The Eternal Artist who lives in Kelani Temple murals | Sunday Observer

The Eternal Artist who lives in Kelani Temple murals

20 June, 2021

Among the many great artists whom we posthumously admire, Solias Mendis is one who is at the forefront. In fact, he dedicated his whole life to Buddhist mural art. However, neither any State art institute nor any art critic honoured or valued his art in his life time. At least a felicitation volume or a tributary book has never been published so far by our Cultural Department or the Arts council. It is in this backdrop that his 124th birth anniversary fell on June 17. In in this article, we pay tribute to his great service to Buddhist mural art in Sri Lanka.

Emergence of Solias Mendis

Walimuni Solias Mendis was born on June 17, 1897 to a Sinhala Buddhist family in a small village called Mahawewa, Madampe in the Puttalam district. His father, Walimuni Sirinelis Mendis was a traditional ayurvedic physician, and mother, Nissanka Shiro Mendis was a house wife. As he was a boy of a big family – he had one elder brother, four younger brothers and three younger sisters – his parents placed him under the care of their relative, a bhikkhu named Venerable Madampe Sugatissa Maha Thera of the Wherahena Temple, Nattandiya to teach him Sanskrit and Pali. Their real intention was to guide him to become an ayurvedic doctor as his father. Meanwhile, Sugatissa Thera, the nephew of Solias Mendis tried to prepare him for ordination as a bhikkhu.

But against all their wishes, he displayed no interest to learn the age old languages. Instead, he showed great enthusiasm for drawing. When he was at the Sumera Kusumaramaya Temple, Nattandiya, he once painted (still to be seen) alongside a painting of the Gautama Buddha, a large railway locomotive, steaming away with coaches or carriages. He wouldn’t have known that there were no trains in Buddha’s time. However, Solias Mendis had an uncle named Memonis Silva who was a master painter himself. Mendis always tried to follow him. Therefore, he worked and trained under him. When the uncle saw the great talent in Solias Mendis, he assigned him to paint the frescoes at Sumanakusumarama Temple, Mawila, but under his supervision.

In this way, Solias Mendis got his foundation as a mural artist, and embarked on the journey by painting murals at Kelaniyangoda Siridhamma Vihara of Pitiduva, Galle. Then he painted murals at the Sri Sunandarama Temple in Meddepola, Giriulla around 1918. We can also see his murals at Jaya Maha Vihara, Polonnaruwa, Shila Pokkharani Vihara, Udubaddawa and Lenagalpola Vihara, Malwana.

The Kelani Vihara murals

It was around the end of the 1930s that a new wing of the Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara was opened. It was built by the philanthropic Wijewardena family who were also trustees of the Kelaniya Temple. When the construction work was over, they decided to include new Buddhist murals on the interior walls of the Vihara. So, they went in search of a suitable mural artist for this task. It was at this time they heard about Solias Mendis through the bhikkhus. In fact, he was already an accomplished mural artist. D.B. Dhanapala who is not an art critic but a veteran journalist, a chief editor of the then Lankadeepa describes in his book Among Those Present, how the Wijewardenas found Solias Mendis:

“The late D.C. Wijewardena 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”. (Page 182, Among Those Present)

D.B. Dhanapala also describes how Solias Mendis was present at the opening ceremony of the new building of the Kelaniya temple in January 1937 which he had witnessed:

“In the little assembly confined mostly to members of the Wijewardena family and Dayaka Sabha 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.ˮ (Pages 180 - 181, Among Those Present).

However, after he was officially assigned the task, Helena Wijewardena (of the Sedawatte Walauwe) sent Solias Mendis on a study tour to the Ajanta, Ellora, Bagh caves and Sarnath in India to see for himself what the old Buddhist artists had painted because they wanted to consecrate new murals but do it in the tradition of Buddhist mural arts. According to D.B. Dhanapala this tour helped much in honing his art of painting murals:

“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.ˮ (Page 182, Among Those Present)

And it is also noteworthy to mention that all the painting brushes, colours and the techniques that he made use of for lasting long without any discolouring, were discovered by Mendis himself. Not only that, all the earth that he moulded for his sculptures were produced by himself.

