Saturday Magazine
Lalith, multi-faceted young man

faces.jpg (13189 bytes)by Malinda Seneviratne
There is a story I like to tell the doomsday prophets. It is a story I’ve told again and again.

A friend of mine once lamented that children these days do not have the opportunity to explore the limits of their creativity. He pointed out that whereas an earlier generation grew up with a healthy engagement with their surroundings, using whatever material they could lay their hands on to make toys, today’s child is more or less a slave to plastic. Another friend who was listening, disagreed vehemently and sealed his argument with a simple but definitive observation: "creativity pierces through plastic".

Today’s artist has to move with the times. And "the times" can refer to not just the currency of taste but a willingness to polish the edges of creativity so that a given work of art slips through that magic door called "marketability". This is the more pernicious "plastic" that aspiring artists have to penetrate. The sad thing, then, is that there are probably countless creative people who overcome all the bounds of social location and life’s many bludgeonings, to produce things of rare aesthetic value, but they will remain unknown, unappreciated and un-reviewed. Perhaps even un-exhibited. That they strive, under these circumstances, is probably reason enough to celebrate and this is to applaud such an artist.

faces1.jpg (16605 bytes)Lalith Senanayake was born in 1973. His father, who hailed from Kelaniya, was a mechanic. His mother was unemployed, but after her husband passed away in 1992, she took up sewing to support herself and her four children. Today, Lalith’s older brother drives a school van, his twin brother works in a garage and the youngest, a girl, is still of school going age.

Obviously things were never easy for the family. And yet, his parents did their best to educate the children. Young Lalith went to St. Joseph’s College, Grandpass. Like any ordinary child, Lalith loved sports and he excelled in athletics, cricket and martial arts at school.

Being inclined towards painting from a very young age, he wanted to offer arts subjects for his A/Ls, but after his father died, he had to give up school in order to support the family.

For six months, he worked as a steward at the Pegasus Reef Hotel. Chandani Wijetunge, the then editor of the Navaliya, recognising his talent, took him on board. Lalith had to draw pocket cartoons for the weekly newspaper. He was at that time a part time employee of Upali Newspapers Ltd.

A persevering young man, Lalith was bent on pursuing his education, especially in the subject of art and art history. He enrolled in a diploma course after passing an aptitude test in "Drawing and Painting Tradition Temple Frescoes". The course, sponsored by the National Apprentice and Industrial Training Authority of the Department of Cultural Affairs and the Department of National Museums, was conducted by the Traditional Artists Association.

The course lasted three years. According to Lalith, he learnt a lot about the subject during this time. His principle teacher was S. P Charles, the man who designed the National Flag. Lalith learnt the rudiments and the finer points of drawing traditional frescoes, object drawing, life drawing, sculpture, the history of art, graphic and decorations, landscape drawing etc. and generally enhanced his skill and understanding of art.

Blessed with a healthy work ethic and fired by a raging desire to obtain knowledge and expand his horizons, 0Lalith decided to learn all he can about computer graphics, something that has now become a "must" for any artist working in a newspaper. He therefore enrolled for a diploma course on the subject at the IDM.

Never one to be satisfied with just classroom instruction and assigned practicals, Lalith taught himself the basics of "gift animation" and even produced an amateur animation film. He believes that once he gains further technical knowledge he could present all the Jathaka stories in this genre, especially designed for little children.

Although Lalith began as a cartoonist, his unbounded energy saw him writing articles and, as his range of skills expanded, even embraced the emerging field of graphics design and computer-based layouts. Today he plays a key role in the design and layout of the Navaliya.

And, as is usually the case in artists, Lalith’s creativity was not limited to work. He has exhibited some of his along with fellow-students. These include paintings as well as sculptures. He has also been an ardent student of temple paintings and in fact has helped paint frescoes in many a temple. Lalith works with clay in his sculptures and with oil in his paintings.

I asked Lalith what the secret of his creativity was. "Actually, all children are born with an urge to create. All children scribble, and try their hand at drawing. Some choose to move onto other fields. It all depends on what you want, if you are being encouraged to do this or that, who encourages and how, and of course the way one’s priorities are ordered.

"In my case, my father was always a great source of encouragement. His younger brother, in fact, is a computer graphics artist. And my grandfather, Joseph Senanayake, was a Tower Hall actor and an artist. Maybe genes also had something to do with this. In any case, I have always had a thirst to learn new things."

Lalith is a quiet person for the most part, modest to a fault. Few would know that their lives within this generous and amiable man a creativity waiting to blossom into something special. Only time will tell what fragrances he will produce. We can only hope that "the plastic" would surrender. Sooner or later.