Well beyond public service

W.T.Jayasinghe & Stanley Kirinde
By Nihal Rodrigo - (Another Trinitian)

On May 14, an event of commemoration and thanksgiving for the life and work of the late Stanley Kirinde, public servant and artist, was held in one of the chapels of the Cathedral on Bauddhaloka Mawatha. The reading of the scriptures was by Brenda Jayasinghe, wife of the late W.T. Jayasinghe, former Sri Lanka Foreign Secretary. May 14 was also the birthday of W.T. Jayasinghe (“WT” to his many “workers”, admirers and friends). Typical of Jayasinghe family modesty, hardly anyone was told of the significance of the date.

The murals in the chapel were painted by Stanley to mark the ordination into the Anglican Church, for the first time in Sri Lanka of three women - from both the Sinhalese and Tamil communities. The murals depict a marriage described in the Holy Bible during which Jesus Christ performed a miracle.

W.T.Jayasinghe and Stanley Kirinde, both products of Trinity College Kandy (sometimes called Udawattekelle Central for its proximity to that forest) exemplified in common, many virtues, particularly of uncommon modesty. Their careers in the Public Service also crossed. WT was Stanley’s first boss when they served together in Polonaruwa.They worked together also in the Defence Ministry which was linked with the Foreign Affairs until 1979.
Stanley Kirinde painting the mural at the Anglican Cathedral in Colombo

WT was the steady, stable Secretary of the Foreign Ministry at a time of great change, nationally as well as globally. For the period 1976-79, Sri Lanka was elected Chairman of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) intent on an activist foreign policy.

President J.R. Jayewardene, coming to power in 1977, believed that there were only two non-aligned countries in the world (the US and the USSR) and hence felt Sri Lanka should resign from the Chair. Quiet persuasion, including by WT, was able to convince President Jayewardene that the NAM was not in the situation of a decrepit vehicle that would be described in the Sinhala phrase alignment-gahala-gihil-la.

This period saw the “opening up” of Sri Lanka’s economy, rising oil prices, mass worker migrations to the Middle East, the emergence of the LTTE, the dreadful events of 1983, complex relations with India culminating in the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of 1987 and the second JVP uprising. At the helm of the Foreign Ministry, WT displayed great calm, good sense and quiet rectitude despite various vacillations at political levels. In giving policy advice up to political levels as well as instructions down to administrative levels, WT saw the leaves, branches, trees and political woods including the lurking Tigers in the underbrush. On financial matters, he penetrated the confusing, copious foliage of minute sheets to provide quick authoritative decisions for action, clearly, concisely and correctly.

WT as SFA (Secretary/Foreign Affairs) avoided grand-staging. His physical height reflected his unbending integrity, his slim spare figure the lean, non-fat cryptic comments he made to sub-ordinates and “superiors” alike.

For me personally, working with WT was an experience of continuous guidance and training. When I was on assignment in New York (as “the running-dog of non-alignment”, as I was described by Indian diplomat Brajesh Mishra), I had the pleasure, this time, of guiding WT across the city’s many bookshops. WT’s appetite for reading was voracious, particularly of political biographies and accounts of times of conflict. This appetite continued well into his retirement. With no major objections from our respective wives, we shared a fascination for Audrey Hepburn and I was happy, during his retirement to keep him supplied with DVDs of her movies and the classic westerns of the past.

Those 4 p.m. sessions when he and Brenda received visitors at their home brought the likes of Jayantha Dhanapala, the late (but always punctual) Rodney Vandergert, John Gooneratne, Daneshan Casie-Chetty, Rohan Perera and others of the Foreign Ministry to exchange views on “the situation” with him – well beyond of course the subject of his fading health and certainly deep into current national affairs. Brenda’s care and affection helped WT greatly to carry on cheerfully in his last months.

WT’s two books on Sri Lanka’s relations with our nearest and often closest neighbour, India are excellent accounts of those complex bilateral relations which he did much to develop: “The Indo-Ceylon Problem: the Politics of Immigrant Labour” (2002) and “Kachchativu and the Maritime Boundary of Sri Lanka” (2003). Stanley provided the ideas for the cover design of WT’s first book.

For a short time, Stanley Kirinde was art teacher at Trinity. I was taught the elements of colour-blending and shading by him. Years later he brought me too, as the Odd Man In, to participate at the Five-Man Exhibition of paintings by Stanley, Ashley Halpe, Kulanatha Senadeera and Siri Gunasinghe held at the British Council in 1964.

Stanley commenced work as a District Land Officer (DLO) at Polonnaruwa. Much of his time was spent out in the countryside on “field work”, dealing with complex human decisions on land ownership, allocation, utilization and development all of which deeply affected many rural lives. Some of his paintings are graphic depictions of land kachcheris and other aspects which brought him into close touch with the people he really served. He painted when time permitted without letting it interfere with his duties.

Stanley’s paintings cover a wide array of themes and subjects. A rich selection of these are reproduced in “The World of Stanley Kirinde” edited by Sinharaja Tamitta-Delgoda and made possible by former Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar who set up a Committee for the purpose in which I too served briefly before being transferred to work in China. Stanley’s subjects include scenes from the life of the Buddha and Jataka tales. His versatility created visual recreations in line and colour of the tones and themes of Jayamangala-gatha as well as vannam such as the gajaga vannama. His landscapes incorporated several of Sri Lankan religious and cultural sites including Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Kandy and Sigiriya. They have been transformed into a timeless context – confined neither to an ancient nor contemporary setting, yet exuding that which is eternal in them. Contemporary themes include rural scenes, harvest time, social gatherings at the well, events such as marriage ceremonies and political meetings. His portraits range from those of his family members, particularly Ira his wife, and friends to the officially commissioned formal portrait of former Indian President Narayan.

His paintings rarely went into abstractions although he has done a few experimental pieces in cubist style. Overall, his style is naturalist rather than photographic, achieving their effect through a minimum of modelling and shading, emphasizing the essentials.

He has recreated spectacular battle scenes, including the Danture Battle (1595) against the British. He has also produced mosaics with bits of porcelain including that on the Uva Rebellion at the Diyatalawa Military Academy. On commission from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he created a large triptych of a Sri Lankan diplomatic delegation at the Court of Roman Emperor Claudius.

Stanley’s most recent murals, at the Cathedral are masterpieces of cultural concord and religious harmony. Like George Keyt, a Christian who painted the murals depicting the life of Lord Buddha at the Gotami Vihare in Borella, Stanley, a Buddhist, painted the murals at the Cathedral, helped by a young Indian-born painter, Sarbjit Kaur. Lakshman Kadirgamar describes Stanley as “a Sri Lankan artist in every fibre of his being”. The settings in the murals, their atmosphere, the figures depicted and their clothing, including of the Christ are Sri Lankan. Few objected to Jesus Christ, the Palestinian being depicted, over centuries of classical Western art, with Euro-blue eyes and blond hair.

However, some in Colombo had objected rather strangely to the costumes and settings of the murals which however are so represented precisely to make their multi-communal impact more direct and distinct here in Sri Lanka. The local setting and representations should in fact help to evoke a harmonious response from worshippers at the Cathedral, irrespective of whether they be Sinhalese or Tamil or Burgher.

Following the commemoration and thanksgiving event, some preliminary discussion was held with the Rt. Rev Bishop de Chickera, Ira Kirinde, Nirmali Wickremesinghe, Principal of Ladies College and some friends of the late artist. It was decided that an exhibition of Stanley’s sketches and paintings, many not publicly seen before, be held shortly in the foyer of the Cathedral near the artist’s murals for the public to experience his work. Arrangements are proceeding and details will be announced.

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