17 August 2020

The walking words of Shantha K Herath

‘It’s as though you’ve seen a flower and decided to pluck it and put it in a vase. Only few see it and after a while it wilts and dies. Others don’t encounter colors, textures and fragrances. Now isn’t it possible to fertilize the particular plant, make other flowers bloom and create an entire garden of flowers?’

It’s not just words at play here. It’s color. Line. Space. All rolled together to make a soft but telling observation. Someone spoke these words and the blend of word and image was congruent with an incident that had taken place many years ago. Let’s go there first and get to the man and story later.

It was a book launch. A double book launch in fact. Two poets. Two books. I can’t remember if the poems in both books were illustrated but at least one was. The illustrator was in the audience and I had the privilege of sitting next to him. I had purchased both books and flipped through them while waiting for the event to start. I continued to read through some of the customary proceedings which were, to me, worth skipping.

At one point I whispered to my friend, the illustrator: ‘methana ganna deyak thiyenavanam e oyaage chitra (if there’s anything worthwhile here, it’s what you’ve drawn).’

The response said a lot about him: ‘oya vage deval ahenna kiyanna epaa (don’t say such things loud enough for anyone to hear)!’

I was skimming and in retrospect I do realize I was being a tad harsh. There were some good poems, but they were all familiar, to-be-expected lines from the two poets. The illustrations said more or rather spoke to me better.

The words about flowers, not surprisingly, stemmed from a conversation about illustrations. Illustrators, at least in Sri Lanka, are a devalued or even ignored tribe. The publisher sometimes (not always) is mentioned but not the illustrator. Shantha K Herath knows all about such things and has fought the good fight. And lost. The late Sybil Wettasinghe, he says, concurred with him on this issue, especially when it comes to children’s books.  

This mala to mal yaaya observation was made in such a context. Neville Perera, long time leftwing activist and social worker now domiciled abroad, had looked up Shantha during one of his visits to Sri Lanka. He had read about the controversy. They became friends. Shantha illustrated a children’s book that Neville had written, ‘gejji maalaya.’ It was translated into English as ‘Kitty and the necklace.’

Someone from the Ministry of National Co-existence Dialogue and Official Languages had been interested in getting a Tamil translation done. Shantha wanted the Tamil version to be of the same print quality. The official had been reluctant. Someone else had called and it was to this person that Shantha explained things using the story of the mala and mal yaaya. The issue was eventually taken up by the then minister, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, who quickly got the officials moving. And that’s how the story of how ‘Kitty’ made friends was made accessible to every child in Sri Lanka, in his/her mother tongue.  

Shantha K Herath. He’s not just an illustrator of children’s books. He’s designed covers for dozens of manuscripts submitted to him. He’s an exceptional political cartoonist. More than all this he’s a sculptor and a painter. He’s a teacher too, sharing everything he knows about the genre with children who he does not want to be denied the kind of guidance that he, as a young man, did not receive for no fault of his.

He doesn’t need words. He speaks in other ways, much like a musician. However, there are moments when he paints with words and creates gardens through which we can walk, enjoying the spectacle of ‘a crowd, a host’ of flowers we hadn’t noticed before or, indeed, did not know existed.

Other articles in the series 'In Passing...':  [published in the 'Daily News']   
Eyes that watch the world and cannot be forgotten 
 Let's start with the credits, shall we? 
The 'We' that 'I' forgot 
'Duwapang Askey,' screamed a legend, almost 40 years ago
Dances with daughters
Reflections on shameless writing
Is the old house still standing?
 Magic doesn't make its way into the classifieds

Small is beautiful and is a consolation  
Distance is a product of the will
Akalanka Athukorala, at 13+ already a hurricane hunter
Did the mountain move, and if so why?
Ever been out of Colombo?
Anya Raux educated me about Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis (JIA)
Wicky's Story You can always go to GOAT Mountain
Let's learn the art of embracing damage
Kandy Lake is lined with poetry
There's never a 'right moment' for love
A love note to an unknown address in Los Angeles
A dusk song for Rasika Jayakody
How about creating some history?
How far away are the faraway places?
There ARE good people!
Re-placing people in the story of schooldays  
When we stop, we can begin to learn
Routine and pattern can checkmate poetry

Janani Amanda Umandi threw a b'day party for her father 
Sriyani and her serendipity shop
Forget constellations and the names of oceans
Where's your 'One, Galle Face'?
Maps as wrapping paper, roads as ribbons
Yasaratne, the gentle giant of Divulgane  
Katharagama and Athara Maga
Victories are made by assists
Lost and found between weaver and weave
The Dhammapada and word-intricacies
S.A. Dissanayake taught children to walk in the clouds
White is a color we forget too often  
The most beautiful road is yet to meet a cartographer