Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Solius Mendis and the Murals at Kelaniya

I am sure most Sri Lankans must have visited the Kelaniya Raja Maha Viharaya. If not, it is definitely worth a visit because it holds a very important place in Sri Lankan history. Furthermore, it is a very beautiful place located by the Kelani River bank.

One of the most beautiful elements of the Kelaniya temple complex is its new image house. Built in the early part of the 20th century, the walls of this building are adorned with some unique murals. Kelaniya holds a special place in the hearts of artists, art lovers and the ordinary devotees on account of these wonderful paintings. They describe events of the Buddha’s life and the history of Sri Lanka with a special emphasis on Kelaniya.

Image House (Bugu Ge), Kelaniya. Atula Siriwardane, Wikimedia Commons
The Kelaniya murals are the work of Walimuni Solius Mendis, perhaps Sri Lanka’s greatest modern artist. A native of Madampe in Negombo, he did not have a formal education in art. He taught himself in his youth and sought the guidance of experienced artists.

While studying Pali and Sanskrit at Veerahena Vidyarathna Pirivena in Naththandiya, he was drawn towards art when he saw the paintings at the Mawila temple. They were done by his relative Memonis Silva. Solius Mendis wanted to study art and noting his inherent talent for it, Memonis Silva agreed to help him. Soon, the news of the talented artist got around. Solius Mendis got the opportunity to paint murals in several temples including Jayashrika temple in Polonnaruwa, Sumanakusumaramaya in Mawila, Lenagampola Viharaya in Malwana, Kelanigangoda Viharaya in Pitiduva, Habaraduva and Maddepola Rajamaha Viharaya in Giriulla.

During this time, the Kelaniya temple was being renovated under the patronage of Mrs. Helena Wijewardene. She wanted an artist to paint murals on the walls of the image house. Her intention was to use an artistic style unadulterated by Western art. Solius Mendis, who had not learnt his art in an art school, was ideal for the job. Mrs. Wijewardene funded a trip to Ajantha and the Ellora caves in India to expose Solius Mendis to ancient Indian art.

Once in Sri Lanka, Mendis started the project at Kelaniya. It took him 18 long years. He was very patient in his work. Nowhere in the murals can one see undue haste.  He filled the walls and ceiling of the image house in Kelaniya with exquisite murals in a style of his own. His style was a fusion of Indian and Sri Lankan artistic traditions. This style is unique to Solius Mendis and unique to Kelaniya. This style is not seen anywhere else. Before working on the Kelaniya murals, Mendis had not developed his new style. Sadly, Kelaniya was to be his last work of art.

After 18 years of work in Kelaniya, there was one more masterpiece to be done. It was the background for the seated statue of Lord Buddha in the image house. Then, Solius Mendis was given heartbreaking news. He was to be replaced by a foreign artist. Upon hearing this, he calmly left Kelaniya, taking his last bow, never to return. He returned to his people in his village and never painted again. The painting done by the foreign artist is a total mismatch to all that has been painted by Mendis.

Solius Mendis died on September 1, 1975, aged 78. He died relatively unknown, among the local people in his village. But his paintings are still famous throughout the world and stand as a proud landmark in the revival of Sinhalese art.

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