Multi-Talented Maestro

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By Chandana Ranaweera 

Navarathna Somabandu Fernando was born on 21 March 1923 in Pannipitiya, Kottawa to parents James Fernando and Nona Baba Vidyapathi. James was a renowned dancer, sculptor and a painter so it came as a no surprise when his son showed signs of artistic brilliance. Later on, this son would go on to be one of the best artists in the country named, Somabandu Vidyapathi. Perhaps it was the allure of his mother’s family name that prompted him to ditch his father’s surname which is quite common but it is safe to assume that, considering the amount of talent Vindyapathi possessed, he would have had reached the heights he did during his lifetime, regardless of which name he had kept. 

The seeds of an artist were planted in Vidyapathi at a very young age, in his village temple. The young Vidyapathi witnessed the popular fresco artist Sarlis Master painting the inside walls of the Village temple’s image house and that fascination was enough for him to be determined to become an artist. 

According to an article written by veteran journalist and former newspaper editor A.D. Ranjith Kumara, Vidyapathi’s role model had been this very Sarlis Master. 

Mastering many art forms 

Vidyapathi learnt the ABCs of art from a granduncle of his, Koranelis Gurunnanse who was a renowned painter, sculptor, and dancer.

For his formal education Vidyapathi first attended the village school in Depanama before entering Ananda Vidyalaya, Kottawa in 1930. Later, he entered St. Thomas College, Kotte and in 1940, he went to Pannipitiya Dharmapala Vidyalaya as the first student of the school. Vidyapathi had once told the renowned artist and critic Sihil M. Sirisena that there had been a special interest towards arts and dancing among the students during his years at Dharmapala Vidyalaya. “I first studied arts from L. K Gunaratne. Then came Victor Salgado and after him, S.P. Sakalasooriya who had studied at Shanthiniketan in India came to our school as the Arts teacher. I’m happy to say that my interest in arts was piqued during Sakalasooriya’s time at school.” 

Vidyapathi was raised in a village brimming with natural beauty. The creeks, paddy fields, temples, forest patches, trees, and animals are what young Vidyapathi frequently witnessed and he let all these sights influence him and shape the artist within. 

Within the artsphere, Vidyapathi was a jack of many trades. Not only was he a painter, Vidyapathi also was a sculptor, a traditional dancer, as well as an art director, a makeup artist, and a costume designer for stage. Naadagam madu, pirith madu decor, and different types of decor prepared for pinkama events as well as Kandyan and southern dances fascinated Vidyapathi and he learnt a great deal from them. 

This knowledge he gathered came in handy during his time at Dharmapala Vidyalaya. A stage adaptation of Martin Wickramasinghe’s Rohini was performed by students and Vidyapathi was a part of the production. Not only did he act in the play but also provided costumes, stage decor, stage designs and did makeup.  

Vidyapathi had an undying knack for painting. He always tried to improve his painting abilities and explore new avenues. In the meantime, he also worked on his other artistic skills such as dancing and sculpture. He entered Chithrasena Art Institute and studied kathakali dance and other forms of Indian dances. 

Studying in India 

His favourite teacher at Dharmapala Vidyalaya – Sakalasooriya – was impressed with him so much that he urged Vidyapathi to go aboard to study. As a result Vidyapathi went to India in 1945 to study art and sculpture at Shanthiniketan, Calcutta, India. There, under the guidance of Rabindranath Tagore, Vidyapathi studied painting under Nandalal Bose and sculpture under Ramkinker Baij.   

After returning from Shanthiniketan, Vidyapathi received a scholarship to go to India again and study in Travancore University in Kerala, India. During the two years in Travancore, Vidyapathi studied South Indian paintings, traditional Kathakali dance in addition to painting and tracing frescos. 

Getting on the ‘stage’

After his ‘second coming’ from India, Vidyapathi directly got involved in stage decor and costume designing on a professional level. According to Ranjith Kumara, he was the makeup artist and the stage designer for one of Kumar Senevirathne’s mudra natya (Sri Lankan Ballet) as well as for the mudra natya Chithrasena did – Ravana and Wijaya – for the Pageant of Sri Lanka festival in commemoration of the 1948 independence. 

