Master of Portraiture and the Human Figure
By Chandana Ranaweera
Widana Kamkanamge Saradiyes Lankathilaka was born on 26 February 1912 in the picturesque village of Akmeemana in Galle. He received his primary education at the village school before moving to Ananda College, Colombo for higher studies in the English medium. After completing his school years, Saradiyes entered the Technical College of Ceylon in 1932, under the guidance and help of the District Education Director S.L.B. Kapukotuwa.
Saradiyes was a master of portraiture and the human figure. His innate ability to bring out the details of gestures and postures of humans is commended by many art critics and is something unique to him. Despite being born with a brush in his hand, Saradiyes was never shy of grabbing opportunities to study art more and to learn from the experiences of masters. This humble nature of his brought him under the guidance of the reputed artist J.D.A. Perera under whom the artist within him was nurtured. Later, he joined the Institute of Visual and Performance arts as a teacher for a brief period of time before joining the Department of Small Industries as an art instructor. He served at the department until he retired.
Apart from painting, Saradiyes was also a master of sculpture as well as a designer of special commemorative stamps. He designed a number of such commemorative stamps for which he won numerous honorary accolades. The fact that Saradiyes was included in the popular British philatelist Stanley Gibbons' catalogue of stamp designers in the world shows how good a designer Saradiyes was. Among the iconic and beautiful designs Saradiyes did were the logos he designed for a special exhibition in 1952 as well as a special silver jewellery box he designed. The box was created to celebrate the tea industry reaching 100 years in Sri Lanka, and was presented as a gift to Queen Elizabeth II. Apart from these special memorable creations by Saradiyes, there are over 1,000 cover designs for books, bodice art, and posters he has created.
Saradiyes marvelled in various mediums of art but upon studying his portfolio of art it becomes apparent that he had a special niche for portraiture and the human figure. His portraits are lively, descriptive, intricately detailed, and of the highest quality unique to Saradiyes himself. His selection of colours for portraiture went beyond the conventional shades of colours and he liked to experiment with new shades of colour and colour combinations. This out-of-the-box thinking combined with the talent of Saradiyes resulted in portraits of a unique style.
Two of the best portraitures by Saradiyes – one of the Narada Maha Thera and the other of the prominent academic, scholar, and diplomat Prof. Gunapala Malalasekara – can be witnessed at Colombo Art Gallery. The use of smooth colours in the foreground and the background and the fluency of it have brought out deep expressions within the portraits. The painting of Ven. Mapalagama Wipulasara Maha Thera is another masterpiece created by Saradiyes. The painting depicts the Thera in deep thought looking at a sitting Buddha statue. The addition of a Buddha statue apart from the subject figure of the painting has made this particular painting by Saradiyes take a rather different route to conventional portraiture. It is believed that by adding a Buddha statue in the portrait Saradiyes had tried to convey how good a sculptor Ven. Wipulasara Maha Thera was. He had also done portraits of President J.R. Jayawardene and Brigadier C.P. Jayawardena using sensitive colour combinations.
One of his much praised creations, is the painting titled, 'Lady Orange Merchant' which depicts a woman holding on to a basket full of oranges while holding an orange in the other hand. The colour balancing of this lively painting is done to perfection by Saradiyes, maintaining perfect parity of light and shade. The oil painting is done in accordance with conventional watercolour practices, using only a limited number of colours. This painting, although considered by many to be one of the best paintings by a Sri Lankan artist, is not at its usual place where it had been kept for many years. The painting used to be at the Colombo Art Galley for very many years but it was taken out of display some time back and it is not clearly known where the painting is.
His painting titled, 'Farmer and Farmerette' at Plate Gallery Colombo is yet another masterpiece created by Saradiyes. Different shades of brown have been used to bring out the colours of the dusk and the two male and female figures of the painting stay interconnected through gestures and postures Saradiyes has intricately painted. The farmer with a mammoty on one shoulder looks at the horizon, longing for rain and the female figure with a small clay pot on her wears the same expression of yearning.
Another painting by Saradiyes – based on the natural style of painting – shows two women of seemingly different ages. The one facing the front is seemingly the younger one and Saradiyes has used brighter shades in painting her bodily features, the white jacket she is wearing, and the pot she is holding to emphasise on her youthful vigour as opposed to the other older woman.
Another painting of his depicts rather common scenery in any Sri Lankan rural village – women reaping the paddy harvest. The prosperity of golden strands of paddy, the daintiness of the female body, the clothes and jewellery they are wearing, and the fluency of the women in handling the scythe are masterfully shown in the painting. The stupa in the background resembles the historic Thissamaharama Stupa so it can be assumed that the scene is taking place somewhere Down South.
The painting titled, 'Marketplace' is another brilliant painting by Saradiyes. By putting emphasis on the jackfruit and bananas on sale Saradiyes has tried to bring out the village vibes of a typical rural marketplace. The observant expressions of the villagers' faces are clearly depicted using dark brown and shades of black while everywhere else the colours yellow, green, white, and light blue have been used.
In another painting Saradiyes paints an elderly woman with a winnowing fan in her hand. The features of the grown woman and how she is in deep thoughts while looking at the winnowing fan in her hand are masterfully painted using a myriad of colours such as white, light blue and green, while being heavy on brown as the main colour of the painting.
Another painting shows a woman holding a brass pot and a brass lamp in her hands, perhaps while attending a religious ceremony at a devala or a shanthikarma. This assumption is supported by the colour of clothes she is wearing and the way she has let her hair down, just like a woman attending a ceremony at a devala. The village and the people in the background are drawn smaller to suggest that the woman is standing on an elevated ground which could well be a tank bund as in the olden days it was common to find shrines and devalas beside tanks.
The painting titled, 'Women Playing Rabana' is another vibrant painting by Saradiyes. Rabanas make an appearance typically during Sinhala and Tamil New Year time and the use of the colour red in abundance is perhaps a symbol of the arrival of Avurudu since red is much-affiliated with the New Year. The elderly women who play the rabana, their expressions, gestures, and actions are cleverly brought out using novel colour combinations and lively shapes, intensifying the Avurudu vibes through the painting.
Throughout his career Saradiyes won many accolades. His cabinet is filled with awards he won and appreciation souvenirs he received at many art exhibitions and competitions held by Government institutes as well as various other organisations. For his work, the Ceylon Arts Council awarded Saradiyes the title 'Kalapathi' and the Department of Cultural Affairs awarded him the 'Kalabhooshana' award in 1989. Although Saradiyes passed away a few years ago in an unfortunate way the legacy he left behind will continue to impress, nurture, and attract many generations of artists in the years to come.
(Translated by Sanuj Hathurusinghe)