Spinning magical tales through art and imagination
Kala Keerthi Sybil Wettasinghe is a veteran children's book writer and an illustrator who traces her roots to her ancestral village of Gintota which has provided her with much fodder for over 200 books that she has written and illustrated in her acclaimed career spanning over 7 decades.
"Aunty Sybil" as she is best known to her readers has won much international acclaim and her stories which have been translated in to languages such as Japanese, Chinese, Swedish, Danish, Korean Dutch and so many more has secured awards in Europe and Asia. The winner of the Gratiaen Prize in 1995, she has also received the State Literary Award many times and in 1996 was awarded the Vishwa Prasadini award for Art and Children's literature.
In 2005 she was presented with the Kala Keerthi award for services to literature. Aunty Sybil who has played a pivotal role in shaping many young minds with her simple stories will be remembered in the annals of history as the doyenne of storytelling and an illustrator par excellence.
A young lass who lived in the village of Gintota began absorbing the sights, sounds and rhythms of village life. Inspired by the colourful characters and the exciting village life that left an indelible impression in her young mind, Sybil's foray into art began as a young child. Leaving the village as a six year old, Sybil moved to Colombo where the idyllic life she had enjoyed was replaced with life at Holy Family Convent. As a means of escaping she would often indulge in bringing to life the characters and scenery of her beloved village. Unsympathetic to Sybil's desire for a career in Art, her mother and school head, Mother Annunciation hoped that Sybil would pursue Architecture.
Fate decreed otherwise when her father submitted some of Sybil's drawing for an exhibition at the Colombo Art Gallery which caught the attention of HD Sugathapala the Headmaster of Royal Primary School who approached Sybil to illustrate his Nava Maga Standard 5 Reader. 15 year old Sybil took on the task with her father's encouragement and mother's reluctant consent. This was the launching pad of Sybil's artistic career and the first of many books she would produce during her tenure as a storyteller and illustrator.
In 1948 when the newspaper industry in Sri Lanka was heavily dominated by males, Mr Sugathapala took 17 year old Sybil to the Lankadeepa press. Immediately attracted to the notion of working in print media, Sybil met Mr DB Danapala the editor of Lankadeepa who offered her a job once he saw her drawings. At that time Sybil was perhaps the only female on the staff. She rose to challenges thrown at her and excelled. In 1952 while working for the Janatha newspaper she met chief sub-editor Dharmapala Wettasinghe who she would go on to marry. He encouraged her to write short stories for children which saw the birth of her iconic book Kuda Hora which steered her to unparalleled fame and fortune. Kuda Hora won critical acclaim both internationally and locally and inspired by the great success of her first book she applied berself to writing and illustrating children's stories at a fervent pace.
Sybil's rise in popularity as a storyteller and illustrator soared as her books portray rural Sri Lanka. Enmeshed with folk culture, her stories bring to life festivities and ceremonies that represent village life. Amongst her peers Sybil cuts an unusual figure as she had no formal art training but developed her own unique artistic style. Shunning the British influenced artistic trends she absorbed herself in the work of Indian artsists like Jamini Roy and Nandalal Bose and locally GS Fernando and Somabandu. During post colonial Sri Lanka, Sybil's books managed to shift children's attention from western to sinhala stories which gave children a sense of patriotism and identity and helping to reaffirm their affinity towards a sinhala identity.
Despite the intrusion of marriage and children, Sybil continued to write encouraged by her husband who was her strongest critic and flag bearer.
A change in political scenery meant that Sybil had to assume the mantle of providing for her family which saw her take a three year hiatus from illustrating and embarking on creating batik prints. Invited to submit her illustrations for the Japanese Norma Conqua picture book competition Sybil ardently resumed her first love of writing and illustrating.
Europe and Asia heaped awards on Sybil's stories. In 1965, her story Vesak Lantern won the Isabel Hutton Prize for Asian Women writers for Children. In 1986, Kuda Hora her first book won the Best Foreign Book Award in Japan and the next year it won the Japanese Library Association Award as the most popular children's book. She has exhibited her work extensively worldwide. Her global reach has ensured many invitations to take part in various conferences, workshops and industry related events which has gained her much respect from global audiences.
On the cusp of becoming a nonagenarian Sybil remains as active as ever. Painting ceramics, her new found love is still eclipsed by her love for writing and illustrating as she quips 'The child in me has never left" Allowing her fertile imagination to run riot Sybil continues to be a living a story mill, churning story after story accompanied by beautiful illustrations . Blessed with great artistic vision irreplaceable Sybil the storyteller will long continue to inspire, entertain and educate children through her books.
This article first appeared in the 71st issue of Hi!! Magazine.
Text: Tina Edward Gunawardhana
Photos: Manoj Ratnayake