George Bevan, the eternal Robin Goodfellow
Encounter with enrichment, aristocracy
"George Bevan - A Life in Art" by Neville Weeraratne. Published by the Amici Dance Theatre Company, London, 2004. Reviewed by Carl Muller
"I am the merry wanderer of the night," cried the elf, Robin Goodfellow, who Shakespeare also called Puck - the boisterous mischief-maker who pulled stools from beneath inveterate gossips, pinched lazy housemaids, made humans dance to his seditious piping and was never tired of watching the various follies of humans.

Nobody I know could belong more closely to this fairy breed than George Bevan, who celebrated his 75th birthday and in whose honour, Neville Weeraratne has given us a magnificent book: George Bevan - a Life in Art.

Neville himself is a member of the '43 Group and an art chronicler. He has, in this astonishing work, given us an equally astonishing story of one of Sri Lanka's most eminent painters.

George Bevan has achieved his place in the hierarchy of art through: "a seemingly endless odyssey of search and discover... as a newspaper illustrator and fashion designer, as an innovative painter in oils on rush mats, as the fabricator of 'monotone' portraits, as a travel guide whose encounters with new and wonderful vistas in the East was to lead to his rediscovery of the infinite variety and splendour of Sri Lanka... paintings... rich in colour and imbued with life... remarkable rendering of harmonies and movement... images to stimulate the heart and mind."

On August 23, the Wendt mounts an exhibition of George's paintings - an exhibition that proclaims an immortal magic spirit that makes one feel one has stepped into a sort of a ravishing ring where George dances to his own processional genius, having done so for three-quarters of a century.

Weeraratne's book carries a Foreword by Wolfgang Stange - the Berliner who has become so much as part of Bevan's life and who created the first-ever integrated dance theatre company in Sri Lanka in 1998 with the urgings and blessings of Sunethra Bandaranaike.

There is also Nihal Ratnaike's Introduction, where he recalls his earliest memories of Bevan as a tap dancer, partnering the lovely Romayne Dias. Nihal and George worked together for the Ceylon Observer in the early nineties. The Observer sent George on a scholarship to St. Martin's School of Art, London - and London and Negombo became his homes. As Nihal says:

"His painting is as refreshing as his companionship. Easy and natural and stimulating. My life has been enriched over the years by his friendship and by the companionship of his paintings on my walls."

This is what Bevan's art is. Enrichment, extraordinary encounters and a flaring that embodies a kind of aristocracy too. As a young student, I used to feel such a stirring within me when I read of the songs of Thomas the Rymer. The same yearning arises, uncontrollable, when I see in Bevan's art, that which is so incomparable, so overflowing with texture and yes, triumph.
As Weeraratne notes:

"Great art is only produced through pain and deprivation."
He adds that this is an old myth, but one wonders. I remember how once, considering that pain and deprivation of my own life, and wishing to put it all down on paper, I began with the line: "There must have been blood in the font on the day I was baptized." I then tossed it all aside. I think Bevan decided, too, that pain and deprivation would have no part in what he would portray. His notes would shimmer, his sea shores would be flanks of blue, his twilights would carry the winking white of unseen daisies and exhale the scents of honeysuckle and bramble rose. His people would be wild-eyed - looks to make the heart contract with longing, moving in a nimbus of brightness and a rioting lambency. Every pattern of his art is as familiar, yet alien to the stolid march of human hours - and one takes one's eyes away, but the echo of the painted melody surrounds the fringes of the world.

"Whatever the attractions George has felt at different times of his life as an artist, three things are today firmly established in his work. The first is a powerful empathy with the life of these islanders, the people of Sri Lanka. In whatever condition he finds them, he sees a beauty which he relishes above all else. He then employs the second and third of those elements... to communicate that beauty... the draughtsmanship to draw a line that is free and fluid to grasp and hold the essence of his subject [and his] response to the colour in which these subjects are contained..."

