Of people and anecdotes from a time that was
Selected Essays-by Maureen Seneviratne. Reviewed by Vijitha Fernando
The title is rather a misnomer. These essays are not barren exercises
on selected current topics but full blown journeys back into the past.
They touch on a variety of topics and are written with the verve and vigour
readers are familiar with in Maureen Seneviratne's writings as a journalist,
an activist and a campaigner for the rights of children. She begins with
the mosaic of her own self and through this, the reader gets a first hand
account of the ancestry, the lifestyle, the culture and the traditions
of the Burghers.
Once again, this is not a skeletal sketch, but a full bodied and fascinating
account based on her own family. It reaches out to her forebears and the
resultant "ethnic mix" spawned by many years of racial interaction. Her
descriptions of the many persons who peopled her life as a girl and a young
woman are the symbols of that past generation. Through them, a picture
emerges of gracious living as well as of the foibles of the Burghers through
grandfather, the two uncles et al, not to mention the cuisine and the joys
of Christmas with an abundance of relatives!
Seneviratne's humorous anecdotes about her family and her community
in general are a window to a lifestyle that is long gone. Thus a natural
nostalgia creeps into her work. What is most remarkable is the manner in
which humour and pathos, even the ability to laugh at herself do not take
away anything from the respect for and the graciousness of this remarkable
"family" of people.
That is not all. From part one, the reader moves on to a series of episodic
essays culled mostly from Seneviratne's contributions to a newspaper column
and from her writings to Channels, the Journal of the English Writers'
Co-operative. Many of them relate to the trauma and tragedy of our times.
Essays on places of historical interest are not just places that invite
and fascinate but glimpses of history itself, as in 'White Witch of Welimada"
or the "Haunted Arbours of Rama Kelle", Dhatusena and his spirit at Kalawewa
or the less well known Issarama at Polonnaruwa.
As she says, "anything is grist to her mill" and Selected Essays illustrates
this aptly, whether she quotes from an ancient aunt, the Sigalovada Sutta
or the Dhammapada, leaving one rather breathless at times at the variety
of her interests and her genuine interest in delving deep into them. These
form a sizeable part of her Essays, but one keeps going back to the "Mosaic
that's Me" which is the real story of the Burgher community in the then
Ceylon and the rich cultural mix they were, as part of the country's population.
Seneviratne's selection of essays will interest any reader, young or
otherwise. Most of them are topical. Others take a fresh look at people
and places. She certainly adds that little bit of imagination and quite
some discernment to these so that she can "know all the things on earth
without going out my door or know the ways of heaven without looking out
of the window," as the poet says.
Home for artist Winitha Fernando is not just where the heart is, but where
her soul is. And so this homecoming is a doubly joyful one, as she returns
to Sri Lanka, always her spiritual home, for both an exhibition of her
work and a family Christmas.
Winitha Fernando has spent much of the past 25 years away from the island's
shores, but she still considers herself a Sri Lankan artist, proud to portray
the country's lifestyle and people in her own expressive style.
Her exhibitions have always been eagerly awaited by art lovers here
because they are, through necessity rare occasions, made more difficult
by the logistical nightmare of carrying paintings across two continents.
'Retrospective', her forthcoming exhibition at the Lionel Wendt Gallery
from December 11 to 13 is a look back in time of the career of this illustrious
artist, spanning 30 years (1970_2000).
Over the years, from her first showing way back in 1957, Winitha has
exhibited at some of the most prestigious galleries in the world and seen
her paintings hung in many countries. But this exhibition holds great significance
for her. "It's a milestone in my journey for it will be my final one of
That statement may come as a shock to most, but for those who know Winitha
Fernando will be aware of her deep Christian faith that has always been
a guiding force in her life and indeed in her work. A pilgrimage to the
Holy Land made in March 2000 had a lasting impact on her, she says. It
was perhaps, a turning point. With it came a conscious decision to devote
her considerable talents thereafter to God. For Winitha, the new millennium
has marked a new beginning. She now hopes to concentrate all her efforts
on being a Christian artist, drawing her inspiration entirely from the
Old and New Testaments of the Bible.
So will we miss the Winitha Fernando we knew, as her art takes a new
direction? She believes not, for her strength has always been as a figurative
painter. As always "People matter a great deal to me and that is why all
my paintings are figure compositions, " she explains. And the Sri Lankan
flavour that has characterized her art will still be present, she assures.
"Only, the Biblical figures are indigenized, portrayed as Sri Lankan figures"
She still works meanwhile with mixed media; oils, pastels, acrylics
and water-colour. The exhibition "Retrospective' will thus provide us with
a final opportunity to leaf through the pages of Winitha's past. The period
covered (about half the paintings are from 1970-1980) will be familiar
to many art lovers in this country who delight in Winitha's serene cameos
of Sri Lankan life.
Hers are the scenes we see so often and seldom pause to appreciate,
perhaps some of them fast vanishing in the frenetic whirl of modern life.
"In my early years of painting, my work was inspired by my surroundings_
the beauty of the Sri Lankan scene, its way of life, its people," she says.
She was also drawn to the simplicity and lack of sophistication that characterised
life in this country, she adds.
An artist who began her journey at the Government School of Fine Arts,
Winitha says she owes much to the early influence in her life of David
Paynter, the celebrated Lankan artist. Paynter was her mother's cousin
and her tutor as well. In fact, while painting his famous mural of the
Transfiguration of Christ that graces the chapel of S. Thomas College,
Mount Lavinia, he lived at Winitha's family home. She first studied art
at the Government College of Fine Arts and then taught for ten years at
her alma mater Methodist College, before a scholarship to study fine arts
awarded by the World Council of Churches took her to the UK.
Here she also had the opportunity to study pottery and subsequently
went on to further her interest in stained glass art. Since then her career
has been a continuous success story with exhibitions all over Europe in
prestigious galleries and art festivals such as the Paris Salon, the Galerie
Vallombreuse, Biarritz, the La Mandragore Galerie also in Paris, L'Arthotheque,
Palais de la Scala, Monte Carlo, the Edinborough Festival, the Art Expo
International Coliseum, New York and recently the Whitstable Millennium
Arts Festival to name just a few in a list that runs into two pages.
A quick glance reveals several exhibitions in recent years at churches
in the UK, notably Winchester and Canterbury Cathedrals. For all her exposure
at other venues, Winitha is genuinely thrilled to have her work shown on
such hallowed ground, though modestly attributing the very favourable response
she received to the revival of interest in religious art in the UK. "The
British public has found my work interesting and intriguing," she says.
Indeed, so much so that the magazine "The Anglican World' has used one
of her paintings in its Christmas issue this year. There is recognition
there too of her dedication to her work. She has been asked to conduct
a seminar in January 2002 on 'The Fullness of Life through Art' by Christians
Aware, an organisation that focuses on multi-cultural projects worldwide.
It has always mattered much to her, despite her international recognition
that Sri Lankans enjoy and appreciate her work. Winitha has a special wish
that through 'Retrospective', a new generation of Lankans will come to
know her art. She hopes too that there will be a next time to show her
work here and God willing, it will be an exhibition of Christian art.