My impression of him from those who had the privilege is that he was a complex but amusing character, someone who was extremely clever and knowledgeable…the sort of guest you would love to have at a dinner party because of the interesting stories he could tell
Sri Lankan artists have been making their mark internationally, but are often forgotten. L.T.P. Manjusri (1902-1982) is one of those artists, the memory of whom is fast fading. A prolific artist who started his craft making copies of temple paintings as a young monk, Manjusri went on to become one of the most famous artists of his time and a founding member of the ‘43 Group, an association of likeminded modern artists who had broken away from the conservative Ceylon Society of Arts.
Led by photographer and critic Lionel Wendt, the ‘43 Group originally included many renowned artists including Geoffrey Beling, George Claessen, Aubrey Collette, Justin Daraniyagala, Richard Gabriel, George Keyt, Ivan Peries, Harry Pieris, and Manjusri himself.
An artist with no formal training, Manjusri went on to exhibit his art in various countries in Europe and Asia, and was associated with many famous artists of his time including Rabindranath Tagore and Nandalal Bose. Not limited to classical painting of the style of temple paintings, Manjusri experimented with European modernist trends to create distinctively Sri Lankan modernist art.
Dr. Shamil Wanigaratne, a clinical psychologist with a passion for art, recently published L.T.P. Manjusri: Artist and Scholar, a monograph that has been a decade or more in the making, working closely with Manjusri’s son Kushan Manjusri. The book tracks the life, times, and art of Manjusri, painting a picture as vivid as any of Manjusri’s most compelling works and immortalising this great artist and scholar for a new generation.
The Sunday Morning Brunch spoke with Dr. Wanigaratne on the monograph, how it came to be, and how Manjusri has impacted him on a personal level.
Below are excerpts of the interview.
What drew you to Manjusri?
I have a particular interest in the ‘43 Group and Sri Lankan modern art. My mother was a friend of George Keyt, one of the most famous artists of the ‘43 Group. My interest in art began in the 1970s or 1980s, and when I lived in London, I visited George Keyt when I came home to visit my parents. I also became friends with George Claessen, another artist from the ‘43 Group who lived in North London. He had moved to London from Sri Lanka in the 1950s and established himself as an artist in London. In 2000, I published a monograph on George Claessen, which is still available for sale in Sri Lanka at bookshops like Paradise Road and Barefoot.
Following this, people would often tell me that I should write about other artists of the ‘43 Group. I was eventually persuaded to write something about Manjusri. By this time, I had met his son Kushan, who is also an artist. All three of Manjsuri’s children incidentally became artists whose art follows Manjusri’s own personal style, which is something you rarely find among modern-day artists.
I am a psychologist, so I’m also interested in psychology and art, and I try to understand an artist’s mind through their art. Manjusri’s work is very varied, from his temple paintings to his modernist art to his symbolic art and even his surreal erotic work. Sometimes, the undertones in his work, like with his surreal work, is pretty obvious. It is nice to have an interest that gives you pleasure and produces a record for history.
In a small way, I would like to think my contribution is similar to that of Dr. R.K. De Silva, who was a doctor in London who became interested in watercolour paintings of the colonial period in Ceylon and made an enormous contribution by documenting them in three great books.
Tell us about Manjusri as you got to understand him while you were working on L.T.P. Manjusri: Artist and Scholar.
Manjusri, I think, was an incredibly complex and talented person who adopted many artistic styles and kept on experimenting in his work. His range of work is very broad – to the point that when I sat down at one point with the late Prof. Senake Bandaranyake, who was a great scholar on art and an archaeologist, even he shared that he too found it difficult to categorise his work.
There were two sides to Manjusri: The Kandyan period artist and the modern artist. Manjusri came from Aluthgama from a poor background, and his first education came from a Muslim teacher in a Muslim school. His education was cut short at 13 because his father couldn’t afford to send him to school.
He became fascinated with Buddhist priests and what he believed to be their abilities, such as levitation, and he persuaded his parents to send him to a monastery. From 13, he was trained and ordained as a Buddhist priest, becoming Ven. Gnanendra Thera in 1921. It’s a bit of a mystery how the name of Manjsuri came about. Manjusri is the name of the Tibetan deity associated with charm, wisdom, and learning. I feel he was fascinated by the characteristics personified in Manjusri the deity and this is why he chose the name.
