Artist Who Modernised Children’s Literature
By Chandana Ranaweera
Today (9 May) marks the 30th anniversary since Sunil Jayaweera – the children’s books author and illustrator who took the younger generation of our country from the conventional to the modern via his unique stories and modern styles of illustrations – breathed his last. This is in tribute to the beloved ‘Uncle Sunil’ who was a hero to a generation of children in our country.
Sunil was an artist through and through but he managed to speak to both children and adults through his works of art, as well as rendering immeasurable service to Sri Lankan literature. Born on 1 July 1930 in Ihalagama – a village in its truest sense near Kirindiwela, Gampaha – Sunil first saw art and beauty in nature which nurtured and ultimately brought out the artist within him. His parents were Jayasuriya Kankanamlage Martin and Jayasinghe Pathirunnahelage Alpinona and he was the middle child in a family of three sons. Sunil went to Kirindiwela Central College for his formal education and entered Nittambuwa Teacher Training Institute for his higher education.
Later on, he joined the Teacher Training Institute as a lecturer, kick starting his professional career. The close-to-nature upbringing Sunil had made him automatically love the environment and everything natural. The childhood memories and experiences he gathered during his time in the village became ideas for many of his children’s books. Among the fascinating children’s books he created are: Kale Gedara Yodhaya, Kalu Banda, Nuwanethi Welenda, Niyangamala, Samanmali, Sithak Nathi Rajek, Rajagedara Tharangayak, Walas Puncha, Punchi Ape Rata, Ran Banduna, Keta Kiribath, Weera Madduma, Punchi Lamai, Pinhami, Kirihanda, Kimbulgedara Manamali, Pansale Athinna, and many more. Apart from creating his own children’s books Sunil rendered his illustrating abilities to many popular authors in Sri Lanka.
Many children’s books of the renowned author K. Jayatillake were made captivating by Sunil’s illustrations. On numerous occasions Sunil’s children's books and illustrations have been recognised in the international literature and arts arena. His book titled, Kalu Banda won the B.I.B. International Award (Biennial of Illustration Bratislava) – one of the oldest international honours for children's book illustrators awarded by the Czech Republic – in 1981. This was the first time a Sri Lankan author/ illustrator won this prestigious award.
Proving his brilliance in children’s literature Sunil won the award for a second time for his book Pinhami, bringing fame and glory to not just his books but for Sri Lanka as well. Securing a B.I.B. International Award is as hard as it gets and winning it twice is an even harder feat. Only a few authors and illustrators across the world have managed to do so and as Sri Lankans we can be humbly proud that one of us has managed to achieve this rare feat. His book titled, Kimbul Gedara Manamali won the prestigious Noma Literary Prize, awarded by Japan.
In 1979 when Sunil won the Noma Prize, submissions from 137 countries were considered for the prize and beating stiff competition Sunil emerged the winner, once again bringing international fame and glory to Sri Lanka. In the local literature scene Sunil made a record which still stands, winning the State Literature Prize for children’s books consecutively for six years between 1975 and 1980. In another international competition his book, Walas Puncha was selected by UNESCO as the best children’s book and the National Book Development Board even translated it into Tamil.
The title character in his book Pinhami became much popular among the children and adults of Sri Lanka alike, that the mighty film director Dr. Lester James Peries made a movie out of the book. Sunil contributed to the movie as script writer and art director. The movie went on to win a few international awards at the Paris Cinema Festival. For many years, Sunil was the cover illustrator of the popular children’s paper Wijaya. His illustrations and paintings were a fine combination of traditional and modern art.
Sunil was influenced by the colours of folk art, features of Sri Lankan Bali art, and the cubist shapes of Pablo Picasso and George Braque. He mixed all these in and gave birth to a blend of style that was unique to him. Yellow, orange, blue, brick red, and white were the go-to colours of Sunil. Every painting and illustration of Sunil packs innovation, style, and brilliance, and can be used as fine examples for young and budding artists.
However, it looks as if the current arts and literature sphere has somewhat forgotten Sunil. Perhaps this is because Sunil lived a relatively short life and left us all too soon. However, the literature, illustrations, and art he gave us during his short life are precious and enough to entertain, educate, and nurture children, artists, and authors for generations to come. (Translated by Sanuj Hathurusinghe)