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DateLine Sunday, 22 April 2007

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The lives of Keyt

In memory of the 106th birth anniversary of George Keyt:

George Percival Sproule Keyt was born on 17th April 1901 into a distinguished Burgher family of Dutch ancestry (which George imaginatively attributes to an Indian ancestor in the Dutch employ!)

Ninety years later, Keyt is anchored firmly in the bedrock of Buddhist and Hindu tradition, as its one unchallenged colossus, light-years removed from the stolid Victorian milieu of his birth.

Keyt's was a glorious childhood. One memorable morning his ayah Biso Menike, homesick for her people, smuggled baby George out of the Keyt residence and away to her village home.

To this day he remembers the aroma of cooking and woodsmoke and the affectionate cuddling. He remembers galloping around the Keyt garden on the sturdy shoulders of the Indian gardener, clinging on to his turban and yelling with joy.

He remembers his father presiding solemnly at family dinners. He remembers a tearful governess being dismissed for being too familiar with his uncle. And he can never forget his Uncle Vere, the Casanova of the clan, having trysts with village maids with young George an intrigued bystander.

Trinity College could never confine George and, after a few years, he refused to enter a classroom. Strangely enough he was yet allowed the free run of the library, where he read voraciously. He recollects sketching scenes of the 1915 riots for Principal Fraser.

And he yet remembers his first ever sale - of a Biblical picture - to Mrs. Dias. His only formal education he received was his tutoring by the redoubtable N.E. Weerasooriya, then a young law student from Kandy.

Young Keyt's reading turned his vision towards India and away from his western milieu. Rabindranath Tagore's writings overwhelmed him and, on his own, he wrote to Viswa Bharati seeking admission - and was accepted! When George diffidently approached his father for his approval, old Henry guffawed loud and chided him "not to be a silly Juggins!"

Keyt's adolescent years were a ferment of new ideas and artistic search.

The tremendous vitality of the Buddhist revival, in the early decades, had a great impact on Keyt. He frequented Buddhist temples and moved around with the monks. It was in Malwatta Vihara, not far from his home, that he met his mentor the Venerable Pinnawela Dheerananda who spoke of the Buddha's doctrine and the simple beauty of the Sinhala language.

Keyt confessed a longing to join the Sangha but Dheerananda detecting his questing spirit, gently dissuaded him. Young George was a zealous Buddhist, and this zeal led to a classic encounter.

Keyt (Senior) returning from a field trip properly accoutred in pith helmet, safari jacket, puttees and boots had his car held up by a large crowd at the Kandy market place listening raptly to a speaker. He dismounted and discovered that the orator was his son George clad in white 'Ariya Sinhala' costume holding forth on Buddhist doctrine - in English! - to a rather bemused audience of 'natives'.

Almost everything that Keyt wrote and drew during this period was influenced by Buddhism. Many poems, stories, articles and drawings were regularly published in W.E. Bastian's Buddhist Annual, the main popular Buddhist publication in English. The titles show the range he covered - 'The Arahan a poem', 'Buddhism and Ethics', 'Jayamangala Gatha - a translation', 'Migara - a tale of old Ceylon'.

The Annual also published his first line drawings of the Life of the Buddha which later illustrated Bhikkhu Silacara's 'A young people's life of the Buddha' in 1927. Two decades later the same fount of inspiration led him to paint the magnificent murals of the Gotami Vihara.

Malwatte Vihara was the focus of several of his finest paintings - the Vihara itself, its worshippers, the humanity of the Kandyan peasants at Pirith, monks bathing and the austere mien of his guru Dheerananda.

Under the monk's guidance Keyt published his Poetry from the Sinhalese to introduce its variety - from the classics to folk songs, lullabies and the modern poetry of Munidasa Kumaranatunga - "to those readers who still exercise the colonial habit of comparison with European poetry."

During these years he climbed the precarious ladder to the frescoes of Sigiriya and experienced the blinding vision which transformed his art and yet inspires it. Keyt painted without cease - landscapes, still life, village and temple scenes - ever seeking his own artistic idiom.

He had also discovered a magic circle of like-minded friends - aesthetes, writers, musicians, poets and painters - brilliant sparks brightening the cultural twilight of colonial Colombo. Harry Pieris, Geoff Beling, L.C. Van Geyzel, Hilda Naidoo, Justin Deraniyagala were some of those in this circle whose guiding spirit was the incomparable Lionel Wendt - photographer of Genius, remarkable pianist, perceptive critic and generous patron.