His art of mural painting

He eschewed the then prevalent European traditions of art, and also the artificial, shaded colouring of Sarlis Master who was then popular, in his mural painting.

His magnificent panel of murals at the Kelaniya Temple includes many historical scenes such as Lord Buddha’s visit to Nagadipa, the history of the Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara, the bringing of the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi to Lanka, the protection given to the Buddha’s Tooth Relic in the knot of hair of Princess Hemamali, and conferring the rank of Sanga Raja on Venerable Welivita Saranankara Thera. It was, in fact, the first time that the events in history came to temple murals. Thus,it is a revolutionary thing in Sri Lanka’s art of mural painting.

Mendis’ murals are of high aesthetic value and uniqueness. What is the uniqueness in them? It is mainly their originality. If you see the figures on the murals you can identify facial expressions in them. The suffering in Sansara or the burning in life clearly depicted in them are exceptional. And their colours show the inner feelings of each character and each situation. Generally, the colours are very light and serene representing the light for life or the path to Nirvana, whereas in the characters of demons and lay people you see black or dark brown colours which show Keles or demerits in them. It is generally said that every panting by an artist portrays the artist itself. This is also true of Solias Mendis, the characters in the murals none other than Solias Mendis: The suffering of the lay people on the murals is the suffering of the artist itself. This is the uniqueness of his art. Though he was conditioned by the given framework, he adds his own inner feelings, his own life story to the murals.

When painting, he recreated the ideal architecture for buildings, costumes and furniture. They invariably appear to be authentic and indigenous. As D.B. Dhanapala says, “The scholar in Solias Mendis has done a good deal of research for the painting of the costumes, furniture and general background that appear authentic, derived as they are from Ajanta and old Sinhalese sculpture.ˮ

While Solias Mendis was working with the murals, the Wijewardena family sought the advice of the famed Indian painter Nandalal Bose. So, Bose visited the temple and seeing what Solias Mendis was doing, he did not hesitate to advise the authorities that Mendis should be permitted to continue with the paintings in his own inimitable style. This shows what an artistic mission he was engaged in without any institutional training. “Born a peasant, bred a peasant, Mendis never had any professional technical training of any sort.ˮ (Page 180, Among Those Present)

Sad ending of a genious

As D.B. Dhanapala said in his book, Solias Mendis dedicated twenty long years to complete the Buddhist murals in the Kelani Temple. It is not a simple task drawing murals on walls. If someone draws a picture on a canvas, he or she can draw it sitting on a chair, or he or she can adjust the canvas wherever they want, and can go anywhere they like with the canvas to draw.

But mural drawing is completely different work. You cannot adjust the wall wherever you want when you draw a mural. And you have no chair to siton. You only have a scaffolding to sit on. Most of the time, you have to stand and draw for years there. This needs exceptional patience and discipline. Can you imagine what pain Solias Mendis must have endured while he was drawing the murals for 20 long years!

At the end, the authorities of the Kelani Temple finally assigned another artist – Russian born, Karl Kassman – to complete the paintings in the Centre room in the new building. D.B. Dhanapala describes this action as follows:

“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 impacted Mendis so much that he one day left the Kelaniya Temple never to return. He never finished the painting in the main shrine too. Thereafter, he donated his two acres of land in Ihala Mahawewa he had bought with his small earnings from mural painting for 20 years, along with the house he built there to Dr. G.P. Malalasekera, President of the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress to run as a home for blind children.

Now, this home runs as the Siviraja home and school for the blind. He even sold his small car for the sake of the school, and used his bicycle instead.

When a mural artist paints a wall in a temple, he virtually has to live there. So Solias Mendis lived in the Kelaniya Temple inner shrine for 20 years.

In the end, this great man of Sri Lanka died on September 1, 1975 without painting a mural for 20 years. On his final day there weren’t any National Honours, no funeralorations or any politicians, any artist or any critic to say good bye. But for the great mural art that he left behind for us we say thank you.