07 November 2017

On Shantha K. Herath's poetic 'Lakuna' in Sinhala literature

I was gifted two books last week: 'Hithopadeshaya nokee kavi' (Poetry not found in the Hithopadesha) and 'Digu patu manpeth' (Long and narrow pathways). The first, a maiden collection of verse by veteran Divaina journalist Chandrasiri Dodangoda and the other a verse-illustration 'mix' (musuwa) by well known poet Thanjuja Dharmapala and equally well-known illustrator/artist, Shantha K. Herrath. They were gifted by Shantha, who had illustrated both collections and designed the book covers. They were not given for review as is usually the case with book-gifts from authors/publishers.

This is not a review of either or both but a few words would not be out of place. First, Dodangoda, my friend and former colleague, a soft-spoken, lovely individual: he has written a wonderful introduction titled Kaviyeku novoo kaviyekuge satahana (A note from a poet who is not one). Brutally honest with himself, 'Dodan' admits that he always wanted to be a poet but that's what had eluded him all his life. He therefore submits the book to the reader with trepidation. He ends his note with this beautiful thought:

'Long years ago, when still a child, I wrote my first poem. It was for my little sister, who had died. Although I no longer even remember her face, at this moment when I publish a book of poetry, I remember my little sister.'

That 'Dodan' couldn't really turn this or any of the poignant thoughts that touch his sensibilities into verse is not a tragedy. It is not his genre, that's all. He has strived, yes, and this needs to be appreciated. He has been honest about it and this too needs to be saluted. He has got his rhyme right, the elisamaya is perfect, but rhyme doesn't necessarily give rhythm and words in neat lines do not necessarily constitute poetry. Now had he taken those thoughts and wrote some essays, they would have been excellent, I feel. Instead, we have Shantha's illustrations appearing to be, by default, the poetry that Dodan's 'poetry' is not.

The Thanuja- Shantha combination on the other hand was exquisite. I know that it is hard to write poetry as comment on a line-drawing, especially not on something conjured up by Shantha. What would have happened was the reverse. And yet, this is not 'illustration'. Shantha is not rendering into art something that has been expressed in words, but is commenting on it and in the process elevating and/or giving fresh and new meaning. The overall effect is extremely potent.
Let me give one example.

"වෙනදාට අහස බැලූ මල් පෙති
මල පර වූ දා පටන්
බලන්නේ ම
පොළොව දෙස .."

The flower that looks upon sky
from the first moment of wilting
looks (forlornly) at the earth.

The word 'forlorn' or derivative thereof is absent in the verse, but it captured in illustration in a manner that persuades the reading gaze to consider all the universes projected by the relevant metaphors.

This essay is not a review. The books urged me to write about something else. Illustrations. Shantha K. Herrath's illustrations. Shantha, like 'Dodan' was a former colleague at Upali Newspapers Ltd. I knew him through his illustrations. He gave that newspaper a shape, an identity and it didn't matter that I did not notice his signature or knew his name. That took some time to learn; readers don't notice bylines, after all. It was after I joined the Sunday Island that I was accorded a full view of the man's artistic versatility. I saw his cartoons. I saw him 'do' layouts. I saw his illustrations, how he made stories jump out of the copy or added a subtle enhancing element that did not intrude.

In an early interview (I believe in 2002) to promote an exhibition of his work, Shantha told me he considered himself a student and that his exhibition a learning-process. As 'illustrator' the tag he got was 'applied artist'. That would flow from a restricted definition, I believe. Graphics, cartoons, visual art, commercial art, installation and illustration are all different genres within the larger canvass that's called 'art' and those who could be called true connoisseurs would not belittle one over the other for it would be akin to saying that oil paintings are always superior to acrylic, colour to black and white, impressionist to cubism etc. The superior item stands out of medium and other 'frames'.

I wanted to see more. Shantha obliged. When I visited his home in Pannipitiya a few days ago, Shantha said he had designed more than 300 book covers over the past twenty years. The quality of reproduction and the dulling effect of time had taken inevitable toll, but not so much that one could not recognize that illustration was not just translation into line, space and colour a capture-all titled made of a few words. 

It was more. And it had the creative strength and expressive weight to stand on its own outside the confines of 'Cover'. If, for example, one took the cover-illustration of Monica Ruwanpathirana's 'Angulimaalage sihinaya' (Angulimala's Dream), it has so many expressive elements, line-space blends and a many-dimensionality that would warrant comment by someone far more competent than I in the matter of art appraisal.

This is true of many of his book covers as well as the illustrations he has produced for individual poems in some of the books he showed me. The book covers do the work they are required to do; they jump at us saying 'purchase!' The illustrations within do something else: 'read me too' they say, the emphasis being on the last word. I went through Dodan's book pretty fast. I floated through the Thanuja-Shantha collaboration. I returned to Dodan's book and did not see a single word in the text; but read a universe in the black and white communications inserted by Shantha. I even felt, for a moment, that I understood art. Finally.

I had more than a dozen books to look at. I haven't had time to read them. I looked at the covers. They compel me to read them all. The early illustrations, like those sketched for poems written by Yamuna Malini Perera (her 'Nayata gath saajjaya' or 'Party on rent') indicate the promise of Shantha's 'experimentation' with the genre but suffer from terrible reproduction. 

The illustrations in Ashoka Weerasinghe's 'Abhinikmanata Pera' (Before the departure) are bold and confident and indicate a maturing. His sketches for Buddhadasa Galappaththi's 'Nim nethi thunyama' to my mind, salvage what is not the poet's best effort. The illustrations for a book titled 'The Valley Below' (English translations of selected poems by the same poet) illustrate Shantha's relentless fascination with exploration. He's not being. He is becoming. There's movement from the original Sinhala to the transliterated English.

We are living in a world where word is not enough, some feel. There has to be image. On the other hand, we do know that some, for example, Mahagama Sekera, Simon Navagaththegama, Jayatillaka Kammellaweera and Ariyawansa Ranaweera, painted and photographed with words, such was their mastery over language. We know that there are others, like Dodangoda who can paint with words, but only when employed to produce prose and that when they try poetry, they need a Shantha K Herrath to rescue them. Then we come across a book like 'Digu patu manpeth' and we know it's not always about this or that, black or white, but blend is possible and that neither white nor black is lost is each enhanced in juxtaposition and in union. In this book, there is flourish, but not the kind of finality that makes one read/gaze and close the thought-book, but a soft brush stroke that coaxes us to reflect, on word, line and other things too.

Some day, some student of art, will no doubt go through the Divaina archives and also the other newspapers Shantha was associated with, The Island, Mawbima and now Lakbima, and trace the development of his line drawings. Theses might be written too. Someone will say something more conclusive than I could ever say about his versatility. He has already made a mark. He's busy honing it, I can see.

[First published in the Sunday Observer, July 25, 2010]

See also