Vidyapathi was also the stage designer for Prof. Ediriweera Sarachchandra’s Pabawathi and Hasthakantha Manthare, Chithrasena’s Karadiya, Naladamayanthi, Ravana, Chandali, Hima Kumariya, Ginihora and Premakumara Epitawela’s Selalihini Sandeshaya, Thiththa Batha, Sarahami, Diyasena, and Diyawanna, and a few other dramas of W.B. Makuloluwa. 

The stage work brought him some fame and reputation which led him to be an art instructor at his alma mater Dharmapala Vidyalaya. 

Renowned art critic Sihil M. Sirisena, talking about Vidyapathi’s art, has once said,”Paintings created at the hands of Somabandu Vidyapathi show a unique style that has glimpses of Eastern art. It can be assumed that the artist has built this style of his own by studying Chinese, Thai, Burmese, and Indian art cultures.” 

A style of his own

Vidyapathi’s paintings are strong and lively. The selection of colours and the colour combinations too take a novelty approach, somewhat devoid of traditional norms. Although he had selected colours that are commonplace, in his paintings the colours take a rather dull tone.

A fine example for this is the painting he drew depicting a village woman holding a scythe, for Epitawela’s Selalihini Sandeshaya. This painting which was drawn in 1950 has a mixture of dark burnt sienna, brown, and yellow ochre.

Being a dancer himself, it can be assumed that Vidyapathi not only loved to draw dance figures but also knew how to paint the intricate details of dance moves and poses. The sketch of a dancing girl he had drawn has orange and yellow in abundance, giving the viewer some vibrant and lively vibes. Another painting of a dancer has the colour sky blue as the main colour. All the lines and shapes of this painting are simple and yet rhythmic, synonymous to the dance moves of the dancer in the painting. 

When talking about Vidyapathi’s art, it is hard to actually find his paintings. It can be assumed that some of his paintings are securely stored in private art collections but details about these are very hard to come by. Some of his paintings are kept at the houses of the two sons of Vidyapathi – the dance maestro Ravibandu Vidyapathi and the veteran journalist and critic Manubandu Vidyapathi. It is high time the authorities took measures to select some of Vidyapathi’s paintings and keep them on permanent display at the National Art Gallery. Thanks to Ravibandu who was kind enough to provide me with a few paintings of Vidyapathi, I am able to write this humble description about Vidyapathi’s paintings. 

During ‘70s and ‘80s Sanghika almsgivings were held in a colourful, vibrant and yet, a traditional manner. Monks holding fans walked barefoot under flags, sesath, and overhead cover, stepping slowly but rhythmically to the rhythm of traditional drums and flutes. A layperson held the sacred relic casket on his head and carefully walked, also barefoot. Since the modernisation of the village, the minute details of these practices slowly faded away but thanks to the painting by Vidyapathi, we can still witness this past glory. His oil painting depicting an almsgiving contains all these details and acts as a mirror through which we can look into the past.  

Another painting by Vidyapathi depicts a village couple, their dog and the cow by a large tree. The human figures in this painting are drawn in a style unique to Vidyapathi and the trees are drawn in a style related to western cubism. 

Another painting shows how much Vidyapathi loved the village and its simplistic beauty. A blooming frangipani tree stands in between two simple village houses. The gravel road in between the houses has two women walking down it with a dog leisurely following them. The colours used in the painting are soothing, the tone is mellow, and overall, painting is brimming with the plain rural beauty. 

A group exhibition organised by Mona Bismark Foundation in France once selected a painting of Vidyapathi. The painting titled, ‘Village Scenery’ shows a decorated bullock cart crawling through on a gravel road in a typical Sri Lankan village. Two women walking by the cart have baskets full of veggies and/or fruits on their heads while a young boy in vibrant clothes follows the cart. All the details of the painting were intricately drawn by Vidyapathi and the thoughtful colour combination has made this painting extra vibrant. 

In the 1950s, Vidyapathi diverted from his unique style and painted in a whole different style. Upon reviewing this painting depicting a man relieving his bladder while standing with his head tilted, personally, I believe it has the traces of Henri Matisse and El Greco. 

