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Art of Sybil Wettasinghe

Sybil Wettasinghe is remembered by most of us as the author and illustrator of ‘Kuda Hora’, a legendary Sri Lankan children’s story which has been read and cherished by many generations of kids. A pioneer in the field of juvenile story writing and illustrating in Sri Lanka., Wettasinghe’s stories for children and her delightful rendering of images innovatively brought into life the essence of the tales narrated.

Introducing her own particular style as a book illustration artist as well as a prolific storyteller, her work set off a new genre of story books for children that had a rootedness in a particular indigenous idiom. It unselfconsciously unfolded the local village aspirations and the simplicity of life that is romantically linked to it. Referring to the practice of writing, Roland Barthes has noted that "...imagery, delivery, vocabulary spring from the body and the past of the writer and gradually become the very reflexes of his art. Thus under the name of style a self sufficient language -is evolved which has its roots only in the depths of the author’s personal and secret mythology..."’ Such speculations invite us to ponder on aspects of Wettasinghe’s life to grasp certain nuances and quintessence that is embedded in her work. Wettasinghe grew up in the cozy village environment of Gintota, a small town in the South near the port town of Galle, with its happy childhood memories, and her work provided an extensive canvas for her to recapture the nostalgic reminiscences of its blissful moments. Nethra Samarawickrama in her biographical note on Wettasinghe writes: "Her autobiography "Child in Me" provides a richly detailed account of the characters she came across, ranging from stilt walkers who visited the village and recited naclagam melodies and tom-tom beaters who carried the announcements of the temple to kavikolakarayas who conveyed news to the village through their long drawn poetic recitations." In the 1920s Gintota still had the feel of the rural, and largely operated within a traditional value system and a way of life. Throughout her work Wettasinghe tries to capture this aspect of rural life, the nature of interactions and relationships within the community and their close proximity to nature.

When reading her work, we are literally and metaphysically nudged to fall in love with her village, its stereotypical characters, their idiosyncratic behavior and the witty and colorful dialogs that project a harmless, laidback world within which one feels so content to be in. Juxtaposed against the historical legacy of Euro- American juvenile stories based on sources such as legendary Grimms’ Fairy Tales, stories of Hans Christian Andersen and others spun by many foreign authors that were dominating the Sri Lankan child’s imaginary world for a long time, Wettasinghe’s world of characters with its localized experiences and episodes certainly provided the juvenile story writing in Sri Lanka a de-centering possibility from the European storytelling traditions and their nuances.

If Eurocentric storytelling through stories such as ‘SnowWhite, Cinderella and the Sleeping Beauty’ brought to life the narratives of white princesses, fire eating dragons, dark wicked stepmothers and European castles stimulated an alien fantasy in the Sri Lankan context, Wettasinghe’s Kuda Hora, Vesak Lantern and the Duvana Revula familiarized the urban child with the most joyous possibilities of village life playfully enriched with references to local customs, elements of cultural imagery and the splendor of its natural environment. As much as Wettasinghe’s work tantalized the child’s imaginary world, it also provided children’s story book writing a new link to a folk storytelling tradition rooted in the Sri Lankan context. While she was sympathetic and nostalgic toward the village that inspired her to romanticize it, she was unhesitant in wittily critiquing the urban life through her works such as ‘Kusumalatha’. This particular orientation also posited the village as pure and urban as contaminated with its familiarity with colonial and western ways of life. This became a popular genre for many creative works of literary writers, film makers and artists during the 1950s and 1960s. The pre and post independent anxieties of finding an ‘authentic self’ within the nation building project revived the interest in the traditional and the indigenous during the decades following 1948. In this socio-political environment Wettasinghe’s work which, largely privileged folk culture, found an ideologically compatriotic audiences and endorsers from the Southern Sinhala art and literary figures such as Martin Wickramasinghe, Chandraratne Manawasinghe, WA Silva and Sunil Shantha.

