A Genius Of Art SOLIAS MENDIS
His life, a song to remember

Encouraged by Mrs. Helena Wijewardene, with palette and brush he electrified bare temple-walls



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by Upali K. Salgado


There were four notable men, who in the last Century did much for Buddhist causes in Ceylon. They lived about the same time. Professor Gunapala Malalasekera, PhD. D. Lit, who hailed from Panadura, was a reputed Pali scholar, a brilliant orator, a linguist who knew his native Sinhala, Pali, Sanskrit, Latin, English, French and Russian languages. The auditoriums of several international prestigious Universities had heard him lecture on Buddhist Philosophy, and of our ancient culture. He was President of the Ceylon Buddhist Congress during the Buddha Jayanthi Year. Another, WALIMUNI SOLIAS MENDIS was born at Maha Baddegama village in Madampe. He had his primary education at the Weherehena, Pirivena, Nattandiya. He was blessed with the ability to draw and paint beautiful pictures and Jataka scenes in the tradition of the great masters, who trace their initiation to Vishvakarma the mythical ancestor of all artists. Mendis, was from a remote village. He never saw the inside of an art studio or art gallery. Yet, he has been acknowledged as Ceylon’s foremost mural painter of modern times. He lived an unostentatious life. Malalasekera and Mendis had four facets in common. Both had humble beginnings, were sons of ayurvedic physicians both wore the white National dress both worked tirelessly for the Buddha Sasana. It was indeed Malalasekera’s misfortune that, he had to dutifully attend the funeral of his friend to deliver an eloquent eulogy. The third one was Anagarika Dharmapala, who hailed from the Hewavitharana family of Matara. Dharmapala was a Buddhist nationalist and tirelessly worked to save Buddha Gaya from Hindu overlordship. He also developed Saranath, where the Buddha preached his classic first sermon. The last was Sir Baron Jayatilake, the founder of the YMBA, Head of the Temperance Movement, a Sinhala Scholar an educationalist, and Minister of State, in the nineteen forties.


WALIMUNI SOLIAS MENDIS was born on 17 June 1896. He had his early education at a Pirivena. As a disinterested student, he learnt little from his uncle, the Viharadhipathi of a Temple - The venerable monk, Madampe Sugatha Tissa Maha Thera, but showed deep interest in the Jataka stories often related by other Bhikkus of the Pirivena. At an early age of fourteen years, he showed extraordinary prowess as an Artist. When he abandoned his Pirivena education, he took to Art.


At the SUNERA KUSUMA - RAMAYA Temple, Mahawila (today popularly know to villagers as "the Punchi Kelaniya Temple") paintings of Solias done under the eye his Uncle, Monis Silva, reflect a juvenile outlook. All painted figures have perfectly round faces, whether they be males or females, gods or demons. There are two interesting scenes which indicate that the child’s imagination had run riot. In one scene associated with the Buddha’s life story, Solias had painted alongside the great teacher, a large railway locomotive steaming away with carriages behind. (The Railways were unknown in the Buddha’s time; obviously the boy painter had a fascination for the railway yakada yaka!). In another scene, also associated with Lord Buddha, Solias Mendis has painted a building with a sign board written in ENGLISH), indicating Post Office". The Postal system was introduced for the first time during the reign of Queen Victoria of England many centuries later! As Solias Mendis matured in age, as a mural Painter he became a legend of his time. The rhythm of his brush was inborn talent. He no doubt was a genius. As a mural painter SOLIAS MENDIS was a step away from the Dambulla Nilagama tradition. His paintings look sober, have life and sifted character. The female figures he drew were not erotic. This is crystal clear when one sees his more recent efforts at the Giriulla Medapola Raja Maha Vihare, and at the Malwana Temple.


REBUILDING THE KELANIYA TEMPLE


About that time, MRS. HELENA WIJEWARDENE, Lama Etani (widow of Muhandiram Tudugalle Don Philip Wijewardene) of Sedawatte Walauwe, a devout Buddhist; whose munificence was overflowing fountain like, pledged on 10th January 1927, to restore the Old main Viharage of the Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihare, which had been destroyed by the Roman Catholics, four centuries before. She also pledged to build a new vihare. The renaissance of this historic shrine, which had been the pride and heritage of every Sinhala Buddhist had begun. The task was to be costly and gigantic, and time consuming.