Temple murals by Vidyapathi

Opportunity to paint murals of a renowned temple is a rare privilege achieved by only a handful of artists. Solias Mendis who painted the Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara paintings, George Kyet’s Borella Gothami Vihara paintings, Paintings of Sedawaththa Vehera Godella Vihara by Albert Dharmasiri, and Joe Picasso who painted Peliyagoda Gangarama murals are some of those privileged artists. During his older age as a painter, Vidyapathi was also lucky enough to paint temple murals. According to Dharmasiri’s book on temple murals of Bellanwila, Vidyapathi’s paintings at Bellanwila Raja Maha Vihara turns a new chapter in the temple art history of Sri Lanka. For decades what adorned the walls of the Bellanwila Raja Maha Vihara image house were the paintings of the Sarlis tradition, done by one of the descendants Weligama P. Liveris. In 1993, realising the walls needed a new lick of paint Ven. Bellanwila Wimalarathana Thera bestowed the mammoth task on Vidyapthi’s shoulders.  

Vidyapathi did each painting separately in tempera style. He also took liberty to move away from the conventional frame when depicting events of Buddha’s life. For example, as we are aware, one of the Four Sights that led to the Great Renunciation of Gautama is the sight of an old man. In his painting of Siddhartha coming across Four Sights, instead of drawing just an old man, Vidyapathi had drawn an old man holding the lifeless body of a disabled child. 

In 1997, in conversation with Divayina newspaper, Vidyapathi had revealed why he opted to take a different approach to paint the Great Defeat of Mara. “Upon request of the Chief Incumbent I decided to paint how Buddha defeated impure thoughts such as greed, anger, selfishness, and so on.”

One of the unique features of this temple painting is that they are not drawn in conventional panels of boxes. Instead, the whole painting is done on a 45 by 20 square feet space with a natural object like a tree separating the incidents. 

Martin Wickramasinghe had once said, a good painting is like a poem written in colours. This simile is rather apt to describe Vidyapathi’s Bellanwila paintings.     

In 1968, in conversation with Sarasaviya magazine, Vidyapathi had said, “I like to bring out poetic traits in my paintings. Also like to draw a series of events. If one painting is one poem, a series of events drawn together is a complete poem.” One of the fine examples of this poetic drawing is the ‘Defeat of Angulimala’ in Bellanwila Raja Maha Vihara. Adding further he had said, “The main reason why my paintings are so rhythmic is because I’m a dancer. I have a sound knowledge of how the human body moves and of gestures and postures.”

Vidyapathi’s sculpture 

Vidyapathi was also a renowned sculptor. Although he had created only a few sculptures when compared to the amount of paintings he had done, all of his sculptures are of the highest quality that reminds us of the sculptures of Tissa Ranasinghe. One fine example of his sculpture brilliance is the white samadhi statue at Thummulla Laksala premises that resembles the Tholuwila Buddha Statue. The half relief statue at Peradeniya University’s main hall, the half relief sculpture at Tower Hall, Maradana, the 80 by 80 decorative display at the Kotte Parliament complex, and the decorative work at the Prime Minister’s residence are all brilliant work by Vidyapathi. 

Although Vidyapathi is popularly known as the painter who did Bellanwila temple frescos, many are unaware that he had also done temple murals of another temple. The uniqueness of the murals Vidyapathi had done for Ambalangoda Vijayarama is that he had done them on a wooden surface instead of plaster. Vidyapathi also drew some porcelain relics to be enshrined at Kataragama Kiri Vehera and Somawathi Vehera after the excavations of those stupas. 

He once represented Sri Lanka in an art exhibition held in Russia and became world-renowned when he held a solo exhibition in London. He also contributed as the art director and the costume designer to the movie Wesathura Siritha.

A proper discussion on Vidyapathi’s works of art is yet to be done. Sadly, many of Vidyapathi’s great works are now facing the danger of perishing without due recognition or conservation. If it weren’t for the two sons of Vidyapathi, it would have been so long since the last of Vidyapathi’s paintings had perished. His temple paintings are still visible at Bellanwila Raja Maha Vihara but without proper conservation those paintings too will fade away a lot sooner than we think.

Vidyapathi breathed his last on 18 February 2006 at 82 years of age. It has been over 15 years since we have lost this unique artist and personally, I think it is high time a book about this artist and his art is published for the younger generations to read.  

(Translated by Sanuj Hathurusinghe)