Kala Pola: The living cultural legacy of George Keyt

Saturday, 5 January 2013 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By Nihal Rodrigo

 This year’s ‘Kala Pola’ (art fair), organised by the George Keyt Foundation in collaboration with the John Keells Group will be held on Saturday, 26 January 2013 from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. and on Sunday, 27 from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the Nelum Pokuna Mawatha (formerly Ananda Coomaraswamy Mawatha), near the Colombo Art Gallery.

This annual public event honours the living cultural legacy of painter, poet and writer George Keyt (1901-1993). For the John Keells Group, this is much more than the fulfilment of corporate social responsibility (CSR) – it needs to be described as an exemplary contribution to ‘corporate cultural cooperation’ as well.

The cultural legacy of George Keyt endures. He had his education at Trinity College, Kandy and was employed for a while as a photographer at the Phoenix Studio in Kandy. He later spent some years at the Malwatte Temple, nearly a century ago, when the Ven. Pinnawella Dhirananda was the Mahanayake Thera. Though born a Burgher Christian, Keyt immersed himself in Buddhist philosophy and even contemplated entering the Buddhist clergy.

The magnificent murals depicting the life of the Lord Buddha at the Gotami Vihare in Borella are among his enduring contributions to Buddhist culture. In 1983, the Sri Lanka Postal Department, when issuing Vesak commemorative postage stamps, featured some of these murals.  His knowledge of Hindu philosophy, art and culture was also extensive, and is reflected in the themes of many of his paintings, as well as his poetry and writings, including the translation of Jayadeva’s Sanskrit classic, the Gita Govinda.

His manifold achievements need to be placed in the larger context of South Asia’s rich and varied cultural heritage. William G. Archer of the British Museum, in his pioneering 1959 book, ‘India and Modern Art’, placed him then, together with the Indian painters, Rabindranath Tagore, Amrit Sher-Gil and Jamini Roy, as the four greatest modern artists of the South Asian sub-continental cultural matrix.

The first ‘Kala Pola’ in 1993, which Keyt personally attended, attracted a modest number of around 30 Sri Lankan artists. For Kala Pola 2013, well over 300 artists have registered as participants and will be exhibiting their works on Nelum Pokuna Mawatha.

The contribution that Kala Pola makes to the careers of emerging painters and sculptors from all parts of Sri Lanka is enhancing each year. A major legacy of Keyt is therefore the opportunity his talents and creativity have come to afford young artists. This includes, in particular the opportunity provided to them to present their work to the increasingly large and diverse public that annually visits the Kala Pola. Talent is being recognised in the responses that are evoked by the thousands strolling along the Nelum Pokuna Mawatha during the Kala Pola to view the work of the large number of participating painters and sculptors.

Many artists, including those from rural environments, have derived much more than what they may collect from merely the sale of their work. At last year’s Kala Pola, artists had earned around a total of Rs. 7 million.

Fruitful opportunities for professional engagement and livelihood security have also been among the benefits that many of the talented participants of Kala Pola have eventually gained. A few differently-abled children are also due to present their creations at Kala Pola 2013 which is an important aspect of social welfare. Fellowship, interaction and cultural exchanges among the artists and sculptors have been also helpful in developing talent.

Considering the increasing popularity of the event, Kala Pola 2013 (which is the 20th anniversary of the event) will, for the first time, be held over two days, thus providing more time and opportunities for all to benefit.

Apart from locals, many foreigners, tourists as well as diplomats of embassies and high commissions in Colombo visit Kala Pola. In fact, Ambassadors and Heads of Missions from the United States and China; High Commissioners from India and the United Kingdom have been among the distinguished personalities who have gladly accepted invitations to open the annual Kala Pola.