Wendt guided and encouraged the self-taught Keyt in every way, sharing his understanding of the latest European art derived from the latest journals. The influences of Matisse, Braque and Picasso can be detected in some of Keyt's work during this formative phase.

On the fringes of this group was Pablo Neruda, the great Chilean poet, exiled as his country's consul to Colombo. He admired Keyt's paintings and gave him the courage and encouragement to paint nudes from life.

The first was "Govindamma", a nautch temple dancer, which became both a scandal and a rallying cry for the progressives when it was hung on the staid walls of the Ceylon Society of Arts. Keyt's nudes of this period, drawn from life, have a solid voluptuousness.

Chivalry veils the identify of the society ladies who discreetly bared all to be immortalised on Keyt's canvasses.

For a few years the householder's life claimed Keyt. In 1930 he married Gladys Ruth Jansz at St. Mary's Church, Kegalle where the Keyts owned their estate. They made their home in Kandy and had two daughters, Diana and Flavia, whom Keyt entertained with delightful cartoons and word magic in his wryly funny Rhymes without Tears about the naughty boy.

"Who ate up his sister, Seedevi Dapple

Mistaking her cheeks for a Japanese apple"!

Keyt bubbled with a creative vitality which sought expression in both painting and poetry. His two books of poems Darkness Disrobed and Images in Absence were as different from parlour verse as his paintings were from the staid academics.

"Beneath flowering branches

You sit relaxed like the twilight

With the blue sky and the yellow sun on either side of you

Resting your cheek on your arms

Bare arms like waterfalls..."

Hindu mythology gradually came to dominate the thought and works of Keyt. Carnatic music and dance fascinated him. The sublime eroticism of the Krishna legend provided him the perfect mythic setting for his celebration of life and love.

In 1940 he published his version of the Hindu love epic, Jayadeva's Gita Govinda - a work central to the understanding of the Keyt opus. Harold Pieris, the Sanskrit scholar from Oxford, married to Keyt's sister Peggy, made this venture possible as Keyt had little Sanskrit.But painting was his one true love and a jealous mistress who demanded unswerving loyalty.

Domesticity was a sad distraction. After anguished introspection he renounced home and family to seek refuge in the green valley of Harispattuwa to pursue his vocation, inspired by Menike his Kandyan model and muse. A theme he has returned to, time and again, in his paintings is the Great Renunciation with which he identifies - in his own fashion.

As a scion of the De Soysa family Harold Pieris was the hereditary custodian of a little temple in suburban Borella which was in need of restoration. In a flash of inspiration he commissioned Keyt to paint the Life of the Buddha on the inner walls of the Vihara. And thus it was that Gotami Vihara became a landmark in Sri Lanka's art, almost on a par with the ancient masterpieces of Sigiriya and Degaldoruwa.

For six months Keyt travelled down from Kandy to live in the temple and work unceasingly at this labour of devotion. The figures were of heroic proportions and filled the wall space available. Lionel Wendt came to watch the work in progress and was so impressed by the sketched outlines that he attempted to persuade Keyt to leave it at that.

But Keyt worked in the tradition of the temple painters of old "for the serene joy and emotion of the pious" not for unalloyed aesthetic pleasure.

The murals are a magnificent progress from the birth of Siddartha to the attainment of Buddhahood. And in a rare tribute to his patron Keyt portrayed the Viharadipathi, the scholarly Telwatte Amarawansa, as a disciple at the feet of the Buddha. The Gotami murals are Keyt's true masterpiece and dower to the nation, open to all - unlike his other paintings squirrelled away in private homes and secluded galleries.

Time's cruel hand has not been kind to this masterwork. Hairline cracks and seepage endanger the paintings. However the George Keyt Foundation and the Central Engineering Consultancy Bureau have now commenced the renovation of the Vihara to restore the murals for posterity.

After the Gotami murals Keyt withdrew to his beloved Kandyan countryside, first to Harispattuwa and then to Sirimalwatta - to paint, to think, to write, absorbed in the gentle perennial rhythms of peasant life. This period saw the finest flowering of his art - a great outpouring of lyrical paintings on the beauty of woman, love and fulfilment.Outside this pocket of peace the world war raged, and a deeply concerned and humance Keyt responded to its reverberations in his own way.

His powerful paintings of Bhima and Jarasundha, mythical giants grappling in mortal combat, depicted the struggle of good against evil. He also published, on contemporary and perennial themes, essays, stories and sketches in Kesari, a bright radical journal published in Jaffna by K. Nesiah - often voicing his concern for the war-torn world.

