Sybil Wettasinghe/ Sri Lanka

Sybil Wettasinghe/ Sri Lanka

What was the position of women when you entered the filed of art? Many people dissuaded me from leaving my job at the news paper, because I was the only woman artist. At that time Mr. G.S. Fernando was the only famous artist who was working for the print media, illustrations for books and cover pages of books. There was no one to illustrate children’s books. After the Nawamaga books were published, I did two more books. I joined Lake House in 1952. I did a children’s page for the Janatha news paper. The chief editor was Mr. Denzil Peiris. He gave me a free hand and allowed me to do the page the way I wanted. He told me to use spoken language in my writing. That is when I wrote the story ‘Kuda Hora’ (Umbrella Thief). There was such a good response to it, that I was asked to write a story a day. So all my dormant ideas and thought emerged in the form of stories. I didn’t write under my name but used a pseudonym called ‘Kalu’. Sometimes I called myself Sybil Akka(sister Sybil).


I grew up in the village till I was 6. My childhood was very beautiful. I cannot express in words how happy I was. Suddenly my mother brought me to Colombo to be educated. I was very close to me grandmother in the village. She used to follow me every where I went. When I was bathing in the river or walking in the forest. I didn’t like to leave the village. I was brought to Colombo by force. I didn’t see any beauty in the city. I thought of my village all the time. Now of course, that village has changed. But those memories are still etched in my mind. I have the memories of a 6 year old, still in my mind. That is why I draw for children.

What was your artistic style at that time? Black and white line drawings. I used only black. They did not use colour in the news papers then. The Silumina paper began to use color in 1968. I was the one who drew the first color picture. The first book to be published with coloured pictures was the one I did for Nawamaga.

Why did you like only line drawings? Weren’t you interested in any other medium? Yes. Later, I turned to oil paintings. But my style is the same.


Not only this child; even earlier, I used to spend a lot of time with children. I used to visit schools. I allow children to talk and voice their opinions. I have taken a lot of ideas from them for my books. They provide the raw material for my drawings and writing. That is why my writing is suitable for them. I give back, what I take from them.

What about your personal life? Your marriage….? When I was working at Lake House, there was a gentleman called Darmapala Wettasinghe. He had joined after university. He was a sub editor in the Janatha paper. He liked my art. He also liked literature. We married in 1955. We have four children. Two sons and two daughters, three grand sons and two grand daughters. My elder son Suriya is an architect. My daughter Visaka is a graduate. She now lives with her husband in Scotland. My second daughter is a journalist and an artist. She is unmarried. My younger son is a graphic artist at Ya TV. Did you encourage your children to pursue art? No. Not at all. Both my husband and I allowed our children to study and do what ever they wanted. My children are good artists but they did not develop their talents.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time? I love to write. To draw. Now it is 53 years since I entered my profession. Drawing a picture is like meditation for me. I get a lot of contentment out of it. I also like to write. I like to travel too, whether here or abroad. I like to see places, go from village to village, meet people, talk. I like nature.


I remember, during the second World War, my grand father wanted me to draw an elephant facing forward. I feel that those days older people understood the minds of the children. I think he wanted to encourage me, so he showed me my drawing and said that he needed to carve 500 like it for the fence in Anuradhapura. I was thrilled when I heard that he was going to make 500 elephants faces like the one I had drawn. He always praised and appreciated my work.

Q. Do you watch films? Once in a way. Now there aren’t many good films to watch. Yesterday there was a preview on TV of the film ‘Aswesuma’. Even though it is a good film, there is a scene where the actor Jackson Anthony is hung on a tree and tortured. I remembered it and woke up in the middle of the night. I couldn’t sleep thereafter. That scene was haunting me. I felt so sorry for that man. I do not think I will enjoy that film if I see it. Who likes to go to a film and suffer. I feel sorry for even the beggars on the road. Why do you draw only for children? I grew up in the village till I was 6. My childhood was very beautiful. I cannot express in words how happy I was. Suddenly my mother brought me to Colombo to be educated. I was very close to me grandmother in the village. She used to follow me every where I went. When I was bathing in the river or walking in the forest. I didn’t like to leave the village. I was brought to Colombo by force. I didn’t see any beauty in the city. I thought of my village all the time. Now of course, that village has changed. But those memories are still etched in my mind. I have the memories of a 6 year old, still in my mind. That is why I draw for children. At the beginning, I wrote stories only for my satisfaction but people began to appreciate them. Other children too liked the stories about the child in my mind. My story Kuda Hora became very popular. I feel a great sense of joy when I write for children. About how many books have you written? About 100.

For how long have you been a journalist? I was at the Lankadeepa for two years. I was on the permanent staff of the Lake House for 25 years. After it was closed down, I worked at Vijaya Publications. Then I was asked to start a children’s paper at Upali News papers. I started ‘Bindu’ in 1983. I think about 125,000 copies were sold. That paper was for children, but based on material outside the school curriculum. But the parents had complained that the paper did not have any information based on the syllabus. I fell ill in 1990 and then I retired.


