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Sunday, 03 August 2003  
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Voice from a silent world


Left to right - Reggie Candappa, Professor Ashley Halpe and the artist with his wife and child.

"Bright Environment" was an exhibition of paintings held at "The Art Gallery, Nugegoda" by Nihal Sangabo Dias, from 25-31 July. Opened by Kalakeerthi Professor Ashley Halpe and Bridget Halpe, the exhibition displayed 30 oil paintings and six watercolours on, as its title indicates, nature. Sunsets, misty green hills, forests with lost roads, lush paddy fields, were a few of the landscapes set in a kaleidoscope of colours, shades and light. Caught also in the pictures was time, the freshness of dawn/morn, the heat of the afternoon, and the coolness of evening/night.

A few portraits too lurked here and there.

In all the paintings however one could sense a stillness, a silence which was beautiful. As it turns out, it was from a silent world, that these scenes, landscapes and moments were caught with the brush, cause it is in a silent world, Nihal Sangabo Dias has been living, and painting. Making up for what he can't hear with what he can see, Nihal has shown that disability is not an inability.

Conversing with him, through the help of his wife Sujani and Nihal's enthusiastic gestures, he speaks about his hobby and passion, art. "Art is a visual language" he says "I can't hear, but I can see, and I draw the beauty of what I see. A beauty which I see a lot in nature, in the rural country sides. Scenes and moments which you don't see in the towns, such as a pol athu nivasa, a kumbura and a redda hatta gani. I bring these captured scenes and moments to town, through my coloured canvasses".

Travelling on his bike, packaged with roles of paper and a sketch pencil, Nihal has been to Rakwana, Suriyagama, Sinharaja, Sigiriya, Valigama, Negambo and Wellawatha. Not usually colouring his pictures out there cause of the crowd, Nihal brings his sketches home, and paints them, at times even through out the night. Using his hands, fingers, palette knife and pieces of cardboard to paint, he says that although he does use his brush at times, he usually does not stick to it.

"I love using the palette knife to mix colours and paint" he says "when using colours it is essential that I get the right mix, as I paint in a variety of shades and colours". A swift painter, painting professionally for over 20 years, art has become for him today a part of his life.

Drawing on walls and making figures with clay as a kid, Nihal attended a school for the deaf in Matara. Being selected to go into Heywood College of Fine Arts, he not only developed his art, but cultivated a friendship with artist S.H. Sarath, who was in his senior year, at the time, and who today hosted his exhibition. Graduating in 1976, he joined the Rohana School for the Deaf as an art teacher in 1982.

In 1987 he had the privilege of holding an exhibition of his art work in Sweden while he was representing Sri Lanka as a delegate at the Educational Workshop for the Deaf. In June 1995 he held his first individual exhibition at the National Art Gallery Colombo.

While working on his art, Nihal has also throughout the years passionately worked in helping and developing facilities, education and cultural and social treatment of the deaf in Sri Lanka. A researcher of the sign language research project at the national institute of education, Maharagama, he has published English and Sinhala Books on the sign language. "Those days there was no proper sign language and education for the deaf in Sri Lanka" he says "It is important that the deaf have a language they can speak and an education that normal people get".

Today Nihal educates teachers on the sign language so that they may teach and educate deaf children. Being deaf in this country he says one can feel a lot of frustration, hurt and anger, for they undergo a lot of discrimination and shame. "It's even worse when this comes from the parents" he says "there are a recorded number of 1 1/2 lakhs deaf and dumb people in the country. However there are much more, hidden in society.

This country and specially the parents need to accept and treat the deaf properly without discriminating against them".

Of himself Nihal says "I am lucky my parents supported me and gave me an education. I am also lucky 'cause I have a wonderful wife who acts as my voice. My last message to the people is as I have said before, Accept. Accept the deaf, the different. We may not be able to hear. But we are normal human beings, who want to lead normal lives and be treated as normal people".

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