Above all, as Weeraratne says, "He is a free spirit."
I like to think that once, at the dreaming dawn of history, before this world was categorized and regulated by mortal minds, and before boundaries were formed between this and other worlds, such free spirits roamed with no restraints. They could be ambiguous, fluid, even capricious, but their realm was endowed with other dimensions and, above all, they encompassed the art of enchantment. One such is George Bevan. It is his glorious art, upon his return to Negombo, that surely tells us of the older, greater and grander Robin Goodfellow. Bevan brought sheer inhibition into his work - the appreciation of female and male figures, the beauty of it all that gripped him, that begged to be transported to rush mats, canvas, board and paper.

His sea-spun home must have made immense impressions - clear waters, silver sea beds of sand, the trees with the carolling of birds, the festival dancers, the kavadi frenzy, reapers, Mawanella, Kandy, Galle, the Vel festival, Ulpotha, street corners, goatherds, coastal vistas, rickshawmen... a veritable voyage of creativity that coiled out of him, invisible ribbons drawing him ever on, tossing him in the currach of his soul while birds flashed and tumbled and sang their dreaming harmonies at the masthead of his dreams.

He is now at the peak of his career and is still charged, as Neville says:
"... with a seemingly inexhaustible drive... paints with great verve, with self-assurance and paints with a whole-hearted and fresh appreciation of Sri Lanka which is, indeed, his home." [And Negombo is] where his Muse still resides."

The book is a true treasure and should occupy a proud place in every library and in every home where art reigns. Weeraratne tells us of the Ceylon of 1929 - the year of George's birth - and of a society that had hybridized and only sought to imitate its colonial masters. But, out of this chrysalis there emerged many wonderful and original creatures, poised to rise over the artificialities of the time.

In the world of art, a few like George Keyt, Geoffrey Beling, Justin Deraniyagala and J.D.A Perera took up the need to challenge colonial and Victorian conventions. This was the time George Bevan entered, and he had to venture upon -

"an exhausting odyssey of exploration. It meant pain and turmoil but he was always conscious of his capacity to draw and paint."
The search for character and soul in art was the launch pad of his struggle for freedom of expression.

I will not touch on much more of Weeraratne's book. That would be a disservice to readers. Everything about George Bevan's early life is detailed, and makes fascinating reading - his parents, his sister April, schooldays, dancing days, fashion drawing, the travel trade and his many journeys, monotones with tooth-brush sprays on paper, recognition, and that fateful weekend in May 1970 when he met Wolfgang Stange at the Bayswater Road Street Gallery, London.

They came to Sri Lanka together, two happy wanderers, artist and dancer. Their work for the Sunera Foundation remains memorable and I have had the good fortune to review some of the productions where the intensely loving spirits of the differently-abled raised a crescendo of acclamation, more so the dances of Upekha and Khema.

What George has given to us and the world are many-hued talismans that burn like opals. His is an art that seems to border on the other world - a natural affinity for the indeterminate and the indefinable, yet strong in presentation, inviting passage between the world of the viewer and the realm of the artist. After all, mortal space and mortal time are seamed with cracks that George has explored.

He uses them as doorways to places where our poor, cumbersome social rules are meaningless. We, who set much store by definition, feel that life, things, can only be understood in terms of what they are not. The art of George Bevan frees us from these bonds of classification.

He seems to proclaim his subjects in times that are wonder-filled, even mysterious, where all mortal rules are suspended and only the fire of his creativity reigns. He gives to us more "borderline" encounters where there is no "Beating of the Bounds", where new portals swing open. His colours proclaim the fairy "rades" that ride in festive procession in his mind.

From 1950-58, George participated in group exhibitions as a member of the Ceylon Society of Arts, and in 1957 exhibited at the USIS, Colombo and in 1958 at the Royal Empire Society, London. From 1972, he has mounted twice-yearly exhibitions in Spring and Autumn as a member of the Fulham Arts Society, London and from 1973-78, a permanent exhibition there. His exhibition at the Kensington Odeon London had a portrait of Princess Margaret as a centrepiece.

