03 April 2023

Hemantha Gunawardena’s signature

Almost twelve years ago, I wrote, ‘Stamps do not carry the name and signature of artists.' It was a piece about three exceptional teachers, including one artist, Pulasthi Ediriweera, who had by then designed more than 150 stamps.

A kind reader, responding to the above contention, wrote, ‘True, but [they carry] the name of our country and “art and creativity” or the talents of our people that definitely [touch] the hearts of many around the globe and the hearts of beautiful kids who like to collect stamps as a hobby. These artists, to me, like to stamp their signature in the hearts of people.’

A few days ago Pulasthi posted a portrait of a fellow artist, a colleague and friend, Hemantha Gunawardena. It had been done on request when Hemantha retired as an art director of Phoenix O&M after serving the advertising agency for several decades. No charge. Typical of Pulasthi who has taught hundreds of aspiring artists for years without charging a cent.

This is about Hemantha, though. He didn’t teach. He didn’t design stamps. His work is not collected by kids all over the globe. He was, however, an accomplished creative artist, self-effacing like his friend Pulasthi, and yet someone who stamped his signature on people around him, especially his friends and colleagues at Phoenix.

Hemantha entered the advertising industry long before there was enabling software that made things easy for illustrators and art directors. What’s done now with a few deft movements with a fingertip and some clicks had to be hand-done, so to speak. Tedious. Slow. In comparison. He was not left behind because he didn’t want to be left behind. He kept abreast of technological enhancement, he stood his ground. So very softly. Those who worked with him would, I am sure, recount dozens of interventions that made a big difference to creative projects.

He was always a part of any collective celebration or animated discussion be it on work, art or politics. He would put in a word now and then, or raise a quiet question, but was never confrontational. He withstood storms beyond his strength in whatever form they came. He smiled. Made the worst of moments bearable.

In all the years I’ve been at Phoenix, working as a part-time copywriter (or, as lyricist and senior copywriter Vajira Mahakanumulla once said, as a ‘trainee translator’), there have been two people who loved Sinhala songs. One was Harith Gunawardena and the other was Hemantha. They had thousands of songs, they knew about the songs, the singers, the lyricists and the relevant nidhana katha. Dileepa Abeysekera, another exceptional creative mind, probably knows as much or more but he had left Phoenix by the time I got there.

Hemantha’s workstation was close to my nondescript desk. And that’s how I got to know he loved music. I still remember the song he played one morning, long before our colleagues trickled in; he had music-hours, mostly before work began formally or after work when only those who had urgent work to complete were around. Swarna Sri Bandara’s lyrics, Amaradeva’s voice: Daethe ellee (literally, clinging on to [my] hands).  

It was a song about a father thinking about his daughter and how she, who as a child had delighted him with the sweetest observations, had been taken far away from him by the chariot wheels of time. I think this was before Hemantha became a father. I already had two daughters and they were too small at the time for me to be nostalgic about young fatherhood and little girls. I could extrapolate though. The song has stayed with me and made me treasure that much more every moment of my daughters' growing up years. I asked him to play it again. He did. And then he downloaded his entire collection of Amaradeva’s songs for me.

Hemantha would become father to three girls and it is fortuitous, all things considered that he didn’t live long enough for time to take those lovely girls far away from him. But he’s gone now. Far away. Signatures left behind will remain for a long time, though; he stamped his on our hearts so gently that it took this departure to notice it at all.

Hemanthaya. That’s a season. Harith didn’t miss the significance of the name. Yali noena hemanthaya, was the title of a short tribute he penned for our friend, a season that will not come around again. Not for those he touched with smile and song. A song, a smile and a season. That’s Hemantha Gunawardena. 

['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below]

Other articles in this series:

Pathways missed

Architectures of the demolished

The exotic lunacy of parting gifts

Who the heck do you think I am?

Those fascinating 'Chitra Katha'

The Mangala Sabhava

So how are things in Sri Lanka?

The most beautiful father

Palmam qui meruit ferat

The sweetest three-letter poem

Buddhangala Kamatahan

An Irish and Sri Lankan Hello

Teams, team-thinking, team-spirit and leadership

The songs we could sing in lifeboats when we are shipwrecked

Pure-Rathna, a class act

Jekhan Aruliah set a ball rolling in Jaffna

Awaiting arrivals unlike any other

Teachers and students sometimes reverse roles

Matters of honor and dignity

Yet another Mother's Day

A cockroach named 'Don't'

Colombo, Colombo, Colombo and so forth

The slowest road to Kumarigama, Ampara

Sweeping the clutter away

Some play music, others listen

Completing unfinished texts

Mind and hearts, loquacious and taciturn

I am at Jaga Food, where are you?

On separating the missing from the disappeared

Moments without tenses

And intangible republics will save the day (as they always have)

The world is made of waves


The circuitous logic of Tony Muller

Rohana Kalyanaratne, an unforgettable 'Loku Aiya'

Mowgli, the Greatest Archaeologist

Figures and disfigurement, rocks and roses

Sujith Rathnayake and incarcerations imposed and embraced

Some stories are written on the covers themselves

A poetic enclave in the Republic of Literature

Landcapes of gone-time and going-time 

The best insurance against the loud and repeated lie

So what if the best flutes will not go to the best flautists?

There's dust and words awaiting us at crossroads and crosswords

The books of disquiet

A song of terraced paddy fields

Of ants, bridges and possibilities

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva 

World's End

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse

Street corner stories

Who did not listen, who's not listening still?

The book of layering

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain

The world is made for re-colouring

The gift and yoke of bastardy

The 'English Smile'

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5

Visual cartographers and cartography

Ithaca from a long ago and right now

Lessons written in invisible ink

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness'

A tea-maker story seldom told

On academic activism

The interchangeability of light and darkness

Back to TRADITIONAL rice

Sisterhood: moments, just moments

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows

Sirith, like pirith, persist

Fragrances that will not be bottled 

Colours and textures of living heritage

Countries of the past, present and future

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart