Sybil Goddess of Storytelling
By Priyangwada Perera
“The last project of hers to have been printed must be my book. Aunty Sybil did the illustrations for my book, Tell us Our Story, Grandma,” said Robina P. Marks, the High Commissioner of South Africa in Sri Lanka. It was a very emotional Marks, who spoke to us, clad in white. In her hands she held her book. It had just come out in print in Sinhala, English and Tamil, containing the unique illustrations of Kala Keerthi Sybil Wettasinghe.
In many cultures, the Akan folklore character Anansi is perceived as the god of storytellers but for us Sri Lankans, we had a living goddess of storytelling – the one and only Aunty Sybil. People of different ages, professions and social statuses; all admired Sybil alike, not just for her artistic prowess and storytelling skills but also for her kind-heartedness, for having an altruistic soul. Hating her is a pure impossibility. Meet her once and you would be in awe, admiration and adoration for the rest of your life. The High Commissioner of South Africa said that she went down on her knees and worshiped Aunty Sybil after they worked to put together her story book for children.
Marks, who was in Sri Lanka for four years serving as the High Commissioner of South Africa, chose Sybil as the illustrator for her book on Lankan children with African roots. “In an attempt to locate the African genes in Sri Lanka, I had to find an illustrator who would be able to ‘respectfully capture’ the features of Afro-Sri Lankans. I wanted to find someone who would not give us any of the racial stereotypes.” Marks had to make sure that she did not fall prey to the very disturbing social constructions that ‘black is ugly’ or ‘black is inferior’. “I actually went and met Aunty Sybil because I have come across her children’s books and I was in love with her style. I was blown away by her warmth and her beautiful, childlike spirit. The inner child in her was shining, full of eager curiosity that was not judgmental. Aunty Sybil was someone who empathised with those who were bullied, ridiculed because they ‘looked different’,” said the High Commissioner, Marks.
“She was 92 then and suddenly told me that she wants to do the illustrations. I was taken aback. I said, ‘Aunty Sybil, at this age I do not want you to break your rest’. I wondered why she was so interested in the story.”
Marks continued, “As a small child in Sri Lanka she was considered to be dark. She was called ‘kalu’ by other children. She was teased and some did not even play with her. This made her very sad. She went to her father, whom she loved dearly and revealed this. Her friends would not play with her because she was dark and she might rub off on them. He had said to her, ‘you are a precious jewel. You are more beautiful to me than any other child’. This was what triggered her. She knew life has come full circle for her to be a part of my story.”
She wanted to tell that everybody deserves love and respect, regardless of the colour of their complexion. “She said we should say ‘their hair was long and straight like coconut leaves.’ She thought, to describe a White person, the colour of yam after they are peeled would be good. A lot of her spirit is visible in the illustrations.” Marks elaborated further. “The social preference for lighter skin was something that struck me when I came here. Social prejudice addressed in my book is something Aunty Sybil quickly identified. She was very keen to be a part of it. It was with so much enthusiasm that she accepted the idea,” the High Commissioner was grateful for the opportunity to have had the joy of working with Sybil and was extremely saddened by the demise.
Prof. J.B. Disanayaka spoke to us of the storyteller within Sybil. “Sybil wrote beautifully in Sinhala. She is also a brilliant artist in terms of drawings concerning children. Sybil had done so much to inspire children to draw. She was always surrounded by children who appreciated her, who understood her language. This understanding was mutual and in return, she loved and treasured them. This is why she had remained so popular over the years. Generations of children love her. We cannot restrict her books saying they are just children’s stories.
“She must have published about 200 books,” said Prof. Disanayaka. Being an expert in language, we asked him to comment on her style with words. “Her language is very attractive. Sometimes she is cynical and satirical but she presented her stories in a way that was extremely clever and appealing,” he said before adding further, “she has done many books for me. Out of those we got all my stories on Andare and compiled them together. I think she finished the cover for that book, mere days before her last.”
Painter, former Art Project Officer at the Education Ministry and visiting lecturer S.H. Sarath has known Sybil close at hand. There are many who can speak to us about Sybil – the kind human being but not many are able to give us a valid, detailed and accurate comment on her paintings with the knowledge of a professional other than veterans in art like Sarath. “According to my knowledge, there is no other woman who has worked with such consistency for so many years. She was drawing till her very last moment. I have been to her house and she used to show me her drawings when I visited her,” Sarath reminisced and elaborated further. “I call Sybil Wettasinghe a quintessential letter in the alphabet of art in this country. Even internationally, she is known and appreciated for her brilliance.”
According to Sarath, the most important aspect of her work is that they could be enjoyed by both children and adults alike. “Her stories and paintings are ageless. They were loved by people of all ages. More importantly, her stories and paintings are going to last for generations to come. Such is the quality of her work.”
Sarath also said that Sybil’s art reflected her roots. “She has retained the Southerner in her. It has contributed a lot to her identity. When I look at her drawings, I feel her ‘female eye’. Her focus is different from what a man might notice. She is focused on detail. The designs, the colours are all elaborate.”
Sarath explained further, “Her knowledge of even Kevum is visible in her drawings. But she is someone who used her intelligence in paintings. Just looking at her drawings, there is so much to learn.” Starting from the age of 15, drawing for H.D. Sugathapala in a newspaper, Sybil came a long way to become an internationally-acclaimed star.
“She was an exemplary figure for all. Sybil got up on her own, without going after anyone to appreciate her. Both of us have worked together as judges in many art contests. She had no insecurities when she saw someone talented.” Sarath added a beautiful thought. “We are all here on borrowed land, borrowed gifts, and on borrowed time. We are temporary guardians of certain things. It may be 10 perches of land, a house or some goods. When we leave this world, we have no choice but to leave these things. A lot of people have nothing to leave behind. But Sybil left behind a wealth of things. She left a legacy. She has left an uncountable amount of treasures for the later generations.”
Sarath was under the firm belief that her work should be preserved. “There should be a museum where people can come and see them. You can look at her art and write an essay. It is a talking picture. She belonged to a rich era, deeply connected to the environment. It is this bond that gave birth to Sybil the artist and storyteller. She knew the grammar of art. She is irreplaceable. It was not about catering to what the society demands or what sells. It is not holding paint brushes and splashing colour all over a canvas. It is a reading of life that is brought out. Sybil’s art must have nourished her living but she did not make art her source of sustenance. Her objective was to teach children. With the use of one eye, she worked tirelessly, drawing day and night. She went for her nibbana in her art. She also received a doctorate.”
Sybil has exhibited her work in different countries but Japan has been her most ardent admirer and appreciator. The Japanese maintained a loving relationship with her. Sybil was so popular in Japan that her Kuda Hora/Umbrella Thief won the Best Foreign Book Award in Japan in 1986. In the very next year in 1987, she went on to win the Japanese Library Association Award for the Most Popular Children’s Book.
She also won the Nikkei Asia Prize for Culture in 2012.
Sybil is more than a national treasure and even death cannot steal her away. She may have bid her farewell to the earthly realms but her brush strokes, pencil lines, and stories will continue to fill that void for generations to come.