M. Sarlis - the temple artist
It has been well observed that the true artist is a biographer not
only in his portraits but also in all his other paintings - where he
depicts a scene in action, a landscape or an abstract idea. Every true
picture, therefore, is a biographical poem. It illumines the mystery of
life for our better understanding. It portrays not only an object, but
its character. It transforms old images into new beauty. It reproduces
not only the manner but the meaning of a sitter or a scene.
The great artist interprets whatever he represents. He adds to the
paining the rhythm and colour of his own personality. Such an artist was
As a lad he didn't go through a course in academic art. He didn't
have the opportunity to learn the technique of formal design. But Sarlis
started drawing and painting with his father's brother Vidane, who was
famous for drawing religious pictures to be hung in every rural home.
M. Sarlis first had his education under the scholar monk Ven.
Valitara Gnanatilaka and later at Vidyodaya Pirivena at Maligakanda in
Colombo under the eminent scholar Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala where he
learnt Sinhala, Pali, Sanskrit and writing of poetry.
It was at Maligakanda that he met Richard Henricus, one of the best
known Sri Lankan artists exponent of murals and portraits of the early
decades of 20th century. Richard Henricus was well-known in drawing
murals in both Buddhist and Christian contests and in curtain paintings
for the Tower Hall theatre in Maradana in 1911. Sarlis is known to have
worked as an assistant to Richard Henricus at the Jayatilakarama temple
in Grandpass in 1909.
M. Sarlis' first professional creation is said to be at
Jayatilakaramaya shrine room the 'Seated Buddha.' Sarlis was also
influenced by the late Gate Mudliyar A. C. G. S. Amarasekera the doyen
of academic realist painting in Sri Lanka. The Maligakanda Temple is the
first temple to be painted and sculpted by Sarlis between 1911 - 1920. A
series of paintings from the 'Suvisi Vivarane' and the offering of milk
rice by Princess Sujatha is still remains in their original form at the
During 20th century there were no equivalent pictures to adorn the
walls of Buddhist houses other than framed prints imported from Europe
with pictures of the royal family, romantic landscapes in Christian
homes had pictures related to their religious beliefs. M. Sarlis
immediately started to fill the vacuum. With the help of a Buddhist
entrepreneur named William Pedris got his Buddhist pictures litho
printed in Germany and marketed islandwide. These pictures included the
incidents from the Jataka stories and the portrait of the Venerable
Sivali Maha-thera was the most popular picture. This picture became so
In 1925 Bastion and Company and H. W. Cave published Sarlis' work in
litho prints and distributed them islandwide. These picturers included
Vijayavataranaya, (arrival of prince Vijaya to Sri Lanka), the death of
Madduma Bandara, the heroic Kandyan child aristrocat ready to be
executed for the national cause.
The reputation he gained by his work in the shrine room at
Maligakanda and the popularity of the litho prints paved the way to
obtain a number of temples all over the island. One of his finest works
can be regarded in the series of paintings depicting the Maha Mangala
Sutta on the ceiling of the shrine room still remains in its original
form at Maligakanda temple.
Sarlis was not only known as a temple artist and illustrator, but
also as a graphic and commercial artist. He can be considered as one of
the pioneers of modern advertising art. He was the chief artist of the
very popular Sinhala language newspaper 'Swadesha Mithraya' and he also
designed its Vesak journal. He also designed book covers and also a book
for small children called 'Aksara Hodiya' a children's alphabet for use
in Kindergartens. He also had a reputation for life size portraits
painted, statues of famous personalities sculptured like Anagarika
Dharmapala, Colonel Henry Steel Olcott and Musereus Higgins to name a
few. His contribution to Buddhist art and design were the Vesak pandals
and Vesak lanterns. Vesak pandals with pictures depicting the life of
the Buddha were a concept of Sarlis master.
In order to spread his knowledge and skill, he started an art school
called the Ceylon Art College. These training programmes were for
commercial art, and also a correspondence course in art through the
Lanka Art Correspondence Institute in 1923. M. Sarlis was also
well-known as a writer and a poet who contributed articles to various
newspapers on traditional art. I was so fortunate to become his next
door neighbour when I was able to pick up the rudiments of art under the
tutelage of his son Susil Premaratne and his star pupil the famous
water-colour artist G. S. Fernando.
His father Maligawage Nandiris was a well-known astrologer of
M. Sarlis was born in 1880 and died in 1955. His enormous out put at
the easel, his brilliant work as a sculptor, and as a muralist made few
generations of his countrymen immortal.