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15th April 2001
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April 17 marks the birth centenary of painter, writer and poet George Keyt

A master's magic

By H.A.I. Goonetileke
B orn a year after the turn of the lastcentury, George Keyt, Sri Lanka's most distinguished and renowned modern painter, stemming from Indo-Dutch origins gave much time from an early age, to drawing and the study of art, and developed a consuming passion for books and reading. 

The spell of the ancient hill capital and its Buddhist aura soon came to exercise a powerful and lasting influence on him and was to provide both the literary and artistic stimulus. Living so close to the Malwatte Vihare, he became greatly drawn towards Buddhism and while yet a very young man, championed the cause of the Buddhist revival. He wrote profusely in both prose and verse to Buddhist publications, contributing decorative drawings on religious subjects as well. 

The young painter also began to turn his back on the stifling values of the Westernised milieu of the class into which he was born. Gentle folkways of life in rural society, the forms and colours of the Kandyan countryside, unhurried rhythms of life in its villages, and the lush beauty of the environment were transmuted into paintings.

A variety of art forms, compounded of ill-digested notions of Western naturalism, an insular revivalism, and a sham Orientalism, were opposed by a group of young painters whose early work was largely inspired, invigorated, and supported by Lionel Wendt, musician, photographer, critic, litterateur, collector and true aficionado of the arts aided and abetted by the English artist Charles Frederick Winzer, the Chief Government Inspector of Art. 

At the time this group of painters, of whom Justin Pieris Deraniyagala, George Keyt, Geoffrey Beling and Harry Pieris were the chief figures at the start, had begun to communicate in their art a vigour, sincerity, and intelligence. 

Along with eight others, of whom the best known were George Claessen, Ivan Peries, Richard Gabriel, Aubrey Collette, and Manjusri Thero they set out to form the 43 Group. 

The manifesto, so to speak, of this Group was based on a fresh, though fundamental, recognition of certain essentials in art, forgotten for 50 years-realistic appreciation of the true values and flavours of the native landscape, its people, and its regional artistic traditions. 

A congenial pre-occupation with depicting episodes from the Buddhist Jataka or Birth stories culminated in the magnificent and innovative representation of the life and times of the Great Teacher, on the inner walls of the circumambulatory shrine-room of Gotami Vihare in Borella between 1939 and 1940. 

About this time his explorations in Hindu mythology and Indian literature led him to form close links with the cultural life of India, where he had lived for long and short periods from 1939 right up to the late seventies. To the Sri Lanka Buddhist sources were now added the compelling imagery of Hindu myth and legend.

Many exhibitions of Keyt's work have also been held in India, London and other European and American centres. His pictures are to be found in various museums and galleries abroad, as well as in private collections in Sri Lanka and throughout the world. 

His work has been introduced and eulogised by eminent critics like Herbert Read, William Archer, Andre Chamson, George Besson, Mulk Raj Anand, E.M. Forster, John Berger and William Graham, while discerning critics in his own country have been quick to laud his imperious progress. 

His fame as a painter has obscured his significance as a poet; not so well known, therefore, is the fact that he is one of the few poets of any stature in contemporary Sri Lanka. The three volumes of poems privately printed in Kandy in 1936 and 1937 titled Poems, The Darkness Disrobed, and Image in Absence respectively are long out of print and virtually unknown territory to Keyt admirers today. His incursions into Sinhalese folk-lore and Sinhala literature, and his friendship with scholar priests, led to the publication of Poetry from the Sinhalese text put into English published in Colombo in 1939, also never reprinted. Folk stories from Sri Lanka pubished in Colombo in 1974 has been re-printed twice in 1979 and 1982. His English rendering of the famous 13th century Sanskirt poem Gita Govinda by Jayadeva, illustrated with his own sensitive line drawings, and often reprinted is justly reputed. 

As we stand back and survey the astounding fertility and majestic output of over 70 years of unceasing and untiring artistic vision of Sri Lanka's most illustrious painter what strikes us most is the splendid demonstration of unwaning vigour and undiluted radiance. His art continues to span the universe of sacred and profane love in all its piquant, pensive and pulsating moods.
On April 17, the George Keyt Foundation in collaboration with Ceylon Tobacco Company will honour the work of George Keyt with the issue of a postage stamp and the launch of a book on his life. An exhibition of George Keyt's paintings will also be held at the Harold Peries Gallery at the Lionel Wendt from April 25th to May 5. 


