Remembering Sumana

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Sumana Dissanayake is one of the pioneering artists in the modern era of Sri Lankan art-sphere. His contribution to the art is highlighted in the areas; illustration as well as children’s book art.

Sumana was born in the year 1922 in Gathara – a picturesque village in Kamburupitiya, Matara. As a child he couldn’t have asked for a better atmosphere to be brought up since his home village was filled with rural beauty, much-needed to nurture a young and budding artist. As he grew up Sumana enrolled at the Technical College, Maradana to further study art. Later on he went abroad to study at, mainly to England and to Netherlands where he studied at Hornsey College of art in England and Rietveld Academy of Arts in Netherlands. Upon his return to Sri Lanka Sumana had held numerous prestigious art-related positions such as; a lecturer at Uyanwatte Teacher Training School, an arts inspector at the Department of Education, and an art director at Book Publishers Board.

To say Sumana is the pioneer who steered the illustration art in Sri Lanka to a new, modern, and creative avenue is certainly not an exaggeration. When illustrating children’s books Sumana abundantly used different types and shades of Chinese watercolours. Not only his illustrations are cute and easy on the eye, they are also extremely detailed that they easily capture the eye and the heart of a child as well as an adult. He loved to use the colour white and other shades of light colours. He introduced new shapes and figures, something the art of illustration in the country has not seen before, in his style of illustration.

Sumana had a deep understanding of how a picture book should be presented. He knew exactly what type of fonts to be used for the front cover, the type of illustration he should make for the cover, and the appropriate layout for the title page. As the reader flips through the pages reading the book, observing the picture, the story inches towards the climax and Sumana knew exactly where to place the words and the illustration on a page to maximise the reader experience. One of the fine examples of this talent of Sumana is the Yahaluwan Thundena by Prof. Thilokasundari Kariyawasam, a book which Suman had illustrated and designed. Apart from that, Kumarawarun Thidena and Punchi Apita Kiyadenna also depict how masterfully and carefully Sumana had placed the wording and illustrations on pages to bring out the maximum reader experience. The two books mentioned above were written and illustrated by Sumana himself and the latter was created by him in commemoration of the ‘National Housing Year’.

Sumana was a master of different art techniques and he infused all of them in varying amounts in his illustrations and cover designs. The styles he incorporated in designing books mainly depended on the story. He was not afraid to stray from the conventional. In his illustrations, he portrayed human and animal figures in gestures and postures which aren’t seen before. However, these paintings still contained a rhythmic ease. Once the pencil was in Sumana’s hand it went over the paper rather freely, eventually creating a work of art that is a fine depiction of artistic freedom.

Sumana had illustrated a large number of book covers. Among them the early works of K. Jayathilaka and A.V. Suraweera stand out among the rest for their using of contradicting colours and abstract/half-abstract shapes and figures.

Like any other artist Sumana too first mastered the human figure and loved to paint it. However, as he matured as an artist, Sumana got more and more into painting abstract art. Upon examining Sumana’s works of art it becomes apparent that this transition is not a forced one but something that has come rather naturally to him. It is as if he had finally found his style.

Unfortunately though, most of this modern art of Sumana cannot be found in Sri Lanka since most of them are on permanent display in foreign art collections. One such painting however can be witnessed at Colombo Art Gallery. Titled, ‘Dancer’ this modern painting of Sumana is a fine example of the talent Sumana possessed in creating abstract art using new shapes and colours.

This unique artist who revolutionised the illustration art in Sri Lanka breathed his last on 6 September 1995. Sumana’s contribution to the betterment of modern Sri Lankan art is priceless. However, his service appears to be almost forgotten since there is no real discourse about this talented artist in the contemporary art-sphere which is disheartening to see.

(Translated by Sanuj Hathurusinghe)

By Chandana Ranaweera