He began his artistic journey copying temple paintings from the 18th and 19th Centuries. At the time, temples were in decline and there was fear that the paintings in temples would be lost forever. A key milestone in Manjsuri’s life was going to study Mahayana Buddhism at Shantiniketan (Vishwa-Bharti University), the university set up by Rabindranath Tagore. This is where he discovered art and started to paint and draw.
Other key artistic developments include his friendship with Harry Peiris of the ‘43 Group, who encouraged him to practise his art and his journey to Tibet where he ended up in Sikkim, where he received his only artistic instruction from a court painter, Abbot Uchima. He also lived in London for a time following World War II. He returned to Sri Lanka and, facing criticism for being an artist and a monk, gave up his robes and found work as a journalist. He wrote more than 200 articles on culture and art.
Not having the fortune to meet Manjusri, my impression of him from those who had the privilege is that he was a complex but amusing character, someone who was extremely clever and knowledgeable – from the anecdotes I’ve heard, the sort of guest you would love to have at a dinner party because of the interesting stories he could relate to. During World War II, for instance, he was arrested on suspicion of being a Japanese spy because he was going from cave to cave copying paintings.
Share with us the process behind producing L.T.P. Manjusri: Artist and Scholar.
I have been working on L.T.P. Manjusri: Artist and Scholar for more than a decade. It wasn’t a continuous process. I embarked on it with the help of Manjusri’s son, Kushan Manjusri. The 2004 tsunami hit soon after I started working on it, which necessitated a break.
Prior to the tsunami, in 1996, I co-founded the charitable organisation, the UK-Sri Lanka Trauma Group in London, through which we did capacity-building and raised awareness about psychological trauma associated with the civil war. Before the tsunami, we were slowly training doctors and psychologists and raising awareness.
When the tsunami happened, all hell broke loose, people were asking for psychologists and counsellors to help deal with the aftermath, and Sri Lanka had very little capacity. We received a grant to establish resource centre from CAFOD through King’s College London, and in 2005, we opened Samutthana in Colombo, the King’s College London Resource Centre for Trauma, Displacement, and Mental Health, which continues to train people on all aspects of mental health even at present.
I also had to do research and write papers and books in my professional life as a psychologist at the Maudsley Hospital and King’s College London. Art and writing about Manjusri and other artists is my hobby, and the hobby always takes a back seat.
Covid-19 was a blessing because all of a sudden, I found myself working from home and with time to spare to work on this. I was able to finish the monograph and all the work to publish was done remotely through PDFs, Zoom calls, and so on. It was a challenge doing things remotely because normally you sit with your graphic designer and work closely on layout.
How would you describe Manjusri’s legacy?
His cause of the temple paintings that were disappearing and his campaigning to preserve them has, I must say, perhaps resulted in many photographic books being produced of temple paintings. He did manage to raise awareness of Kandy period paintings, and even if the originals disappear – or worse, are restored poorly – his copies are a record.
His work of fusion of Asian and Sri Lankan imagery with western modern art is his main contribution to the history of art. His temple paintings taught him about attention to detail and symbolism.
One of my favourite Manjusri pieces, what I call Plate 112, is laden with beautifully detailed symbolism. It’s a very colourful and elaborate painting, with many elements of his work coming through depictions of female goddesses from temple art and animals being used symbols paired with his signature technique of drawing hands which learned in Sikkim, and the female form, all adds to the beauty of this work.
Manjusri deserves to be remembered, revived, and appreciated for what he did and who he was. His contemporaries are more or less all gone. Manjusri was probably the first Sri Lankan to win the Ramon Magsaysay Award, which is regarded as the Asian Nobel Prize.
From the ‘43 Group’s first exhibition, he was the only artist singled out for praise by the official war artist John Napper. His works are found across the world in many galleries including the Horniman Museum in London, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, New York Public Library, Columbia University Library, and the Metropolitan Museum in New York as well as in numerous private collections. He died a national hero and should never be forgotten.