From 1980-83 he had a permanent exhibition at Country Cousins and another at Roy's Restaurant from 1983-1994. In 1980 he held his exhibition, "faces" at the Lionel Wendt and then "Serendipity I" at the Colombo Art Gallery in 1987, followed by "Serendipity II" at the Lionel Wendt Gallery in 1992. Since then, he has held solo exhibitions at the Wendt in 1995, 1998, 2001 and the latest this year.

George Bevan, has like Puck, drawn a girdle round the world. He is Sri Lanka's most irresistible artist and has bridged the streams that separate the many territories of the worldscape of art. Neville Weeraratne's book has lifted the curtains that have cloaked his towering turrets of creativity.

His new solo exhibition brings a tremendous awareness and, above all, a traffic between what is rich, vibrant, and what needs to be awakened in the human heart. Stand before and look on what he offers. I promise you an intensity that is positively luminous.

Pick it up, relax and read on
Doer of Magic and Other Stories- by Priyanthi Wickramasuriya. Publisher S. Godage & Brothers. Price Rs. 450. Reviewed by Aditha Dissanayake
Imagine a cave man in the stone ages talking to himself saying "Yea, if the rains did not stop...Yea, they would die soon...Yea! If the rains did not stop, they'd be as yesterday's dreams..." Imagine a boy called Duleep living in a village in India with his seeya, who has been treated by a vedamahattaya.

Imagine a man courting a girl by asking her "You need children don't you? Would you like me to give them to you?" Not easy? But as Priyanthi Wickramasuriya says in the last story titled the Golden Swan in her collection of short stories in Doer of Magic, "be patient and listen". Listen. Listen as if you are hearing the "liquid notes" coming from a violin "caressed so lovingly" by a young man standing at a street corner in Leicester, and you will have hauntingly moving visions flashing across your mind, visions you will find hard to forget even if you wanted to.

In "The Unseen Piper" a little girl suggests that her mother should "kiss a frog". Whatever for? "Why Ammie then he would turn into a prince and you can marry him, and I will have a Thaththi again". The four-year-old girl does not know that her father, Missing in Action, may never come back. When her mother begins to cry she assures her "Ammie don't cry. I'm sure that Prabhakaran will send Thaththi back."

The story, "Birds of a Feather" is memorable because of its poignant last paragraph. “Darling" said Gamini. "If I am a bigamist, would you get angry with me? Would you report me to the police?"... What would you do?" Erandathi thought hard. I'll make you go and divorce her... no that won't do. I'll have to let you go and fetch her as well. ..but I insist on being number one"...Gamini held out his arms "Well, I'm waiting for you my little number one."

Tangerine and Tomatoes is a story I will recall over and over in my mind, because it speaks not only of mine, but probably everybody's memories of childhood mealtimes. "As a child I was a very pesky eater. My poor mother had to resort to various ruses to coax me to eat. Timing my milk with the egg-timer... reading a story as an inducement- those were some of the strategies and subterfuges she used, not always with success!"

Priyanthi Wickramasuriya, who works as a system analyst cum programmer at the University of Kelaniya's Computer Centre says she doesn't really know why she writes. Unlike most other writers she is lucky to say that it is "certainly not for money...I have a reasonably good job as a computer programmer."

She feels she writes to express her deepest longings and desires as well as fears and how they should be resolved or circumscribed. "Out of my needs shoots forth the wellspring of my creativity" she says in the preface of her maiden collection of short stories.

Funny, sad, serious, thought- provoking or simply outrageous, Doer of Magic and its companion stories are certainly not for pundits or highbrow critics. The book is for the ordinary man and woman out on the street looking for a good read, and they are guaranteed they will not be disappointed.

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