To help the benefactor in her endeavour, the best of craftsmen apart from our own were employed from distant Burma and India. In that background, on the advise of her many sons, she commissioned the able services of SOMAS MENDIS, who at first sight looked a languid, unimpressive simple, lanky lad. Her sons Don Walter, Don Charles and Don Philip and Don Richard took a very close interest in the Temple restoration work, at first.


The Artist was to paint the bare walls inside the new building, depicting Sakyamuni Buddha’s several visits to Nagadeepa, Kelaniya and Mahiyangana; the protection given to the Buddha’s Tooth Relic, which was concealed in the knot of hair of Princess Hemamali; the Birth of the Nation-the historic landing of Prince Vijaya at Mahantita (modern Mannar) along with his 700 adventurous men; Commentator Buddhagosha’s presentation of the Visuddhimagga - (written by him) - to the Sangharaja of the Anuradhapura Maha Vihare; the Consecration of the Most Venerable Welivita Sri Saranankara Thera, as the Sangharaja of Kandy, and several other historic events associated with our Buddhist history, in addition to the traditional Jataka stories of importance.


It is said that, this Painter used an unorthodox recipe of indigenous raw materials as the base for his paintings. Moistered white clay, dug out from deep wells of certain parts of Ceylon were used, together with the boiled and strained bark of trees to provide the required pigments.


Before undertaking the gigantic task, ‘SOLIAS MENDIS was sent to see for himself the paintings at Ajantha and Bhag, in Central India. He returned to his homeland, inspired from what he saw, and was determined to abandon the vivid shades that had been in vogue and used by M. Sarlis, a renowned mural painter. Mendis introduced to the Kelaniya Vihare the style of Ravi Varma, which was associated with the Bengali renaissance of art. Much attention was given to detail of facial expressions. These inspired creations when clothed in a mixture of soft shades, giving flashes of a little orange and a mixture of lemon and red where necessary, provided life and contrast. The architecture, costumes and furniture painted appears to be authentic and indigenous. Perhaps, the beautiful Goddess Saraswathie had throughout guided this Maestro. The creative ability of this divine spirited Artist made blank walls when delicately painted, arouse the fervour in the hearts of religious devotees. Mendis has been acknowledged "the supremo" of local Temple murals. It took him about nineteen long years of infinite pains and patience, standing on scaffolds to complete, all what he left for posterity to admire.


THE LAST MURAL AT KELANIYA


However, the tragedy is that he did not complete the full range of mural paintings, he could have done to his liking. When the final painting had to be done, those who paid for his skills, had thought that it would be befitting to have the inner-most Chamber of the new Vihare, where Indian craftsmen chiselled out a beautiful statue of Lord Buddha, and later was guilded in gold by expert Burmese craftsmen, be given a backdrop to depict a scene of the snow clad Himalayan Mountains. It was made known to the Artist, by those whose responsibility it was to complete the work- undertaken, on the death of the benefactor, that the Guilded statue of the Great Teacher, should be sited in such manner as to appear he was at the "roof of the world." This scene-was to portray the Buddha was looking down from Himalayan heights, compassionately towards mankind, carrying the message of an Enlightened One, caring for all beings, whether they be on the godly, human or animal planes. It was also a message to those who were leading lives of despair and desperation, were unhappy with this world which periodically faces convulsions of bloody wars, famine, floods and pestilence. In that situation of unhappiness, man needed to know how DUKKA would be eliminated from this earth. This is the picture seen today inside the Vihare. It looks unique and beautiful.


SOLIAS MENDIS had disagreed with that thinking. Such a picture if he contended would be against the nation’s culturally accepted or traditionally known grain of Buddhist art expression. There was to be no "Budu-Res" - (a coloured, bright sparkle of light that appears as a phenomena when He performed miracles, and when Enlightenment was achieved) - nothing to signify that the Master had gained Enlightenment. To begin with, why have as a sapphire blue backdrop to where the Buddha Statue was to be- sited,-the snow clad Himalayan


Mountains? The Buddha gained Enlightenment when in a paint deep Jhana, seated under a Bo-tree at Gaya, far away from the Himalayan heights! Mendis, had preferred to portray a bright scene. Gotama Siddharta’s hour of Victory-in inspired and exciting style. The Painter had wanted to show that Enlightenment had been achieved with sacrifice, after years of great strife, amidst Mara’s moves to thwart the attainment of Buddhahood. In short, it was to be the Maravijaya Scene, when the world witnessed the greatest happening. The Ven. Gnamoli Maha Thera has recorded this event thus:


