Sam Bowker: The Grand Tour Diary (2005 - 2006)

This is the archived journal of a 2005-2006 'Grand Tour' around the Eastern Mediterranean and along East Africa, written by Sam Bowker, whilst in search of his PhD topic.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Sri Lanka - Collecting

Dedicated to Glen, Diana and Myles - fantastic collectors, and great hosts

Sri Lanka has loads of airport art.

They even sell it at this airport.

Mostly, the touristy stuff centres on carved wood elephants, brightly coloured Kandyan masks for tourists, tea in suprisingly unexotic packaging, and gemstones, which are probably real but rather too expensive for me.

The real gems are the hidden away antique dealers. There have been several, but I just want to share a couple of stories here.

In Kandy, the second largest Sri Lankan city, we were driving along a main road when a window displaying understated old statues of Buddha caught our eye. It was a brilliant stroke of luck to have chanced upon it, as until then I had been disappointed not to find any "real" antique places so far in Sri Lanka.

This place is run by a charming bloke named Waruna, his wife Yumi, and his parents. It is a labyrinthine Aladdin's cave in the manner of the very best antique dealers. We spent only half an hour there on the first day, then returned for three more hours the next day, as we were convinced we simply hadn't seen enough of it. Although the street front is small, it winds back, up, and down through a series of rooms and staircases, loaded with metalwork and wood artefacts and porcelain and ceramics and all manner of fascinating objects. They are displayed without beautification or impressive lighting, often stacked behind each other on deep shelves, but each piece is clearly well known to Waruna.

Waruna is a skilled dealer, and knew how to talk about the objects to assess whether or how they evoked our interest. Every so often, he would duck away to return with a book illustrating the object in its original context or more items of a similar lineage. Best of all was when he would emerge with a special box or cupboard laden with his immaculately presented "best things", but only after he saw we were truly interested in the objects we had found by ourselves. He never pressured a sale, and was as keen to listen to us as he was to answer our questions.

It was one of those places where the pieces we bought weren't only special because of their intial appeal, but because they have became attached to our memories of exploring the shop and meeting Waruna and his family.

Several days later, in Colombo, a close family friend Glen showed us some of his favourite places. He and his wife Diana are serious collectors, with a background of postings and tastes similar to those of my parents. (Those of you who have seen our family lounge room before we claimed it as a student house will know what I'm on about). The shops he took us to were jaw-droppingly spectacular, and catered to a very different market than Waruna. They were the kind of dramatic and luxurious artefacts seen in the pages of Vogue Living. Very much real things, and much, much, cheaper than Australia, but presented as more of an art gallery. They were all truly beautiful places to explore. I very nearly bought a pair of century-old carved doors from Rajastan and a large green puppet, but ultimately decided not to after many hours deliberation.

My final comment on collecting in Sri Lanka affects the post-Tsunami regions. We drove through some of these spaces around Galle on the south coast. They just continue for literally hours - entire suburbs and streets were sucked into the ocean, and innumerable homes remain smashed. Many are in the process of being rebuilt or removed, but the damage remains highly visible. For example, the train that was washed away, killing all on board, has been left where it was found several metres beyond the train tracks. Trains still run on those tracks today.

There was a surprising number of antique dealers along this stretch of road. Mostly, from what we saw, they were selling more secondhand furniture and architectural fixtures (beautiful old doors, windows and lattices) than objects as such. It brought to mind they way that antique auctions in rural Australia yield the best items during extended droughts. The idea is that during crises, people sell their family heirlooms just to stay alive. Here we were seeing parts of houses being sold, salvaged from ruins, like organs from a deceased donor. Many local people who lost their houses had no savings or insurance policies, particularly the fishermen.

They have been forced to sell whatever valuables were left in the rubble.

One dealer, subsequently, displayed a large bowl of engagement rings on their cashier desk.


  • At Thursday, September 08, 2005 7:31:00 pm, Anonymous Charlie said…

    Wow..... what you wrote about the Tsunami aftermath and the selling of personal goods just blows my mind. We live in a culture so vastly different, most Austrliams (or almost any Western nation) would find it hard to comprehend no insurnce or social security....
    Especially the engagment rings.... that is so sad.....


Post a Comment

<< Home