1943 was a seminal year for art in Sri Lanka as well as for Keyt. Wendt organised the "43 Group" exhibition of modern artists who were to make an unforgettable impact on art in this country. Keyt supported them and hung his paintings alongside theirs.

It was here that Martin Russell was astounded by his first vision of Keyt's work, a native genius who had evolved his own idiom. Russel was a British intelligence officer of breeding with a fine artistic taste.

His war-time role seems to have been to mingle with the local intelligentsia, a task he performed with dedication. Keyt held Russell in thrall and he became a great friend, patron and frequent visitor to Keyt and Menike' s simple cottage at Sirimalwatta.

With kindred souls Barbara Buchanan, C.A.W. Abeywardena and a few others they 'tired the sun with talking' of life and art, of cabbages and kings. Menike gave Keyt two sons, Prem and Sachin, whose full-cheeked infancy often figured in his Mother and Child paintings.

When the war was over Keyt travelled to India, his beloved spiritual home, where he travelled widely, lived and worked for some years. Martin Russell was in Bombay, ensconced in the heart of its intellectual elite in his inimitable way. Post-war Bombay was home to an exciting world of art in ferment. It took Keyt to heart as a true original.

He was lionised by society hostesses and artiste. He held many exhibitions in Bombay, Delhi and Madras and also illustrated several books.

The effusive Mulk Raj Anand took him to his heart and gave him considerable coverage in his magnificent art journal Marg.

Martin Russell's, now justly famous, book on Keyt was also published by Marg and brought fame to both artist and author. Meanwhile Russell had gathered together an unsurpassed collection of early Keyts which accompanied him to London, where I had the rare privilege of viewing them and listening to Russell on Keyt.

After his Indian interlude Keyt's life began to change, imperceptibly but qualitatively. The original circle of art lovers disintegrated with the tragically untimely death of its presiding genius, Lionel Wendt. Russell's book and many articles in popular journals, such as the Illustrated Weekly of India, gained Keyt a far wider popularity and acclaim than earlier. He had many exhibitions.

The world beat a path to Sirimalwatta. Art lovers, professors, dilettantes, journalists, students and hero-worshippers from the world over came for a 'darshan', to shower him with admiration, overwhelm him with passion and to buy his paintings. Keyt basked in this adulation. His output was prolific and everything he painted was snapped up.

There was a qualitative shift in the nature of his patrons. No longer were they only lovers of art. Owning "a Keyt" became both a social cachet and a gilt-edged investment.

International acclaim and official patronage all came his way. More exhibitions of his paintings were held in India and Europe. Scholarly disquisitions on his art, poetry and writings appeared in learned journals. He designed a magnificent stained glass wall as the centrepiece of the Expo 67 Sri Lanka Pavilion in Montreal. Sri Lanka could not afford to ship this masterpiece home and, to this day, it remains in forgotten storage in the Montreal Public Library. Neither Keyt not his countrymen have ever seen it in its glory.

Another life was receding. Sirimalwatta's simple heartbeat could no longer anchor Keyt. He had outgrown the need to live among its terraced fields, its thatched huts and its lithe brown girls who adorned his life and paintings. The flame of their inspiration he carried within himself but now enriched by his Indian experience.

Another muse, Kusum from Bombay, now took over his life. His love for her was celebrate in an outpouring of passionate paintings immortalising her chiselled features and lissome figure. Since then he has never lived long in any one place. They even travelled to London to visit, at long last, its famous galleries and his many friends. But Keyt remains anchored to the land of his birth.

Kusum and Keyt have had many homes. Their restless spirit once led them to live in Galle. Another time they both went back to Sirimalwatta where Menike, greatheartedly opened her doors to them.

Keyt spent a creative interlude there during which Tissa Liyanasuriya and I made a film to honour his eightieth birthday. Keyt was painting as vigorously as ever. It was an unforgettable experience to sit at his feet and listen to him - whether on miniature Rajput paintings or a sly yarn on the peccadilloes of the famous.

Honours have flowed his way. The University of Peradeniya awarded him a Doctorate 'honoris causa'. He once declined the British Queen's offer of an Imperial title but he proudly accepted the Kala Suri award from the President of the Republic.

The George Keyt Foundation has now been established to preserve and perpetuate his work and to establish a Centre to assist aspiring artists.

George Keyt, today, is almost ninety and believes, like Tennyson's Ulysses, that -

Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven; that which we are; We

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Keyt died in 1993, two years after this article.

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