04 September 2013

Gamini Abeykoon: Inscriber of ‘exquisite’ into the humble line

[Published in The Nation, September 1, 2013]
Pic by Sandra Mack

I first met Gamini Abeykoon in the year 2004.  Courteous he was, spoke very little, and had the kindest eyes. There was nothing fake in his smile and that should be mentioned because I met him when he was employed in an advertising agency; advertising being an industry where smiles are cheap and fake the name of the game.  He could laugh.     

He had a title.  Illustrator.  We had occasion to talk and we talked enough for me to place him politically.  As for his work, even someone who didn’t know anything about art would understand that Gamini Aiya could draw.  But that was it.  Over the years, after I got to know him better, he was one person I would go to if ever I needed clarification on some historical fact.  He knew history. He knew heritage. He knew literature and music. 
We miss so much in this world, out of ignorance and misjudged priorities.  All I knew was that Gamini Abeykoon was a lovely human being whose work involved brushes, pens, pencils and colors.  Until a few weeks ago when a common friend, Sandra Mack, suggested that I write something about Gamini Aiya.  ‘He is an amazing artist,’ she said.  Well, how could I know?  She explained and I called him.  True to form, this self-effacing man showed great reluctance.  But we persuaded him to change his mind. 

Gamini Abeykoon was born in 1958 in Weralupa, Ratnapura; the older of 2 boys born to Handy Abeykoon, a Kachcheri clerk who hailed from Attudawa, Matara and M.A. Gnanawathie of Kiriella. He attended first Seevali Primary School and later Seevali Central.  He remembers still Mr. Pemmananda from whom he first received instruction in art (at Seevali Primary) and who continued to guide Gamini even after he entered Seevali Central.  His talent, however, was not recognized.  No one encouraged him to consider a career where he could employ his skills and he had no notion of such things either.  He studied Biology for the A/Ls. 
Pic by Sandra Mack
After the A/L, he gave English tuition in Ratnapura (he had a Distinction for English).  He didn’t draw much apart from undertaking minor assignments and these too mostly for friends.  Gamini Abeykoon may very well have spent the next thirty years of his life as an English teacher. Who knows, he may have prospered too, subject of course to the qualification that prosperity is a subjective thing. 

Opportunity came his way after Janaka Ratnayake and Upali Weerawardena left the popular chitra katha (strip cartoon) newspaper Siththara and joined the Upali Group, which launched a rival publication called ‘Chitra-Mitra’.  Siththara advertised for new cartoon artists cum illustrators. 

Gamini sent a one page story.  That was the first time he had done anything like that.  He was hired.  This was in 1981.  First he was attached to ‘Sisila’ another paper published by Multipax, to which he drew the story ‘Nihanda Dethol’ (Silent Lips).  When ‘Sisila’ closed down, another paper called ‘Suhada’ was launched and Gamini moved there, although he continued to draw for ‘Siththara’ for which publication he illustrated stories authored by Chandraratne Mapitigama such as ‘Kalu Monara’ (Black Peacock), Sulakkhana and other stories including ‘Nelu Vile Saman Malak’ (later turned into a film). 
Two individuals, the incomparable Camillus Perera and Bandula Harischandra, had recognized Gamini’s potential and had nurtured him through the early days of his career as a cartoonist cum illustrator.

‘In 1985, Camillus left and started yet another paper called ‘Sathsiri’.  We all went there and there I continued to draw for that paper until the year 2000.’
That, however, was his part-time job.  He first worked as a Textile Designer in Fairline Garments.  In 1991 he moved into advertising when he was hired by Zenith as an illustrator.  In 1995 he went to Grants and two years later moved to Phoenix Ogilvy, which is where I first met this gentlest of artists. He has been at Phoenix for 16 years now and has now graduated into an Art Director, a post which I believe should have been his sometime in the last century!

It had been a case of being head-hunted, friends who moved getting him on board the particular agency they worked at.  The down side was that the work load pushed him out of cartoons.  On the other hand, he was able to re-invent for himself what could be called a pastime but considering the level of expertise achieved is a creative exercise that any professional would envy: line drawing.

One look at his work and it is very obvious that we are talking about an individual with ultra-sensitive fingers, exceptional control, an eye for the most minute of detail and a mind that dwells on things ancient, rustic, historic and peaceful in their own way.  When and how did he pick up these skills and when and how did he hone them to these levels of exactitude? 
‘Practice,’ he said. 

Sure, that goes without saying.  Is that it, though?
‘No, it is a technique used by foreigners who wrote books on this country and illustrated some of the pages.  The illustrations were elaborate affairs, again with a lot of attention to detail.  As for subjects, maybe it is just that I like old things.   I indulge in nostalgia.  I use old photographs a lot.  And although I was never formally attached to any art school, I sought out artists and persuaded them to teach me or guide me. 

‘In the early eighties, I went to Stanley Abeysekera, then Principal of Heywood.  I would go to his home in Kirulapona and he would teach me figure drawing, portrait painting etc.  He fine-tuned my skills and indeed he crafted me.’
At some level his other interests must have flowed into memory, being and fingertip.  Gamini is a voracious reader, everyone who knows him is aware of the fact.

