Front cover of The Incomplete Thombu. Click here for larger image.

Put simply, The Incomplete Thombu by Sri Lankan Tamil artist T. Shanaathanan is, for us, one of 2011’s most compelling publications. It is art, but in the form of a book that deftly entwines it with architecture, drawing, the memory of loss and an eerily compelling exploration of what makes a home, a home by those who have left it behind, or lost it to the war. Short excerpts in the book by those who have lost their home are always poignant, sometimes humorous but never vindictive. There is a fragile, essential humanity to these stories that with a light touch reveals so much the war took away from residents in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province. There are 80 stories captured in the tome and they range in tone, identity, location and age. The drawings by the subjects themselves are very powerful depictions of loss – not just of property, but at times of hope itself. But in the stories there is also hope regained. Here we see facets of life before, during and after displacement that for those who haven’t experienced it, deeply humbling. Shanaathanan’s gifted ability to render in art the essence of each story makes the intensely personal more broadly appreciated, and you can spend hours flipping through this book, reading its contents and looking at the drawings.

Shanaathanan was born in Jaffna, Sri Lanka in 1969. He received his BFA in 1997 and his MFA in 2000 from the University of Delhi. In 2011 he completed his PhD at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He lives and works in Jaffna and is currently senior lecturer in Art History in the Department of Fine Arts, University of Jaffna.

Back cover of The Incomplete Thombu. Click here for larger image.

As noted on the Raking Leaves website, The Incomplete Thombu poses as a bureaucratic document file. Thombu was a term used by the Dutch to describe a public land registery, derived from the Greek tomos, from which the Latin word tome, or large book orginates. The Incomplete Thombu covers the subject of Tamil displacement during the civil conflict in Sri Lanka between 1983 and 2009. Though numerous documents of statistical data have recorded the displacement of civilians from the north and east of Sri Lanka, few have highlighted the personal plights of those involved. This project records the stories that removed civilians from their homes and the memories that they took with them. T. Shanaathanan examines the subject of displacement through a series of drawings that overlay ground plans of houses drawn from memory by displaced Tamil-speaking civilians, with architectʼs renderings and dry pastel drawings. The attempt to register one document on top of the other, maps out further displacements between what is remembered, what has been taken away and the stories left behind in a conflict that has torn apart its land and its people for over thirty years.

Groundviews caught up with the artist at the Saskia Fernando Gallery, where The Incomplete Thombu is on sale. The book is also on sale at the Barefoot Gallery in Colombo.

In this short interview, Shanaathanan speaks of the process of creating something that deals with trauma and loss. We asked him about the challenges of grappling with architecture and memory, as well as the architecture of memory. We ask the artist how in some of the professional architectural motifs, details not present in the original drawings are featured, and go on to ask him about the process of selection that led to the 80 stories captured in the book. Shanaathanan speaks of the politics of this work, and of his art in general, and also explores the idea of home (and its loss), which is a running theme through his work. He also explains how the book was bound and created in the manner it is.

Shanaathanan’s seven year old son, who had come to the gallery to see his father’s paintings, makes a cameo appearance in the video!