Jayasiri Semage’s murals to adorn Divulpitiya Ancient temple.


Professor Chandima Wijebandara
(BRS/BL Graduate School, Singapore)

From the day that Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka the artists here have devoted all their talents to pictorially communicate the evergreen message of the Buddha to the masses. Buddhism provided them with the rich treasury of resources full of beautiful stories, colourful images and aesthetic concepts. The kings facilitated the artists with material support

Spurred by such facilitations Sri Lankan artists have created superb images on shrine room walls and ceilings. Be it a relic chamber of a stupa like Mahiyangana, a cave temple like Karambagala or a shrine room like Tivamka Pilimage, wherever we find ancient murals, the paintings depicted Buddhist themes. According to critics like Benjamin Rowland, Vincent Smith, H.C.P. Bell, Raja de Silva and Dharmasena Rassapana, even the frescoes at the royal fortress Sigiriya portray Buddhist cultural themes.

This tradition of pictorial communication of Buddhism at temples continued even under foreign powers. Though stylistically different and a bit monotonous in expression, the pictorial art during the Kandy period has left us with a rich heritage of stylistic paintings vivid and rich in fine details. During the British period a new trend of obtaining inspiration from European styles became popular and many Buddhist shrine rooms were painted with such styles. However, a revival of indigenous style began with Soileus Mendis who painted Malvana Purana Viharaya and Kelaniya Rajamaha Viharaya in a line based aesthetically pleasing eastern form. George Keyte ventured another revolutionary experiment at Gotami Vihara by beautifully fusing modern European art with Eastern art and applying it to Buddhist themes.

Kalasuri Jayasiri Semage, one of the eminent artists in Sri Lanka, has made his identity in the history of Buddhist art by experimenting with modernising the ancient Ajanta-Sigiri style. He has evolved his own signature style marking another milestone in the evolution of Sri Lankan Buddhist art. He, in addition to being famous for beautiful village scenes, has consistently maintained his Buddhist spirit in almost all of his creations and qualified to be identified as a ‘Buddhist artist’. He was assigned the prestigious opportunities of beautifying walls of several Buddhist shrines in foreign lands like Singapore, Malaysia and India. It was nothing but right, then, to expect a shrine room in Sri Lanka to have its walls to be enriched with his delightful paintings.

Realising the dream of Buddhists in Sri Lanka to see creations of Semage in a temple around Colombo, Sri Maha Bodhirajarama Viharaya of Divulpitiya, Boralasgamuwa has engaged him to paint its shrine room. Having accepted the challenge of painting a complete shrine room all by himself – also this being his first solo creation of a Vihara shrine - Semage keeps himself busy these days applying final touches to the delightful murals. He finds it a delightful experience as he dreams of this shrine room becoming a permanent solo exhibition hall of serine and peaceful and capturing images for faithful devotees and students of Buddhist art. His calm, cool and almost hypnotic images will be a soothing inspiration for agitated and stressed minds of busy city people in and around the area. Devotees and Venerable Okandayaye Buddhasiri Maha Thero, the incumbent of the temple, are anxiously waiting to see the completion of this historical creation as they are sure that these paintings will definitely make their temple a special attraction. Venerable Buddhasiri has specially instructed Semage to depict how the Bodhisattva perfected ten paramitas and the visits of the Buddha to Sri Lanka. Semage has already started painting them in a manner no one else has done before in any shrine room in Sri Lanka. To spice it with some traditional motifs, Semage is ornamenting the Vihara with lotus patterns, stylised leaves and creepers, and rows of swans imitating as they appear in ancient shrine rooms and Dambulla caves. Most probably this vihara will, after its completion, become one of the most aesthetically exciting temple art galleries for visitors to Sri Lanka.

The uniqueness of internationally renowned artist Jayasiri Semage is prominent in his inimitable style, Anyone who is familiar with Sri Lankan art will immediately identify his paintings without looking for his signature. His identity is so evidently established in his style. He has drawn inspiration mainly from Ajanta-Sigiri art, yet, not constrained by tradition he has fully enjoyed his right to improvise. His Singapore experience in painting Mangala Vihara and Japanese exposure might have provided him opportunity to familiarise East Asian vision of Buddhist aesthetics. He has been opportune to study the rich western art during the days he travelled In Italy, Switzerland and Sweden. He was ‘moralized’ to manage with Islamic culture when he had the challenging assignment of holding a solo exhibition in Oman. However, he did not create any issue there, as he had experience of clothing Picasso’s nudes as well. His art has been ‘nicknamed’ by some critics as a melting pot since he has singularly managed to absorb many inspirations and emerge with uniquely positive inspiring and independent style of his own. His art is even more rhythmatic and aesthetically expressive than much classic Eastern art. His lines, dots and curves fuse so uniquely with his colours in theme-appropriate composition.

Buddhist art has always been his cup of tea. In the kindergarten he painted the elephant that walk majestically in Buddhist processions, in spite of writing the Sinhala letter ‘a’ (w). He bagged a prize for a painting titled ‘Life of the Buddha’ still being a schooling teenager. His first solo exhibition in Malaysia in 1995 was of Buddhist paintings. Consequence to that he was given the task of painting shrine rooms of Buddhist Vihara at Kuala Lumpur and Mahindarama of Pinang. Then came the opportunity of painting Mangala Vihara of Singapore. And the Buddhist Hall at the Headquarters of Peoples Bank has accepted a number of Buddhist paintings by him for permanent exhibition. Recently he painted the portraits of Chief Sravakas of the Buddha at Priyarathnaramaya of Dehiwala.

Jayasiri Semage has made a name for Vesak pandols too. Erecting pandols and decorative paintings at Temple Trees was assigned to him several times, owing to his fame for torana creations. Once he created a Vesak pandol in Japan depicting twin miracle of the Buddha. Thus there is reason for us to hope that the paintings presently being done on the walls of Divulpitiya ancient Buddhist Maha Vihara will definitely be a pleasant attraction and treat for eye and heart.

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