Remembering Sybil Nanda | Sunday Observer

Remembering Sybil Nanda

27 June, 2021

Sybil Wettasinghe (Sybil Nanda), a bestselling writer and illustrator of children’ s books passed away one year ago on June 30, 2021.

Sybil Nanda as she is fondly called is loved and revered not only by children but also by adults. Some of these adults are her fans from childhood and have made sure that they introduced Sybil Wettasinghe’s books to their children and grandchildren as well.

Sybil Wettasinghe was born in rural Sri Lanka, in the village of Gintota in the Southern province of the island. She had her early education there and moved to Holy Family Convent, Colombo where she made a name for herself as an artist in the school. A teacher. Eileen Dissanyake asked Sybil to illustrate the poem Lochinvar and hung Sybil’s illustrations on the wall. This earned Sybil a reputation as an artist. After leaving school Slybil joined an architect’s office but soon found that she preferred art and took to it full time. When Sybil broke her mirror she was inspired to draw a self-portrait of her face among the broken pieces of glass.

This was exhibited at the 1942 annual exhibition of the Ceylon Society of Art. H. D. Sugathapala, the then Headmaster of the Royal Primary School and author of the Navamaga supplementary readers visited the exhibi tion and was impressed by Sybil’s painting. He and his wife Gertie persuadd Sybil’s mother to allow Sybil to illustrate the Standard Five reader of Navamaga. Sybil was just 17 years at the time.

From then on Sybil Wettasinghe never looked back. She also got the chance to illustrate the popular English Reader, English with a Smile and the Sadaham Maga, a supplementary reader on Buddhism for children. Sybil was thrilled when renowned author Martin Wickremasinghe asked her to illustrate his book Ape gama.

Sybil began her newspaper career at the Lankadeepa and initially was asked to draw a weekly cartoon strip illustrating a folk poem. She did so in her own, unique style with a touch of humour in her illustrations. She was encouraged by the editor, D. B . Dhanapala to follow her own style, which gave her much creative freedom. Sybil was also given the opportunity to the Times. She enjoyed working in both these papers. In 1952, when Lake house began Janatha, an evening paper, Sybil moved to Lake house, to work as an illustrator for Janatha. Before long she was illustrating for feature pages of almost all the Sinhala papers Lake house, and she especially enjoyed doing illustrations for the children’s page of Janatha.

The Chief Sub Editor, Dharmapala Wettasinghe whom Sybil later married encouraged her to write her first story Kuda Hora (The Umbrella Thief). This was an instant it, was translated into many languages and brought Sybil Nanda many awards.

The writing of Kuda Hora gave its author the opportunity to write stories for the children’s page. Sybil was fluent in both Sinhala and English and easily wrote in both languges.and many of her books are translated into Tamil.

Apart from Kuda Hora Sybil had many other best sellers and among them are the Vesak Pahana (Vesak Lantern in English), Kevum Yodhaya. Mati gedera lamai (Crystal and Clay in English), Sooththara Puncha, Pulun Baba, Rathu car podda (Little red car in English), Thunapaha kavi, and her two autobiographies, Child in me (Veniyan kalu veniyan in Sinhala) and Eternally yours (Nomiyena kalu duu in Sinhala). Sybil Wettasinghe has received many local and international awards and accolades for her work. These include the State National of Kala Suri, Kala Keerthi and Kala Bhushana. Eight of Sybil’s children’s books have won National State Literary Awards. as the Best Children’s Book and the awards for the best produced book/best cover page of children’s book several times.

She also won the Isobel Hutton prize by the Women’s Council of England, for Asian women writers, , for The Vesak Lantern In 1987, The Biennale of Illustrations in Bratislava (BIB), one of the world’s highest recognised awards for children’s book illustrations presented a prize to Sybil for her illustrations done for the Children’s Bible, Deeptha Lama Maga, published by the Ceylon Bible Society to commemorate their 175th anniversary.

Sybil with a collective of children won the Guinness Record for the book with the highest number of endings for a single story In 2020. She was also offered an honorary doctorate by the University of Aesthetic Studies in 2012.

Though Sybil Nanda is no more her works are sure to enjoyed by both children and adults for many years to come and she will be remembered with much love.