Remembering Sybil Wettesinghe | Sunday Observer

Remembering Sybil Wettesinghe

5 July, 2020
Pic: Chamila Karunarathne
Pic: Chamila Karunarathne

Tell us our story, grandma (By Robina P. Marks, Illustrated by Sybil Wettasinghe)

The passing away of Kala Keerthi Sybil Wettesinghe marks the end of an era in Sri Lankan literature. A magical era of storytelling and illustration brought Sri Lankan folklore to life enthralling not only children but adults as well for over seven decades. Her unique characterisation and style made her work instantaneously recognisable. In a remarkable feat for a nonagenarian, Sybil Wettesinghe made it to the Guinness Book of Records with her book the Wonder Crystal which had the most number of alternative endings.This great writer and illustrator’s view on life is clearly showcased in her words to her biographer ,Vijita Fernando.

My life has been a long beautiful dream,

A medley of fantasies and realities

And enchantingly magical wonders ….so it seems to me.

And it is undoubtedly this magical view that coloured her writing and illustrations bringing joy and laughter to thousands in many generations.

The Sunday Observer asked a few people to recall their memories of Sybil Wettesinghe.

Thank you for all the joy you brought us. May you attain the supreme bliss of Nirvana.


The best children’s artist – Prof. J.B. Disanayaka

She was undoubtedly the best artist for children. No doubt about it. For many years, she has been drawing pictures for children for their enjoyment both in children’s books and newspapers. The Lankadeepa Lapati Pela supplement was one and the Nava Maga School books introduced by H.D. Sugathapala were among them. Her readership was children. I remember appreciating what appeared in the newspapers as a child. She has a character of her own. Whenever you see a man, woman, animal or bird drawn by her, you could immediately say that it was a drawing by Sybil Wettasinghe.

She won the hearts of children by going to their world in a new way. Her figures like foxes and parrots were stylised in her distinctive way.

She was also a writer and wrote books for children and adults. Her book, Kuda Hora, won one of the best international awards.

Sybil was also a teacher. On her own initiative, she visited schools and with the Principal’s consent, taught children to draw. On a personal note, Sybil illustrated the cover for my collection of Andare stories. It was just two days before her passing way and so it was the last book cover she illustrated. For her 90th birthday, Sybil Wettesinghe was invited to participate in the Doramadalawa program on ITN by Dr. Hasantha Hettiarachchi. I was also a participant. This was on a Monday and the program was carried on till midnight. Then on the stroke of midnight, we wished her Happy Birthday on Doramadalawa.


An illustrious life – By Nalaka Gunawardene, Writer

Sybil Wettasinghe was Sri Lanka’s best known six-year-old who never grew up!

Like millions of others, I enjoyed Auntie Sybil’s stories as a child but never had met her in person until a few months ago. Our first encounter was when she joined a session I moderated at the Annasi and Kadalagotu Literary Festival in Mount Lavinia on October 20, 2019.

For 35 minutes, she and I talked about her childhood memories, youthful experiences as a journalist and later years as an author and illustrator. She then engaged her audience in a wide-ranging conversation.

A few weeks later, I visited her Nugegoda home to film a video interview with Sybil as part of my YouTube series #MediaMemoriesLK that captures memories of Sri Lanka’s media pioneers. Sybil spent an entire morning filming what may have been her final interview.

Her amazing memory was enriched by her capacity to look back without rancour. Her childhood was not always joyous – she was almost given away for adoption at birth, and later contrasted unkindly with her fairer elder sister. Her school disallowed pupils writing to newspapers, so young Sybil de Silva sent her early stories to The Observer under various pseudonyms.

When she joined Lankadeepa in 1948, she was the first Lankan woman editorial staff member at any Sinhala newspaper. She moved to Lake House in 1954 where she worked for Janatha newspaper where she flourished as a writer-cum-illustrator of children’s stories.

Her memories of a quarter century of employment at Times of Ceylon and Lake House represent valuable oral history about a bygone era in Lankan journalism when professionalism and innovation were still hallmarks.


Thank you, සිබිල් නැන්දා – Sulochana Dissanayake, Artist

My father introduced my siblings and I to Aunty Sybil when I was about four years. I grew up with her books and now read them daily to my children. I never cease to be amazed with how simply she puts across core concepts of respect, empathy and mutual understanding in her beautifully illustrated tales.

She wrote and illustrated right till the end - and she may be one of the handful of 90+ year olds to break a world record. Even her later publications -මහප්පා, වට්ටක්කා තීරු තීරු, කළු මැණිකා, සිව්පද රසය, කැවුම් ටිකත් ණයට හිලව්, හොල්මනක් වික්කා - keep our humour alive with her witty narrative and hilarious characters.

Her creations are truly timeless. It was a dream come true for me to dramatise her stories and watch her face light up from the audience.

Thank you, සිබිල් නැන්දා . May you be blessed in Samsara with all the joy you generated in this life.


She gave joySwarna Arampola A reader for many decades

I still buy her new books. Kuda Hora is my favourite. I still have my old Kuda Hora book. She gave so much joy. May she rest in peace!


Cultural treasure – Ameena Hussein,Writer

Sybil Wettesinghe was a cultural treasure in the Sri Lankan literary world. She introduced children to a world of folk tales, humour and beautiful illustrations. She has been responsible for nurturing readers and lovers of books, and for that we can’t thank her enough. She will be terribly missed and may she be blessed on her journey to Nirvana.




Sybil nenda defined joy for me – Madhubhashini Disanayaka Ratnayake, Writer

Sybil Wettasinghe was part of my childhood. Her rounded smiling figures defined joy for me and gave me an idea of an inherent merriment that was found in our land - in the villages, under trees, on trees, in shops on the sides of a road, beside streams and so on. A happy Sri Lanka. A happy, gossiping, laughing, living Sri Lanka. As an adult, I have sobered up - but inside - that kernel of joy still exists.

Sybil nenda had made sure that each of us carries a child - a sacred and precious part that has defined life for my generation, for those above and below me as well. Who else can boast of such a gift?


A rich legacy of stories – Prof. Harshana Rambukwella

Sybil Wettesinghe developed a distinct visual and narrative style, combining the best of Sri Lankan folkstory telling traditions with a modern visual aesthetic. She enthralled generations of Sri Lankan children with her rich and imaginative craft and for a long time was a lone –ranger in illustrated children’s writing in Sri Lanka. She leaves behind a rich legacy of stories that will continue to entertain many generations of children.