By Cheranka Mendis
People say destiny is carved in stone and for B.M. Jayarathne, his destiny was etched and painted in stone.
For Jayarathne, art it seems, courses through his veins. From the time he could write, he painted. Starting with the usual childish doodles of trees, suns and mountains, he soon moved to drawing still life pictures and then sceneries. For as long as he can remember, art has always been part of his life but his real talent, now exposed after years of ignorance from many parties, is a treasure.
Carrying forward a unique form of art known as ‘shylamaya chitra kalaawa, ’ which translates to artistic creations on stone, Jayarathne claims that he is one of the very few artists who engages in this form of art in Sri Lanka. “I have not yet come across anyone else pursing such a form of art in a very long time. However I believe there must be a few others in the country.”
His paintings are unique. Discarding the usual material such as canvas, board and paper, he chose marble as his medium. He brings his art to life through sculpting and then painting on the marble to create his masterpieces. Showing us two of his latest works, one which was of Lord Buddha meditating to achieve enlightenment, he explained that painting one takes more than two days.
“It is a process that must be carefully followed. I cannot do this in a rush.” First he etches the outline of the painting on the marble by lightly chiselling with a sharp pointed chisel approximately two inches tall. “Once that is done, we blow out the small chipped pieces and then make a cement block on the painting, leaving out lines and details as we need.”
The artist then plasters the cement and with the use of the outer skin of cuttlefish, cuts out the picture on the plaster using water to level the surface. This process requires careful attention to detail and is a test of patience as it takes a lot of time and effort to get it to the level of perfection that the artist commands. The picture is painted with powder paint used to paint temple murals.
“You can easily forget the time and place when you are concentrating on this. It is by no means an easy task. It has to be carefully done from the beginning itself without leaving room for mistakes. A picture that starts with mistakes is by no chance a perfect one at the end.”
Jayarathne has now mastered the art of patience and it is evident in the manner he speaks and communicates and it should as he has been doing this for the past 30 to 40 years.
The marble used for painting is from Italy. However these are of limited stock and the marble he commonly uses are the broken slabs from hotels. “When I see or hear of broken bits of marble at hotels that can be used for paintings, we request them. Often we get it for free or for a small sum.”
His mentor, Ed Don Sirinayake, opened an art institute called ‘Sipsathara,’ close to Jayarathne’s home in Peradeniya when he was a child and it was Sirinayake who passed on the skills to the young Jayarathne who was then a school-going boy of 15. His passion and love for art saw Jayarathne soon enrolled in the art school by his parents.
He started with the usual forms of art and then moved on to stone carving and painting which was one of the latter parts of his study and was not taught to everyone. “Not everyone can do this. First you must be a skilled artist. Second, you must have patience. Sirinayake saw this in me and taught me this when I was 15. I was instantly fascinated. Here he was teaching me a unique form of art at such a young age.”
However, there is little appreciation now. He complains that no one is interested in purchasing the art; mostly because many are ignorant that this even exists. He now paints pieces as exhibits only and that too when a competition is close at hand. Even then, people admire and praise but no support whatsoever has been extended to market his products like with other artists.
What he learnt is now used to carve marble pillars for cemeteries and that he does only in black and white. “See the thing is if the paint fades away at some point of time, since these stone pillars exist for years and years, someone can touch up and make it look new if I do them in black and white. However if I do them in colour, redoing it might be a hassle since the colours would be hard to identify.”
He also owns a small jewellery shop in Kandy, another of his passions. “Art and jewellery interest me, perhaps because my father was also interested in jewellery making.”
Talent passed on from his father
He tells us that his father was also talented in wooden sculpture, working mostly with ebony and elephant teeth. He commented that it was probably his father’s talent and patience that passed on to him.
“He was a great man. When Platé opened up in Kandy, my father was among the first employees there - he was also one of the last.” While at Platé, Jayarathne’s father worked closely with renowned artist George Keats, framing almost all his paintings at the time, he said. “They used to always talk shop and because they worked closely, we also got an opportunity to see and learn from Keats’ paintings first hand.”
Other forms of art
Getting back to his art, he informs us that he also paints murals in temples, this too from a small age. “When I was told I was good at this, I went along with a few others to paint in temples. These take long periods of time. But to see the end result is always a pleasure.” His paintings can be seen in a number of temples and he cannot remember all of them. Recalling a few he mentions Vidya Dharshana Piriwena in Wategama and a temple close to where he now resides in Kandy.
“I also paint on canvas, be it modern art, sceneries or portraits,” Jayarathne said. Portrait paintings are increasingly getting popular he added. However people are now likely to pass over art for other goods. “People don’t like to spend a lot on art. They prefer to use that money for other goods. Art is generally given as gifts and portrait pictures sell more.”
Talent in the family
Has the talent been passed on to his children, we ask. “My son (22) and daughter (18) are aesthetically talented. My son can draw very well, however he does this in a modern way and prefers digital art. He now conducts a computer class for the people in the area.” His daughter’s talent is on the dancing side and she is currently studying for GCE A/Ls in August in dancing.
“This does not really bring in a lot of revenue and therefore cannot expect them to take this on.”
Doing what he loves
Any regrets? None, he said. “This was something I have loved ever since I was a kid. I loved art. With paint and paper, I found a safe and comfortable place. Doing this, even though times are hard, has always given me pleasure.”
Pix by Upul Abayasekara