‘Yes, this is true.  Although I was a science student, I mostly read literature and history.  Archaeology fascinates me.  I had a terrible hunger for books.  I went looking for them.  I scoured libraries and book sales for material I wanted to read.  I am also a keen student of Buddhist literature and Buddhist philosophy.  In fact, in recent years, I have spent a lot more time with bikkhus than I did before, getting involved in various temple activities, discussing all kinds of subjects with the resident bikkhus.
But it is not just books.  Gamili loves theatre, films and music.  He has probably seen all major theatre productions in the country produced in the last three decades. All major films too.  There cannot be any serious singer whose concerts he has not attended.
He considers himself fortunate that advertising put him in touch with a lot of creative people.

‘I got to know lyricists like Dileepa Abeysekera, Chaaminda Ratnasuriya, Kapila Kumara Kalinga, Vajira Mahakanumulla and others.  I work with creative people with multiple competencies, such as Udayasiri Wickramaratne.  I enjoy their company.  Satisfaction in life, I can safely say, has come less from chosen vocation than from its surroundings.  Even when I was contributing to those newspapers, I got to know some terrific story tellers!’
He is indeed a rare individual who has formed strong friendships with people from a generation before his and one after too.   These associations probably further fine-tuned the sensitivities he was he endowed with.  And yet, one is still amazed by the degree of control he must possess to churn out works of art with just a fine-tipped pen. 

‘Maybe I was born with some of these skills,’ he explains in his self-effacing way.  On further prodding, he elaborates, again slowly and rather reluctantly: ‘I think it is because I began by using dot.  I drew pictures with dots.  They had to be the right size, otherwise the effect is lost. That might have trained me to be extra careful and therefore acquire the requisite skills of control.’ 
I’ve known Gamini Abeykoon for almost a decade.  I called him ‘Aiya’ not too long after I was introduced to him, not just because he is older, but he felt older on account of his wealth of knowledge.  I know he now lives in Honnanthara, Piliyandala with his wife Manel who works in the Port Authority and whom he married in 1989, and that he leads a quiet, unpretentious and probably extremely fulfilling life.  And yet, I discovered (happily, in a way) that I know very little about him. 

I did not know that he designs book covers and that he has been doing this regularly for years, i.e. from the time he began drawing cartoons, starting with kids’ books and expanding to other literary genres. I did not know that he has designed stamps either. He has so far drawn around 20 stamps for the Postal Department, for instance. 
It all began in 2006, he said.  Pulasthi Ediriweera, a former colleague at ‘Sisila’ and a current colleague at Phoenix and a fellow artist (cum poet) who like Gamini Aiya is not given to self-advertising but prefers to do his work and his art (and his teaching) quietly, had got Gamini involved in stamp designing. 

‘That was the Buddha Jayanthi.  The Postal Department was short-handed since they wanted 50 stamps designed. Pulasthi, who had already been designing stamps, introduced me to Vasala Sanath of the Postal Department who has been an immense source of encouragement.  He also roped in another of our colleagues who is an acclaimed painter, Basil Cooray.  The Postal Department issues about 35 stamps every year.  There are about 10 of us designing stamps so I get to work on two or three per year.  There was a time we did a set on the Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa periods. I enjoyed that one very much.’
Gamini Abeykoon is probably an artist who deserves far more attention than he currently enjoys (which is, to be honest, next to nothing).  Some would say ‘it is his fault’.  He would probably laugh it off, in his quiet, unassuming manner.  Discipline, exceptional observation skills, an amazing ability to exercise equanimity in the face of life’s many vicissitudes, and a general tendency to let the storms around him play themselves out without him adding to or subtracting from them, has produced a rare human being.

He would respond to any question you might put to him and give the most comprehensive answer possible.  If he doesn’t know the answer, he will say so, but in all likelihood Gamini Aiya would investigate on his own (for you) and get back to you as soon as he has something to say.  But if you don’t go to him, it is also likely that he will not come to you.  Not out of arrogance, but perhaps out of courtesy, respect of distance he might think you desire. 
It took him three years after we first met to ask me a question.  Something about what I write and how I life; having read my articles for the Irida Divaina when he first met me he had been perplexed at what appeared to be a mismatch. He told me so.  I asked him, ‘You’ve known me for three years, do you still think there’s some kind of visanvaada (contradiction)?’  He smiled and said ‘no’.  I learnt something about his ways, but clearly remained ignorant about who he was and what he did. 

He takes his time.  He observes. He keeps his conclusions to himself.  Equanimity is what he is about.  Perhaps this is why he can achieve such precision in an art where one moment of distraction or the slightest error could ruin it all.  A few hours ago when I called him to clarify something, he responded but added, ‘vadiya anang manang epa….shape eke daanna’.  He didn’t want me to paint him with the kind of detail he would inscribe on his work; he was satisfied with just a sketch.  Maybe that’s what I’ve done, considering the long years of my ignorance. It will have to suffice. For now. 

[Gamini posts his work on fb: https://www.facebook.com/gamini.abeykoon - See more at: http://www.nation.lk/edition/fine/item/20497-inscriber-of-‘exquisite’-into-the-humble-line.html#sthash.RYLpYthS.dpuf]