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Solius Mendis - master painter and philanthropist

by Thilak Palliyaguruge

Wall painting at Kelaniya Rajamaha Vihara - 1946 - by Soliyas Mendis

Solius Mendis, a young lad from an 'ordinary' family of Mahawewa was taken under the devoted care and tutelage of Ven. Sugatissa Maha Thera to teach Pali and Sanskrit. The sole intention of his parents was to see their son emerging as an Ayurvedic physician. However, without paying sufficient attention to studying dead languages, he showed an extraordinary prowess for drawing and painting, quite contrary to what his parents' wished.

Subsequently he left the temple on his own accord to be an apprentice under M. Monis Silva who was a reputed artist at that time.

After qualifying to work independently he did mural paintings in Buddhist Temples in Polonnaruwa, Attanagalla, Pugoda, Sedawatte, Meddepola and Malwana.

It was the year 1930, when the restoration work at Kelaniya Raja Maha Viharaya was in progress under the able patronage of great benefactress and the devout Buddhist Mrs. Helena Wijewardene of the Sedawatte Walawwa. She heard about young Solius Mendis who had at that time carved out a niche for himself as a temple painter and assigned the responsible task of painting the walls of the new viharage. He was sent on a study tour to Ajanta, Ellora and Bagh to get inspiration for his assignment.

However he returned without any records of masterpieces he had seen in India. But he recreated a technique of wall paintings of a very high calibre intermixing the finer points and ingredients of Indian Buddhist paintings, ancient Sri Lankan wall paintings and Sinhala culture. He commenced painting the walls of Kelaniya Raja Maha Viharaya at the age of 30 and he was 50 years when he completed his assignment. These paintings are unique and very much his own and generally considered by art critics as the best Buddhist paintings done in Sri Lanka since Polonnaruwa period.

The mural paintings of Buddhist temples done upto date are mostly confined either to events associated with the life of Buddha or Jataka stories. But Solius Mendis has deviated from the beaten track by introducing arresting Sri Lankan historical events of importance in his panels which is a notable characteristic in Kelaniya temple paintings.

He prepared his own paints. His pigments were made out of earth or vegetable substances and mixed certain ingredients to act as preservatives of colours.

His linework displays - a robustness and undisturbed rhythm. His palette was sobre, charming and limited. When creating architectural features, costumes, furniture and landscapes, he paid extraordinary skill, care and precision.

Paintings depicting Prince Danta and Princess Hemamala, bringing the sacred Bo-tree. Offering of three transcripts of Visuddhi Magga by Buddhagosha Thera, King Kirti Sri Rajasinghe conferring the rank of Sangaraja on Welivita Saranankara Thera are some of his unique creations.

When Mendis had completed all but the last panel he received an unexpected message to stop work as a European artist had been assigned to attend to this panel which is the largest and the most important to serve as the mural for the background of the seated Buddha in the innermost shrine room which will ultimately turn out to be the focal point of the new Buduge.

The Himalaya range painted as the last panel by the foreign artist is quite inappropriate, alien and aesthetically disastrous compared with the masterpieces already done by Solius Mendis. Mendis was disappointed and with disgust give up painting for ever and retired to his rural abode to be once again with the village peasants. He died on September 1, 1977 unhonoured, unsung and unwept. Having spent the most important period of his life among Buddhist murals and Buddhist temple atmosphere Solius Mendis was greatly disciplined by the sacred teachings of Buddha. He handed over the 85 acres of coconut land he got as gifts for his dedicated work for Kelaniya Raja Maha Viharaya to All Ceylon Buddhist Congress for the maintenance of Siviraja Deaf and Blind school at Mahawewa built by him funded from his life time savings.

Apart from temple paintings he had designed the magnificent Mandapaya at Torrington Square on the historic day - 4th February 1948 and also the pavilion for the Colombo Plan exhibition in 1952.

Solius Mendis remained a bachelor throughout his life. A man who firmly believe in sanctity of life, he eschewed a craving for meat, fish as well as for tobacco and liquor.

Mr. D. B. Dhanapala in his book 'Among those present' writes of Solius Mendis thus, "If genius means untutored natural, instinctive, but extraordinary talent, imaginative or inventive. Modern Ceylon has produced at least one real genius."

"A simple peasant, Mendis is. But he is the only genius we have produced who could not only create something new of his own but who could also give away in a spirit of self sacrifice all that he had made in the attempt".

Though the entire nation has forgotten this master painter, Solius Mendis Cultural Foundation founded recently in collaboration with the Department of Cultural Affairs has organised a felicitation ceremony on his death anniversary (which falls today Sept. 1) at the John Silva Memorial Hall. An islandwide childrens Art Exhibition will be held at the Art Gallery on Sept. 1st and 2nd. Dr. Karunasena Kodituwakku Minister, Human Resource Development, Education and Cultural Affairs will grace the occasion.

Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources

HNB-Pathum Udanaya2002

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