A forerunner of illustration artists in Sri Lanka, Wettasinghe turned women’s creative energy into establishing an independent artistic profession that did not have a’ legacy that was locally rooted. Storytelling was mostly a woman’s task within her domesticity of child rearing where lullabies’ and numerous stories were recounted to kids by female members of the families. While some of these were commonly narrated tales from folk tales or fairytales that were circulated in society, others are made up or reinvented with variations to keep the attention of the young. It is through these acts of storytelling that children first became familiar with the social behavior systems, customs, norms and basics of morality. This also perhaps constitutes the threshold where they first encountered the world of art and literature where they develop their sense of aesthetic preferences and art of imagining. Storytelling is therefore a crucial activity in the socialization and early learning process of children. This creative act has been overlooked and taken for granted by many as part of domestic and maternal responsibilities of women. However, if one looks at where women’s creativity has been invested throughout the generations, it is now recognized that they have been directed towards various aspects of home decorations, needle work, and creative culinary inventions. Growing up amidst a strong-willed matriarchal environment where women in her own family were highly industrious and proficient in decorative arts such as lace-making, rush weaving and needle work, early on Wettasinghe was exposed to the value, strength and the potential of women’s creative activities of leisure: "she attributes the independence of spirit she developed in her adulthood to the values she learned from these strong-willed and opinionated women who had acquired a resourcefulness and self- sufficiency without the aid of the males who frequently left for the metropolis of Colombo in search of employment". At Holy Family Convent in Colombo, a school with a cosmopolitan student population, Wettasinghe received a missionary education that provided her with a training in ‘domestic sciences’ that was assumed essential to be an accomplished wife. Nevertheless, Wettasinghe opted to pursue a career as an artist over her mother’s wish that she should become an architect. The early impressions of the multiple and creative roles women in her family played perhaps made significant impressions within Wettasinghe which later manifested in her bold move to be’ an independent artist. Wettasinghe’s work and her achievements in the field of juvenile story writing allow us to assume that she has directed this creative domain available to women out of the domestic sphere and located it in the public domain, challenging the established art of storytelling that prevailed at the time. In this she has not only introduced a particular aesthetic and illustration style but also a linguistic and ideological shift within the field of juvenile story writing in Sri Lanka.

Her work makes us think beyond the established notions of visual arts which tend not to include the practice of book illustration as an endeavor of high art and leaves it rather in the larger category of design and commercial art. Wettasinghe’s work, with her grasp of the formal aspect of painting, innovativeness in the compositions and their narrative power allow us to rethink the boundaries of art-making within the visual arts and to, relook at book illustration art as a credible art making practice that demands the same endorsement procedures and acknowledgement systems as in other visual arts practices that are comfortably positioned as high art.

A prolific artist, Wettasinghe has an extensive body of work (nearly 200 illustrated books) to her credit mostly written in Sinhala language (later translated to many other languages). Her initial audiences largely came from the Sinhala speaking communities, and the romantic sense of nationalism that her books unpretentiously inculcated in the readers was consumed within the consciousness of national pride and ideas of national authenticity.

This exhibition ‘Sybil: Art of Sybil Wettasinghe’ tries to capture a cross section of her work undertaken during her career as an illustrator spanning over 50 years. It is also a tribute to a remarkable woman artist and a storyteller who chose to evolve her art beyond the accepted norms and boundaries of her trade, and for persistently retaining her freedom to pursue her convictions in life.

Sybil’s latest books to be launched this week

Sybil Wettasinghe’s latest books ‘Eternally Yours’ sequel to ‘Child In Me’ the children’s book ‘Podda & Poddi’ will be launched on the 8th of September 2009 at 3.30pm at the Kiyawana Nuwana Book Shop, Nugegoda.

Kamala Peiris, former Director for Primary Education, Daya Rohana Atukorala, Senior Lecturer of the Education Faculty of the University of Colombo, author and art critic Tissa Devendra and artist Kingsley Gunatillaka, Senior Lecturer of the University of Aesthetic Studies will speak on Sybil Wettasinghe’s Children’s Books and Art on this occasion.

New editions of her outstanding and much loved other works for children ‘Kuda Hora’, ‘Kavum Yodhaya’, ‘Thambaya’, ‘Waniyang Kalu Waneeyang, and her award – winning book for youth ‘Meti Gedara Lamai’ will also be brought out as Visidunu Publications at this event.

An Exhibition and Sale of Sybil Wettasinghe’s paintings and books will be held at the Kiyawana Nuwana Book Shop from 9th September to 15th September from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. to mark this occasion. All are welcome.

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