I used to sit by my grand father and watch him at work. I was greatly influenced by it. I didn’t learn art from anybody. When I was small, I used a stick to sketch pictures in the sand, outside. I can’t remember drawing with a pencil.

What is your opinion about art for children today? It is good to write books for children. Many people have commercialized it. They copy form foreign books and make a few changes. They are not suitable for our children. Especially when you write for children, you must have them in mind. There are only a few writers like that. Unlike in the past, today children are very intelligent. They question everything. So we must write books relevant to them. My grand son of four told and interesting story. One day his father had bought him a toy car. He had kept it out in the garden. I told him a story, because I wanted him to take the car into the house. ‘One day a child was given a car and he kept it in the garden. At night there was a strong wind and the car was covered with leaves. It was discovered under the pile of leaves later on” Then he told me, ’Grand ma this is what happened”.

“A child was bought a car and was left outside. The car began to cry at night because it was afraid of the dark . The mango tree asked who was crying. The car replied that it was Anupama’s car and it was crying because it was afraid of the dark. Then the mango tree stretched out it’s branches and hugged the car. In the morning, the little boy was looking for the car and thought that someone had stolen it. Then the car suddenly came down from the tree and said,’ you and I are friends , hereafter take me into the house’”.


I was forbidden to draw in school and at home. I sent my drawing to the children’s page in the newspaper. I was then known as Sybil Silva. My principal who was a German lady saw the picture in the paper and prohibited me from drawing or writing as long as I was in school. I used a simple device. I published under another name. They appeared regularly in the Observer and the Times. Only I knew that they were my creations. No one at home or at school knew about it. It was very amusing. Probably that is why, I am still able to enjoy certain things on my own.


He actually related it better than I . He also included an element of magic to the story. I published that story called “Little Red Car” I first illustrated it and showed it to him. He corrected the mistakes. “There must be a dog in it, because my father refuses to let me have one. Also the mango tree must have a face. Anupama loves squirrels. There must be one on the first page”. I drew the pictures accordingly. He liked the one of the baby car sleeping on the tree, the best. My opinion is that if children are given an appropriate theme they will develop it well. He would show the book to all the visitors to our home. I hope to publish it in Sinhala very soon. He has come up with some beautiful stories even after that. My message to parents and grand mothers is to listen to children. Recently when I was drawing a picture, he told me another story. One day there was an acrobat. A story about a monkey. He is very alert. He talks a lot. That is living in a child’s world. Not only this child; even earlier, I used to spend a lot of time with children. I used to visit schools. I allow children to talk and voice their opinions. I have taken a lot of ideas from them for my books. They provide the raw material for my drawings and writing. That is why my writing is suitable for them. I give back, what I take from them.

Can you say something about your parents and life in the village? I was born in Ginthota in the Galle District. I lived in my village only till I was six years old. My childhood in the village was spent very happily. I had a beautiful childhood. I started studying in the village school when I was three. I lived in the village with my relatives. Today it is very different. All the children in the village were loved by the adults. We were one big family. I went to school alone. I have written a book in Sinhala about that period of my life. I translated it into English titled “Child In Me’ It has already been translated into three languages. It is very interesting. I will never forget that period of my life. I wrote that story to share my experiences with other children. What about your parents? My father was an architect. My mother was a housewife. My mother was from Weligama and my father was from Ginthota.


I had to face a big battle. Finally my mother very reluctantly gave me permission to join Lankadepa, only because she had no choice. I had a good training under Mr. Dhanapala. Some criticized my art and wanted him to send me to Heywood (art school) for training. But he insisted that I should pursue my own style because I wasn’t influenced by anyone. I appreciate Mr. Dhanapala’s decision. That is why I was able to cultivate my independent style. At that time I was asked to illustrate a series of folk songs. I felt that art was a form of communication through which feelings could be conveyed. I feel the same even today.


Did your family show an interest in art at that time? My grandfather was also a famous architect. He was famous not only as an artist but also a sculptor. His name was Samaris Silva. I have inherited my talents from my grand father. The stone elephants at Independence Square were sculptured by my grandfather. My grand father worked for architects like Bevis Bava. The elephant rampart at Ruwenveliseya in Anuradhapura is also done by my grand father. I was 10 years when he undertook that task. I remember, during the second World War, my grand father wanted me to draw an elephant facing forward. I feel that those days older people understood the minds of the children. I think he wanted to encourage me, so he showed me my drawing and said that he needed to carve 500 like it for the fence in Anuradhapura. I was thrilled when I heard that he was going to make 500 elephants faces like the one I had drawn. He always praised and appreciated my work. I used to sit by my grand father and watch him at work. I was greatly influenced by it. I didn’t learn art from anybody. When I was small, I used a stick to sketch pictures in the sand, outside. I can’t remember drawing with a pencil. Those days no one paid any attention to child art. It was considered to be a scribble. My whole family moved to Colombo when I was 6. I was admitted to Holy Family Convent in Bambalapitiya because it was considered to be a good school. I received a good education there. I also gained a good knowledge of English. We had only 45 minutes a day for Sinhala. English was the medium of instruction in school. I think it was a good thing. I was able to read a lot of English books. I suppose that is how my writing skills developed. There was a good library in the school. That is why my early education is important to me.