"So seeing Mara’s squadron’s now


Arrayed all round with Elephants,


I rally forth to fight, that I


may not be driven from my post


Your serried squadrons which the world


With all its Gods cannot defeat;


I shall now break with understanding


As with a stone, a raw clay pot,"


- Sutta Nipatha


The books say that, at the moment of Victory, the World was illuminated and electrified with the Buddha dharma for all to question, and thereafter to accept. (Kalama Sutta). His Teachings were not to be swallowed as theistic dogma. Mendis surely had looked forward to paint his life’s best effort. It was to be unique- when completed in bright colour, a Temple mural out of this world. That final painting was to be his pinnacle of effort, and a silent note of bestowing gratitude to the noble lady benefactor Mrs Helena Wijewardane, who had chosen him and him alone, to decorate the hallowed Vihare walls of the new Buduge she had constructed’


Describing what SOLIAS MENDIS had in mind. (sometime much earlier), Prof. HENRY C LARKE WARREN (1884-1899) an American Pali Scholar, who was educated at Harvard and John Hopkins Universities, in 1886 wrote:


"Then the hosts of Gods, when they saw


the army of Mara flee cried out,


Mara is defeated, Prince Siddharta


has conquered! Let us go, celebrate the Victory."


The learned Professor continued ‘ When thus lie had attained to Omniscience, and was the centre of such unparalleled glory and homage, and so many prodigies were happening about him, He (as a Bodhisatta) breathed forth that solemn utterance, which never has been omitted by any of the Buddhas:


"Though birth and rebirth endless round,


seeking in vain, I hastened on,


To find who framed this edifice


What misery! - birth incessantly!...


O, Builder! I have discovered Thee


This fabric (i.e. CRAVING) thou shall never rebuild,


The rafters (i.e. PASSIONS) are ail broken, now;


Your ridgepole (i.e. IGNORANCE) is demolished,


My mind has now attained unformed Nibbana


And reached the end of craving (i.e. DESIRE)"


- A translation by Lord Charlmers (A Pali Scolar)


When unfortunately strong disagreement on the issue surfaced, SOLIAS MENDIS had politely refused to accede to their thinking. Mrs. Helena Wijewardene was then not alive. Had he agreed to paint the Himalayan backdrop, he had honestly felt that such a step would affect his own freedom of unbridled expression, which freedom should always be treasured and safeguarded by all "Shilpin" i.e. Artists, Builders, Craftsmen and Writers. In that background, Mendis preferred to consciously lay down his paint brush and palette, never to touch them again as a mural painter. He certainly was a man of strong character. This Archangel of Artists, finally left the Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara gracefully, and walked into a cultural wilderness, to reside at Ihala Mahawewa, much like cactus flower in bloom, in a dessert.


The final painting which SOMAS MENDIS did not do, was completed as planned (by a foreigner), with a backdrop of the Himalayas and a sapphire blue sky. It certainly is in deep contrast to all other murals of this great historic Temple. The final painting was executed by one Karl Kassman, a foreigner who was a European national.


RECALLED BY THE STATE


In February 1948, at the invitation of the Rt. Hon. D. S. Senanayake, our first Prime Minister, he played a leading role to help decorate a Mandapaya (Hall) with colourful Ralipalam arches and simple friezes. In this hall the Duke of Gloucester, representing King George VI, proclaimed Ceylon’s political Independence. Although SOLIAS MENDIS received a printed invitation to be present on that historic occasion, his reserved seat remained unoccupied. His humility was manifested when he preferred to stay that day at home, to hoist his own National flag. In 1952, MENDIS for the last time was seen in public: Again, at the request of the Rt. Hon. D. S. Senanayake P.C., He elegantly decorated using our traditional motifs the relipallam, the CEYLON PAVILION at the C-PLAN CONFERENCE & EXHIBITION attended by several Prime Ministers.


