In Sicyon, the Temple of Apollo had on display the sword and shield of Agamemnon; the armour and cloak of Odysseus; the bow and arrow of Teuser; Penelope’s web; the helm of the Argonaut’s ship and one of its rowing poles – and also what was so gruesome like the skin of Marsyas and the kettle in which Pelias had been boiled alive!
It was only when Alexander began to put the riches of Persia into circulation that the Greeks became collectors in passionate earnest. Alexander, like the Roman conquerors, gathered animals and other natural history specimens in all the lands he invaded and sent them all to Aristotle who was writing his ‘Natural History’ thus showing how the collecting technique was used to give us scientific results.

As for the Greek homes, the standards of living continued to rise as houses began to hold precious plate, pottery, fine carpets and hangings from the East; and even the Achaens and Aetolians, who were army mercenaries, had the opportunity of markedly decorating their homes, getting the best out of the Roman General Sulla’s campaigns when Roman troops camped in the Greek cities in winter. Lucius Cornelius Sulla had an eye for treasure and was Rome’s first great private collector. In his later days, as dictator, he made it a crime for any citizen to own anything he wished to have! So there was a proscription at home, outright looting abroad, as well as bribery.
Following Sulla was Calus Veres, Governor of Sicily. Cicero gives us these lines written by Veres:
“In tile first year man can secure plunder for himself. In tile second year, for his friends. In the third for his judges.”

If invited to a dinner party, Veres would cheerfully take away all the silver bas-relief plates if he liked them!
The Sicilian city, then united into a Roman Province, contained fine Greek art and, to make things clear, it was a vogue for collecting that was partly responsible. In homes, life became far more luxurious and the city of Sicyon came to be known as a world centre for the study of painting and sculpture – a sort of Hellenistic Florence. People also began to collect engraved gems, fine pottery and embroidered textiles. Also, a new hobby was born - the collecting and copying of the letters of famous men. Oh boy! Our first Greek autograph hounds!
Naturally, the library of Alexandria also began to excite the envy of rulers elsewhere. In Pergamum, the Greek city-state in Asia Minor, had become a new Athens, ruled by Attalus I, whose ambition was to make his capital the cultural rival of Egypt.

As for the Romans, their collections took root with their ‘world domination.’ Their art values and attitudes were built upon the accomplishments of their victims. They conquered the collectors of the Hellenistic world, and wherever their Generals marched - Sicily, Greek colonies, Macedonia, Greece, Egypt, Asia Minor, they found temples, palaces and homes crowded with old cultural treasures.
Marcellus, in 212 B.C., robbed Syracuse of her finest, then exhibited the statues and pictures in Rome’s Temple of Honour and Virtue! Fabius plundered Tarentum~ and Nobiler took from the cities of Thermus and Ambracia, up to 515 bronze and marble statues - a part of his booty, mind you - and built a special temple in Rome called the “Hercules Musarum” to exhibit his plunder.

The Romans were determined to teach the rebellious Greeks a lesson. They not only enslaved 150,000 people but sacked 70 cities. The Roman General Aemilius took three days to pass through the streets of Rome with his plunder on his way to the Capitoline Temple. Plutarch tells us of -
“The statues, pictures and colossal images which were taken from the enemy, drawn upon 250 chariots ... “
This was State Collecting on a grand scale. On the second day, the armour and standards of the defeated cities were displayed, followed by 3,000 men carrying looted silver coin in 750 vessels - each vessel so heavy that four men had to lift each one. Others followed with bowls, goblets and silver cups.
The third day saw a parade of 120 oxen to be sacrificed; more men carrying 77 vessels of gold coin and cups that had belonged to Alexander the Greats Generals, and well as all the gold plate that was once Alexander’s, from the table of Perseus. This was followed by more men with 400 gold crowns; countless slaves; the children of Perseus and Perseus himself!

Yes, plunder continued to flourish and it was not long after that the Romans became ardent collectors. As the conquest of the East proceeded, the Latins put value over plunder and began to collaborate with the Greeks.
Another Asiatic collector was Mithridates, king of Pontus, who specialised in engraved gems. Pompey defeated him and took all his treasures, only to lose it all to Marc Antony in 51 B.C., after the battle of Pharsalia
Which brings me to the end of Part 2. In Part Three, we will go on to Marc Antony and what has been told of him by author Arthur Wergall as well as the other writers he hated.


