Portrait of an extraordinary patriot
Nihal Fernando: the Lanka lover behind the lens

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The picture that helped save Eppawala. It carried the caption "Ape Paduwe Inna Denna" (Leave us alone!)

By Malinda Seneviratne
This... is a unique gathering of pictures and words, a celebration and a paean, a pageant and a constellation, to aid and abet the appreciation of a time-honoured paradise and an often tragically misunderstood piece of earth. No learned discourse informs these pages, no academic furbelows embellish the theme, no scholarly footnotes hold up the proceedings.

The aim is at once simple and forthright, and, once understood, the book reveals itself as a lyrical descant, a professional anthem to the compilers’ delicate insight, critical flair, and discerning love of an island, traversed from end to end ceaselessly, and discovered and re-discovered with a rare sensitivity to the essence of its charm, its splendours, and its graces." So says, Ian Goonetileke in introducing Serendip to Sri Lanka: Immemorial Isle, an exquisite pictorial capture of the land, its inhabitants and rich cultural heritage, by Nihal Fernando and his disciple cum colleague Luxshman Nadaraja.

Ian’s eloquence and his own sensitivity to both the visual and the deep waters of the cultural ethos upon which it rests, certainly captures the essence without betraying the joys of what is to come. Typical of the man and his inimitable style, he offers a wonderful introduction to the work. Capturing the man behind the lens, his kaleidoscopic mind and creative flush, is something else, and in many ways, a formidable task, not least of all because Nihal’s simplicity includes a deliberate avoidance of the limelight. He is a man who seems to prefer his work to describe him.

Barbara Sansoni has attempted a characterisation: "What is this man with his small band of disciple photographers from Studio Times? His work tells us he is an explorer, a naturalist, endlessly patient and impervious to the discomfort of mosquitoes and heat, a sensuous man, passionate about beauty but equally passionate for things wild, primitive and free, recording their images with great love, not for study, or commerce, or intellectualism or political use, but in the only way artists act — spontaneously. Nihal Fernando is an artist, a great photographer."

Yes, Nihal is all that, and probably more. It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words. When a photographer is as passionate about his/work as Nihal obviously is, there comes a point, I believe, that it becomes difficult to separate the artist from the subject. As such, his pictures define him, not in the sense of instant capture on a two-dimensional frame for all time, but as a mosaic of sensibilities that comes through in both the choice of subject as well as its depiction. Nihal would, in this sense, run into several galleries. And this means, that at a certain level, this exercise is doomed to failure.

I found that an "interview" with the man with the intention of gleaning a biographical sketch a fruitless exercise. He did offer me a curriculum vitae of sorts, but infinitely more interesting was what he had to say about the country that he loves, its people and place in history.

He was born in 1927 in Marawila by the sea, and the family lived in a cadjan walled house with a pit latrine. "I still remember the post-hole digger that we used. It was environmentally sound and sanitation was not compromised." His father was a lawyer who practiced only to secure his independence. When he had made enough money he had decided to spend the rest of his life from a small income from agriculture.

"He was a simple man, he sharpened his shaving blades on a glass and used them for months. When he died the only thing of value that he owned was a wristlet and this he had bequeathed to the man who looked after him. My mother was no different. She had only a gold bracelet, which I couldn’t find. She pawned it so many times that I am sure it must be languishing in some pawn shop."

The family had moved to Colombo to educate the children, but financial constraints meant that young Nihal had to be educated at home until he was ten and a half. At St. Peter’s College he had been "a total misfit," not knowing how to get along with other students. It had been tough to survive so he had learned boxing. "I never learnt, I just had a ball. I was sent home regularly for non-payment of fees and delighted in it!"

He had taken up photography using a borrowed camera in order to solve his pocket-money problem. This he supplemented with breeding fish, grafting plants, and rearing chicken. He would go on long bike trips with his friends. On one occasion they had taken their bikes up to Haputale by train and "went all the way to Kataragama on one pedal; it was all downhill". These trips were cheap, says Nihal. "All I had to take was a plastic table cloth". This was both bed and tent, apparently.

It seems clear that Nihal developed a love for the country, its physical beauty, the charm of its people and their customs, and the grandeur of its past, in the blaze of boyhood exploration. And he certainly discovered and perfected the art of making the maximum use of a "click," both as a staff photographer at the Times and after he acquired Studio Times. Thousands of photographs and several exhibitions and collections later, Nihal claims that he is not a technical photographer nor that he possesses a technical mind. "I only have an eye," says the man, adding that Luxshman Nadarajah is a far superior photographer and in fact, in his view, the best photographer in the country.

With this "eye" Nihal saw and gave the world some wonderful images, serene and magical, richness imbued with delicate tones of the simplicity that he lives and appreciates. "This is a country that the gods made for themselves, it has tremendous potential, it has been ruined by politicians and the people who appointed them."

Nihal has, in his photography, not just produced a variegated visual cartography of this "country of the gods" he has in fact helped identify for us landmarks in the never ending journey of discovering who we are, where we came from and the more benevolent paths that we might choose to walk. Yes, he has shied away from its ugly side. "I only wanted to help people appreciate what we have. The ugly side I leave to the foreigners to photograph."

