“Look At Us”: Hanusha Somasunderam
By Shruthi Mathews
Everystory Sri Lanka presents the first thirty stories from our ongoing work to create a compendium of Sri Lankan women’s stories — featuring those whose lives, work, and experiences have shaped and are shaped by Sri Lanka’s social, political, and cultural contexts.
From the Stories of Sri Lankan Women Archive — Hanusha Somasunderam
Once there was a woman who worked on the bright, verdant hills of Nuwara Eliya. The sun was piercing and leeches sipped at her blood as she plucked tear shaped leaves off the vivid, green bushes. She tossed them over her back into a basket that hung from her head. The weight of it pulled against her scalp. It was heavy and it was hot. It hurt.
Many years later, her granddaughter caressed the worn, bumpy crown of her grandmother’s head, and thought deeply about the hearts and hands that made this prized, signature export possible: Ceylon Tea. Her granddaughter’s name is Hanusha Somasunderam. Hanusha is an artist.
Being represented by the Saskia Fernando Gallery in Colombo is a big deal. It’s an achievement for any artist, but perhaps even more so for an artist who faces the overlapping challenges associated with being a woman and a Hill Country Tamil, one of Sri Lanka’s most marginalised, overlooked communities.
The habitual cup of tea, quietly integral to a sunny afternoon or an office lunch break, is the focus of Hanusha’s work. She reframes everyday objects like the tea strainer, the teacup and the tea bag and demands that you look at them more closely. It’s not enough to ask where our tea comes from. Who does it come from?
Although Hanusha grew up watching her mother leave for the tea plantations from their line room, she didn’t always think of the struggles that lay beneath the surface of the much advertised beauty of the hills. In fact, while studying art at the University of Jaffna, Hanusha was particularly struck by how beautiful Nuwara Eliya was in contrast to Jaffna’s more arid, spare terrain. This is what she would highlight in her final project. But a probing question from her lecturer changed her course. “Is Nuwara Eliya really beautiful?”, he asked, “Who are the people who make it this way?”. Hanusha was surprised. She thought about this deeply, questioning how she might have overlooked the challenges and issues facing her community to rest her gaze on those bright, verdant hills of home.
Stirred by this question, Hanusha turned her eyes to her own life experiences and those of her community. Likewise, her art demands that you move beyond passive looking to more purposive seeing. Look beyond the surface of the everyday tea object and see the world that exists behind it. As Hanusha says, “I want people to think beyond the beauty of the hills to see the reality of the issues that face the people who make it beautiful […] You can only help us if you first see us.”
The Hill Country Tamil community provides our tea, but they rarely drink it themselves. They drink ‘dust’ — the dregs left behind after higher quality tea is sent for export or to shops in the cities. Look at Hanusha’s art. You’ll see this asymmetry in the stories of her family and friends, inked in symbols across stained tea bags and teacups. Leeches, line rooms, infants, the hands on a clock. Imagine drinking from one of Hanusha’s white, porcelain cups. As the warm tide of sweet milk tea flows past your lips, you might notice the inked outlines of crying infants reaching for their mother; when you’ve drunk your fill, your drained cup might disclose the small, sparse square of a line room inked at its base.
Hanusha’s art is the cover of anthropologist Mythri Jegathesan’s Tea and Solidarity, an ethnography of the Hill Country Tamil community. A collage of teabags forms the canvas, a woman traced on blurring patches of sepia; one hand clasps a full, pregnant belly, the other delicately holds a tea leaf, fingers curved in a mudra. Her bare breasts and the stained, ochre tones allude to the Sigiriya frescoes, highlighting the absence of women like Hanusha, her mother and her grandmother from the nation’s mythologies and narratives, both past and present. In Hanusha’s words, as recorded by Dr. Jegathesan,
“This woman working on the plantations is the backbone of her home.
This woman is the backbone of the nation.
The women of Sigiriya stand high on a mountain.
These women also stand high on mountains.
The women in Sigiriya have delicate fingers that hold slender leaves.
The women here also have delicate fingers but hold tea leaves […]
I am asking those who come here to look at them.
To look back.
In spite of the oppressions she resists, Hanusha is joyous. She’s deeply thankful to the allies she’s had along the way — her parents, who helped her buy art materials, and her university lecturer, Dr Thamodarampillai Shanathanan who was a true mentor and teacher. “Dr Shanathanan taught me what art really was and opened many doors of opportunity, I must have done something good in a past life to have received him as my teacher.”.
Hanusha is an artist. She is a mother, a wife, a teacher and a daughter.
Inequality and inequity, fulfilment and agency are both encapsulated in her work. The tea bag is a symbol of exploitation; it’s also a symbol of Hanusha’s identity and the profound joy she experiences when creating art. She finds release in telling her story and in giving utterance to the typically erased voice of her community. “I used to be someone whom no one knew about,” says Hanusha, “If I don’t keep doing my art, I’d get lost. I’d be forgotten. For people to know that a person like me exists, I need to keep on doing something. If I do a good piece of art, I don’t need the effects of yoga or meditation — where you feel that freeing of tension and peace of mind. That piece of work gives me my happiness. My art gives me this kind of peaceful, joyous mentality. ”
In creating art, Hanusha finds aathma tripti — a deeply felt satisfaction of the spirit. When she speaks these stories in ink, she says she feels like she’s flying.
(Shruthi Mathews is currently an online graduate student at Johns Hopkins University, studying Liberal Arts. She was a co-founder of the food review site YAMU and covered arts for the Hindu newspaper in Chennai. She’s a graduate of University College London and a mother of two.)
Reference Links and Further Reading
- On Hanusha
- Works and Bio, Saskia Fernando Gallery, https://www.saskiafernandogallery.com/artists/52-hanusha-somasunderam/biography/
- Hanusha Somasundaram, wammuseum, https://wammuseum.org/artist/hanusha-somasundaram/
- “When you look at them you look at us”, Sunday Times, 27th March 2016, http://www.sundaytimes.lk/160327/sunday-times-2/when-you-look-at-them-you-look-at-us-187578.html
- On the Hill Country Tamil Community
- Tea & Solidarity (2019), Mythri Jegathesan
- Class, Patriarchy, and Ethnicity on Sri Lankan Plantations (2015), Kumari Jayawardena and Rachel Kurian
This article is pending support to be translated into Sinhala and Tamil. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to support us with translations or if you have any questions.