Sri Lanka’s preeminent and pioneering comicstrip artist, Daya Rajaksha left all his stories, sketchpads, ink and brushes forever last week. This is a necessary postscript on the man, his thinking and his art in all its versatility as well as entertaining and illuminating power.
Daya, who over a period of about 50 years wrote and illustrated more than 100 stories, had emerged from a competitive field in the 1960s as a unique artist who had earned the respect of his peers for his representational ability as well as the insights which he inscribed on to his illustrations.
Just as water takes the shape of the particular container, Daya could fill any frame offered to him with vivid, meaningful and delightful content in color, line and word. He was not just a comicstrip artist, he was an eminent wordsmith who drew from history, legend and metaphors of immediate currency. Since he was also a poet the dialog in his stories were excellently crafted to suit character and situation. Since he was a keen student of humanity and society his stories contained multiple layers of meaning. For example there was a subtle layer of humor that ran through stories that were meant to provoke horror.
In his stories we find everyday and sweet love stories, brave and righteous heroes, supernatural characters and most importantly the oft unnoticed but ever present everyday people and everyday incidents. He was able to bring out through them the more abiding elements of the human condition. With just pen and brush he brought all this alive in ways that entertained and educated.
During his career Daya worked in daily newspapers, weekend papers and comic papers with most of his years spent at Lake House and Vijeya Newspapers. Over the years there developed a wide audience that cut across age and social station, many of whom would purchase the particular publication just to read his stories.
It was not just stories. His Sunday cartoon for the Lankadeepa, ‘Samaajasamayang’ was a unique creation where he brought in an entire family into the small rectangle and through each one’s comments offered absolutely entertaining and insightful social commentary. This format was so popular that today it has become a virtual genre.
‘Sophia’ (for Sirikatha) and ‘Mister Married’ (for Tharunaya) were as popular.
The story ‘Hasthasaara’ woven around a bodhisattva character was one story that particularly appealed to me as a child. It was about a character who rose again the rigid brahmanic culture of South India. There was a three-dimensionality to the illustration which was new at the time. Also, this story was almost like an introductory text to issues of social injustice, inequality etc., and the need to correct wrongs and revolutionize structures.
‘Aadara Koma’ (Loving Koma) was of an iron form onto which human feelings were inscribed. The setting for the story is his own village in Norton Bridge, at the foot of the Seven Virgins mountain range which witness the terrible crash of the Boing 707 in 1974. In the story, which the villagers rush to the site of the crash the scientist ascends from a different approach. He discovers parts of the plane which he brings back and puts together as a robot since he had no children. The robot, now infused with feeling, is by circumstances forced to spend most of his time with the scientist’s wife. The wife, largely neglected by her scientist husband, begins to experience feelings of her own for the robot. The scientist, possessed by jealousy, destroys the robot, first ‘unplugging’ the feelings.
The above story was fresh and explored narrative territories hitherto untouched. It was a story that captured the reader. It was a story that we could own. It was also the first venture of a comicstrip in Sri Lanka into scientific fields; again this shows his pioneering spirit.
His more popular contemporaries were Henry Bemmulla, Susil Premaratne, Henry Dharmasena, Haripriya Gunasekera, Bandula Harischandra, B Opatha and Anura Wijewardena. They all had distinct styles. They were well read, they knew their history and knew of heritage, and therefore their stories were richly textured. That Daya emerged from this ‘class’ is indicative of his creative greatness. Indeed, he was one of a kind, inhibiting a class of his own.
He broke the traditional mould when delving into religious of historical narratives. The three-dimensional form was complemented by a delicate and yet firm command of the line. By the time the reader approached the end of the story, he/she would be infused with the buddhaalambana-preethiya or the joy of experience something associated with the Buddha.
He was such a visualizer that it was natural that his considerable skills would take him to film-making. He wrote 40-50 film scripts, some of which were based on his comic strips. Among them were Vaanarayo, Hulavaali Raktha, Niliyakata Pem Kalemi, Situ Diyaniyo, Sakvithi Suvaya, Thavalama and Banduraa Mal. In later years he would write teledrama scripts as well such as Dulaari, Hathe Vasama, Saapa Nokarami Daruvane, Nirupamaala and Athuru Paara.
In his last years, another aspect of his versatility emerged when he contributed a weekly poetic narrative called ‘Madissale’ for the Lankadeepa. It was political satire in excellent verse.
I feel sometimes that Daya Rajapaksha anticipated his future and his being when he wrote Hasthasara. He was fascinated by the ‘lesser people’ and their heroism. Dhahara in Hulavali and Bucket Harry in Sakvithi Suvaya are unforgettable and in many ways heroic characters who, like Hasthasara, depicted bodhisattva qualities even though they came from humble contexts. Like Azadak in the Caucasian Chalk Circle, Hasthasara dispensed justice. That was what his principle characters did in most stories. They taught us without really teaching what was right and what was wrong, what was just and what was not. In fact he formalized all this when he brought together all illustrators when he helped establish the Chitrakalaa Sangamaya which has over the years trained hundreds of budding artists.
In his last days when friends and admirers visited him, Daya would tell them, “mq¿jka ldf,g neß foal=;a kE” neß ldf,g mq¿jka foal=;a kE” (When one is able there’s nothing that is impossible and when one is not then nothing is possible). He was not exactly a journalist, but like the best of our tribe he lived one day ahead of the rest of the world. An artist, a man of vision, an ordinary citizen and a hero.