Explore the Southern town of Ambalangoda from an aesthetic and historical standpoint, through the eyes of a renowned artist whose hometown it is. His passion and love for his craft are immediately palpable. He expresses himself through the art medium of mask carving and painting. This encounter involves a close look at the rural lifestyle that molded his experiences and, thereby, his individual artistic-style. Janaka — the artist who conducts this alternate experience — takes you through his village in a mini moke, and it certainly adds much character to an already engaging encounter!
Ambalangoda has an ancient tradition of mask making. For several centuries, a few families from this town had carefully crafted the different masks required to maintain specific aspects of Sri Lankan culture. The masks were an integral part of religious rituals, spiritual ceremonies, traditional plays, local dance forms, puppeteering, and general aesthetic expression. The use of these masks has, however, reduced in recent times along with the wane in influence of their associated cultural traditions. Still, a few loyal, gifted artisans keep plying their trade, and Janaka is one such person.
Built into his very home, his workshop immediately takes you to another time; a different place. It is a labyrinth of eerie masks, intense colour, and traditional pieces of art. Worldly interpretations of otherworldly artistic thoughts, they are. This is where you will first encounter ‘The Mask Man’. Janaka humbly reveals the nature of his work and life to you while offering a few light refreshments, before setting off to experience the daily sights and sounds that have shaped him. First, he takes you to an ancient Buddhist temple close to the heart of the town of Ambalangoda. A primary reason for the significance of the Sunandarama Temple is the bell tower it houses, which is known to be the largest in Sri Lanka. Also found here are several paintings dating back to the 18th century, with immense archaeological and historic value to, both, the region and the country. He briefly introduces a few fundamental Buddhist concepts: a deep reverence for the Buddha, the essence of his teaching, and the symbolic value of the Bo tree. A different temple, where the largest reclining Buddha statue (35m) rests is also swiftly visited. A short distance from the temple is an aesthetic treat; a few houses dedicated entirely to the art of mask carving. As with Janaka’s, their workshops too are set within their own homes. There is little separation between the craft they have honed for decades and their daily lives. Their stories, experiences and feelings, therefore, find their way into the detailed carvings on these masks. In every sense of the term, it is a family-run cottage industry. A quick moke ride away and Janaka immerses you in a vastly different artistic tradition. Batik — a cloth dyeing technique originating from Java, Indonesia and first introduced locally by the Sri Lankan Malays — is an important part of the cultural fabric of Sri Lanka. A small batik dyeing facility and the many processes involved are shown. Operated by several local ladies, they run their households with the additional income generated from this enterprise. Next, Janaka takes you to a functional coconut oil refinery. The ancient method of deriving coconut oil by applying immense pressure on the coconut flesh, using a millstone system, is employed here. The large stone wheel is kept in motion by a cow. Coconut oil is widely consumed in these parts as cooking oil, hair oil, and for its medicinal properties in the Ayurvedic tradition. This niche, alternate experience culminates with a return trip to The Mask Man’s workshop. A relaxed glimpse of the various mediums (canvas, plates, wooden pallets, etc.) that he employs to make traditional paintings is offered at this point. You can savour a fabulous meal prepared by his wife, within their own home; however, this entails an additional charge as it is not a part of the curated encounter. This can be arranged if two days prior notice is given, and it is an option that many who partake in this experience choose, due to its authentic flavour.
To Janaka, the distinction between art, nature and life is of little importance. He has grown up witnessing their richness to be one and the same. To illustrate this is one primary purpose of ‘The Mask Man’ experience. He believes that it is important to preserve the artforms of mask making and painting, in much the same way that Ceylon Soul endeavours to conserve the environment and Sri Lanka’s abundant cultural traditions. His unassuming manner is in direct contrast to his lofty achievements as a gifted, visionary artisan. He took his distinct style of ‘Kolam’ mask making to Colombo many years ago. The novelty of his brand and style were duly recognized by several high-end retail outlets in the capital city. His creations have been promoted in their stores to art enthusiasts from all parts of the world. With his brand ‘Sithuvili’ (or ‘thoughts’ in the Sinhalese language), he has created a niche market for the promotion and sale of handcrafted masks. He maintains an artsy store-cum-workshop within the Galle Fort towards the end of supporting this effort. An encounter with ‘The Mask Man’ will deepen your appreciation for art and offer a rare glimpse into rural life in Sri Lanka.