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Wednesday, 17 November 2010

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Aesthetic citadel of Ceylonese art

Lionel Wendt celebrates a century:

In 1988 Richard de Soyza conducted a drama workshop in the Lionel Wendt’s rehearsal space. This drama workshop was called wadumaduwa (carpentry workshop). Most of the Sinhala speaking people interested in drama were given the opportunity to mingle with the English speaking elite.

Also, some of them were able to participate in most of the drama workshops sponsored by the British Council, conducted by various English dramatists at that time named such as Scott Richards, Rudi Corens, Chris Connelly and others (while outside the walls of Lionel Wendt and British Council, the political and economic tempests of the country swept with cyclically programed chaos.)


Lionel Wendt

This opportunity of theatre was offered to Sinhala middle class and lower-middle class, as well as ordinary people through the upper middle class cultural image Richard and a few other people in Sri Lanka had at that time.

Aesthetic personalities

Richard and a few had mingling with a variety of cultural classes for a deep use in art that was also carried out by Lionel Wendt himself in 1943 while he was starting and naming the ‘43 group’ with excellent painters and other aesthetic personalities such as George Keyt, Harry Pieris, George Claessen, Aubrey Collete, Ivan Peiris, Richard Gabriel, Justin Peiris Daraniyagala, W J G Beiling, A C Collette, Ralph Claessen, S R Kanakasabai and L T P Manjusri; a totally different move comparing to then British academic paintings or Victorian Studio paintings carried out mainly by the ‘Colombo Drawing Club’ or ‘Portfolio Sketch Club’ that started their painting exhibitions from 1887 onwards in this island.

Dalava Temple

The 43 group was the first trend of painters conscientious with local interest (though they have taken considerable amount of the technicalities in painting from the modern Euro canvas) after the last pre-colonial mural paintings, which used our own materials and skills, from Mahanuwara era, may be seen at Dalava Temple on Aranayake Road.

These forms were totally dispersed in the cyclonic baton-charge of colonial underdevelopment. Thus the Gurunnanses or teachers of our mural paintings also disappeared in the mist of Europhilia until Solis Mendis’ and Somabandu Vidyapathi’s brushes came into the scene.

Lionel Wendt Art Centre was started as a direct or indirect affect of the 43 Group’s artistic involvement and contribution, though most of the people today recognize it as mainly as a theatre of drama.

In the beginning, Lionel Wendt Art Centre took in charge of performing arts such as drama, ballet, music to painting, sculpture and photography. Lionel Wendt Theatre was open in December, 1953, with the production of Gorky’s ‘Lower Depths’ directed by Neuman Jubal.


A feature of Lionel Wendt building carried in Daily News as written by Viranga

Artistic practices

Yet this place didn’t restrict itself only to English plays due to their view of admiring variety of cultural classes and their artistic practices. It therefore allowed Professor Ediriweera Sarachchandra’s Maname (1956) and Chithrasena’s Karadiya (1961) to perform in this theatre. And it allowed almost all the artistes to use this space for their different kind of artistic practices.

‘Lionel Wendt Art Centre’ was started after Lionel Wendt’s death by using the premises of his residence according to his last wish, with Geoffrey Bawa’s architectural plan that concluded an extending auditorium and dressing room, rehearsal room, clubroom, art gallery and a passageway where the programs of autographs and photographs of artists take place.

Yet most of the people say that if Lionel Wendt would have been there when this art centre started, he would not allow naming the centre after him for the reason that he was a very humble and silent being who never went stingily behind publicity or popularity. Thus after the death of Lionel Wendt his brother Harry Wendt and their friend Harold Pieris decided to finish this art centre.

But the early death of Harry Wendt (just after a year of Lionel Wendt’s death) gave this project a drawback. Yet Harold Pieris used up his whole life and labour to build this valuable place of art and performance by spending a huge sum of his own money and time and accomplished this objective.

Ordinary class

This gave a huge heave to the Sri Lankan aesthetic and artistic culture by allowing its space to a cluster of artistic practices such as Sinhala, English and Tamil dramas, paintings, photographs, musical concerts, Bharatha Natayam Arangethrams and performance of classical music both Western and Indian.

While celebrating the 100th year of this fort of art, we still from the beginning hear a lot of grievances that ‘this valuable place cannot be reached (due to its high rental costs) by the majority of artists in the ordinary class who comes from the lower depths. This is not a problem of the Lionel Wendt Art Centre or its organization.

Join hands

We would not have the opportunity to get even this much of benefits, if the Lionel Wendt art Centre hadn’t been created by Harry Wendt, Harrold Pieris and a few others (who dedicated their lives for artistic creativity) with the wish of Lionel Wendt (a local photographer and a musician though he was biologically born to foreign parents) after a 500 years of colonialism in this island.

Government and private sector should therefore join hands to build and maintain places similar to the Lionel Wendt art centre’s architecture and facility, at least in every district. If we get a similar place to Lionel Wendt in every district, the consequences in art field will be totally different in future. Yet I am not sure whether am dreaming or not.

Anyway happy birthday to Lionel Wendt Art Centre, you always conquered my spirit as a friendly ghost of the theater!

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