Gaveshaka concludes series on Buddhist temple paintingsNew look murals at Gotami Vihara
While Soliyas Mendis painted the murals at Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara between the years 1932-1946, another distinguished painter started relating the life of the Buddha in his own style in a temple in Borella. The painter was George Keyt and the temple was Gotami Vihara. After the paintings were done in 1939-1940, Gotami Vihara became a famous temple in the capital of Colombo.

George Keyt has been acknowledged as Sri Lanka’s most renowned and celebrated modern painter. Born in Kandy on 17 April,1902, he developed an interest in art, literature and music while schooling at Trinity College. Living close to the Malwatte Vihara, he got interested in Buddhism when he was in his twenties and embraced Buddhism. His earliest paintings done in the late 1920s, were close observations of nature. These included Udawattakele, the lush forest reserve in Kandy and Sangharaja Pirivena, a prominent temple in Kandy.

George Keyt’s murals at Gotami Vihara were a landmark in his career. He was guided in the task by scholar monk Telwatte Amarawansa Nayaka Thera. It was not a difficult task for Keyt to work with him because of his close association with monks of the Malwatte Vihara. An architect by the name of Andrew Boyd had done the walls for the murals to be painted.

It is said that Keyt did not do any sketches before doing the murals. He had outlined the walls with burnt sienna (a fine orange-red pigment used in oil and water colour painting) and later added colours to the line drawings at the request of the Nayaka Thera. The lines had also been thickened.

The murals trace the entire life of the Buddha from the time the Bodhisatva was invited by the gods to be born in the human world right up to the passing away, in a unique style typical of artist Keyt. These depict the invitation by the gods, the dream of Queen Mahamaya showing a white elephant hovering round her, the birth of Prince Siddhartha, the ‘vap magul’ (ploughing) ceremony, his skills in archery, marriage ceremony, married life with Princess Yasodara, pleasures in the palace with girls dancing, his disgust with worldly life, the four omens which prompted the Prince to leave the palace, the great renunciation, crossing the river Anoma with Channa on Kanthaka’s back, donning the robes, Enlightenment and incidents in Buddha’s life.

Each mural is six feet three inches high and they cover the walls of the simple ‘budu-ge’. Each episode merges with the other just as the mass composition of the grand old masters of the famous Ajanta caves in India or Polonnaruwa. Three years after completing the Gotami Vihara murals, Keyt was one of the founder members of the newly formed ’43 Group, a band of reputed young artists.

Keyt continued to live in Kandy in between going to India, which he considered as his spiritual home. Beginning in the 1920s, Keyt held over thirty exhibitions before his death on 31 July 1993. He was honoured with the release of a stamp on 24 April 2001 to mark his birth centenary. It depicted the Keyt painting-Hansa Jataka, done in 1952 and now hanging in the Presidential Secretariat.

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