A genius of our time

In memory of Piyaseeli Wijegunasinghe: Sri Lankan Marxist, literary theorist and art critic

By Darshana Medis
She excelled in oriental literature. Her pupils witnessing that she could read great Indian poet Kalidasa’s Meghaduta and Shaakuntal in its original language – Sanskrit. Having achieved an honours degree for English Literature from the University of Leeds, she showed an extraordinary knowledge on Western Art too. She could talk about great Western poetry, novels, dramas or films such as Divine Comedy (Dante), Iron Heal (Jack London), Mother Courage (Brecht), Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein) even for days. In order to rectify my confusion about noted Hungarian critic Georg Lukács, once she spent several hours of her valuable time. Further, she sent me a letter elaborating how latter works of Lukács are bound with Stalinist chains. Later, she lent me her personal copy of Cliff Slaughter’s Marxism, Ideology and Literature, which deals Lukács extensively. She knew and believed that one can and one should win over for Trotskyism only through such difficult and serious efforts.

Her youth and adult life was enriched with a romantic and superior experience of love rarely exists in the class society. The current General Secretary of the Socialist Equality Party of Sri Lanka Wije Dias was her long term lover, companion and spouse. Thanks to this personal experience, she was able to put forward some remarkable ideas on male-female love and female beauty in her aforesaid Marxist Study. Here she emphasises that the art of loving is (not a gift of God or an instinct but) a historically cultivated capability of mankind.

Naturally, she had enemies – political foes. She fought vehemently and unconditionally with all sorts of ideologies that were opposed to Marxism. Various types of idealists, empericists, Stalinists, racists, post-modernists, petty-bourgeois philistines, political degenerates and even feminists attacked her from various fronts. Raised as a ….., she conquered those challenges with great intellectual prowess despite deteriorating health. Considering her political stance as a real threat, some were simply overlooked or otherwise distorted her theories and critical views. Capitalist media, contrary to their habit of chasing intelligentsia, simply spared her. When I invited her to make a speech on the occasion of launching my anthology of poetry From the Valley of Tears amid such a hostile atmosphere, she asked: “Would you allow me to talk, comrade, not about your fancy poems but to defend our way of criticism that has challenged?” I could not ignore her deterministic face. That powerful speech she made at the Colombo Public Library was the very first of a series of cannons aimed at Professor Sucharitha Gamlath, who, after quitting the RCL, went onto attack her previous works baselessly. It has included in her third major work Principles of Marxist Criticism: A Reply to Sucharitha Gamlath (1995). I delivered a lecture on this book at the University of Colombo and I began with: “Marxists don’t compile books arbitrarily. They normally do it when it’s necessary to analyse the nature of their own epoch, to sublate old conceptions, to formulate new conceptions, to eliminate enemy conceptions.”

The entire adult life of Comrade Piyaseeli was dedicated to fulfilling those tasks.
Whatever the responsibilities she bore as a university lecturer, art critic, mother and housewife, she did not forget to translate several works of Marxism and Trotskyism into Sinhala whenever necessary. Her two-volume Sinhala version of David North’s The Heritage We Defend, which analyses history and the struggle of the world Trotskyite movement and Leon Trotsky’s In Defense of Marxism are her major undertakings among others. These exercises deepened her artistic and political knowledge, perspective and world outlook, which, in turn, armed her with enormous power that had helped in conquering her opponents.
She pioneered in introducing Marxist criticism on visual arts to the Sinhala reader by translating important reviews on modern art by Trotskyite critics. Her major contribution in this regard was a translation of a series of essays by David Walsh titled Bolshevism and the Avant-Garde Artists (1993). Inspired by this book, some critics (including the writer) tended towards criticism of visual arts. Also she translated David Walsh’s Aesthetic Component of Socialism (1998). When RCL’s Kamkaru Mawatha published my first ever article on the subject, a review on noted Indian painter M. F. Husain, I still recall the way she behaved, expressing her pleasure like a mother.

The profound and poetic rhythm/manner she developed in expressing her ideas and concepts strongly, lucidly and vividly is, in fact, remains as an advanced stage of the evolution of Sinhala language. This peculiar rythm was developed, she wrote in her last book Arundhathi Roy’s God of Small Things: A Review and Reply (2004),” in the process of struggle against counter-Marxism. It was, indeed, shaped during my effort to communicate Marxist aesthetics more clearly and precisely. It is an expression of my spirit. It is my style. Marx once said: style is man” (My translation – writer). Since establishing of World Socialist Web Site as the central organ of revolutionary world party in late 1990’s she began to contribute in English language, which gained much popularity among a wide range of art enthusiasts around the globe.

