Many of you will have seen some of the paintings by the great Sri Lankan Buddhist artist, Solias Mendis. One of the most famous is the image of Bhikkhuni Sanghamitta arriving in Sri Lanka with the Bodhi tree sapling, greeting by King Devanampiyatissa.
I included this image, with a substantial discussion of the symbolism, in my White Bones Red Rot Black Snakes. Recently, I chatted about Mendis with Rane Ranatunga, and he kindly sent me a couple of short articles, which I thought I’d share with you. Solias Mendis was an exceptional artist, whose work is superbly crafted and creative. I hope to see it in its proper context when I visit Sri Lanka in December. Meanwhile, we shall have to be content with a few digital images. You can see more on this site.
Soliyas Mendis (1896–1975)
Artist Soliyas Mendis, renowned the world over for his murals in the Kelaniya temple in the suburbs of Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, was a self-taught painter. Hailing from a rural village, he was an extraordinary man who shunned any form of publicity and concentrated on doing his task in a quiet way.
When authorities of the Kelaniya temple sought the advice of the famed Indian painter Nandalal Bose, he visited the temple and seeing what Soliyas Mendis was doing, had no hesitation is advising that Mendis should be permitted to continue with the paintings in his own inimitable style. Bose admired Mendis’ work and gave him a few tips to improve his style. Bose advised him that the colour of the paint to be used for a particular mural should be prepared from the clay of the same shade. He then travelled many a distance looking for the clay bearing the particular colours he needed. He succeeded in his effort and soon realised that using such clay resulted in the colour lasting for a great length of time without any discolouring.
Soliyas Mendis, who had a passion for painting from his young days, tried his hand at a few village temples and was happy with his effort It was when he was doing the paintings at a temple closer to Kelaniya that the trustees of the temple were impressed and invited him to do the paintings. He the studied the style of art used during the period of the last kings who reigned from Sri Lanka’s hill capital, Kandy (the rest of the country was then under the British) commonly referred to as the Kandyan style. He closely studied the costumes and other traditions of that era.
A bachelor he had few wants in life. He did not look for material comforts or personal glory. He led a simple life and donated his land, house and even the small car he used for use as an orphanage. He used a bicycle after selling his car.
Soliyas Mendis: From ‘Among Those Present’ (1962)
When renowned Sri Lankan journalist D B Dhanapala selected 22 Sri Lankans who had made a name for themselves in numerous fields, for his book, ‘Among Those Present’ (1962), Soliyas Mendis was one of them. Referring to the ceremony of the offering the new wing built at the Kelaniya temple to the Maha Sangha, he wrote:
“….There was one man to whom nobody paid any attention. He paid attention to everybody by observing and making mental notes of this scene of consecration. For he had to paint it on the bare walls of the new section of the shrine which had been gifted to the Sasana.
He had already finished the sculpture work round the new shrine, having created three friezes of dwarfs, sacred geese and elephants, without repeating once any one pose and having endowed the outer walls with nine abodes of the gods above the friezes.
Now, the bare walls alone had to be painted. And he was all set for the task.
If genius means untutored, natural, instinctive but extraordinary talent, imaginative or inventive, modern Ceylon has produced at least one real genius.
He is Walimuni Soliyas Mendis, the man who painted the frescoes in the new wing of the Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihare.
Born a peasant, bred a peasant, Mendis never had any professional technical training of any sort. He was the son of a village Ayurvedic physician. But Ayurveda proved a bitter pill to him that he refused to swallow. He preferred to do quick drawings for the delight and amusement for his friends studying in the Pirivena where he had his higher education.
Later, he was interested in painting frescoes on temple walls in his areas round about Negombo. Paint seemed to be mixed with his blood. The frescoes just flowed from his brush according to the traditions.
The late D C Wijewardane who was in charge of the execution of the work in the new section of the Kelaniya Temple went in search of this remarkable man to his home. He found him not only a good painter but also a great student of history.
Wijewardena sent Soliyas Mendis on a study tour to Ajanta, Ellora and Bagh caves to see for himself what the old Buddhist artists had painted. He came back inspired and fired by the masterpieces in these Buddhist caves. But he had made no notes, copied no pictures, taken no photographs.
Out of these masterpieces of the past in India, out of the extant ancient frescoes in Ceylon, out of his own imagination and out of the historical traditions of the Sinhalese, Soliyas Mendis re-created in modern Ceylon something of his own on the walls of Kelaniya for nearly twenty years.
These pictures painted at Kelaniya may be considered the best work done in Ceylon since the Polonnaruwa period (12th century AC) , if not Sigiriya (5th cen AC).
….When Mendis had finished all but the last fresco in the Kelaniya Temple, for some mysterious reason, he was requested not to proceed with the work. The last fresco was to be the biggest, the best, as the background to the new seated Buddha of granite in the innermost shrine room, the Hall of Perfumes. A white wandering artist of a very mediocre type was brought in to paint this last bit of bare wall. How out of place, out of time with the rest of the paintings, this last bit of work is apparent to anybody who visits the Kelaniya Temple.
Showing the Himalayas with a wealth of an alien kind of blue and white the picture is a cultural hammer blow to good taste and appropriateness of things.
This barbaric treatment of a man who had dedicated his life to a mission of art at what may be considered not very attractive rates left a very bad taste in the mouth.
Mendis, in unexpected disgust, gave up for ever painting and retired to his village to live once again the life of a farmer. He had bought a small coconut estate out of the money he had been paid for his work. Here he built a house and gifted both estate and house as an orphanage to the nation.
A simple peasant, Mendis is. But he is the only genius we have produced who could not only create something new of his own but who could also give away in a spirit of self-sacrifice all that he had made in the attempt.