Reading: Agency of the Artist: Re-contextualizing the Role of Temple Painters &Sculptors in the Briti...


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Agency of the Artist: Re-contextualizing the Role of Temple Painters &Sculptors in the British Colonial Period


J. A. V. N. Jayathilaka

University of Visual and Performing Arts, LK
About J. A. V. N.
Department of History & Art Theory, Faculty of Visual Arts
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Scholarly research studies on the Low Country temple painters and sculptors during the colonial period are relatively very limited despite the fact that a large number of Buddhist temples in the maritime region have been embellished with their creations. This paper attempts to understand their role within the colonial socio-political context and therefore, the main research question addressed here is: ‘Did the Low Country artists have agency in the art making process during the colonial period?  In addition, several secondary issues; namely, how these artists responded to the colonial situation through their creations, how their work-culture was formed, and the nature of their relationship with monks and patrons are addressed. Qualitative research methodology was considered in this study and formal and contextual analysis were used in reading artworks. Materials such as existing artworks of temples, letters written for painters, contract agreements of art projects, memorial stone-plaques, poetical sources, and documents of colonial writers were used in this study. It was found that the Low Country artists were different from the hereditary temple artists in Sri Lanka in many aspects including caste-identity, social background, art training, value systems, work culture etc.  Although these artists remained a subordinate group, at times, they have dared to criticize the person in power through artworks.


Therefore, some inferior or lower-ranked characters; namely, sinners in Hell, executioners, servants, palanquin-bearers, guards, etc., are depicted in Buddhist art with Western elements of the colonizer. Also, these artists have changed signs of the British emblem by incorporating Buddhist symbols and some colonial rulers have been transformed into worshipers of the Buddha.This behavior, which is against Eurocentric discourses, challenges the popular colonial notion that the colonized is somebody with no agency.

How to Cite: Jayathilaka, J.A.V.N., 2020. Agency of the Artist: Re-contextualizing the Role of Temple Painters &Sculptors in the British Colonial Period. Kalyani: Journal of the University of Kelaniya, 34(1), pp.16–41. DOI:
Published on 15 Dec 2020.
Peer Reviewed


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