She never collapsed mentally from her incurable illness – breast cancer, never gave-up her intellectual grip till her death. One can identify the unity and integrity of her thought throughout her illustrious career. When I last met her a couple of months back she seemed to be fully recovered and courageously mentioned about her final study Sources of Culture which, unfortunately, she could complete only a part. I have with me another unfinished manuscript written on Francis Haskell’s History and Its Images: Art and the Interpretation of the Past, in which she tackles role of various petty-bourgeois isms such as post-modernism, structuralism, multi-culturalism, feminism, etc. that appeared and dominated in art and literature in the post-war era – latter part of the 20th century: “ In the absence of intellectual challenge represented by Marxism, entire bourgeois Pandithya has been thrown into yesterday’s methods and to the waste land of common jargons (My translation -writer).”
She entertained no company whatsoever with capitalist social order and its noted advocates – bourgeois ideologists and politicians, Stalinists, priests, petty-bourgeois careerists and opportunists. She turned her back publicly to such persons who tried to approach her during art festivals, exhibitions, seminars, literary forums, etc. she participated.

That inflexible and incomparable woman, having a gentle smile of satisfaction, had laid to rest forever, without religious rituals, amidst grief ridden artists, sympathisers, workers and representatives of the world proletarian movement from different parts of the world, listening to the Internationale. The giant floral wreath and message of condolence sent by President Mahinda Rajapaksa to the funeral parlour of Jayaratne Florists, Colombo were sent back by her husband – isn’t it the best way to pay last respects and tribute for a wife so principled and so militant?

Comrade Piyaseeli left us a rich heritage that must be defended and carried forward. Her struggle towards a flowery/ flourishing world will not end with her death but continues until the ultimate goal is achieved: world revolution.

Long live the immortal name Piyaseeli Wijegunasinghe!
*Note: Guptila Kavya, written by Buddhist monk Weththawe in the ….. century, is the most celebrated work of Sinhala poetry in ancient Ceylon. The plot, based on a Buddhist Jataka story, revolves around a confrontation between royal musician Guptila [a Bosath or an aspirant to be a Buddha, according to the Buddhist literature], his pupil Musila and the king Bambadath. Musila, after mastering his skills to the same level of his teacher, demands same wage from the king, for which Guptila does not permits. The clash between the trio eventually led to Musila’s death.


Embark completes dog sterilisation campaign in Moratuwa

Embark, the unique ODEL brand which leverages the latest fashion trends to promote animal welfare as a community responsibility initiative, concluded its latest sterilisation and vaccination campaign for dogs in the Moratuwa area recently.

During the four stages of the campaign conducted over a 16 week period, 1,846 dogs were sterilised and vaccinated, 282 dogs were vaccinated and 600 given special treatments for mange, wounds, transmissible venereal tumours, heavy tick and worm infestations, eye infections, diarrhoea, anaemia and generalised weaknesses, the organisers said.

“Programmes such as these entail a substantial commitment of time and energy by many people,” said Otara Gunawardene, founder and CEO of ODEL and the founder of Embark.
“The results speak for themselves: a safer and healthier environment has been achieved in areas where Embark has been active, and many community dogs have been found homes or become better-accepted in the community,” she said.

Moratuwa Mayor Samanlal Fernando said: “The commitment and professionalism of the Embark team was an inspiration to everybody who collaborated on this project. The people of Moratuwa are grateful to Embark and ODEL for the hard work put in to help manage the community dog population in their neighbourhoods in a humane and sustainable manner.”
Since its inception, Embark has provided homes for nearly 200 community dogs and has sterilised and vaccinated 4,781 dogs. Another 1,577 dogs have been vaccinated and 909 treated for various injuries and ailments.

The Tsunami Animal People Alliance, the Moratuwa Municipal Council and the Dog Star Foundation worked together with Embark on the campaign in Moratuwa.
Launched in March 2007 to improve the welfare and reduce the population of community dogs, the Embark programme comprises of multifaceted interactive community projects encompassing puppy re-homing, public awareness campaigns, sterilisation clinics and caring for injured stray animals.