9th December 2001

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Of people and anecdotes from a time that was

Selected Essays-by Maureen Seneviratne. Reviewed by Vijitha Fernando

The title is rather a misnomer. These essays are not barren exercises on selected current topics but full blown journeys back into the past. They touch on a variety of topics and are written with the verve and vigour readers are familiar with in Maureen Seneviratne's writings as a journalist, an activist and a campaigner for the rights of children. She begins with the mosaic of her own self and through this, the reader gets a first hand account of the ancestry, the lifestyle, the culture and the traditions of the Burghers. 

Once again, this is not a skeletal sketch, but a full bodied and fascinating account based on her own family. It reaches out to her forebears and the resultant "ethnic mix" spawned by many years of racial interaction. Her descriptions of the many persons who peopled her life as a girl and a young woman are the symbols of that past generation. Through them, a picture emerges of gracious living as well as of the foibles of the Burghers through grandfather, the two uncles et al, not to mention the cuisine and the joys of Christmas with an abundance of relatives! 

Seneviratne's humorous anecdotes about her family and her community in general are a window to a lifestyle that is long gone. Thus a natural nostalgia creeps into her work. What is most remarkable is the manner in which humour and pathos, even the ability to laugh at herself do not take away anything from the respect for and the graciousness of this remarkable "family" of people.

That is not all. From part one, the reader moves on to a series of episodic essays culled mostly from Seneviratne's contributions to a newspaper column and from her writings to Channels, the Journal of the English Writers' Co-operative. Many of them relate to the trauma and tragedy of our times. Essays on places of historical interest are not just places that invite and fascinate but glimpses of history itself, as in 'White Witch of Welimada" or the "Haunted Arbours of Rama Kelle", Dhatusena and his spirit at Kalawewa or the less well known Issarama at Polonnaruwa.

As she says, "anything is grist to her mill" and Selected Essays illustrates this aptly, whether she quotes from an ancient aunt, the Sigalovada Sutta or the Dhammapada, leaving one rather breathless at times at the variety of her interests and her genuine interest in delving deep into them. These form a sizeable part of her Essays, but one keeps going back to the "Mosaic that's Me" which is the real story of the Burgher community in the then Ceylon and the rich cultural mix they were, as part of the country's population.

Seneviratne's selection of essays will interest any reader, young or otherwise. Most of them are topical. Others take a fresh look at people and places. She certainly adds that little bit of imagination and quite some discernment to these so that she can "know all the things on earth without going out my door or know the ways of heaven without looking out of the window," as the poet says.

Looking back

Home for artist Winitha Fernando is not just where the heart is, but where her soul is. And so this homecoming is a doubly joyful one, as she returns to Sri Lanka, always her spiritual home, for both an exhibition of her work and a family Christmas. 

Winitha Fernando has spent much of the past 25 years away from the island's shores, but she still considers herself a Sri Lankan artist, proud to portray the country's lifestyle and people in her own expressive style. 

Her exhibitions have always been eagerly awaited by art lovers here because they are, through necessity rare occasions, made more difficult by the logistical nightmare of carrying paintings across two continents. 'Retrospective', her forthcoming exhibition at the Lionel Wendt Gallery from December 11 to 13 is a look back in time of the career of this illustrious artist, spanning 30 years (1970_2000). 

Over the years, from her first showing way back in 1957, Winitha has exhibited at some of the most prestigious galleries in the world and seen her paintings hung in many countries. But this exhibition holds great significance for her. "It's a milestone in my journey for it will be my final one of secular art." 

That statement may come as a shock to most, but for those who know Winitha Fernando will be aware of her deep Christian faith that has always been a guiding force in her life and indeed in her work. A pilgrimage to the Holy Land made in March 2000 had a lasting impact on her, she says. It was perhaps, a turning point. With it came a conscious decision to devote her considerable talents thereafter to God. For Winitha, the new millennium has marked a new beginning. She now hopes to concentrate all her efforts on being a Christian artist, drawing her inspiration entirely from the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. 

So will we miss the Winitha Fernando we knew, as her art takes a new direction? She believes not, for her strength has always been as a figurative painter. As always "People matter a great deal to me and that is why all my paintings are figure compositions, " she explains. And the Sri Lankan flavour that has characterized her art will still be present, she assures. "Only, the Biblical figures are indigenized, portrayed as Sri Lankan figures" 

She still works meanwhile with mixed media; oils, pastels, acrylics and water-colour. The exhibition "Retrospective' will thus provide us with a final opportunity to leaf through the pages of Winitha's past. The period covered (about half the paintings are from 1970-1980) will be familiar to many art lovers in this country who delight in Winitha's serene cameos of Sri Lankan life. 

Hers are the scenes we see so often and seldom pause to appreciate, perhaps some of them fast vanishing in the frenetic whirl of modern life. "In my early years of painting, my work was inspired by my surroundings_ the beauty of the Sri Lankan scene, its way of life, its people," she says. She was also drawn to the simplicity and lack of sophistication that characterised life in this country, she adds. 

An artist who began her journey at the Government School of Fine Arts, Winitha says she owes much to the early influence in her life of David Paynter, the celebrated Lankan artist. Paynter was her mother's cousin and her tutor as well. In fact, while painting his famous mural of the Transfiguration of Christ that graces the chapel of S. Thomas College, Mount Lavinia, he lived at Winitha's family home. She first studied art at the Government College of Fine Arts and then taught for ten years at her alma mater Methodist College, before a scholarship to study fine arts awarded by the World Council of Churches took her to the UK. 

Here she also had the opportunity to study pottery and subsequently went on to further her interest in stained glass art. Since then her career has been a continuous success story with exhibitions all over Europe in prestigious galleries and art festivals such as the Paris Salon, the Galerie Vallombreuse, Biarritz, the La Mandragore Galerie also in Paris, L'Arthotheque, Palais de la Scala, Monte Carlo, the Edinborough Festival, the Art Expo International Coliseum, New York and recently the Whitstable Millennium Arts Festival to name just a few in a list that runs into two pages. 

A quick glance reveals several exhibitions in recent years at churches in the UK, notably Winchester and Canterbury Cathedrals. For all her exposure at other venues, Winitha is genuinely thrilled to have her work shown on such hallowed ground, though modestly attributing the very favourable response she received to the revival of interest in religious art in the UK. "The British public has found my work interesting and intriguing," she says. Indeed, so much so that the magazine "The Anglican World' has used one of her paintings in its Christmas issue this year. There is recognition there too of her dedication to her work. She has been asked to conduct a seminar in January 2002 on 'The Fullness of Life through Art' by Christians Aware, an organisation that focuses on multi-cultural projects worldwide. It has always mattered much to her, despite her international recognition that Sri Lankans enjoy and appreciate her work. Winitha has a special wish that through 'Retrospective', a new generation of Lankans will come to know her art. She hopes too that there will be a next time to show her work here and God willing, it will be an exhibition of Christian art. 

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