Dancing movements

By Ruth Sutton
Human form, expres- sion, emotion and movement are what fascinate artist Noella Roos. Her drawings are not merely studies of a figure: she captures the movement, atmosphere and feeling in her subjects and projects their personality through her work. 

This Dutch artist has been living in Sri Lanka for a year and a half, and "Naked" her exhibition of figurative work, opened at the Paradise Road Gallery on April 5. "Naked" is her first solo exhibition in this country, and she has high hopes of the public's response to her work. 

Her exhibition is a collection of 25 drawings of the human form, in charcoal. She uses a particular Siberian charcoal as it contains more oil than the regular kind which makes it very pliable and allows her to smudge and smear, catching split second movements and creating the illusion of motion and fluidity in a static medium. Her distinctive strong lines, smudging (using her fingers, hand, and sometimes her whole forearm) and erasing to create light all contribute to the final effect.

All of her subjects are dancers, and she draws them as they move; gathering that vital spark as they lose themselves in expression and reveal unique characteristics through their dance. For Noella, there is no joy in painting portraits from photographs or from posed subjects, as what she really aims to achieve is an expression of the person as a whole, not just the outward form. The subjects are unclothed because garments detract from the lines of the body, and mask some of the individual features and traits of the person. 

She points to one drawing and says - "for me, this is not a drawing of a woman, this is Tutti" (the name of the dancer).

With artist parents, and brought up in a world surrounded by works of art in progress, observing the inspiration and processes as a part of everyday childhood, Noella had no doubts as to her destiny. "It was not as though I had a particular dream about being an artist, which I then had to struggle to attain," she says, " we just did it." " If you grow up with art all around you, it just comes naturally." 

Despite the current vogue of abstract, conceptual and shocking art in Europe, Noella's work is founded on a more classical form and philosophy, which, she is pleased to note, is quietly making a return to the art world. Her work is about engaging the viewer to see the personality of the subjects, and to evoke a feeling, and response beyond merely admiring the technique or talent of the artist. 

Although her exhibition is of dancers, and she is currently working with Kandyan dancers, Noella finds inspiration in the ordinary. Such as watching rows of arms and heads as people cling on to overhead rails on the bus. As she observes people, she sees them engaged in routine tasks, but each is an individual, and there is something illuminating in each person. "Painting each fingernail is not important," she tells me, " it is about the relationship between the movement of the body and the personality, and how I transform what I see into my expression."

Noella's exhibition at the Paradise Road Gallery, 2 Alfred House Road, Colombo 3 continues till April 19.


Those were the days of lusty, healing laughter 

By Alfreda de Silva 
Where has all the laughter gone? And where are the laughter-making people, who, with malice to none, made morning reading of the newspaper a hilarious exercise? Is it that we love melancholy more now and laughter less? 

It seemed that the Ceylonese or Sri Lankan character was then capable of a collective jocularity. A common response by Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and Burghers laughing heartily at their own various idiosyncracies. Tarzie Vittachi, E.M.W. Joseph (Sooty Banda) and Collette among others, had mastered a magical art. 

With a different kind of wit and wearing two hats as an outstanding comedy actor and a writer who wielded a rumbustious, inimitable, facile pen, E.C.B. Wijeyesinghe strode this country's stage and gave punch to the journals to which he wrote. 

A smile as innocent and totally guileless as a baby's and a benevolent and prodigious knowledge of men and matters helped him give a new slant to laugher-making. 

It is with thankfulness that we now have the selected writings of The Good At Their Best, culled from a series of E.C.B's articles called Lest we Forget written for The Sunday Times of Ceylon, and Men and Memories for the Sunday Observer. The Good At Their Best readily published by Arjuna Hulugalle in response to a request by Gamini Wijeyesinghe, E.C.B's son, is elegantly done. It combines history, literature and drama with the panacea of laughter. The book is edited by F.A. Ranasinghe.

The relevant newspaper clippings handed to Arjuna by E.C.B's daughter, Dilkie Peiris, had been lovingly collected by his wife, Doreen. 

Arjuna Hulugalle's father, the distinguished H.A.J. Hulugalle, scholar, editor and Ambassador was E.C.B's closest friend. 

Together they romp through the book with a whole gallery of luminaries. "The book points to the fact that the list is endless. Friends, politicians, statesmen, actors, theatre folk, businessmen, medicos, professionals and many others are seen by him with humour, panache and sincerity.......". 

Pithy and valuable comments by Harris, another member of the Hulugalle family add sparkle to these writings. 

The book begins in an era when the British were here and takes in the years of our Independence. 

People basking in their new-found freedom were not ashamed to laugh at themselves. Nor did they lead their lives in water-tight compartments of race and creed. 

Let E.C.B. tell us the rest. Laughter is an irresistible component of his stories. 

He says of his friend Herbert Hulugalle's marriage to Lillian, the daughter of the millionaire T.H.A. de Soysa, who had lost his wealth and had to part with Regina Walauwa in Thurstan Road. 

"Though the friends of both parties were inclined to look at it askance they have since then had nothing but admiration for the pair who defied the dead hand of caste prejudice and raised a family that is the envy of the aristocrats, plutocrats and all the other rats,that tried to destroy their happiness." 

There is also, among a host of other things about Hulugalle the rib-tickling snippet of his love for travel when he was a young man. "Once when roaming about in Syria he got off a train and asked a taxi driver to take him to Thomas Cook's.

"He had been taken, for a long ride and after a couple of hours was asked to get down at some place where there was no Thomas Cook's in sight. The Arab driver, when he was asked if he was sure he had the right address, had replied gruffly, 'Yes, this is Damascus' a word that sounded like Hulugalle's destination Thomas Cook's. He had been taken to Damascus."

The side-splitting tales told by E.C.B. include ones of theatre at what he calls The Old Vic of Ceylon, The Tower Hall to which he was often taken as a youth, by his uncle Danny and the latter's wife. 

Among the Sinhala plays that were done, there were various adaptations of Shakespearean drama. Romeo and Juliet was a favourite. 

"One unexpected evening Juliet awoke at the Capulet's tomb to find Romeo dead. So great was her sense of shock that she totally forgot her lines. No amount of prompting from the wings helped." 

E.C.B.'s story has it that the prompter, in frenzied desperation, suddenly sprang from the wings to centre stage and held the script under the heroine's eyes. So Juliet got her lines and the play went on, but not without gales of laughter at the scene of death. 

There had been one man who had hugely appreciated this. "To a Shakespearean scholar like Ludowyke," says E.C.B. referring to Lyn, "It was a marvellous bit of 'business' and so Elizabethan in its simplicity." 

There were other hazards created by drama friends who packed the gallery of the historic old Tower Hall. They would fling banana skins and cigarette tins on stage, if they did not care for a particular character not necessarily the actor who played it. Then the slippery stage emptied itself and so did the hall, in double quick time. For those who saw E.C.B. in his stellar roles as a unique actor, in plays so well done and so timely in the history of this land, the memory of his stance and style of entrance will never he forgotten. 

The curtains of the stage in the YMCA auditorium Fort, parted and this mighty actor who was not acting at all, stood whiskered, konded , tweeded in cloth and coat with a tortoise-shell comb on his pomaded hair. And on his face was the most innocent and ecstatic of smiles. 

The audience went into peals of affectionate laughter and one had to wipe the tears off one's face before the act began. In those home- spun, inspired comedies that brought together various strata, elements and fads and foibles of our society in scenes of thunderous applause, we had theatre of the people for the people. 

The plays were wittily and cunningly fashioned. Among them were He comes from Jaffna adapted by Lyn Ludowyke from Sidney Grundy's A Pair of Spectacles. H.C.M. de Lanerolle's The Senator, The Dowry Hunter and The Return of Ralahamy and the E.M.W. Joseph (Sooty Banda) creations in collaboration with H.C.N. Lanerolle, like Well Mudaliyar and Fifty- Fifty. 

Audiences of that era were exposed to the earthy, marvellous, rustic humour that was well understood at the time. 

And the result was magnetic honest-to-goodness, fearless, lusty, healing laughter. We laughed at ourselves, warts and all. 
 

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