He firmly believes that the future of the country is in the hands of the small farmer. "The small farmer is as much a hero as those who have to sell their labour in the Middle East. He is self-sufficient, he’s not a drain on the economy, doesn’t need foreign exchange, in fact he saves foreign exchange, gets no advice, gets no seeds (of late) and wherever possible he is organic."

His commitment to a different ethos of living is admirably demonstrated in his efforts to promote traditional agriculture. Studio Times has got the Handbook for the Ceylon Farmer, first published in 1965, translated into Sinhala as "Govi Athpotha," the latest edition, with improvements, coming out last April. Interestingly, it carried a short note on a simple method for using phosphate in agriculture. Predictably the book has not been picked up by the relevant state authorities nor by NGO racketeers who make a living out of selling traditional knowledge, sustainable agriculture and participatory development, the buzz words in the aid market.

Nihal himself says, in a prologue to one of his books, that "the fight to keep safe the wild, the free and the beautiful, even in this blessed land, has been long and hard fought — I for one have lost every skirmish." This was way back in 1986. Since then, he has scored one spectacular victory although he would be the first to downplay his role in the battle. One word. Eppawala.

"There were shocking revelations that came from that campaign to save the phosphate deposits from Freeport-McMoran. We were basically being sold down the line!"

Nihal claims that he was only a catalyst. Be that as it may, he was unique in that category as well. He had co-ordinated the Colombo end of the struggle, Mahamankadawala Piyaratana Thero carrying the burden in Eppawala. In Colombo he had soon got disillusioned by the academics. He had felt that they wouldn’t deliver when it came to crunch time. And most of them didn’t. Scientists, environmentalists, religious leaders, trade unionists, writers and diplomats would meet in Nihal’s house once a week and discuss strategy over vadai and ginger beer.

"It was by invitation, anyone who didn’t contribute was not invited again. The two people who were there throughout were two committed grassroots activists, Suranjan Kodituwakku and Channa Ekanayake. They knew exactly what would work and what wouldn’t and they were totally committed to the struggle. We carried out a tremendous press campaign and the writers, including your father Gamini played a critical role. We were also helped by Jonathan Walters, a professor of religion, who kept the campaign alive over the internet. That type of character was essential in a way. He had an open mind, credibility and a certain humility. Bala Tampoe was most useful. His vast experience in organising pickets and ability to get the CMU and nine other trade unions involved was invaluable."

He conceded that it was very difficult to handle people with disparate political views, but maintained that the group secured this country from a tremendous tragedy. "All you had to do was to go into the history of the people who were going to come. It would have been a disaster. All they wanted was a toe in. Their MOUs would have altered the laws of this country."

Typical of the man, Nihal had meticulously gone over all the facts before joining the struggle. He had written to the then US Ambassador with as cogent an argument as was possible, and had received no reply. "I bumped into him one day and asked him about it and he said ‘It’s economics!’" Your economy, not ours, was the answer that the people gave him and the interests he was representing at the end of the day. The case filed in the Supreme Court by the Environmental Foundation won what is perhaps the greatest victory for our people in a long time.

But capital rarely stops to lick its wounds. Nihal gave me a bunch of documents which clearly indicate that the Ministry of Forestry and Environment have basically pawned off our national parks and wild life in the same way.

"They employ a time-tested method. First, they do their homework, study all the people, the NGOs, the scientists, and officials. Then they offer them subtle bribes such as trips abroad, consultancies. Then they come up with the grand claim ‘We have got consensus!’ At the end of it all, the scheme comes out — it’s a sell out that often includes the changing of our laws." The letter from the Secretary to the Ministry to the Policy Coordinator and GEF Facilitator of the Asian Development Bank certainly carried this "consensus" requirement. It says, "The project’s preparatory process has been truly participatory and has brought together all stakeholders from Government, civil society etc etc etc."

Nihal said "The heritage of this country has been sold for a pittance by ‘Ehelepola’ and ‘Keppetipola’," refraining from revealing the true identities of these villains.

Nihal has done much more than his fair share for the country. If those who plunder do not recognise full stops or punctuation marks, then the onus is on all those who love this country to pull out all stops in protecting their heritage. In this effort, Nihal believes that all communities must come together. "The Tamils were the best administrators, in fact a combination of Tamil administrators and the ‘leftovers of the left’ got together we can still pull through." Strong opinions, certainly, but then again, Nihal has never minced his words, and such people you learn to respect even if you disagree.

Being the self-effacing man that he is, he refused to give a picture of himself, so I asked him to select a picture that best represents his beliefs. And he gave the one that was carried in the Eppawala poster. It had the following caption: "ape paduwe inna denna" (LEAVE US ALONE!"). I believe it captures more than an appropriate slogan for a particular struggle, but is the defining political line that can bring us true independence.

Once a World Bank official had invited Nihal to lunch at a five-star hotel. Nihal had said "I can’t afford it." The official had said "No, I will pay." Nihal’s answer is a classic in that it contains the essence of the political economy governing our lives, the threat and the answer to everything that seeks to destroy our way of life and our heritage: "No, you don’t understand, I am paying!"

That’s Nihal Fernando, an odyssey in whose meanderings the heartbeat of our people have been meticulously gathered. Life-giving, to put it mildly.