Painter Susil Senanayaka was fully aware of what was going on during the dark period where the government security forces were engaged in a war against separatist terrorists. But his focus was on nature and the buildings that were being constructed at a rapid pace and threatening the serenity of the neighbourhood. The perfect location for his work was the area near The Parliament. Most of these paintings went into a series titled ‘Lake Diyawannawa’ and were later snapped up by art lovers.
Susil doesn’t resemble an artist. He is more like a wrestler and sports a bulky physique. He said he wrestles with the thoughts of how people are disturbing the serenity of the environment. He doesn’t like what he sees, but he puts his memories of manmade disruption into art form. This is perhaps the silent way an artist protests against something he doesn’t approve of.
Susil said that he would love to do his art from his village in Kegalle. In his hometown people draw water from the well, eat rice that grows in the surrounding paddy fields and enjoy the freedom that the environment offers. “But the problem is that I can’t sell my art there. All the art activities happen in Colombo and those who buy art are based in Colombo which has left me with no other option but to live and work from here,” said the 37-year-old professional artist who is a graduate of the University of Visual and Professional Arts.
He had two solo exhibitions in 2011 and 2013 featuring the paintings in the series ‘Lake Diyawannawa’. “As an artist I can’t help, but keep observing the changes made to the area near The Parliament. I detest change. But art allows me to do my creations with a peaceful mind,” said Susil during an interview done at his residence in Kotte.
He has been a professional painter for close to a decade. He does paintings for his satisfaction and also commissioned work. He works with architects and also does creative work for hotels. All these dealings with the outside world are done in art form. “I must be satisfied regardless of whatever the purpose my art serves. Even when doing commissioned work I ensure I enjoy the work. If not, I direct the client to another artist,” said Susil who mostly does abstract and contemporary art.
Why do you draw, I asked him? “I draw and paint because I find enjoyment in it. Then I try to sell some of my paintings because I need money to live,” said Susil. He went on to explain how artists who lived during the time of kings were looked after. These artists were given land by the kings to live in and do their cultivation. Artists then didn’t have to sell their art for a living because the lands provided to them gave them everything. “I don’t think that the governments during the modern times have understood the role of artists,” he reflected.
While I spoke with Susil, a three-year-old kid surfaced from a room in front of the lounge we were seated in. His wife followed the child a few minutes later. He has a modern car. This whole set-up gave the impression it’s a nice family. From the perspective of an artist he gave the impression he has made it in art.
“An artist makes a struggle to establish himself. Sometimes making the choice to be an artist is challenging. A person good at art will consider what his future would be in a few years after starting work. One yardstick to measure success these days is to see whether one can buy a car after a few years of employment. It doesn’t come as a surprise when a person chooses to be an architect and not an artist,” he reasoned.
Susil has one foot in commercial art and the other in an art form which tugs at his heartstrings. Though he is physically present in Colombo, where the action is, his mental focus often shifts to his village where the serenity present helps preserve the calmness in mind. He has the discipline to keep painting while being present in a turbulent city where it’s often hard to find an art lover. He has not found satisfaction through art yet. The day he does, he knows he will have to bid adieu to paint and brushes and find something else to do.