THE SIVIRAJA HOME FOR THE BLIND


His last few years were spent at Mahawewa as an "Upasaka Gentleman." It gave him pleasure, one day to personally meet Dr. Gunapala Malalasekera PhD, then President of the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress. SOLIAS MENDIS then expressed his desire to gift for the welfare of the Blind and Orphans, all what little wealth he owned, which included a small Paddy field and Coconut land. His original donation of land was about two acres. Two years later, in 1957, the SIVIRAJA HOME FOR THE BLIND was established at Ihala Mahawewa. This beautiful Home is today Managed by the Buddhist Congress, and has over 200 blind children of both sexes. Why was this Home so named? There is a Buddhist Jataka story that refers to a Bodhisattva, who took the form of a blind beggar and appeared before King SIVIRAJA who donated his eyes. SOLIAS MENDIS who had throughout his life painted beautiful Jataka stories was moved, when he learnt of the Bodhisattva act of the King. He was sad that his own beautiful paintings could not be seen to be enjoyed by those who were born blind. Hence the "Sivaraja Home for the Blind" was born.


Kinsmen of Soliyas at Mahawewa say that, he was a man of great compassion. During his last few years, he cared for over twenty stray dogs and cats. His poor home was a veritable haven for them.


As a well known Artist, he eluded the spotlight. Few newspaper-men were able to meet him. When Dr L. Marianne, the world famous Italian Art Con-ser-vator, visited Ceylon. In October 1967, at the request of UNESCO to help restore some of the damaged Sigiriya frescoes, he showed keenness to meet Solias Mendis in person. Dr. A Marianne motored up to Ihala Mahawewa, unannounced, and his first sight or glimpse of Solias Mendis was as a simple villager, dressed in only a span cloth, busy planting a coconut seedling! The two great men looked at each other, the foreigner with admiration, and the other shy as he was, unable to converse, with awe not know the other’s language. Thereafter an interpreter stood in between them.


MUFFLED DRUMS ANNOUNCED HIS LAST JOURNEY


SOLIAS MENDIS, the bachelor genius of our time, passed away on 1st September 1975. His life story is a song to remember. It is indeed sad to note that this saga of a simple village Artist, uncelebrated as he was, ended on a note as that. Almost all homes at Mahawewa, Nattandiya, Marawila and Minuwangoda flew white flags in his honour. The funeral procession headed by half dozen muffled drums, and the high pitched wailing flutes, had thousands of mourners, all clad in spotless white. The Cemetery was a sea of heads. Conspicuously seen were a large gathering of Buddhist monks dressed in their, saffron coloured robes. In. unison, they chanted "Anichcha - wata Sankhara... Uppada-waya-dhammino...." (What is subject to birth, will surely decay & die).


After the funeral pyre had been lit, his pet dogs and cats, who sensed of their Master’s death, stubbornly refused to have their meals. In sorrow, a few of them wailed throughout the stillness of that silent night. Buddhists of little Lanka had lost an Artist - a Natural Treasure. Many picture him today as a lean tall man, having sunken cheeks, proudly sporting the traditional ‘konde’ (hair knot) in size of a mandarin, His indomitable patience, compassionate ways, and spirited singular contribution in the area of Buddhist mural art remain for posterity to admire.


The writer researched on SOLIAS MENDIS for many years, and personal interviewed several of the Artist’s relations in his village, the chief monks of the temples he resided in and the former Viharadhipathi of the Kelani Raja Maha vihare, Ven. Telvila Vijitha Maha Thera, before writing this story.


Significance and importance of Duruthu Poya


SOLIAS MENDIS


A genius of our time, born a peasant, bred a peasant, known as the Master Mural painter.


* Legend states that nine months after Gautama Buddha gained Enlightenment at Gaya, it was on a DURUTHU FULL MOON POYA day that the people of Lanka were first blessed with a visit of the Buddha.


* The Buddha had visited Mahiyangana and preached to the Yakkha tribe which was terrified by his presence as he had created a sorm and darkness. Present at thid historic sermon were the Devas, and Maha Sumana of Saman tha Kuta. Thereafter, a large stupa was erected at that spot, on the banks of the Mahaweli Ganga.


* The historic annual pagaet known as the KELANI PERAHERA of the Ke ani Raja maha Vihare takes place on the week of the DURUTHU POYA. This large Temple which was destroyed by the Portuguese invaders during the 16th Century, was restored to its prehistoric grandeur by Mrs Helena Wijewardena of Sedawatte, and helped by her children, during the period 1932 to 1949. Beautiful Buddhist murals of the famed artist SOLIAS MENDIS are seen inside the new Viharage.


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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