The long trek from Yogiyana

Saturday, 20 September 2014 00:10 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By D.C. Ranatunga On 7 March 1957, the editorial in the ‘Ceylon Observer’ commended the Speaker of the House of Representatives for instructing the Government to take down the “monstrosity” in the House premises  (where the Presidential Secretariat stands today) and replace it with a new statue worthy of the man who was depicted – Sri Lanka’s first Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake. The editorial further said: “There will be more than enough volunteers from among the people who consider that the Woodford (British sculptor) statue has befooled a great man’s memory and that it is – even as a piece of sculptural grotesquerie – a blot on the landscape or possibly, in this case, the seascape.” A student just out of Chelsea School of Art offers to sculpt a new statue free of charge except for the cost of materials. While the British sculptor had never seen the Prime Minister and had based his work on photographs, the student had known him personally during four years when he was an agricultural inspector prior to his studying art. He recalled seeing the Prime Minister “in bush coat beaming with pleasure over a field of bronzing paddy in the dry zone at Mahiyangana and as an ‘upasaka’ at village functions and important ceremonial occasions”. By August, the ‘Observer’ campaign had helped to collect the Rs. 14,000 required for the materials from the public and after many bureaucratic delays the job was done. Ironically, on the day the statue was being unveiled, the sculptor was not even invited. “I was in the crowd until an Inspector of Police asked me what I was doing in the crowd and took me to the Governor General,” the sculptor recalled. In fact, when he had heard that the Governor General was going to open it, he had met the Secretary of the UNP, the party founded by DSS and he was the leader, and suggested that they should get one of the oldest colonists from Gal Oya to unveil the statue, failing which get five children from the different communities to collectively to do it. The sculptor concerned, many will recall, was Tissa Ranasinghe, who is the foremost sculptor in Sri Lanka in modern times. His story along with heaps of photographs of his work has been recorded by journalist, painter, author, designer and graphic artist Neville Weeraratne in ‘The Sculpture of Tissa Ranasinghe’. The well-written, elegantly-printed rich publication is a fitting tribute to the great sculptor and will be treasured by many. Neville, himself a ’43 Group artist, had known Tissa for over half a century and was most suitable to write about him. He has delved into a lot of material to make it a most-worthy publication by The National Trust, Sri Lanka. Entry into painting Hailing from Yogiyana near Sandalankawa – the place made famous by the pioneer of the cooperative movement Vincent Subasinghe – Tissa belongs to a traditional Sinhala Buddhist rural family. Being from the coconut and paddy country, agriculture was naturally in his blood which possibly made him join the School of Agriculture in Peradeniya and obtain a diploma in 1946. He was then 21. He joined the Botany division in the Department of Agriculture and it was a comment made by his head about a hand-drawn calendar Tissa sent him that encouraged him to think of studying art. He joined Heywood, the Government College of Fine Arts, where renowned painter J.D.A. Perera was the Principal. “Tissa was encouraged to paint with vigour and certain bravura inspired his work.  He painted with great confidence. His ‘Rodiya Woman,’ for instance, is painted with all the panache of a salon portraitist. At all times he remained a draughtsman with a keen eye to proportion and balance,” Neville writes. Move to sculpture Although he got his diploma in painting after the three-year course (in 1952), J.D.A. Perera encouraged him and another student, George Bevan, to move over to sculpture. They were required to use clay as one of their materials. While Beven didn’t like the idea and left, Tissa decided to try it out. He had for his instructor Rathi (Mrs. D.B.) Dhanapala, herself a very accomplished sculptor. “In accepting J.D.A. Perera’s inspired suggestion, Ranasinghe took upon himself a responsibility he probably did not realise at the time. He was to become the first important sculptor to work in Sri Lanka since the stone carvers of Polonnaruwa laid down their chisels and their mallets at the Gal Vihare in the 12th century. J.D.A. Perera’s judgement of Tissa’s capacity to undertake this responsibility must quite well have come from his showing of a special gift for portraiture as seen in a number of heads done in clay in 1952 while studying at the College of Fine Arts. These were not mere amateur efforts but studied and highly successful works,” Neville sums up his early days. After obtaining a diploma in sculpture Tissa applied for a Government scholarship to study in Britain but failed to get one. He then went at his own expense in 1954 with the help of his brothers and joined the Chelsea School of Art where a year later he was awarded the first prize in sculpture at the annual exhibition. In 1958 he was awarded an UNESCO scholarship to complete his studies and travel in Europe for three months visiting galleries and museums. He began participating in numerous exhibitions where he won the accolades of renowned art critics. Six-dimensional person Neville remembers the days he returned to Sri Lanka with wife Sally. “In an annexe of a house in Bambalapitiya, you would have met, as I did, the stocky, bearded sculptor with closely-cropped hair in his habitual garb of bush shirt, short trousers and chappals. They were the most comfortable clothes for a warm, tropical and humid atmosphere. He seemed the perfect example of a young man going about his business without ostentation. That was, indeed, the nature of the man. It was the nature of his business that made the difference.” (In more recent times I have met Tissa several times and he has always been in this kit.) Tissa set up his studio there and it did not take long for it to get filled with heads of an array of the best known personalities in this country. They ranged from Professor Senerat Paranavitana and Martin Wickremasinghe to H.W. Rupasinghe and Tower Hall actors Romulus Silva and Annie Boteju to theatre guru Arthur van Langenberg and many more. Neville thinks that he selected his subjects based on their unique physical characteristics, their looks, their physiognomies, just as much as he was conscious of their contribution to the culture of our times. Neville considers Tissa a well-rounded six-dimensional person, like his work: “Height, width and weight apart, you had to consider his spiritual, moral and intellectual attributes. Tissa was 50 years ago, as he is now, a modest man. He is a good-humoured and simple human being who enjoys a bit of fun but never, as far as I can recall, at the expense of his vocation as an artist. He has applied himself to his chosen art with religious zeal.” Sculpting the Buddha Among the much-talked-about pieces of sculpture by Tissa are the Buddha statues on the themes ‘The Renunciation’, ‘Enlightenment’ and ‘Self-mortification’. Possibly with his Buddhist background, Tissa seem to have taken a special interest in sculpting the Buddha. He sculpted Arahant Mahinda and Theri Sanghamitta as well the Buddha statues which are seen all over including at the Washington Buddhist Vihara and the Commonwealth Institute of London. Whenever the Government wanted to gift something special to an international institution, it was Tissa who was requested to oblige. Among such gifts ‘The Peaceful Resolution of Disputes’ – a 4’x2’ bronze relief gifted to the International Court of Justice at The Hague – stands out. It is based on the Buddha’s visits to Nagadeepa and Kelaniya to solve two disputes. I was personally involved with the Observer-sponsored Navarangahala project when Royal Junior Principal H.D. Sugathapala (he was then Chairman of the Sinhala Drama Panel of the Arts Council during the golden era of Sinhala theatre) decided to build a spacious theatre where Sinhala dramatists could perform. He commissioned Tissa to do a bas-relief in terracotta tracing the history of theatre in Sri Lanka. It turned out to be a unique 40’x8’ creation which adorns the front wall of Navarangahala. Tissa was Principal of the College of Fine Arts for a brief period (1969-January 1971) when he resigned in disgust when he could not deliver what he wanted to do for the benefit of the students. He then decided to move out to London where he worked in the foundry of the Royal College of Art, gaining the plaudits of colleagues, students, critics and an enthusiastic following. Yet, he never forgets that he is the Sinhala ‘gamaya’ from Yogiyana.