Were you interested in art when you were at school? Yes. I had no encouragement from my mother. She in fact discouraged me. “You will never get anywhere with your scribbling” My grandfather is the one who appreciated me. Even my father appreciated my drawings. My father was my grandfather’s apprentice. But both my grand father and my father listened to my mother. She had the final word. That is why I was brought to Colombo for my education. We had European nuns on the staff. They did not encourage art very much. Art was not important. Education came first. My teachers insisted that I should first concentrate on my studies and pursue art later. But I didn’t give up. I spent a lot of time at home drawing pictures. Even today I can draw black and white picture beautifully. There is a reason for it. No one bought me paint. I didn’t know about colors. That is why I got accustomed to drawing pictures in black and white. I also preferred it.


I did a children’s page for the Janatha news paper. The chief editor was Mr. Denzil Peiris. He gave me a free hand and allowed me to do the page the way I wanted. He told me to use spoken language in my writing. That is when I wrote the story ‘Kuda Hora’ (Umbrella Thief). There was such a good response to it, that I was asked to write a story a day. So all my dormant ideas and thought emerged in the form of stories. I didn’t write under my name but used a pseudonym called ‘Kalu’. Sometimes I called myself Sybil Akka(sister Sybil).


Weren’t you interested in singing and sports when you were in school? I disliked sports. I used to pretend to be sick on the days on which we had sports. I hated it. Out school was famous for net ball. But I used to play a small part at our sports meet. I liked singing somewhat. We used to sing a lot of hymns because we were a catholic school. There were no restrictions or prejudices at that time unlike today. Children were not segregated. We were not taught to identify ourselves as Sinhala Buddhist. So we were able to have a good relationship with everyone. When were you born? I was born in 1928. On the 31st of October in 1928.

Did you pursue art after you left school? That is an interesting story. I was forbidden to draw in school and at home. I sent my drawing to the children’s page in the newspaper. I was then known as Sybil Silva. My principal who was a German lady saw the picture in the paper and prohibited me from drawing or writing as long as I was in school. I used a simple device. I published under another name. They appeared regularly in the Observer and the Times. Only I knew that they were my creations. No one at home or at school knew about it. It was very amusing. Probably that is why, I am still able to enjoy certain things on my own.

Black and white line drawings. I used only black. They did not use colour in the news papers then. The Silumina paper began to use color in 1968. I was the one who drew the first colour picture. The first book to be published with coloured pictures was the one I did for Nawamaga.


How did you become popularly known as Aunty Sybil? This is how it happened. I must first tell you that there was a Sinhala lady called Eilleen Silva on the staff of my school. I illustrated one of her literature lessons and gave it to her. She was very pleased and hung it up on the wall. The principal saw it and asked her who did it. My class teacher., Ms Silva said that she got it drawn by me because it was necessary for the lesson. The principal didn’t say anything but stared and went away, because art was forbidden in the class. My father exhibited some of my black and white drawings at the Kalabavana. The late Mr. H.D. Sugathapala (the Principal of the Primary School of Royal College) who was the author of a series of books for children, saw my drawings and was very impressed. He came to my home and told my father that he liked my style and wanted me to do the illustrations for one of his books. My mother overheard this and objected to it. But Mr Sugathapala persisted. He visited us again with his wife who then became friends with my mother. Thereafter my mother gave permission. That was the Nawamaga Reader for grade five published in 1948. I did the illustrations for the whole book. The then editor of the Dinamina news paper the late Mr. Martin Wickremasinghe wrote a good review about it to the paper. Then I realized that there was someone to appreciate my work.

One day Mr. Sugathapala promised to take me on an interesting journey and took me on a tour of the Lankadeepa newspaper office. Then it was 6 months since the inception of the paper. I spent the whole day there. Then I thought of joining the staff of the newspaper. When I told it to my mother, she was really angry and threatened to take me back to my village. Her ambition was to send me to the university so that I can find a good job. But I was determined to be a journalist. So my education suffered. I didn’t study hard. Earlier I was always first in class. I had to face a big battle. Finally my mother very reluctantly gave me permission to join Lankadepa, only because she had no choice. I had a good training under Mr. Dhanapala. Some criticized my art and wanted him to send me to Heywood (art school) for training. But he insisted that I should pursue my own style because I wasn’t influenced by anyone. I appreciate Mr. Dhanapala’s decision. That is why I was able to cultivate my independent style. At that time I was asked to illustrate a series of folk songs. I felt that art was a form of communication through which feelings could be conveyed. I feel the same even today. My message to parents and grand mothers is to listen to children. Sybil Wettasinghe worked 2017


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